January 24, 2011

The Derby Tradition is a Family Tradition

Brother's 1957 Pinewood Derby Car

As some of you may know by now, Junior is active in the Scouts. Really active...

So far we've (because the dad's are supposed to be partners with their boys) been to weekend camp outs with several thousand other scouts, a couple parties, and a banquet with entertainment performed with Junior's help. He's helped clean a lake, studied science, nature, geology, history and how to properly respect the Flag. For a month he had to follow an excercise routine and show steady improvement. He can now read a map. Recently he's taken classes in First Aid and knows how to treat everything from snakebite to shock to performing the Heimlich Maneuver on a choking victim. I've been lucky not to have any of these performed on me yet!

This past weekend Junior participated in an annual event which has become a tradition with young American boys since the mid 1950's. It's his Scout Pack's Pinewood Derby. It's not his first derby – he's got two church-sponsored events under his belt – but this is his first time to have the grand experience where it all began, with the Scouts.

Page 59 in the October 1954 issue of Boys Life magazine, featuring the story of the first pinewood derby race

The first pinewood derby was the idea of Don Murphy, a Cub master in Manhattan Beach, California, back in 1953. His young son who was a cub scout who wanted in the worst way to try soapbox car racing which was a popular hobby with older boys at the time. Soapbox involved building a homemade car to compete in a sponsored race downhill. Since Don's son was a bit too young for soapbox, the Cub master came up with the idea of building miniature cars for all his scouts to race. He had his scouts and their fathers together shape cars from wood. Some fathers built a 31-foot race ramp with two lanes and a battery-run finish line made from doorbells and rigged with red and white lights to identify the winner.

Fifty-five Cub Scouts participated in that first Pinewood Derby race in 1953 and the event was a hit – not only with the young scouts, but their dads too (imagine that!).

This is an example of a Soapbox Derby racer which inspired the Scouts Pinewood Derby racers. Soapbox competitions were very popular in the 1950's, the one shown above was built by a cousin.

Like wildfire it grew and thanks to publicity provided by Boys Life magazine, spread to packs all over the country. Within a year the pinewood derby was adopted for use in all Cub Scout packs. By 1955 an official supplier was found to make ready-to-build kits containing nails, wheels and a block of white pine to carve anyway the young builder could imagine. From the start, Don intended the derby cars to be done as a father/son project, too. It grew, the annual races went from being a side event to becoming their own premier event. And generally the rules for the competition have stayed the same as Don Murphy had first laid them down.

Brother (playing the jug) and his Scout Den, circa 1957

All this means that when my own brother was a Cub Scout in 1957, the derby was still a fairly new deal, he was lucky to participate in the big event. Dad had helped him shape the body by taking it to work with him and using the electric equipment of the sign shop... Good ol' Dad! How did he do? He walked away with the bragging rights to First Place in "Best of Show." The trophy was simply a typewritten "plaque glued to a wooden base painted silver, but it was still a big deal to win it!

Junior's modern derby car kit

From what I've been able to piece together, the derby car kits themselves perhaps changed the most over the years. First the original wood block was changed to a length of 7" even. Some sources say around 1973 the block swapped its height for width, resting the wider dimension flat so as to resemble modern racer designs more closely. In 1977, the wooden struts were moved to the axle position used today, and then removed completely in 1980, leaving a solid pine block. The big notch cut out of the block for the "cockpit" would also eliminated. The wheels also changed from skinny wheels to a wider tread around this time.

And what does all that mean? It means when I was a Webelos scout in the 70's, that my derby car was a bit of the old mixed with the new. When Dad asked how I wanted to design it I said I wanted it to look just like my big brother's car from 17 years earlier... I had a big case of envy for that thing. So we shaped it together in Dad's workroom on a sanding wheel. It was one of my first experiences working with dad using big power tools. When all was done, I had my dream car. And when comparing cars at the next den meeting I was also the only scout in my den with a 50's style racer! But it looked good in it's shiny blue paint and a racing stripe down the center made of metallic tape. I even accessorized it with a pair of exhaust pipes taken off a toy car. It left some of the other kids filled with the envy bug because when we next met up the night of the race, they'd tricked-out their own racers too!

On derby night the whole Pack met, all the Cub and Webelos scouts in our neighborhood, which maybe amounted to no more than a dozen or so kids all together. Our pack was small! I was feeling very proud and optimistic, that is until much to my horror, the cool exhaust detailing on my derby car had to be snapped off because they extended out too far for the race track. So much for showing-off the best-looking car! By the way, our raceway was very, very simple compared to Don Murphy's back in '53. The track ramp was fashioned from a couple of plywood planks sloping straight out for about 16 feet. And there were no electric lights to at the bottom to indicate the first car to reach the finish, it was all eyeballed by volunteers. And I'm still grumbling because I'd swear that my racer beat that other kid's to the finish line first! Oh well.... it was sudden death elimination in those days. My derby days were over before they barely got started... the story of my life!

Now fast forward to the present. 53 years after the very first pinewood derby began by a Cub leader, Don Murphy. By now more than 90 million Pinewood Derby car kits have been sold since. And the event has long become synonymous with the Scouts. Saturday afternoon Junior finally got his opportunity to compete with almost 40 fellow racers (at the very same church activity center where, some umpteen years ago, I was doing the same thing with my scout pack in fact). He proudly showed off his racer, the one that both his dad (me!) and uncle helped him build. For today's meet, a computer was used to automatically keep tabs on each racers time. The brand new derby track was around 40 feet long, a perfectly smooth aluminum construction officially sanctioned by the Scouts... and with electric sensor beams at the finish line. Each and every racer got to complete in at least 4 heats, once in each of the four lanes, so as to be as perfectly accurate and fair as possible. It's all about the kids having fun.

Junior had a blast.

Junior's Big Day at the Pinewood Derby

By the way, those TWO trophies that Junior brought home at the end of the day? They definitely were not fashioned out of a couple of small wooden blocks painted silver ;)

- - -

Are you interested in more? For more on the beginnings of the very first derby, Pinewood Derby History is a great place to start.

Pinewood Derby Times has a nice timeline explaining the changes made to the derby car kit since the Fifties.


Amber Von Felts said...

Whoah! Junior's rig is super sweet! Do I spy a bit of an Ed Roth inspiration? Looks like a Rat Fink Rat Rod! Nice history lesson too. If I had any kids, they would def. be involved in the Scouts! Its such a cool organization that really teaches kids excellent values! Congrats Junior :-)

Space Commander said...

Thanks Amber, you definitely spy a love for things Ed Roth-ian in the little rat rod. We try to have some fun with every racer. I'm glad Junior got so into scouting, it really keeps him hopping too ;)

Krazy4Mod said...

Loved this post! Great history lesson and great stories about you, brother and your dad. And history repeats itself with your son. Sounds like you kinda "pimped your ride" with those exhaust pipes :) Junior obviously has a great role model. Scouts is an awesome organization. I made it to Cadet level :) Every parent should involved their kids in Scouts.

Space Commander said...

Thank you Krazy and Congrats for making it to Cadet!! When he was younger Junior didn't have any interest in being a cub scout since none of his buddies were, now he wishes he'd joined long ago. He's dreaming of making it to Eagle some day, it's not going to be easy!

Derby Dad said...

I like the retro car! If you want the original looking wheels, S&W Crafts, Mfg. still uses them. I'm sure you can get a set for your car. www.pinewoodderbycars.com

Related Posts with Thumbnails