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Pinewood Derby Memory

Coping with Wood Block

(A British perspective on America and the Pinewood Derby)

It is easy to forget, as the United States wades through corporate scandals and debate rages over a possible war in Iraq, what a gloriously wholesome place this can be.

Monday night in our neighbourhood was Derby night. This was not my idea of a Derby: the raffish, faded charm of Epsom on a summer's afternoon. It was the Pinewood Derby ("dur-by" to you), organised in the school gymnasium by the Boy Scouts of America. There was no champagne tent, just apple juice and Diet Pepsi. And the nearest legal bookmaker was in Nevada.

This derby involves model cars, made of pine wood, which race down a 32ft-track using only gravity. On winter nights, it goes on in communities across the United States, a secret slice of Americana. The point, however, is not the racing. What matters is the building of the car, which is supposed to be a collaboration between father and son. For modern susceptibilities, the official instructions are non-gender specific. But this is an event that dates back to 1953, and the underlying intent is clear.

Each cub scout gets a kit with a block of wood, four nails for axles, and four plastic wheels. Then, in the words of one of the 27,700 relevant websites tracked by Google: "The boy and adult should make the car together as a project! It is not the intent that the parent show the scout the garage door then walk away; nor is it the intent that the boy play video games while the adult cuts and sands."

The reference to video games is anachronistic. In all material respects, this is something straight out of the 50s when American boys were expected to have freckles, table manners, a kid sis who was a bit irritating but OK really, a mom who was cooking in the kitchen and a stern but fair dad who could do amazing things with a tool kit.

The Engel family fit this stereotype in some respects but not in others, most importantly this: Dad can barely undo the petrol cap of the Toyota, never mind build a car, even one that has to weigh less than five ounces. The Pinewood Derby has been preying on my mind for weeks as the moment when my failure as a parent would be exposed to the entire local population.

Fortunately, my friend Neville came to the rescue. Neville is Good At Things. Neville, though not a Pinewood man himself, made a handsome job of turning our block of wood into something resembling a racing car - with a bit of nine-year-old help. It was simple, one of the other dads explained on the night: "All you need is a coping saw. It cuts beautifully through the pine." A coping saw? I can't even cope.

It was a lovely evening, really it was. We were supposed to start with the national anthem but, unfortunately, the tape broke so we had the pledge of allegiance instead. Then Jim, the starter and MC, took centre stage. He was a scout leader with a heap of personality and a skilful knack of finding ways not to use boys' surnames of more than three syllables.

He comperes these evenings on what appears to be a semi-pro basis: he is doing 63 of them this season for cub troops all over the Washington suburbs, and has to be booked months in advance. The track is like a wooden slide with a long straight at the bottom, but grooved, so that up to four cars can race in lanes down to an electronic finish line. Jim can whip through a race in about 20 seconds.

It soon became clear that the opposition was even more formidable than we realised. Most of the fathers were cub scouts themselves, so had been competing in one capacity or another almost since the race began. Some of the 27,700 websites apparently operate as grey markets so that the unscrupulous (or incompetent) can buy ready-made cars.

But most of the fathers had grasped the science: the need for weight at the back to build up initial speed (I think); the importance of getting the friction right. It was clear that the builders of the cars that made the finals understood a huge amount about aero-dynamics. I must have been sick the day we did that at school.

But the Engels were not disgraced. In five races, we had three gallant seconds. We nearly won once. It would have been unBritish to do better than that at the first attempt. My cub scout was a little disheartened.

"Look," I said. "We did brilliantly. You didn't know what you were doing. Neville didn't really know what he was doing. I didn't know what I was doing..."

"Dad," he interrupted. "You didn't do anything."

Matthew Engel
Washington, DC

Matthew writes the "Engel in America" column for 'The Guardian', a newspaper published in the UK.

© 2002 Guardian Newspapers Limited First published on Wednesday February 13, 2002 Used by permission

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 2, Issue 7

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