Shortly after we moved to Potomac, our eldest son joined the local Cub Scout pack, 773, which is sponsored by Potomac United Methodist Church. The pack our son had joined near our former home in Virginia was newly established, with just a handful of kids and a rather harried group of parent volunteers always scrambling to pull things together. It’s been exciting to be part of a much larger pack here, with a really talented and committed group of leaders and an impressive variety of activities.
We were expecting that the Pinewood Derby at the pack here in Potomac would be pretty special. But nothing we had seen yet quite prepared us for the event that unfolded a few Saturdays ago in the United Methodist Church’s Parish Center.
The Pinewood Derby isn’t quite as old as Scouting itself, but it goes back over 60 years, when a scoutmaster in California decided that his charges weren’t quite ready for the then common project of constructing cars out of soapboxes to ride in down a hill themselves (these were the days before soap came in plastic wrap and people worried much about liability insurance). The scoutmaster’s idea was to have the boys to whittle or cut a car out of a small piece of pine, to nail on some simple wheels, and then to race the cars down an inclined track.
The Derby has probably become the signature program of Cub Scouts. All across the country, boys have been working with their dads in these late winter months to put together a car that will hopefully speed across the finish line, and cut a bit of a figure along the way.
I expected that this pack would take the Derby a little more seriously than our last one. In our Virginia pack, if you had managed to apply at least a little paint and have four wheels in place, you were doing pretty well. But I was still pretty surprised when the Potomac pack leaders sent us a six page list of rules, along with a YouTube video explaining the physics of Pinewood Derby car construction. There was a weigh-in night, and a requirement that the car be kept by the pack overnight to avoid tampering. There was also a parents’ division, to cut down on dads competing vicariously through their sons, where the aim was to design the slowest car possible.
I feel a bit out of my league in these areas, having not really given physics a thought since the mid-1990s, when I squeaked my way through the 11th grade version, which I don’t remember laying much emphasis on aerodynamics. We didn’t watch the video or do any weight adjustment calculations. My son and I, though, both thought his car was quite handsome. After he had traced the design on the block my uncle, a master of the scroll saw, cut it out in his shop for us. My son then painted it with a few odds and ends of tubes from the drawer in the basement. The stripes were even straight (mostly). He was really proud of it, and I was proud of him.
When we went to the weigh in, they told us we should add some weight to the car, and a dad who clearly was more on top of the matter supplied some weights and glue. We were a little daunted by some of the other vehicles being carried in to the weigh in — some with inner cavities filled with lead, others delicately carved and painted in shiny car paint. Some of these dads had clearly watched the physics videos (maybe a few had doctorates in wooden car engineering). A few of the cars even seemed to be scale models of famous racecars.
As it happened, the big race the next day was lots of fun, even if my son’s car didn’t win any of its heats — the pack penchant for careful planning insisted that each car have a chance to run a heat in each track position. In five heats, his did beat one other car, not that anyone was counting. The kids were cheering for each other, and, on the whole, seemed less interested in the results than their fathers.
The Pinewood Derby, after all isn’t really about winning, but about the joy of workmanship — planning a project, following all the steps to make something special. It’s also about time well spent, as parents and their children gather ideas and share talents, learning a little more along the way about each other and the way the world works. The competition angle pushes us a little to do our best, and if victory comes, it’s a bit sweeter for the work we put into it.
Creative work enhances our dignity, and is a sign of God’s wisdom working within us. When we bring a project to fulfilment, we have a sense of the creative joy He revealed in pronouncing all things good. As a secondary gift, such work deepens our love for each other, and spurs us on to do even better.
Next year, I guess I’ll need to learn a little more about physics. Maybe we have a little car touch-up paint out in the garage that would make the thing shine. It will be fun again, I’m sure, a gift for my son and for me, to make something good together in the world.