A Golden Anniversary: Pinewood Derby

By Barbara M. Wolcott

Fifty years after the inaugural event was held in their state, California Cub Scouts celebrate derby history with—what else?—a rousing, fun-filled day of racing.

Cub Scouting's pinewood derby turned a robust 50 years old this year. Nowhere was the golden anniversary of the popular parent-son activity celebrated with more pizzazz than in California, where the first event was held in 1953.

Don Murphy was Cubmaster of Pack 280C in the Los Angeles-area community of Manhattan Beach when he came up with the concept and rules for a father-son project that had Cub Scouts design, build, and race miniature wooden cars. Fifty years later, Murphy, now a vigorous 83 years old, was the guest of honor at several 50th anniversary pinewood derby events in the Golden State.

One of the most spectacular of these took place in March at the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, near San Francisco. The annual "Blackhawk 500" pinewood derby, which the museum has hosted since 2000 for Cub Scouts from the Mount Diablo Silverado Council, was turned into an extravagant celebration of the derby's golden anniversary.

The Blackhawk Museum is affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution and provides a variety of programs for youths throughout the year. "This [derby] is one of the best ways to reach children and tie it to our educational mission," said museum staff member Nora Wagner.

The museum is an ideal location for such an event because it originally opened as an automotive repository. Cub Scouts raced their miniature cars in a display area surrounded by classic automobiles from the early 1900's and unique models such as early Corvettes from later in the century.

Speed and design

Speed was the goal of most Cub Scouts who entered their model cars in the race competition. However, a design competition was available for those whose greatest pride was in the style and appearance of their handmade racecar.

Categories included Most Creative, Most Realistic, Most Artistic, Most Extravagant, and the Judges' Choice. In addition, the Blackhawk Cup was awarded to a car that best represented a car in the museum's collection.

Franco DeMarinis said his son, John, has raced every year since he was a Tiger Cub. This year, John was especially thrilled when he placed second in a design competition and derby founder Don Murphy signed his award ribbon.

The Danville area includes part of California's "Silicon Valley." So it was no surprise that the event reflected the technical expertise of parents, as evidenced by an electronic finish gate and scoreboard on the racetrack.

Results at the finish gates were automatically entered into computers and flashed on two large screens. The system allowed Cub Scouts to race their cars again and again without being eliminated from the competition.

"We chose not to run a single or double elimination in order to maximize the number of times a Cub Scout will see his car go down the track," said event chairman Tony Fakonas.

"Our philosophy has been to let each boy enjoy the thrill of seeing his car race as much as possible rather than create a more competitive environment where some boys are immediately eliminated from the event."

The computer software automatically adjusted the pairings so that the same cars didn't repeatedly race against each other. Most cars raced five or six times, depending on the number of entrants in the division. A car could finish lower in some heats and still accumulate enough points to win its division.

Fathers and sons

For an event like the pinewood derby, with a 50-year history, it's common for fathers to remember their earlier participation as Cub Scouts.

One example was Cub Scout father (and Eagle Scout) Duncan Sandiland. He said the pinewood derby for him and his son, Winston, was much more than just another annual pack event.

Sandiland was especially pleased that derby founder Don Murphy was able to attend the Blackhawk event. The father-son connection that Murphy included in the original pinewood derby concept had been important for Sandiland and his own father and now was equally meaningful for his son, Winston.

Don Murphy recalled how the father-son relationship became an important part of the concept for the racecar project.

"I'd made models of airplanes, cars, boats, and any number of other structures and remembered the pleasure I got out of doing it," he said. "I also wanted to devise a wholesome, constructive activity that would foster a closer father-son relationship and promote craftsmanship and good sportsmanship through competition."

"The derby had a great deal of impact on me when I was an entrant," Duncan Sandiland said. "When my son was in his first pinewood derby ... I found myself seeing [the experience] through my dad's eyes—how it was for him when I was doing it as a kid."

Measuring maturity

During his first year as a Cub Scout, Winston needed help on the more difficult parts of constructing his pinewood racecar. But this year Winston did all the work on the car himself, except for a few difficult saw cuts. His father was amazed at the motivation and perseverance his son displayed, especially when the job became difficult.

"It was really moving to see," said Sandiland, "and it was the first time I used the word maturity about him. I saw the change from one year to the next, so I'm so looking forward to my two younger boys also coming into Scouting."

Sandiland said the pinewood derby provides a benchmark for how his son's behavior has changed from the previous year, an indication of how much he has grown. "Change in other things, like soccer games and school reports, is too gradual to be appreciated, but the derby is my barometer from now on."

Nearly 900 Cub Scouts raced in the pack-level preliminary pinewood derby competitions, which began as early as January. About 250 Cub Scouts made it to the Blackhawk Museum finals.

Freelance writer Barbara M. Wolcott wrote "The Founder and the Finder," in Scouting's November-December 1999 issue. It described how Don Murphy created the original pinewood derby concept.

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