Re-Launch: The Horror of the Pinewood Derby

Originally posted August 30, 2005

“Hey Rick,” my co-worker asked me as we I was stirring my coffee this morning in the break room. “Were you in the Cub Scouts as a kid?”

“Yeah,” I replied, throwing away my stirrer and popping in a slice of toast. “I spent some time as a Cub Scout, years ago.”

“Did you ever do the Pinewood Derby?”

I shuddered. Memories flew back into my brain that I’d tried to shut out for years. I took a swig of the acid-based coffee in my hand and composed myself. This was no time for a display of cowardice. I could handle it.

“Oh yeah. I remember it well,” I replied. “And thank you so very much for bringing up a horrible chapter of my childhood.”

I tried to feign a sense of disdain for the subject in front of my co-worker, but I couldn’t escape the reality that the subject did evoke a moment of terror in my heart, just as it had over 25 years ago.

“Oh I’m sorry,” he said, pouring himself a cup of coffee, only to find that I had drained the last few drops from the pot. I didn’t mean to do it, but that’s just how his luck was running. Serves him right for bringing up that wretched subject anyway.

“I didn’t mean to bring up a sore subject,” he continued, not seeming to care that I probably didn’t want to talk about it, “But I have a friend that somehow got his hands on a Pinewood Derby racetrack, and I was thinking it would be fun to have a Pinewood Derby race, you know, like we did when we were kids.”

“Really,” I replied. “Well don’t get that track anywhere near me, or I’ll be likely to burn it,” I said.

The Pinewood Derby, in case you are not familiar with the term, is this insipid contest that Boy Scouts hold where each boy is given a block of wood and is expected to build a car out of it. I assume the wood was pine, but whether it was elm, birch, maple or cherry, I didn’t care then, and I still don’t care today. Unless of course it was lining the floors in my home. And even then I might not care that much.

So we all set out to build our dream cars. I forget if we were given wheels for the cars or not, but apparently we had to design our cars so that it would go down this stupid track faster than anyone else’s. And apparently there were a bunch of tricks that one could employ to ensure that one’s car ran faster, but I had no idea what those tricks were, and surely nobody was ever going to tell me, so that I could then, in turn, tell my Dad, and have him build me that fastest, meanest Pinewood Derby car ever. Oh no. I wasn’t that fortunate at all.

The thing that makes me wonder about these races anyway is, do they really think these 7, 8, and 9-year old kids are going to build these cars themselves? Do they really think their parents are going to let them use the saws, planes, sanders, and other big, manly power tools necessary to accomplish such a feat as building a small car out of a chunk of a 2×4? Of course not. So who do these kids turn to in order to accomplish this feat?


Now I love my dad. I did then, and I do now. My dad could do a lot of things. He built our garage, three fences, and various other boxes, storage units, and shelving units for our home. He could make repairs fairly well, and get things running again as well as the next dad. He was handy. And that was good. And we loved him no matter what he could or couldn’t do.

But this tortuous event not only proved to me how inept I was at designing the fastest, meanest Pinewood car in all of Cub Scout Troop 507, but it also proved how inept my dad was at doing it as well. He never had to do any sort of Pinewood Derby racing when he was a kid. They didn’t have such means of torture back then. Lucky bastard.

Of course, lucky as he was, my father also had a son that wanted to win if he could, even though he knew that the other kids would probably have a much better chance than he did, no matter how hard he tried.

So Dad and I set out to make my Pinewood Derby car. It was all my Dad’s design. And for what it was, it was sleek and sexy. He painted it black with a glossy paint and put numbers on the sides. By all normal standards, it was a damn nice little car.

But getting it to move was another story. It just didn’t have much “go” to it. We greased the wheels as best we could, but it just didn’t seem to move.

I think we just figured that maybe this is how these cars are supposed to run, so we just let it be. That’s the Aiello way– let it be.

I knew we were doomed right from the start on the night of the Pinewood Derby when we walked into the school gymnasium. Other kids were showing off their cars. They were hot. They were flashy. They were sexy. And they were fast.

When the kids saw my car, they laughed. It was primitive in comparison to the souped-up contraptions they had. Their cars looked like they had bought them at a department store. My car looked like something fashioned out of mud after a rainy day.

In my defense, I did the only thing I could think of to deal with the embarrassment. I cried. And when I would cry, the kids would only tease me more. And when the kids would tease me, I would lose my temper. And when I lost my temper, my dad would get angry with me. You see where this is going, don’t you?

So they set up the cars to race. My pithy little hunk of junk against the fast and the furious. The cap gun blew, and they were off.

It would be too easy, too cliche’, and too uplifting to say that I won the race. It would also be a lie. Because I didn’t win the race… I lost. I lost badly. My little car just moseyed down the ramp while the others actually raced. I don’t think my car even got to the finish line. It probably stopped mid-way down, they just pulled it off the track. I was humiliated.

So I did the one thing I could do to defend myself against my feelings of humiliation. I blamed my father.

In a fit of rage, I cried, yelled and screamed at him. In front of everyone.

And my father– himself humiliated– took me by the arm and led me out of the gymnasium where the event was being held. And he let me have it, but good.

At the time, I despised him for doing it, but in hindsight, I probably deserved it. What kind of example was I setting by throwing a fit in front of parents, friends and family? A horrible one. I was being a brat, and I deserved to be treated like a brat.

To this day, the Pinewood Derby debacle (also known as the “Blue & Gold Banquet” Fight, which is the name of the event where the Pinewood Derby took place) is a sore subject between my father and me. It represented a very low point in our relationship, and neither one of us is proud of how we handled it.

But it is a moment in time. One that try not to think about, except for when some smart-alecky co-worker decides to bring it up and dredge all these painful memories from out of my past.

I forgive him that, though. He doesn’t know the pain I went through. All at the expense of a little chunk of wood.

But through that pain came a few life-long lessons. And an interesting story to tell.

0 thoughts on “Re-Launch: The Horror of the Pinewood Derby

  1. I actually still have my Pinewood Derby car. And yeah, it was basically all Dad's doing. I think I actually won with it, or got second. (I think the trophy might be in the box with it.) He shaved the block down so it's shaped sort of like an axe head – the front is almost razor sharp, and it slopes back to a not-much-thicker part in the back. The wheels were greased with graphite, not oil (I remember him telling me this was some big secret – that everyone else would use oil but graphite is actually slicker and better). He'd done much the same thing for my brother a few years before me.

    Thing is, in many other ways most competition events for me ended up more like your Pinewood Derby experience. Mainly sports. I was so, so bad at team sports, one day in fourth grade I was crying when we came back to class after gym period because of how badly the other kids teased me for failing to catch a ball. The teacher actually had to stop class and take me out to her office to find out what was wrong and calm me down. Which is further humiliation, yes, but actually she said something that in some ways changed my life. She said “well, not everyone is good at everything. If you're not good at playing sports, you're good at other things.” (or words to that effect.) I stopped caring much what anybody thought of my athletic lack of prowess after that.

  2. This is a great story (and really well told).

    Pinwood Derby should be taken out back and shot. I did it in the Webelos (“We Be Loyal Scouts”, ugh that halfway house between Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts). The Derby was the moment I told my mom I was never, ever going back to a meeting.

    Though my uncle built a killer car, same lesson: when you're an outsider little kid, events like these are torture. I much preferred all those macaroni-and-glue models I built in the Cub Scouts. They weren't all that competitive.

    For a Scout, the Derby is the first time all that obnoxious pre-teen masculine posturing really starts to come out. If you're not an athletic, power-tool-skilled boy wonder with a similarly super father, that' when you know it–and feel it.

    I wouldn't blame yourself too much for your reaction. You wrote about your dad, “He doesn't know the pain I went through.” But the Derby (and the Scouts in general) sets up a lot of outsider and gay kids for failure.

    In your dad's eyes, I'm sure your dad pictured you as the same as all those other kids, capable of anything. Maybe in a way, the fact that he didn't get why the whole situation hurt, shows how much he really held you in high regard. Unlike the urchins you shared that troop with.

  3. You're a great story-teller! I did that derby thing. Didn't win and didn't know it was called Pinewood. That's how much I cared. I just wanted to play Bow & Arrows. That's the only reason I wanted to be a boy scout. 😛

  4. Great story, those brats were pretty lousy to you. As for your acquaintance, there are now lots of free sites on the web. Bear with me as I go into detail you might not want to hear, it will be over soon: Three things are all that's need to compete: 1) Sand/polish the axles: (head & shaft) using sandpaper of 600/900/1200 grit, in succession. Then use a rouge to polish/finish. 2) use graphite for lube (not grease!) and 3) make sure the car runs straight (bend the axles slightly if it's not, using a strap of leather around the axle head so you don't ruin the polishing effort.) Do these three things and you'll be in the running, even with a plain block of wood. I always felt really bad for the kids whose cars were clearly poorly made. I was on the othery end of that spectrum. I was in YMCA Indian Guides. My dad was an engineer, scared to death of stories that other dads were testing their cars in wind tunnels and other craziness. I was in first grade, and didn't know what was going on until that car just came flying down the track. Fastest car we ever made, it beat everything by a half car length or more, all grades. We still refer to it affectionately as “Old Blue”. It was cool to win, but the coolest thing was eventually learning how to make a car. In 3rd grade I did the car while my dad did the wheels. In 4th grade I did it all myself. I didn't win, but it was a cool Speed Racer Mach 5 design (I still have it ). To my eyes now it looks clunky, but in my memory it looks just like the real thing, and I was really proud of it. Now, my Dad and I have had our issues, but we could bond over Pinewood Derby, and we actually still do. I made two cars this year, one for each of my boys, and had them help with the sanding and painting. They both took first place in their class. Then I let them have the cars to play with, and one of them is already heavily damaged (grit my teeth!)… but my son had a good time destroying it. Next year they start learning how it's done. One day soon they'll be ready to do it themselves. I hope you can get over your issues with the Derby, for me it's probably the primary bonding experience I had with my Dad.

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