The Pinewood Derby

By John Thomas
Every year an elaborate ritual is observed, a rite of passage for young boys and their fathers — a test of sorts — the pinewood derby!
It is a test on several fronts: the boys are tested to see if they can follow directions (cutting, sanding, painting, etc.), the fathers are tested (Do I buy a pre-cut model? Do we do it from scratch? Do I make the boy do more? How do I make sure we win?), and even the mothers are tested (Why are they spending so much time on this? Why didn’t they start earlier?). The result is grueling weeks of competing interests and the final outcome — The Race. The race is the culmination of the preparation (or lack thereof) haste or deliberation, purchased goods or paying the price; it all comes through.
So without further ado, here is the story of the 2007 Pinewood Derby.
One month before the race: “Hi Dad. I got my pinewood derby car today at scouts. When can we start? I was thinking tonight.”
Two weeks before the race: “Hi Dad. Is it time to start the pinewood derby car yet?”
One week before the race: “Dad, the pinewood derby is next Saturday!”
And thus the mad rush begins. We first go scouting for a blueprint, for we are not girly-types who buy pre-cut models from the store. Benjamin and I find the website: After searching through all the blueprints, Benjamin narrows the field to four finalists, and from there to this:
Our course is set; we now have to build one of the most difficult cars they sport in one week. We need to get more tools! Off to Home Depot we go to get special drill bits, the right sand paper, and various other tools that can be excused away to making a good pinewood derby car.
After cutting out the patterns and tracing them on the pine block (and missing the first crucial step of aligning the wheel grooves), the wood cutting begins. Because of the design, a coping saw is used (which makes for really fun sanding later, let me tell you!).
Once the model is complete, the back end of the car is drilled out to specifications for the weights, which we purchased from Michaels. First lesson in chemistry: zinc does not weigh the same as lead! We try not to panic as the weights we purchased will never fit in the given area, even though we hollowed it out so much that the back had to be glued back together because it got too thin and cracked.
On contacting Maximum Velocity, they pointed out the difference between zinc and lead, and graciously sent us the correct materials overnight (for a small fee of course). We’re now down to three days before the race.
After several nights of sanding and gluing, weighing, frantically drilling out lead to reduce the weight, drilling out more lead weight to account for the wood filler that must be added to plug the hole, we finally have a fuselage. The painting process yields several new lessons learned about how hairdryers cause bubbles to appear in paint if used too close.
Because we’re now down to the last minute, we make the decision (at Dad’s suggestion) to take the carefully crafted wheels and axles from last year’s 2nd place car and make a few minor improvements for this year’s car. A polish here, an extra sanding there, and we’re in business.
Until the weigh-in. Ooooops, the car is 4.9 ounces (max is 5.0 and most boys are right there). “It’s okay”, I tell Ben. Weight is important, but weight distribution and lack of friction on the wheels wins the day.
So, when the big day arrives Ben has a cool, calm, and collected smile. The price has been paid, and now the fun can begin. If we don’t win (after Dad’s sleep deprivation-induced breakdown) everything will be okay. We did our best (given the time).
So, what do you think happened? Did Ben Win?
The way the races are run, a tally is kept of number of wins, and each boy competes against each other boy. There are 20 boys racing. Towards the end of the races, there are three clear winners, and Ben is one of them. And then … DISASTER STRIKES!
On Benjamin’s last race before the finals, after his car crosses the finish line in first place, the wood holding the front left wheel in place snaps clean off! I tend to think that some little kid near the finish line put their hand down (there were many crowding around) and scrunched it, but I’m assured by someone I trust who was there that it just came off. The only thing we can figure out is that because the axle slots were not perfectly parallel, the car did bump a little as it went down the track. This shimmying must have finally broken the slender wheel post. We were in big trouble; this was a fatal blow from which it seemed impossible that we could recover. I picked up the broken pieces and putting on my best face said to Benjamin’s concerned look. “We’ll do what we can. Come on, let’s go.”
As we walked away from the track, another dad mentioned that he had some epoxy glue. It was the kind that takes 5 minutes to set (and then it’s not full strength for a while) and we did not have 5 minutes. We had about two. But we would give it a go. But before I could get the glue completely mixed, Ben’s former Wolf leader dropped by our sad little camp with a small tube of liquid hope — Superglue.
It might just work, and we have nothing but to try. A quick application, a desperate vise grip, the clock ticking the seconds away when suddenly, our time is up. Benjamin’s name is being called and there is no more time.
The moment of truth has arrived. Benjamin takes the car to the track’s start and I quickly run to the finish line to instruct the car stopper person to please take it easy on the car. I figure if we make it through one race, which would be a miracle, at least he should be careful so that maybe we can race again.
The first race, Ben wins! The second race, Ben wins again, but in order to beat this guy, he’s got to beat him twice! The crowd starts chanting Benjamin’s number (and I start feeling sorry for the other boy, but the crowd is out of control and there is no stopping them now).
Eight, eight, eight, eight, eight, eight, EIGHT, EIGHT, the crowd chants, reaching a fevered pitch as the cars are placed on the track. Both boys race down to the end of the track as if they are the cars. Everyone holds their breath with one question on their minds: “Will Ben’s car break up into pieces or win the day?” Anything could happen!
A picture is worth a thousand words. So next year, instead of a long drawn out commentary, I’ll just post the picture.

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 7, Issue 6
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