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Rotary hopes to carve scholarships from Pinewood Derby nostalgia

The logo that Charles Kyler designed for Sunday's adults-only version of the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby says it all:

"Same track. Same rules. No kids."

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Competitors have to be 18 or older to enter the inaugural Ellicott City Pinewood Grand Prix, sponsored by the Ellicott City Rotary Club, but no one's pretending they're anything but kids at heart, says Kyler, a stay-at-home father of two girls.

When the custom-designed wooden cars speed down the 32-foot plywood track in multiple heats, racers' adrenaline will be pumping — for a few fleeting seconds, anyway. Some races come down to thousandths of a second.

Some of the participants will be reliving their childhood; others will be competing for the first time, including two women.

"Remember when your dad built your car and you 'helped' paint it?" Kyler wrote on the fundraising event's Facebook page: "Not this time! You build it, you race it, the glory is all yours."

Spectators of all ages are welcome at the event, which will be held from noon to 3 p.m., rain or shine, in the parking lot of the Wine Bin on Main Street.

Kyler came up with the race as a way to raise money for the college scholarship fund of the Ellicott City Rotary Club, which at 86 years is the oldest Howard County chapter of the international organization, which lists worldwide eradication of polio as its primary mission.

As the club's education chairman, Kyler wants to create another four-year, $6,000 scholarship for the 26-member chapter to award to a high school senior.

"We've been handing out three scholarships annually for over 20 years to Mount Hebron students, and I figured it was time to add a fourth one," said the former marketing and advertising manager.

Kyler got his inspiration from the Pinewood Classic his nephew-in-law entered in Phoenix, Ariz., which filled 75 open slots in just hours. He discovered through an Internet search that states across the country have reinvented pinewood car races as fundraisers.

"This is a way to release your inner child," he said, though he also noted that there are stringent Scouting rules to follow in building a car.

Kyler, who was not a Cub Scout, has decided not to compete in the race since he's organizing it, but that didn't stop his wife, Carey O'Bannon Kyler, from entering.

And yes, she built her own car: a replica of the Deathmobile from the 1978 film "Animal House," which she has loved ever since watching it for the first time in college.

"I wanted to do an iconic car that people would recognize," said Carey Kyler, who is the vice president of product development for AARP. She also considered recreating a car from the 1968 cartoon series "Wacky Races."

She was further inspired to engineer the car herself by an aunt who informed her that a male cousin had once won a Pinewood Derby trophy.

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"I thought it would be good to keep up the O'Bannon family tradition," she said with a laugh.

For Jeff Anderson, the race provides the chance to do what he missed out on as a boy.

Anderson, a stay-at-home dad with four children ages 4 to 14, was the youngest member of a Scouting family, but his father had stepped down as leader by the time Anderson came of age, and he never became a Scout.

Decades later, the Ellicott City resident can finally design and build a car out of a block of pine.

Anderson recently purchased a silver Lexus and dubbed it his "midlife crisis sedan." He decided to replicate it in miniature for the race.

"The kids think it's too flashy for me," he said of the real Lexus. "I chose it for my design because it will look good on the mantel when the race is over — since it's not going to win in the speed category."

And that's the dichotomy that Charles Kyler says divides the pack of participants.

"I think people will mostly be drawn to the chance to be creative," he said, noting online photos of other competitions showing a car that resembles a wedge of Swiss cheese with a rat as the driver and another that looks like a slice of bacon.

But there will also be physics geeks who will focus on aerodynamically streamlined cars built for speed, he said, as well as some people who just want to have fun.

Gill Gawthrop, a Rotary Club member and race participant, said he falls into the latter category.

"I'm embarrassed to admit it, but I haven't started yet," he said five days before the race. "And I purchased cars for my son and my daughter, so I have three to do.

"But I'll be much more interested in the camaraderie and raising money and making this a building block for future races," said Gawthrop, whose family will come along to watch.

"This is Charles' concept, and we are all behind it," he said. "Our Rotary Club members have a habit of coming up with really fun events."

Trophies will be awarded for Fastest Car and Best Team Spirit, as decided by a panel of judges, and the crowd will choose the winner in the Best Craftsmanship category. Kyler hopes to make the grand prix an annual tradition, much like the club's crab feast every October at St. John's Episcopal Church on Frederick Road.

Building and racing a car "is something that's really cool to do," he said. "We'll be having fun while raising money for a worthwhile cause and bringing people into the historic district, so everybody wins."

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