It's a tradition that goes way back in the Boy Scouts organization, that day in the life of a Cub Scout when he is given a block of wood, four plastic wheels, a little bit of paint and told to make a car that will go fast.
Truth be told, the kit is given to a Cub and his dad, or other guardian, and it's generally hard to tell who is more excited about the project: the kid who barely has the physical dexterity to use tools, or the adult who is turned back into a child by the prospect of participating in building and racing a toy car.
Back when I was a boy, the pack I belonged to didn't have an annual Pinewood Derby, though even in those days most Cub Scout organizations did. It was enough of a disappointment that I can still feel the disappointment when the boys down the street from me were working on their cars.
Flash forward to me as a grown man with a son in the Cub Scouts. It was a delightful part of the year when, sometime around Christmas, I was tasked with handing out Pinewood Derby kits to a dozen or so boys I was lucky enough to be working with. They and their dads – well, mostly dads, but some granddads and some moms - would have the opportunity to work on the kits over the Christmas break and for the better part of January.
For my son, Nick, and me, it was a rather low-key experience. He and I would talk about designs and figure out what tools we needed to rough out the shape. He got an introduction into hand tool use and safety. Being a kid of 6 or 7 and having the opportunity to pick up a power drill, hand saw or wood blade is kind of a big deal, but he never let on. Mainly, he behaved as though he'd been working with the tools for years. Invariably, especially in the first two or three years, he would instruct me to finish up the heavy cutting. He would pick it back up at sanding and especially when it came time for paint and decals.
Then there were the secrets of speed. Shocking though it may seem, there are dozens of Internet articles on the subject of getting the most speed out of a Pinewood Derby car. The main ones are:
--File the burrs off the four nails that serve as axles.
--File any burrs off the plastic wheels.
--Make the car as close to the 5 ounce weight limit as possible.
--Use some sort of powder lubricant.
On this last one, there is something of a simmering debate about the relative lubricating merits of graphite as compared to a Teflon powder sold by the name of Dry White. Nick and I stuck with graphite, and he placed in his share of races. Personally, I'm inclined to believe the lubricants don't make as much difference as having a design that cuts through the air and having all those burrs filed off the axles.
There's also a school of thought that says rigging the wheels so only three are touching the ground when the vehicle is level has a drag reducing effect.
Who's to say any of these, or the dozens of other more esoteric hints offered by Pinewood devotees, don't make a difference?
After all, the event has evolved into a race where hundredths of a second are between first and fourth place. Modern Pinewood tracks have laser finish line mechanisms that are fed into personal computers. It's pretty amazing compared to the wooden tracks my friends used.
Actually, Nick's pack had one of the old wooden tracks and the cars eliminated in the official first runs were returned to the boys and raced to the point of destruction on that old wooden track.
When it came right down to it, while the Cubs who won were proud and happy, it seems to me everyone there was pretty much all happy on Pinewood Derby Day.
I guess racing cars down a gravity track is just a lot of fun.