Of cubs and cars
Young Scouts focus on design or speed in annual Pinewood Derby.
Cub Scouts, families and friends watch miniature car races Saturday at the Pinewood Derby at Davey Jackson Elementary School. BRADLY J. BONER / NEWS&GUIDEView our entire photo gallery >>
By Richard Anderson, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
January 23, 2012
Lonnie Brown raced a car in a Pinewood Derby when he was a Cub Scout, before graduating to Boy Scouts, earning his Eagle award, joining the Marines and becoming Cub district chairman of the Jackson Hole super pack.
So did Jackson District Council Chairman Cliff Kirkpatrick. So did Webelos leader Gary Edington’s 33-year-old son, Garret, who won with two cars a long, long time ago.
“He still has them,” Kirkpatrick said. “He’s still proud of them.”
For 60 years (the first Pinewood Derby was held in 1953, according to Cub lore), Scouts in grades one through five have with their fathers, mothers or other adult mentors been transforming simple blocks of pine into sleek, gravity-powered racing machines.
While designs may have become a little more futuristic and timing equipment much more sophisticated, the basic rules and principles of the annual Scouting event have remained the same. Cars cannot be more than 2 3/4 inches wide and 7 inches long or weigh more than 5 ounces. Axles, wheels and body must come from an official Boy Scouts of American Pinewood Derby kit. Wheel bearings, washers and bushings are forbidden, as is lubricating oil, though powdered graphite or silicone is acceptable. Cars run solely on gravity — no springs-loaded devices or other gimmicks are allowed.
That still allows for a fairly wide range of sophistication. A website called Maximum-Velocity.com offers intricate plans and precisely milled parts, such as tungsten weights and diamond axle polish. It would be easy to blow $100 on parts, tools and accessories like a paint stand and display case. But the official Scouting-approved basic kit — a block of pine, four wheels and axles — costs just $3.99.
Jackson Hole Cub Scouts gathered Jan. 15 at First Baptist Church on West Kelly Avenue to get help putting the wheels on their rigs, test their creations on a practice track and size up the competition. For the youngest Scouts, this was their first opportunity to learn how to carefully mount their racers on the track so that the wheels straddled the raised center guide.
Nearly every boy is ready and willing to show off his entry.
“Last year I had a flat end,” said 7-year-old Rye Web, who took last in speed but first in design in 2012. “Now it has more of an angled end. I’m going to paint it now. I don’t think it looks cool with just one color.”
Josh Hall, also 7, said he painted his car, Dinoco — named after the oil and gas company in the Pixar movie “Cars” — blue and green, because blue means fast and green means go, he said.
“It’s done really good in all the races I’ve done,” Josh said.,
Connor Healy painted his car to look like Perry the Platypus, of “Phineas and Ferb” fame. He even glued on a little fedora, just like that of the marsupial super agent.
Lachlan Brown’s car was shaped and painted to look like a pickle — hence the name, “The Pickle Car.”
“I want a trophy for speed,” he said. “I never won for speed. I have won for design.”
For Brian Baker, on the other hand, speed isn’t everything.
“I like to win design,” he said. “I don’t like racing.”
His outfit, decorated with camouflage-like splotches of red, white and blue, seemed like a good bet.
Another car was the spitting image of Lightning McQueen, the hero from “Cars.” Yet another looked like a tank. Austin Hodges was going for a Lamborghini look, while Connor Albright’s was modeled after the Batmobile.
With help from a couple of older Boy Scouts, the Cubs took turns running practice duels on a slightly shorter version of the track they would race on during the real event Saturday. In most cases, this was the first time the young men had seen their chariots in action, and the excitement of a couple dozen preteen boys experimenting with speed was the sort that ought to be jarred and tapped to solve the world’s energy problems.
“The sheer excitement of all the boys and all the families, it’s absolutely contagious,” Den Leader and Cub mother Beth Carlson said.
The energy was at least doubled on race day, when as many as 100 people — Scouts, Scout leaders and Scouting families — gathered in the commons at Davey Jackson Elementary, one of only two or three times a year the valley’s five packs gather as a whole.
The crowd flanked the 32-foot-long track, competitors in their uniforms on one side, their families and friends seated on the other. On a table at the starting end of the course sat two computers and a handmade timing device that clocked the car on each of the track’s four lanes down to a thousandth of a second.
Brown, Kirkpatrick and a handful of others began setting up the night before, putting in four or five hours before knocking off. They returned at about 7 a.m. Saturday to finish in time for the 8 a.m. start of racing.
The Scouts first competed within packs. Den Leader Nicole Danby kept up a lively patter as she announced racers in each heat and led cheers. After the cars were carefully places on the track, she counted down — “Five, four, three, two, one” — and the computerized system dropped the restraining pegs in all four lanes simultaneously, ensuring a fair start for each racer.
Heats were over in 2.5 seconds or less, with cars reaching the equivalent of more than 190 miles an hour. Times were projected on a screen for all to see.
Winners of these heats went on to districts, held the afternoon. Champions, decided by a total of eight races, won trophies that Rich Reese and Gary and Linda Edington made from native elk antlers, the very sort the Cubs gather each spring for the annual Elk Antler Auction. The long day of racing wrapped up around 7 p.m.
The race wasn’t always so smooth, Kirkpatrick said. Back in 1989, there was no accurate timing system — winners were declared by who appeared to cross the finish line first — and “all manner of arguments” ensued, he said.
Eric Bodily and Mark Speth put the arguments to an end by designing the high-tech system used ever since. It’s been modified and refined over the years, including the computer timing program Speth wrote.
“And now we can display times through a projector,” Kirkpatrick said, “so everyone can see the results.”
In pinewood derby racing, as in a lot of things in life, some kids come in first and some come in last.
“Every year, there are boys in tears,” Carlson said, “but everyone walks away with something.”
One of the big goals of the derby is to give boys a project to work on with their parent or another adult.
“There’s the satisfaction of having built something and then watching it run down the track,” Kirkpatrick said. “It’s wonderful to come in first, but for the young man who didn’t, it’s still wonderful.”