Pinewood Derby

Since he was eight, Dakota has been actively participating in the Cub Scouts. I think that is a good thing as the scouting program has a lot of values that I happen to agree with. Besides, where else do you get to turn boys loose with knives, fires, and camping without having some kind of police intervention? So based upon that I think scouting and in particular the Cub Scouts are good for a growing boy. They teach commitment and life skills and do so in a manner that little boys don’t realize they are learning stuff. They just go every week and have fun. Sometimes though Cub Scouts start to encroach on baseball and that is when I face a moral dilemma of teaching Dakota about proper life choices and prioritization. It just so happens that today I face just such a problem.

A couple of weeks ago Dakota came home eager to share what he had learned in Cub Scouts and to tell us of an upcoming activity. Having gone through Cub Scouts myself I was pretty sure I knew what was coming. Dakota announced that the Pinewood Derby would be held on April 26 and that each scout was given a kit to make their car. For those of you who have somehow been sheltered away and not experienced the Pinewood Derby phenomena let me try to explain it. The Cub Scout is given a block of wood approximately 9 inches long and 2.5 inches wide. Along the bottom of the wood are two groves where metal axles that are nothing more than nails are slid holding the four plastic wheels that are also included in the kit. The scout is to take the wood and create a car using a saw and some sand paper. They can then paint the wood and decorate it however they feel fit. On the night of the Pinewood Derby all of the scouts will bring their newly formed vehicles and they will compete one with another. The racetrack is typically a plywood ramp with a strip of wood that runs the length of the track that is spaced to keep the cars in dedicated lanes so there isn’t some sort of vehicular pile-up. The cars compete in heats of 4 and the activities end when one car is victorious against all of the others. On paper, this seems fairly straight forward and fun. It teaches the boys wood working skills, basic carpentry, and motion dynamics. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The issues normally begin the moment that the kits arrive through the front door. The fathers immediately confiscate the kit and rules and begin devouring them to find loopholes. I never realized until Dakota became scout age that there were so many closet automotive engineers. These guys come out of no where and begin devising ways to produce the fastest car. A recent search for the terms “pinewood derby” on Google netted me 593,000 results. I never realized the cottage industry that existed for building small wooden Cub Scout cars. There are how-to sites that will show you the steps necessary to successfully build your first car all the way to books developed to give you the darkest secrets of eking out the last millisecond of speed. In fact you can even search eBay and purchase finished cars with certificates of authenticity that they were championship winners. There are several disciplines involved in Pinewood Derby racing and you can find specialists to help you with each. You can have personal aerodynamic engineers where you can subject your design to wind tunnel tests. There are wheel specialists who will step you through sanding down the wheels to minimize track contact points or polishing the axles to reduce friction. There are specialists to help you with weight distribution so that you can place the center of gravity of your car at the exact place to gain additional speed. Finally there is the finish group who will help you select the right paint and finish to reduce drag that could hinder a successful run. The amount of help and number of people dedicated to this activity was down right overwhelming.

This is the second Pinewood Derby that Dakota has been involved with. The first occurred two years ago when he turned 8. At that time he asked for my help but it was right after my last shoulder surgery so I couldn’t do too much. We laid out a design and began to cut it with the saw. One thing led to another and before we knew it there was not much wood left and it in no way resembled a car. Instead it became a skateboard. The looks on the other kids and fathers faces was priceless especially when Dakota took third place with a skateboard. This year when Dakota brought his kit home I asked what his expectations were. Quite simply he wanted something that resembled a car and it needed to be Sedona Red. The second part I was pretty sure I was capable of doing. The first though might be more of a challenge.

With baseball season now upon us my spare time has dwindled down to nearly non-existent. Neither Dakota nor I wanted to be bothered to create a car when there were games to go to. But we also knew Dakota would be expected to have an entry. We talked about our dilemma and Dakota found a solution to our first problem. Our neighbor across the street had tools so Dakota sketched some lines on the wood and took it over and had it cut. During the Diamondbacks road trip Dakota and I sanded the block to make it relatively smooth. Before and after the games this week I spray painted the car to a nice Sedona Red metal flake color along with 3 coats of clear coat. I also took the temporary tattoos that Dakota had received from the Diamondbacks Kids Club and stuck one on the front of the car. If nothing else, everyone will be able to tell which car is his. So while I am at the game tonight, Dakota will take his car to the Pinewood Derby to compete. I told him to wear the black hat so just in case the car tanks we can blame the hat. If it wins, well then we have ourselves a new Pinewood Derby Lucky Hat.


  1. Great story! Building Pinewood Derby cars with my dad was one of my best scouting memories. We borrowed a science scale from my school to max out the weight, stabilized the wheel base on a mirror, put graphite on the axles…Good times.

  2. Yeah it was fun working on the car with him. I should have taken a little more time with the wheels though. We forgot the graphite on the axles so his card didn’t run as well as it could have. He took second place in 2 heats and third place in 2 heats so he ended up finishing in the middle of the pack (kind of like the Diamondbacks so far this year).

    Dakota did win 2 awards during the car show. He won sleekest design for overall body style and he won best paint job. It must have been the Sedona Red metallic flake paint and the temporary tattoo. Dakota added a #6 to the hood in tribute to Stephen Drew who hit the walk-off home run the night before. Even in scouts we somehow can sneak a little Diamondbacks into the festivities.

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