Tidbits of Wisdom (Pinewood Derby Number Three)

By Michelle Mitchell
For those of you who may not have a Cub Scout in the family, March was pinewood derby month. This was the third of five derbies for us, and through it all I’ve gleaned a few tidbits of wisdom.
1. If you give your Cub Scout his car kit expecting the pieces to remain intact until needed, you’re insane. In the history of the Derby I don’t think one boy has made it through without losing at least one part from his car kit. So be prepared. In our case, Spencer and David have lost the axles from their cars nearly every year – not sure why, it’s a mystery to me.
2. In fact, it’s not a bad idea to buy a stockpile of extra kits knowing of the inevitability of lost parts. The hard thing about losing, say, an axle, is that I’ve never found the right sized nail to replace it. They’re irreplaceable. It’s all some Boy Scouts of America conspiracy that BSA only produces unique one-in-a-million nails for their car axles that, should they be lost, are gone forever.
I know, I’ve tried.
I’ve torn Lowe’s and Home Depot apart trying to find replacement nails and haven’t been successful yet – and that’s three years experience talking.
3. Don’t assume that over-eager Cub Scouts have enough common sense to know that first you design the body then you put on the wheels. Or even that first you sculpt the body then you paint. You’ll need to explain all that – three or four times. Every year. That’s where those extra kits come in handy.
4. Graphite. Graphite! GRAPHITE!!! If you don’t know what this stuff is, be assured that every other scout at the derby will. Google it. Now.
5. There will always be those scouts whose fathers, instead of using the standard-issue BSA-supplied car kits, will purchase the black market contraband pre-cut kits for their boys to paint, effectively blowing away all the handmade cars in the ‘Best Design’ category.
This may seem like cheating. But don’t worry, that feeling will pass and you too will succumb and wish that you’d just bought Junior a Dragon Car kit. Especially when you’re combing the hobby stores hours before the derby for lead weights, decals, or nails to replace lost axles (see number 2).
6. There will always be those scouts whose fathers did the entire project for them. This is fine – it’s part of the great Circle of Life and all that, as inevitable as death and lost axles – unless those cars happen to win, then it’s not fine and things get ugly. So accept it and get over it because the only thing worse than an angry Hockey Dad is an angry Derby Dad. Not pretty.
7. If you don’t have woodworking tools, make friends fast with someone who does, as this will save you hours of frustration with a coping saw. Have you ever tried to cut a Corvette from a chunk of pine with a coping saw, and nothing but your knees to hold it steady? It’s Dante’s tenth circle of hell, I’m pretty sure.
8. Be assured that whatever car design your Cub Scout chooses, the finished product will no more resemble it than a block of Swiss cheese resembles a Ferrari (the below-pictured ‘Raptor Rocket’ was the inspiration for more than one derby car, but somehow never really
matched the finished results). But that’s okay, your son won’t notice; if you helped him he’ll think his car is cool anyway.

Trevor Monroe – Emerson, New Jersey – 2006
But, as a side note, it’s amazing the design concepts you can come up with for a square block of wood. “How about we make your car into a box of cereal? A piece of bubble gum? A cinder block? Sponge Bob?” If the car can be made without a cut, there’s instant appeal. See the picture below of ‘The Dominator’ with a sleek and elegant domino design for an example.

(Owner unknown)
9. Body work isn’t everything, but friction is. If you aren’t an expert on sanding axles and wheels, lubricating, and weighting then maybe you ought to think about one of those pre-made kits and hope for the ‘Best Design’ award.
10. The number one technique for getting through the derby is to suggest to your husband that his son should go to his engineer-uncle and grandpa for help with his car. The mere hint to your husband that he isn’t able to produce a good derby car will arouse his competitive spirit enough to ensure the project will never fall on you. I made this mistake/stroke of genius the first year and was quickly rebuked and told that lawyers can produce darn fine derby cars, thank you very much, and don’t need no stinkin’ help from those engineers.
It’s reverse psychology at its finest – you’ll thank me for it, I promise.
You can read more of Michelle Mitchell’s writings at:
From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 7, Issue 10
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