Pinewood Derby Stories and Photos from Maximum Velocity
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 own."
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 Derby.
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.