We just returned from our son Jack’s first ever pinewood derby. It’s hard to believe that an event where each heat is so short that you’d have extra time in a 6-second Vine video, could actually take three hours. Each boy races every other boy, heads up, round robin style. This gives everyone a chance to possibly win a race or two, then the best records go to the finals.
By the time I was in my first pinewood derby as a kid in the late 70s, it was huge. It was obvious that the temptation for Dads to take over and do the actual work, so a car could win, was strong. I remember making a basic car with my Dad, but visiting the basement shops of friends who seemed to have everything short of a laser lathe at their disposal. I’m all for learning about design and weight distribution and aerodynamics, but if the kid can’t do any of the work at all, well it’s really a Dad’s race. The kit instructions even acknowledge this, noting that several packs hold separate races for the Dads. You can spend a lot of money to spruce up a $4 kit. Craft stores have pre-cut car shapes, there are wraparound decals for those who just want to race a sleek slab, the tooling alone can get really out of hand. But hey, what hobby doesn’t have its opportunities to geek out and go for the tools that help you achieve your best? Triathlon anyone?
There is, however, a very dark side to the serious competition in pinewood derby, and I had to confirm this to believe it exists. Looking for advice and examples of cars, I came across a scout message board where someone mentioned there was a Dad in their pack who bought an engineered car off ebay for $100 and the kid raced it and of course, won 1st. I thought this sounded insane. So I searched for pinewood derby on ebay. I found some higher end precuts, way cooler than the angled cuts from Michael’s crafts, that were perfect replicas of classic cars. Those ran about $40. Then I started scrolling through and spotted them. The engineered machines. The perfect racers. Go to ebay and search pinewood derby, and limit your search to $75 and up. You will find a bunch of cars ranging from $150-250, and I even spotted one for $499.
This tells me something disturbing. People debate the “Everyone gets a trophy” syndrome. An uncomfortable topic for endurance sports where everyone across the finish line gets a medal. But this goes way further. This is the mindset of “I want my kid to be a winner, so I’ll buy the best.” If you haven’t seen the races, the kid has no control over the car once it’s weighed in. It’s not like triathlon where a $10000 bike only matters if the engine on the rider is in top form. Free speed in all relative there. In pinewood derby, the building is the competition. It’s all about the car.
Why not just walk into a trophy store and buy the trophy? It will mean about the same as buying the car that’s guaranteed to win. I simply cannot believe these people exist, but that disbelief only lasts a moment and I remember that this is America, and “winning” at all costs commonly means so much to people, that it’s the only thing with meaning.
Well I am glad to say that our little small town pack is a place where that kind of nonsense is absent. Sure, all the Dads (and Moms) helped make the cars, that’s what you do. In my case, Jack is not ready to be let loose on power tools. My beat up scroll saw wasn’t the right choice for cutting out a thick block, but it’s all I had. I went through 4 blades. I bought a new drill bit so we could load weight, and I started the nails for the axles. But Jack sanded, painted, glued and did some hammering. It was his project as much as it could be. All the while I’m thinking of this classic Simpsons scene: “And now, a special award for those students who obviously had no help at all from their parents, Lisa Simpson and Ralph Wiggum!”
So it’s our first year, and we just want to have some fun with it. About a week ago, Meg sent me a picture that came from pinterest, and I was inspired. Worst part is, I had to finally concede that something useful came from pinterest. I saw all sorts of clever designs, my favorite being the Tardis, and I don’t even watch Doctor Who.
But we settled on one that was perfect for our little tiger cub. The semi-aquatic, egg-laying mammal of action himself……
We definitely went for style over substance. If you know the show, you know why the googly eyes are different sizes, and why he’s number 104. This is Perry as the pet, not agent P with the fedora.
He was very serious about the project.
We arrived for weigh in and he was jazzed.
Alongside all the other cars, it was clear that he stood out, and that his father, in spite of being a triathlete, clearly had no concept of aerodynamics.
It was no surprise to anyone that his car lost race after race. The older boys would say to me, “I think I know the problem. It’s that tail.” Yes, I know. We actually considered taking it off to see what happened, but it was glued well enough that it would destroy it to rip off, and you shouldn’t modify between heats anyway. It occurred to me that if he is the kid who loses every race, at least he’ll have a reason. That tail is a parachute. Honestly, I didn’t spend much time on lining up the wheels, which is vital, so I was in some small way glad to have the scapegoat of the tail.
As the morning progressed, I became less worried that he would be crushed to lose so badly each time. It’s hard to lose over and over. But two things stood out that make me proud of my son, and the whole pack.
After it was clear to the other boys that this car was going to lose every time, they rallied behind the underdog. When he’d go to the track, they would start the chant of Perry! Perry! Perry! – they gave him support and encouragement. They complimented him on how cool it looked.
The other thing that really means a lot to me, came from watching Jack throughout the hours. Each time he’d sit and wait for his car to go, that look of hope and anticipation was back on his face. Like Charlie Brown still swinging with Lucy holding the ball, maybe this was the time. As far as I could tell, that hope never waned.
But more than that – he made sure to encourage EVERY OTHER BOY. And I mean EVERY TIME. They sat in a row of chairs along the track. After every heat, Jack was up with a smile on his face, with his hand extends for a high five with both boys. That stayed all the way through the finals.
I’d like to think that seeing his Dad place last in races and keep on doing it and having fun, is some influence on his positive outlook this morning. I want him to develop the drive to work his way up from the bottom in life, but just as importantly, I want him to understand failure is not the end of everything.
Sometimes it takes the other guy having a bad day for you to win. It’s not how you want to win if you’re a world class competitor. When Mark Allen finally beat Dave Scott it was the Iron War. But when you’re seven, you take it however it comes.
It is always sad to see another boy have his car fall off, but it happens, and I am pretty sure he had won a few heats. Any triathlete who finishes dead last in a race where a pro is a DNF, knows that weird sense of “well this one time, technically I beat a World Champion.”
So Jack got one official win. Then while they figured out the top cars for the finals, one of the leaders ran a car against him that they keep around as a spare, made to look like the Family Truckster from Vacation. The first time it didn’t even get down the track, stopping dead on the straightaway. The second time, it kept going, but Perry edged it out slightly. The cheers the boys gave him were awesome.
What was neat was seeing that develop organically. Before the race, Meg overheard the older boys discussing the cars. “That tail is going to really slow him down.” “Yeah, but you know how it is your first year. You want to make something you like more than go fast.” Old wise veterans at the age of 10.
Maybe next year I’ll learn something about lining up the axles right. Maybe Jack will help use a jigsaw to cut out an outline. Maybe we’ll win a couple heats, maybe not. For certain, we won’t be buying any “guaranteed winners” off ebay, or putting a giant tail up in the air. But like your first triathlon where “just finish” is the goal, your first pinewood derby has a similar goal: make a car that will keep its wheels on and cross the line. Doing so with an adult in your life who is there to guide you, that’s what it’s really about. The icing of a victory would be nice, but the cake of doing his best while learning with Dad, that’s sweet enough.