Our first trip to the Pinewood Derby (and a few tips on how to have fun…and maybe win)

I don’t think I fully appreciated the excitement of the Pinewood Derby. Maybe it was because I have contributed no creativity or effort to the process. Now and then I would take a photo of our Cub Scouts working on their cars with their father, but for the most part I have stayed out of the way.
After all, my husband once raced in the Pinewood Derby a few dozen years ago. So that single experience clearly meant he was the household expert. And, even with my vast middle school tech ed background, I know when I’m not needed.
So the boys brought home their blocks of wood. They picked out designs for their cars, and my father-in-law cut the cars for them. The cars were sanded, primed, sanded, painted, and decorated—maybe not in that order because I wasn’t really paying attention.

Then on Thursday night Daniel came to tell me his car was broken.
“Broken how?” I said. “Baba can glue it, right?”
Sadly, no. The car our 7-year-old planned to race had split while they were putting the wheels on.
But clearly he had to have a car. So the night before the race, Baba and Daniel started working on a pre-cut car, painting and sanding and doing whatever you do to get a car ready. By the time we needed to check in to have the cars weighed at 3 p.m., both boys had completed cars. They were ready to race.

Here’s Leo’s, which he named “The Bomb.”

Here’s Daniel’s.

When I saw the race track and the Cub Scouts bouncing around the room and the list of 64 races, I realized this was an even bigger deal than I had expected. There were parents talking about YouTube videos of Pinewood Derby cars, and children chatting about the graphite they had used.

Now I’m not competitive about anything that other people are traditionally competitive about. I insist on having a great Christmas card and I prefer not to be the last mom to pick up after school. But I don’t care about sports games or races or whether the baked goods I send into school cost $2.58 at the grocery store.
Still, I did remember to remind our boys that we probably wouldn’t win and that if we happened to win, by some amazing stroke of luck, we would try to be good winners.

But obviously we wouldn’t win anything. This was our first Pinewood Derby, and we didn’t really know what we were doing. In fact, I thought it would be a great lesson for us to lose. There’s always next year, I’d tell the boys later. We can build on our success.
Then the cars started racing, and I was astonished to realize our boys weren’t doing badly. In fact, Leo’s car seemed to be coming in first again and again.

Parents started asking me for tips on what we had done to make the cars go fast. But this is all I’ve got:
  • Take a long time cooking dinner every night so your husband and children have time to work on their cars.
  • Break the car 36 hours before the race and start all over again.
  • Ask your physicist father for advice on how to make a car go fast and then ignore it because you’re not involved in making the cars and you aren’t really thinking about winning.
  • Let your children focus more on creating cool-looking cars than worrying about speed.
  • Relax and have fun. And don’t worry about winning.
In the end, Daniel’s car came in third in his den, and he won the award for best paint job. Leo came in first in his den and second in the whole pack. Oh, and Daniel won two door prizes, which didn’t surprise me because…well…Daniel’s just a lucky kid. Door prizes were invented by people like him for people like him.

It was an amazing night. And it would have been absolutely wonderful even if our Cub Scouts had won nothing at all. At least I think so. I’m not sure the 7-year-old and 9-year-old would agree. Or even their father, who was hoping to have a chance to race his Pinewood Derby car against his sons’. Maybe next year.

So apparently this Pinewood Derby thing is a big deal. And since I clearly don’t know what we did right, I’ll happily take tips for next year. 

Or maybe you’d just like to share your own Pinewood Derby story. I’d love to hear it.

Catholic Review

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.