Pinewood Derby Memory – Yes, Sir, That’s my Derby

Whenever I hear about a childhood competition, it brings back memories of the contests I took part in as a youth – memories of everything from slightly embarrassing mishaps, like going back for a catch in centerfield and tumbling head-over-heels like Clouseau going over a couch, to those really earth-shattering failures I’d rather not elaborate on here.
The reason I bring this up is because several scout troops on the North Shore held their annual Pinewood Derbies this past weekend. This is not to be confused with the Soap Box Derby, in which small children are placed into wooden boxes and sent hurtling down a hill toward a pile of none-too-comforting bales of hay. (I recall asking my mother if I could participate in one of these, and she was diplomatic, answering, “Not while I have breath left in my lungs.”)
No, the Pinewood Derby is the event in which you are issued a block of wood and four plastic wheels and asked to turn it into something aerodynamically suitable for racing – the “you” in most cases being, of course, your father. My particular father has a long history of “helping” us with various projects and assignments, and if I’m not mistaken is still smarting over the C+ my “sister” received on a 10th grade English essay.
Anyway, in this instance – my first year as a Cub Scout – we divided up the car-building chores, my father handling carving the wood and attaching the plastic wheels, while I, working painstakingly well into the night, picked the color. (Red.)
As far as the specifics of our model, my father and I decided to concentrate on function over form – specifically, on weight. Back then there were no limits to how much your car could weigh, so we dug out a good portion of the front of the car and filled it with lead fishing weights, and covered the consequent hole with a large, metal plate. The result was an 8-by-2-inch car whose nose weighed more than my brother.
And soon it was time to put it to the test. The big race was held in conjunction with our summer barbecue at our local county park, which was one of those parks you find in New York with a murky lake and a man-made beach; if you dug down far enough through the sand with your little shovel you would actually hit the plastic lining.
The race was supposed to take place after swim time, but as I approached the race area, eating a hot dog and picking seaweed (lakeweed?) off myself, I noticed the medals had already been awarded – and next to my car was a big, fat empty space. Of course, next to Billy Enderlee’s car was a gold medal.
My initial thought was that they’d run the races without us present, sparing me the indignity of watching myself lose to Billy, who’d had it in for me ever since I accidentally thwocked him in the head with a ball during baseball practice. But as they gathered us together, it became clear that those initial medals were just for presentation – which made sense, as Billy’s car had been meticulously carved into the shape of an alligator more sophisticated than any 8-year-old could even visualize, much less execute. It was the envy of every father there.
So my heart pounded in my chest as the true test of our wooden creations began. I watched as the scoutmaster put my car on the starting line and flicked the switch letting the cars loose. It hung in the air for a second, as if hesitating momentarily – and then whipped down the track like a bobsled slathered in baby oil.
The other fathers’ cars never knew what hit them.
My car progressed through the heats, beating the James Bond car, the Starsky & Hutch car, the car made to look like a stegosaurus (a notoriously slow dinosaur, incidentally), until only mine and Billy Enderlee’s alligator special remained. My father tried to remain calm, but he had that same look on his face he used to get on those rare occasions in the fourth quarter when it looked like the Giants might actually win a game. (I should mention that the Giants and I had about the same winning percentage at everything we tried during most of the 1970s.)
I remember that last heat distinctly; the alligator took off like a shot, my square red model tailing it ever-so-slightly. The whole course was negotiable in about 12 seconds, but time stood still as they shot down the track. The crowd stood silent. A bead of sweat appeared on my father’s forehead. My stomach rumbled, and I realized I hadn’t finished my hot dog.
And then, as my dragster inched its lead-weighted nose past the alligator to cross the finish line, the crowd exploded. Well, maybe it didn’t explode, but it seemed pleased.
My father stood beside me proudly as I was issued my medal, although both of us wondered later why the pack couldn’t have just sprung for a trophy. Regardless, we savored the moment, not realizing at the time it would be the first in a very short line of competitive accolades I would earn, capped off five years later with my “Most Improved Bowler” trophy.
I felt a little bad for Billy Enderlee, though, and even unofficially raced him a few times afterward until he finally beat me – by turning the alligator around and sending it down the track backwards. Too much weight in the tail; how many of us have been found ourselves undone by the same predicament?
Anyway, I hope the local scouts enjoyed their respective derbies last weekend, and realized, like I did, that it’s not about winning, but about doing your best. Or about your father doing his best. One of those two things.
Although, as I think my dad would attest, winning is not bad either.
Copyright (C)2003 Peter Chianca
Reprinted by permission
From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 6, Issue 9
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