The basic idea is for a father and son to team-up and carve a race car from a block of soft pine. When the speedster is fully shaped, a standardized, weighted under-carriage and wheel kit are added. To complete the assembly portion of the assignment, a customized paint job is the final touch.
The project comes to a thrilling climax when rival area scout packs get together and actually race the cars. Our Pinewood Derby was set three months later in January 2002, at the Smithville Elementary School.
Prior to the races, the dad's stand around and crow about their secret ways to speed-up cars. The real obnoxious ones brag how they tip-toe around the rules to lubricate their axles and use extra items to weigh-down front ends. Simultaneously the boys, (third graders), including my Andrew, made more practical use of their time by screaming and chasing each other.
I was left alone, holding our cherished black #77 "LONE STAR" car in a plastic supermarket bag. I searched the crowded multi-purpose room, (gym, auditorium and cafeteria), for a familiar adult face. That's when I focused on some of the other dads wearing NASCAR jumpsuits, mechanic's overalls or something else to suggest that they were a member of a pit-crew, I became depressed.
Full of dread, I stared off into space. I projected my son's disappointment that because of my lack of expertise and/or initiative, his beautifully painted car would fail miserably. Suddenly I was jostled by a fat guy wearing a oil-stained Firestone Tire cap. Without excusing himself, he held a silvery #1 car aloft and blithered to a bunch of other men, "This year's version of my Thunderbolt Grease-Slapper will be the fastest car again!"
I slunk away and recalled seeing the plain block of pine for the first time. I knew I'd never carve that wooden rectangle into a car. My wife knew I couldn't either. So she went to a hobby store and bought a pre-formed car. I sanded it down and my wife took out a couple of chunks from the back end. All that was left was adding the wheels, under-carriage and painting it.
I came back from orbiting Pluto when a dad from our den called me over. During our conversation, it was announced that the races were starting in fifteen minutes. The man then confided in me that he didn't have the time, patience or talent for this sort of thing. I took our car out of the yellow bag to let him see it. Then he showed me his boxy, green #17 car with a three-leaf clover sticker on the hood and whispered, "We're not supposed to but, I found a place that sells pre-fab pine cars." I played dumb. He added that several of the other dad's in our den had done the same thing. Being the cool customer that I am, I dropped our car and one of the plastic wheels snapped off.
The blow-hard with the #1, Thunderbolt Grease-Slapper annoyingly retrieved the wheel for me and said, "Tough luck, Butterfingers." He opened his deluxe tool case. In it was a separate foam-insulated compartment which safely housed his fancy, Indianapolis-500 inspired car. He handed me a tube of super-glue and condescendingly grinned, "Try this, you wouldn't want to disappoint your kid."
In an attempt to save-face, I hustled to a lunch table and tried to repair the wheel. Another announcement blared on the PA system with the sequence of races. Andrew's pack was third, so at least I had time for the glue to dry. While searching for my son, I tested the axle. It wasn't spinning free and easy and the rotation of the tire had a definite wobble in it. At that point, I was desperately hoping the car would stay intact long enough...to lose with dignity.
Andrew was already watching the races. He took the car from me to show it to his buddies. In anticipation of disaster, I cringed as the other kids pawed our ol' #77. Somehow, despite getting smeared with milk chocolate, it survived.
Twenty minutes later, Andrew's name was called with two others. The cars were set at the top of the ramp, a light bulb went on as the bar holding the cars was released. Lone Star got off to a slow start but gained momentum on the short track and rolled to a shocking victory! Andrew was beaming with pride as I examined our fragile warrior. After different cars raced, ours got to go again. Only this time, one of the fathers was the guy with the #1 car, in the oily Firestone cap.
In that heat, we came in second, narrowly beating the Firestone guy but our time qualified us for the finals. I don't know if I got more satisfaction from our success or seeing the fat man's hissy fit. Moments later, it didn't matter to Andrew or me that we lost in finals, it was a lot of fun and a great experience.
A SOUVENIR FOR THE AGES, "LONE STAR," TODAY...MINUS THE SYMBOLIC TIRE.
A few weeks later, there was an award presentation at a church on Pitney Road. IN THE CROWD, I CROSSED PATHS WITH THAT FAT GUY WEARING THE SAME OILY FIRESTONE CAP. I THANKED HIM FOR THE GLUE. HE ACTED LIKE HE DIDN'T KNOW WHAT I WAS TALKING ABOUT.
When Andrew and I got there two important things were brought to our attention. The first was told to us by a kid from his den who was hysterically crying, "A bunch of us from our den were disqualified from the any awards because we used a pre-formed car."
I gulped in fear that after all we went through, that we (I'd) be embarrassed anyway. My fear got worse...when we entered the big conference room, Andrew became intoxicated when saw the second important item...a dozen glimmering trophies on the stage.
Andrew had never earned a trophy so his coveting eyes bugged-out. I was under the impression that we didn't win enough races to get one, but soon realized that there were several other categories.
I had to leave early so I was relieved that we weren't disqualified before I left. My wife got there in time to see all the presentations. Towards the end, they announced the winner for "Most Original," (design).
Andrew was called up on the stage. After a brief interview plus words of encouragement and congratulations, the Scout Master handed him the trophy. He was then surprised when my boy asked for the microphone to address the audience of about 60 people.WHO WOULDN'T WANT THIS BABY AS THE FIRST IN THEIR TROPHY CASE?
Please bear in mind that I am paraphrasing Andrew's statement but I am confident that it's close to my eight year-old's exact quote. "I can NOT accept this trophy! My friends were disqualified because they used a pre-formed car...and so did I."
My wife still gushes when she says, other mom's had tears in their eyes when Andrew said that. The stunned Scout Master then took back the mike and said, "Well, you are an honest and brave scout to tell us that. I say, you keep the trophy and you'll know better for next time."
The following year, we bought another pre-formed car. Andrew named it the "ROCKET BLAZER" and gave it his birthday number, 25. To assure compliance with Pinewood Derby rules, we were careful to overly exaggerate our modifications. The day before the race, I dropped it (again), and the car split in two, (the crack can be seen through the hood, between the front tires). THE GUY IN THE OILY FIRESTONE CAP WASN'T AROUND, SO I WAS FORCED TO USE ELMER'S WOOD GLUE. THEREFORE, 2003 WOULD NOT BRING ANDREW A SECOND TROPHY. ROCKET BLAZER LIMPED ACROSS THE FINISH-LINE IN LAST PLACE..AND EVEN MY BOY'S PATRIOTIC IMAGERY COULDN'T SWAY ANY JUDGES WITH HIS ARTISTIC ENDEAVORS.
The Pinewood Derby has indeed fostered a greater father-son relationship in our house. Hardly a month goes by that I don't recall Andrew's sincere and impromptu words of honor, respect and loyalty. That trophy which still stands on his dresser represents to me the tremendous ideals he has developed and the inner strength to live by them every day. While so many of his friends and school mates are still screaming and chasing each other to this day, my boy shines like a beacon, in a hazy world, for all to see and appreciate.