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Little Boys and Their Race Cars

The Pinewood Derby. It is a traditional part of Cub Scouting that thousands of boys have looked forward to for generations. It develops wood-working skills, enhances young boys' self-esteem and creates an environment to promote friendly competition. The car building and racing are some of my most cherished memories.

As a dad and scout leader, I was required by law to say that. What the Pinewood Derby actually does is transform grown men into one of three types of people: the Ultra-Competitive dad, the Wood-Challenged dad or the Uninitiated dad. For those who have not had the pleasure of guiding a scout through this character building process, let me explain.

First is the Ultra-Competitive dad. He will design a car that is perfectly balanced with its weight distributed evenly throughout the chassis, ensuring the car achieves its highest possible speed faster than all other competitors. At times, they will buy after-market spoilers and pretreated wheels that spin as if coated in butter. Never mind that this is a block of wood with plastic wheels nailed to its side, racing other plastic wheeled blocks. This is an art form and he will make sure his...I mean, his son's car is unequaled in the annals of Derby history.

The second Derby dad is the Wood-Challenged. This dad wants his son to have a great car, but will settle for a not-embarrassing one. Because, while he may know his way around tools, changing a block of wood into something that resembles a car gives him nightmares. It ranks somewhere between doing taxes and an unanesthetized root canal. He will valiantly endeavor to build the car to his son's design, while including the boy in the process as much as possible. Occasionally he will have to talk his son around to his point of view ("No son, really, most race cars are taller on one side than the other.") He is happy with the car as long as his son is happy, and that the car makes it all the way down the track.

Finally we have the Uninitiated dad. He, quite simply, has no idea what he's getting into. In his mind, he will guide his son through the process of planning, design and construction, only taking over when truly necessary. The block will naturally begin to form a car as he and his son bond. When they are done, they will have memories to treasure for a lifetime and a car that embodies those memories. It is almost sad how completely wrong he is, and how quickly the Uninitiated are transformed into one of the other types, never to know the innocence of their pre-Derby days again. The transformation can be especially sad if the Uninitiated dad has fond memories from childhood of his own Pinewood Derby cars. Oh, the humanity.

I fall squarely in the Wood-Challenged category. I've never been labeled "handy" (changing batteries in toys with screw-fastened holders is an accomplishment). So turning a black of wood into something that is not a block of wood, much less a race car, is similar to a blind man driving a Maserati. It sounds good in theory, but there are a few obstacles to overcome.

Last year, my son, Ian, wanted to build a truck from his block of Pinewood Derby wood. Which held out promise for me because trucks are block-like. So, my master plan was to saw off two blockish pieces and hope I could sand away the rest. I know you're impressed with my planning abilities. And the plan worked pretty well. The block had become less blockish and more truckish. But here's where the future Cub Scout dads nees to pay close attention. Removing parts of the block actually make it weigh less. I mean, who knew?

Now, you may be asking me, "Ben, why should the weight matter?" Let me answer that by saying that in the Pinewood Derby, weight is everything. The official Derby rule is that the car may weigh "up to" five ounces. But that "up to" is misleading and is the downfall a many a dad. If the car weighs less than the magical five ounces, you...I mean, your son is at a statistical disadvantage to all the other perfectly weighted entries.

On a side note, let me mention an issue I think the national Pinewood Derby industry should address. Not all Derby blocks of wood weigh the same when you open the box. They can differ as much as 1/2 ounce before they are even touched. This is an outrage! They're all blocks of wood, how can the weights be so divergent? Why handicap us Wood-Challenged and Uninitiated dads before we can even attempt to mess up design the cars? I think Congress should regulate this industry to ensure fair and ethical standards.

But I digress. Since weight has been removed by the oversight of removing wood from the block, weight must be added back in the form of small pieces of metal attached securley to the frame of the car. Some people, and by some people I mean the Ultra-Competitve dad, will actually drill into the car and insert the weights so it does not affect the beauty of the design. There are specially designed round weights for this occassion. The weights we chose last year were flat metal pieces that looked suspiciously like, well, nothing. The weights had to somehow be incorporated into our block, which now looked like a "truck". Since trucks haul things, we chalked these up to "cargo". As a Wood-Challenged dad, my plan was to glue the weights on. That worked for about 0.3 seconds. The paltry amount of glue I used did not have the strength to hold so much "cargo" in place. So, in the spirit of Wood-Challenged dads everywhere, I simply added more glue. Which created a gluey mess of cargo, but somehow held the weights in place. Disaster averted. We might actually get this thing built after all.

There was still one final hurdle left, though. The Wheels. The axles, or as they are known in layman's terms, "nails", have to be coated in a dry lubricant before assembly. "But why?" you ask. Let me tell you why. Because, and I quote, you have to.So, we applied graphite to the "axles". Then the axles were nailed through the wheels into precut grooves. The Uninitiated dad will see this and say, "Wow, that's convenient. The holes are already there. This should be easy." They're so cute that way. What actually happens is that one or two axles are nailed in at an angle. This, of course, becomes apparent only after all the wheels are attached and the first test drive of the car resembles more a circle than a straight line. The misalignment must be corrected as quickly as possible. The correction is made more difficult because the nails want to follow the original grooves. Groovy. Eventually, the alignment is fixed and the car drives in a straight line for at least two or three inches.

Now that the car has been completed, it is ready for the weigh in. I don't have many memories of the weigh in process from my Cub Scout days, but I know it did not include such exactitude. The first step at the weigh in is, shockingly, to weigh the car. If the celebrated five ounces does not display on the scale, one of two things happens. If the weight is over five ounces, the car must be "modified", which in layman's terms is "ripping off weights from the car." The removal of weight must be done carefully so the overall weight does not go under the five ounce limit. Because, then the second scenario happens. An underweight car. Your son, and by "your son" I mean you, is strongly encouraged by everyone involved with the Pinewood Derby weigh in, and even some random passers by, to add weight to the underweight car. Any modifications necessary require a trip to "Pit Row", which is the official Derby term for "the table with a bunch of tools." This place is a Wood-Challenged dad's nightmare. Not only must the block of wood be worked on more, but it has to be done publicly in front of several Ultra-Competitive dads. But worry not, as there is a silver lining. The Wood-Challenged dad can watch the early transformations of the Uninitiated dads as they attempt modifications to their sons' cars that didn't weigh in a precisely five ounces.

Once all modifications have been completed (it's not pretty in Pit Row, so I'll spare you any more details), the car is weighed again. And, if the long-sought mecca of five ounces is finally reached, the car can progress onto the next stage, The Box. The Box is, well, boxy. But what's important about the box are its dimensions. Its length is the same as the original block of wood. The width is one lane of the track. And its height is about twice that of the block. The purpose if The Box is to ensure the car meets the standards. The Box has an opening at one end that the car must fit completely into. If the car is not entirely enclosed, it's back to Pit Row for more modifications. By this time back in Pit Row, the Uninitiated dads are starting to grow into their future types. The fledgling Ultra-Competitive dads, frothing at the mouths, are furiously working on the cars to qualify them in time. Meanwhile, the newly hatched Wood-Challenged dads are like deer staring into the oncoming headlights that their son painted on the car the night before. But, when the modifications have finally been completed and the car has qualified, the official Derby photo is taken of scout and car together. This is every dad's biggest relief, I mean proudest moment. The car is the sequestered for the next week until the race. I think the cars go to camp, or Disneyland.

Finally, the big race day arrives. The track is constructed, the cars are primed, the scouts are excited and the dads are drunk...with relief. But the race is about more than blocks of wood rolling down a track. Well, no, that's exactly what the race is. But there's so much more that surrounds it. It's the friendly rivalry between competitors. And the kids, too. As everyone gathers during the pre-race festivities, there is a palpable excitement in the air. Everyone is waiting for the first checkered flag to drop. Let me set the stage. The track is four lanes wide, 30 feet long, made of brushed aluminum and just a thing of beauty. The cars begin on a 35 degree slope, accelerated by gravity until they triumphantly cross the finish line. All cars are measured by precision NASCAR timing, accurate down to a hundredth of a second.

And then the first races begin. Each car is guaranteed three to four races. So. altogether, there are at least 843 heats. Occasionally, because track historical records are kept back to the Eisenhower administration, a car will break the track speed record. The current record, and I am not making this up, is 154 MPH. Unfortunately, the car that broke the record burst into flames shortly after crossing the finish line. Eventually all races are run, the fastest are determined and the trophies are given to those that are not a pile of ashes. A good time is had be all.

Then, the vehicles are taken home and put away. All dads can sleep soundly again. Until next year, when the blocks of wood will appear again and turn grown men into little boys...I mean promote wood working and friendly competition.


third2home said…
You rock at translations of life into stories! I love you.
third2home said…
The previous comment was from my awesome wife. I am not that narcissistic.

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