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The Legend of the Pinewood Derby
By Don Murphy

Nearing its 50th Anniversary, and at the time of the first Pinewood
Derby no one could have imaged that the event would go down in history
as the single most popular successful event in Scouting. According to
Dear Abby, "The Pinewood Derby has taken off and assumed a life of its

In 1953, when my son was 10 years old, he expressed the desire to join
the Cub Scouts. My wife and I encouraged him to do so since, as a
child, I was a Scout and enjoyed the experience. As a father, I served
on the Scouting committee and my wife became a Den Mother of our Pack
280C which was composed of 52 Cub Scouts and 7 Dens. In those days Den
Mothers were rather new to the program and we found that they were a
valuable asset in communicating Scouting information by holding weekly
meetings in their homes by helping the Cubs with merit badge studies
and making handicrafts.

In 1953, Pack 280C needed a new Cubmaster. Having been a Committee
member, I volunteered. I had no idea when I made that commitment that
one day my ideas would evolve into an international tradition.

Each month the Dens would meet in our newly built Scout House in
Manhattan Beach, California. I had felt for a long time that Scouts
needed more opportunities to participate in active challenging games
to promote good sportsmanship and acquire a variety of skills and
abilities. We initiated broad variety of activities in our Cub Pack.
For example, contests included: the smallest flying kite, the most
original kite, planes and gliders and yo-yo contests. We invited
speakers to present their travels and experiences. There was a
memorable Hawaiian night when we all dressed up like Polynesians and
enjoyed movies of Hawaii.

At that time, I was Art Director at North American Aviation and a
member of the Management Club. The Management Club sponsored the Soap
Box Derby for the children of employees and provided the materials for
the cars. I wanted my son to enter the program and have a chance for
him to win a scholarship. My son, Donn, was 10 years old and, to our
disappointment, too young to enter the Derby. Children had to be 12
years old to participate. I felt that something needed to be done for
younger boys to be able to race cars in our Cub Pack. Two earlier life
experiences became the catalyst for the creation of the Pinewood

During my youth, I used to make model airplanes, coaches, and cars
working with soft pinewood and balsa. I thought, why not design a
small racing car to run down an inclined track, propelled by gravity.
It would be a safe activity for young boys and something that dads and
mothers could also participate in with their children.

I recalled when my son was 5 years old, I thought it would be fun to
involve him in a project of modifying a small plastic race car
connected to a 100 foot string and run it on the sidewalk. The car was
to be propelled by a compressed air (CO) tube placed in the rear of
the racer. We went to a hobby shop and dime store for the car and
parts. My son watched while I carved out an opening to fit the CO tube
at the rear of the car. An eyelet was placed on the car's
undercarriage for a string to pass through to keep the car on course.
The other end of the string was tied to a sprinkler head. A pillow was
used to cushion the impact when the car reached the end of it's
journey. It was time for launch!

I pierced the end of the CO tube and off the car went safely on the
string to the pillow. It was worth the entire effort just to watch my
son's expression of excitement. However, he never forgot the second
run. I had forgotten the pillow at the end of the cars journey!! Not
only was the car destroyed, but so was the sprinkler head.

Because of the Soap Box Derby disappointment, I set into action the
design and making of a 7-inch racer cut from soft pinewood to be raced
down a 30-foot inclined track self-propelled by gravity, and named the
event the "Pinewood Derby." I took my idea to the Management Club and
not only did they accept the idea but they wanted to sponsor my Cub
Pack 280C. In addition, they appointed an institutional representative
who provided the Pack with trophies and promotional backing.

I presented the Pinewood Derby idea to my Cub Scout Committee members,
some of whom were gifted in wood work and familiar with electricity.
With much enthusiasm, we created the design for the track and used an
electric door bell mechanism for the finish line. A light would
indicate the winner. We then established the official rules and
regulations. The rules are very much the same today. The 7-inch
pinewood blocks were cut. The wheels were purchased at a hobby shop.
The rules, wood block, 4-nails, and 4-wheels were placed in a brown
paper bag and given to each Cub Scout with a number. This number was
used to identify the participant and the car. The finished car could
not weigh more than 5-ounces.

DERBY DAY! This was the big day! In a small Scout House on May 15,
1953, in Manhattan Beach, California the Committee arrived one hour
before the event. The track was set up and a few test runs were made
to ensure alignment. The area was roped off around the track and car
pit for protection. The result charts, banners, and posters were put
in place. The Inspection and Repair Committee members were in place.
Finally the announcement "LET THE RACE BEGIN!" was made to a packed
Scout House.

Contestants raced across the wooden track in three classes: for
example, the first race for 8-years olds, the first race for 9-year
olds and the first race for 10-year olds. This was repeated for the
remaining heats. The winners immediately took their cars back to the
pit for the remaining heats.

From that moment in time, the Derby became an instant hit! The
expressions on the boys faces and the interest of the parents said it
all. No, my son did not win but he always remembers the race. I relive
the experience today when I watch the Derbies being run. Many fathers
who participated in Derbies years ago still have their cars. Today
they watch their sons embark on the same adventure.

Eventually, word of the Derby reached the National Directors of the
Boy Scouts of America and they decided to promote the event throughout
the United States. Director O. W. Bennett wrote to me saying, "We
believe you have an excellent idea and we are most eager to make this
material available to the Cub Scouts of America."

I gave them my permission to proceed with the program. I was quite
rewarded knowing that I had made a contribution to the Boy Scouts of
America and which became a meaningful family event that has become a
world wide tradition among millions of Scouts today.

An article appeared in the Cub Scout quarterly issue in 1954, and in
October issue of Boy's Life demonstrating how to make a gravity
powered racing car model and a track on which to run the Derby. The
rest is history!

Another colorful article appeared in the 1999 November-December issue
of Scouting magazine. Because of the overwhelming response to the
Derby, I became inspired to write and publish a book entitled
"Pinewood," the Story of the Pinewood Derby. This book includes
reproductions of photographs of the original Derby. The Book also
includes the official rules, car and track plans, and how the Derby
was staged--plus much more! There are humorous accounts drawn from
past and present events as well as illustrations, cartoons, stories
and photos of past and current Derbies.

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 2, Issue 13

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