Wednesday, February 17, 2010

All They Were Missing Was Danica

Until a couple of weeks ago, the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby had remained a suburban legend to me. Sure, I had heard tales of thrilling victory and agonizing defeat, but none of them measured up to experiencing the derby firsthand.

Never in one room had I seen such a competitive, anxious – and TIRED – group of dads. “I finished a car two nights ago,” one dad lamented, “but then I tried to tweak the wheels and broke it. We bought another kit yesterday. I was up past midnight balancing the thing.”

Some took it all in stride. “I don’t know why my son chose to decorate his car like a banana,” another dad commented, scratching his head. “I questioned his choice from an aerodynamic standpoint, though admit it has a certain appeal.”

And it turned out I wasn’t the only rookie there. “I didn’t realize we had to actually make it ourselves,” yet another dad said. “I couldn’t believe it when I opened the box and a block of wood fell out.”

But not every dad had fashioned his own (son’s) car.

“My grandpa cut mine since my dad couldn’t find the saw,” my son told his friends. This is because I hid the saw after the ceiling debacle of ’02, never to be wielded by my husband again.

Luckily my dad had fashioned many a winning derby car for my brothers back in the day and was happy to emerge from retirement for another go at a title.

Over 90 cars raced down four parallel tracks, rotating through each track and timed with Olympic precision to the nearest one-thousandth of a second. Round after round, countless hours of sawing, sanding and sweat were put to the test.

There were tears, there were cheers and there were boys who did not notice the race going on around them. But it was the dads who saw their reputations speed along the track with each run.

A shaky start on the first run held my son’s car back from placing within his den, but the next three runs were just fast enough to qualify him for the pack finals. My son was relieved. His grandfather was mortified.

“He didn’t win the den?” he muttered to himself as he shook his head. “My cars always win their dens.”

Unable to re-graphite the wheels, the two were forced to sit by and watch as their car raced against the other 30 finalists. Tanks, rockets, and even the banana flew down the ramp, until the checkered flag waved and the results were announced.

“Papa, I got sixth place!” my son beamed, holding his sixth place trophy.

“That’s… great!” his grandfather said, forcing a smile while mulling over design changes for next year. Then he turned to me and whispered, “You aren’t going to tell anyone I came in sixth, are you?”

“Oh, Dad,” I grinned, patting him on the back, “no one would believe it, even if I did.”


Pablo said...

The greatest fallacy in all of cub scouting is that the boys do any actual work on the car at all. They may have input on color and body shape, but that's it.

There are some dads that go to insane levels of work in getting these cars set up right. In fact, the troop my son was in actually had a free for all round where the dads could race their own cars.

Now I polished the axles, and sanded the wheels, made sure the weight was as close as a postage scale could make it, and never got a car better than my second place finish back when I was 10. Some of these guys though, I swear they must have degrees from MIT or Cal State the way their sons cars run.

The Pinewood Derby is a great tradition, for dads.

Jules said...

Oh, Pablo, how right you are!!

I did have one reader email me and point out that the Pinewood Derby is to be a father (or grandfather, should the father not be allowed to use a saw anymore) AND son process. My son did design, sand, paint, and decorate the car. We left the actual power tool usage to my dad. And the balancing. And the axle-polishing. And the lead-handling.

I may have to write a follow-up detailing my dad's glory days as recounted by my brothers.

Chris@Knucklehead! said...

Hey, I myself am a former 6th place Pinewood Derby, ahem, "winner". Good for him!

Gwen said...

Jules, this was a fantastic post. Great writing!

KK said...

I can so relate to this one! Just experienced my family's first derby a few weeks ago.

The Dukes said...

Does anyone remember the incident a few years back at a Lawrence elementary school where a father-son team had put mercury in their car and when it crashed the mercury leaked and ended up being tracked all over the floors of the school? Everybody had to leave their shoes overnight for testing so they all walked out sock-footed. Brings new meaning to Save Our Neighborhood Schools.