This story originally appeared in the January-February 2017 issue of Scouting magazine.
The “why” of Pinewood Derby needs little explanation. You do it because it’s the perfect combination of cars, competition and character-building fun. But as for the “how,” we’ve got you covered.
Before Race Day
- Maintain perspective. Pinewood Derby shouldn’t be all about racing, and it’s certainly not all about trophies or ribbons. It’s really about “the close parent-child bonding that takes place throughout the process of designing and building a Pinewood Derby car,” says Joe Gargiulo, a unit commissioner and pack race manager in the Connecticut Yankee Council.
- Delegate responsibilities. Gargiulo splits volunteers into four teams: The Track Crew handles setup, testing and racing. This team includes scorekeepers, a referee and a master of ceremonies. The Pit Crew does check-in and pre-race inspection. The Activities Crew keeps youth busy when they aren’t racing. And the Food Crew? It might have the most important job of all.
- Establish rules. This isn’t NASCAR. There are no national Pinewood Derby rules, so packs are free to set their own. With that said, if your district or council hosts a derby and you want to send your pack’s winners, you’ll need to follow their rules on car length, width, weight and wheel construction. Warren Kalsow runs the Pinewood Derby for the St. Paul, Minn.-based Northern Star Council. He says rules “simplify inspections, eliminate as much confusion as possible, provide guidance and create a fair race for all the youth.”
- Host a car-making workshop. A few weeks before race day, plan an evening of car-building fun. Bring power tools (adults only) for the big cuts and handheld instruments for smaller refinements. Make it a come-and-go affair — 5 to 9 p.m., perhaps — so families can show up for an hour or two and leave with a car that’s 80% ready, lacking only paint. Bring the official pack scale.
- Hold an inspection event. With more than 100 Scouts, Pack 1576 in Sterling, Va., once had a Pinewood Derby that lasted until 10 p.m. After hours of check-in, inspection and races, everyone was “showing ‘E’ on the fuel indicator,” pack trainer Zeeshan Rasheed says. He found a better way: Move check-in to a few nights before the race. Cars were weighed, OK’d and then impounded in a special locked case Rasheed built himself.
- Gather materials. At the first Pinewood Derby race in 1953 in Manhattan Beach, Calif., the materials list included car kits for each Cub Scout; a two-lane, 31-foot track; a battery-powered finish gate with red and white lights to show which car won; and trophies donated by a local aerospace manufacturer. Sixty-four years later? Same list, though timing technology has improved, and most packs prefer a four-lane track.
- Establish a timing system. Would you want to be the parent who decides which car won a close race using your naked eye? Didn’t think so. That’s why Derek Hart, now Scoutmaster of Troop 476 in Cincinnati, took away the human element in favor of a more accurate system. “We moved from an elimination bracket series judged by reluctant parents to an electronic timer system with race management software,” he says. It can be pricey, but investing in a similar system will result in better race-day operations.
- Use racing software. A Google search for “Pinewood Derby software” results in several paid — and free — solutions for scheduling software that gives every car a turn down each lane. Winners are determined by a total time of all four runs — eliminating lane variations as a factor. “The software also grouped cars in subsequent heats by time, so the races all ran pretty closely,” Hart says. “Even slower cars looked pretty competitive coming down the track with other slower cars.” The result was a fair and fun derby with zero Excel-induced headaches.
- Determine awards categories. Recognizing the three fastest cars in each division (Tiger, Wolf, Bear, Webelos) is obvious, but the Pinewood Derby is about more than speed. Reward creativity and craftsmanship with awards like Most Colorful, Best Paint Job and Most Patriotic. But don’t go overboard. No more than 60% of the Scouts should leave with an award. Those who walk away empty-handed do, in fact, leave with a valuable lesson.
- Recruit judges. This is a great way to involve your chartered organization. Ask your chartered organization representative to select a judging panel, and be sure families see the list of design categories well in advance.
- Find some Scouts BSA members. The Pinewood Derby is a uniquely Cub Scout event, but older Scouts can serve refreshments, keep chaos down, and lead songs and skits. A great job for den chiefs: car handling. They can place them on the track at the beginning of each heat and carry them back to the pits after.
- Buy (or make) awards. Trophies are great, but they aren’t exactly free. So Hart made his own. He created medals by cutting the trunk of a Christmas tree into discs. He sanded the discs, added a coat of polyurethane and wrote the award name with a permanent marker. An eyelet and length of leather finished the medal. “They looked pretty awesome, if I do say so,” he says.
- Encourage (the right amount of) parental involvement. Some cars look like the Cub Scout got a little too much help from Mom or Dad. But the opposite is just as bad. The point is for a parent and child to bond over the shared experience. Jim Reckling, a committee member for Troop 431 of Allentown, Pa., says the amount of parental involvement should taper over time. “With Tigers, you do most of it, showing them how to safely use the tools,” he says. By his second year of Webelos, the youth does almost everything while the parent watches.
On Race Day
- Decorate the space. The Pinewood Derby isn’t a regular pack meeting, and it shouldn’t look like one. Jim Brox, assistant Cubmaster of Pack 28 from Gainesville, Va., uses decorations donated by local auto shops: cardboard cutouts of NASCAR drivers, empty oil-can boxes, inflatable tires, checkered flags, replica Goodyear blimps — basically “anything that says race day,” he says.
- Recruit last-minute volunteers. Count on having plenty of volunteers available for smaller tasks on race day, says Gargiulo. “Most parents would be happy to help rather than just standing around,” he says. And who knows? Your next Cubmaster could be among them.
- Have spare parts on hand. A lost or broken car could ruin a Cub Scout’s experience, so Gargiulo comes prepared. “I always have extra precut cars, tools, wheels, axles and weights to give to Cub Scouts who, for whatever reason, are unable to build a car with their parent,” he says. “Make sure everyone participates.”
- Serve food. A hungry Cub Scout is a grumpy Cub Scout. Hart says his pack served food (donated by local businesses) in the back of the room and used it as a fundraiser. “It managed to make a bit of money for the pack, as the derby was held over lunchtime.”
- Don’t be too strict. Use rules to ensure a fair race, but don’t let them get in the way of fun. “It would devastate a child to get disqualified for things like the wheel spacing being off by a quarter inch,” Gargiulo says. Stickler for the rules? Instead of tossing the car aside, skip to the next race while the Cub Scout and his or her parent make a quick fix.
- Keep it moving. Consider the age-old showmanship motto: Leave them wanting more. Don Whitacre, committee chairman of Pack 101 in Ann Arbor, Mich., says his pack tries to have everything done in 90 minutes. The pressure is on the master of ceremonies to “announce winners, encourage the Cub Scouts and keep the event flowing.”
- Watch for ultra-competitive parents. Surprise! Parents can get a little spirited at the Pinewood Derby. Ideally, you’ve reminded them the event is for the Cub Scouts, not them. Still not enough? Tony Hooker, a Webelos den leader in Pack 173 of Concord, N.C., offers a parents’ division “with less restrictive rules to help redirect that competitive spirit,” he says. “My own entry a few years back used a model plane propeller.”
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All the Small Things
A perfect Pinewood Derby is in the details.
- Give Cub Scouts the best seats so they stay engaged in the action.
- Make your own Indy 500 moment by having the winner chug a little bottle of chocolate milk.
- Present a good sportsmanship award to Cub Scouts who show great character — win or lose.
- Schedule open track time after the event so Cub Scouts can race for fun.
- Do a Good Turn by reaching out to smaller or newer packs that might need help.
- Set up a picture station where Cub Scouts can pose with their parents and cars in front of a racing-themed backdrop.
Classic or Clunker: Scouts Win Either Way
Cub Scouts have fun whether they’re racing a museum-worthy masterpiece or a simple wedge on wheels.
Matthew Artero, a den leader for Pack 15 in Guam, says parents might need to be reminded of that fact. “Your Cub Scout can have a great experience just simply gluing the axles on and decorating their block of wood,” Artero says.
The key: Stop working before the child gets bored or tired.
“Remember the physical, mental and emotional limits of the child,” he says. “Spread out the work so it is not unnecessarily taxing.”
An Outlaw Pinewood Derby, Just for Scouts BSA Members
The Scouts of Troop 33 of Minneapolis adored the Pinewood Derby as Cub Scouts. So, they decided to import the event — with a few modifications.
“The thing that came out right away was the Scouts didn’t want to deal with the rules that the Cub Scouts had to deal with,” Scoutmaster Ted McLaughlin says. “We decided to do an Outlaw Pinewood Derby where we broke all the rules.”
Some Scouts stacked rolls of quarters on their car, thinking heavier is better. Others went the opposite direction, shaving the wood block down to a pencil on wheels to make it light and aerodynamic.
“It’s fun to watch the Scouts play with ideas like that,” McLaughlin says.