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Lessons of the Pinewod Derby

Posted: April 5, 2014 - 11:06pm

Our son Henry competed in his first Pinewood Derby this past weekend. Do you know about the Derby? Then you get my palpitations.

For those who have never been properly introduced, the Pinewood Derby is the Boy Scouts’ approach to teaching children the cut-throat world of competitive everything. Competitive racing, competitive woodworking, competitive winning. It’s exciting and painful and every year as the date approaches I find myself experiencing pangs of dread and merriment and also distress.

It’s a complicated thing.

Oh but it’s so much fun! Really, that’s what makes it so terrible. And wonderful. On the one hand it’s a cafeteria filled with little boys racing cars and winning some heats and losing some too. It is indeed the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. It’s the celebration of hard work, the joy of dads and sons coming together to make something wonderful.

Ultimately, it’s not really about winning, not for us anyway. With five sons, four of whom are now too old to participate in the Derby, we learned a long time ago that there can be only one Overall Winner. And the chances are really good it won’t be you (especially if your dad isn’t either an engineer or an expert handyman). We made peace with that and the big boys were always just excited going in that this might be the year the tracks rolled in their favor.

The race isn’t about winning, it’s just about not losing. There’s a difference. Some years, you see, we’ve had cars that were amazing. They won numerous heats and yielded a close second (which in my book is almost as grand as winning).

But we’ve had one or two years where the car was a dud; where the weights got placed a little too far back or an axel got bent, maybe just before the start of the race.

And oh the sadness and desolation of watching a car, race after race, barely make it down the 40-foot track.

The very worst year for us was when our oldest son participated in his first Pinewood Derby. My husband and I had no idea what it was all about except Paul had been told that it was really for the boys, meaning dad’s were encouraged to let the boys call the shots.

So a few nights before the race, Paul came home with the pre-formed car – which is a block of wood. He handed it to seven-year-old Ethan and said “here you go! Make your car!”

It was very exciting to watch our son take a tiny hand saw and make his vision come to life.

In this end, he created “Shark Car” complete with a fin on top, and the day of the race he received an award for “Best Use of Imagination.”

That was the extent of his winnings. Ethan’s car didn’t win the Derby and in fact never got better than third in any given heat.

Paul and I learned several important lessons that day. First off, the Derby is not at all about independent woodworking. It’s hugely about the dad too. Boys showed up with the most gorgeous handcrafted cars I’d ever seen, highly polished body styles, highly sanded axels. Which was something else we learned – get the correct gear. My poor husband (this being his first Derby as well) grabbed a small tube of Teflon instead of lube, which ended up having the opposite effect on Ethan’s car. As the afternoon wore on, the car got slower and slower and by the end it was barely making it down the four-foot drop at the start of the track.

But better than all that, that day standing at the Pinewood Derby I learned that as a momma, I can’t always protect my kids from the hardship of this world.

I wanted to grab my baby and leave the race and head out to the middle of nowhere and keep the realities of the world far away from us, the hurts and sadness and pains of disappointment.

But it wasn’t realistic. We can’t live that way.

And I reminded myself of that as we head into another Pinewood Derby with our fifth son.

We’ve learned a lot about cars since that first year, and that’s worked in our boys’ favor.

Since that first year, we’ve had some really great cars and some fine victories.

This year, Henry came in second in his group, which was a small miracle. At the weigh-in Paul discovered the car didn’t set right on the tracks because of the weights.

After a bit of frantic re-engineering – Paul had to pry the weights from the bottom, which were drilled into the body of the car and then tape them to the top – it was ready to race.

Every year is a new adventure.

The hard lessons of the past have taught us how to survive these little disasters and carry on.

So, even if the axels fail and the weights don’t carry, it’s about fun and excitement and enjoying the ride – wherever it may take you.

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Comments (1)

Little Lamb

It's spelled "axle"

I did the pinewood derby thing over fifty years ago. The process was fun, whether you won or lost. Here is what we learned right off the bat:

Back in my day, the kits came with wooden axles, and you glued the wooden front and rear axles into slots pre-sawn in the block. Then, you connected the wheels by hammering in metal tacks (provided in the kit) through the holes in the plastic wheels (provided in the kit) into the wooden axles.

Now, can you imagine a boy being able to hammer four tacks into wooden axles and get them all aligned precisely? Of course not.

My dad quickly discerned the weakness, and he substituted a straight, thin, metal rod for the tacks. Voila, the wheels were aligned and the cars ran much faster.

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