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Open for Debate: Who really made that Pinewood Derby car?

There’s something fishy about Hunter’s Pinewood Derby car.

The paint job is a little too professional, the edges a little too perfect. While other cars wobble down the track, this thing’s a rocket every time.

And for some reason, when Hunter picks up his first-place trophy, Mom and Dad seem more excited to hold it than he does.

My verdict? It looks like a classic case of “Mom and Dad did all the work.”

This phenomenon, already prevalent in science fairs, often rears its ugly head in Cub Scouting’s friendly competition, the Pinewood Derby.

Like all Cub Scout activities, the Pinewood Derby is meant to encourage a bond between a boy and his parent/guardian. The two should work together to build a car that looks cool and goes fast. All that while still keeping the focus on fun and growth — this is, after all, Scouting.

That’s the vision. But is it reality?

I asked our Facebook friends, now numbering nearly 15,000, to tell me how it works in their packs. Is too little boy involvement an actual problem? If so, how do you ensure that car-building is a shared experience? Here are a few of my favorite responses:

Yes, it’s a problem

In Stephen K.‘s pack, “there are some Scouts who do not see their car until race time.”

Ken D. said he “actually had a Scout who couldn’t tell me which car was his to take home after the Derby! I think as a boy goes through Cubs, the car should look worse each year as the youth does more and more of the work himself.”

How can you tell who made it?

“There seems to be a strong correlation between who built the car, a parent or the Cub Scout, depending on who was carrying the car into the Pinewood Derby area,” says Carl B.

“Carl, I do a lot of the check-ins, and if an adult comes up to the table carrying a youth’s car, that’s a big red flag. I tell the adult to give the car to the youth, and then I deal with the youth,” adds Pinewood DerbyDen.

What about those super-competitive parents?

Like many packs, Jose B.‘s unit chose to “have a Dads divisions so the dads can make their own Pinewood Derby car. It helped a little, but it didn’t fully keep other dads from doing their son’s car.”

“We started a Pinewood Derby for the parents as a fundraiser,” says Maureen H. “We charged $5 per adult entry. This way a parent could make a car and race it. It was a big hit! We used the proceeds to do fun things for the kids so it was a win/win situation!”

“I think if the youth wants to make their own car with adult supervision that is best,” adds Sue A. “But I also do agree that having both Mom and Dad participate in the races with their own cars also will show the parents that we need and appreciate them. Remember these parents are the future of Scouting leadership. Keep them coming and helping out.”

How to strike the perfect parent-son balance

Getting a trophy at the Pinewood Derby surely feels better when a boy has put his own time and energy into the car.

“We actually have a Pinewood Derby car-building day in our pack so that dads and boys who are new to it can get some pointers,” says Angelina C.

Jimmy W. writes: “The way my dad and I did it was I would pick a design, and he’d be the one to use the band saw and other power tools too dangerous for an 8-year-old. Then I’d get to sand, attach weights and wheels, etc. I’m proud to say I worked hard on my cars and so did my younger brother. [Actually], maybe he worked harder than me because he ended up winning back-to-back pack championships.”

Here’s how Damon E. thinks it should be broken down: “Tigers do about 20 percent of the work, 40 percent for Wolves, 60 percent Bears, 80 percent Webelos, and by the time they’re a fifth-grade Webelos, the Scout is doing almost 100 percent of the work with just a safe guiding hand of a parent or adult.”

“Our pack treats the Pinewood Derby as a family event,” says Bill H. “We encourage the use of parent-son time in the planning and building of the car to develop stronger family relationships.”

“Cars are graded on a scale of 1-10 in four categories: Originality, Craftsmanship, Finish, and Boy-Made. If a car gets high scores in Craftsmanship because it’s dad-made, it will score very low in Boy-Made. In the end the dad-made cars don’t average out with good scores and Scout-made cars get the win,” says Jennifer R.

“Our Pack has an award for the ‘Car Most Likely Made by a Parent,'” says Sharon B. “No one wants that one.”

A final thought

Let’s finish with these words of wisdom from Mark H.: “Building a Pinewood Derby car can be tricky; it’s often beyond the skills of a 7- to 10-year-old boy. Parent involvement is necessary. We encourage parents to allow their son to do as much of the work as he is capable of, and help only when necessary. It’s impossible to enforce this, so we tell them the rules and remind them that a Scout is Trustworthy. We also emphasize that the Derby is not about winning, it’s about the parents and Scouts working together on the project, learning sportsmanship and learning respect for one another.”


What’s next?

  • Learn how to host your own Pinewood Derby workshop by reading this recent Scouting magazine article.
  • Find dozens more great comments on this subject by clicking here to visit the original Facebook post.
  • Chime in: How does your pack encourage the right parent-son balance at Pinewood Derby time? Leave a thought below.

Opening photo from Flickr user woodleywonderworks; smaller photo from Flickr user PDub.

27 Comments on Open for Debate: Who really made that Pinewood Derby car?

  1. I had a Scout as a Den Leader who turned in the most beautiful car I had ever seen. It featured well rounded twin forks beginning just pass the rear axle that had a high gloss shine. Whether parent or child made, it was amazing.

    I may have been suspicious but a beaming parent showed pictures of the Scout through all the steps of the process. His father was an architect and had a complete set of tools for making his building models. I have never seen a well crafted car.

    The car was slow as it was grossly underwight and the child would not sacrifice style for practicallity. But he was justifiably proud of his car.

  2. (Hope the picture at the top of the article was of a Cub Scout working at home with his parent and not at a pack’s workshop or build event, since Cub Scouts and power tools don’t mix!)

  3. “Who built Johnny’s Pinewood Derby car?” has been a problem for over fifty years! Their is NO real solution to this on-going delima.
    My grandson is just finishing his socond year Webelos and has enjoyed the Pinewood Derby ever since his Tiger Cub year, he is somewhat disapointed that as a Boy Scout he will no longer be allowed to compete. This activity is very much one of the highlights of Cub Scouting!
    FYI: Over 50 years ago as an Assistant Dist. Commissioner (for my county) I thought it would be a great event to hold a county wide Cub Scout Pinewood Derby, so we did! And we packed out a local high school gymnasium! After two very successful years I received a letter of repromand from our Council Exec. stating this is not an approved event, the reasoning was. . .Boys in Cub Scouts are NOT ready for this level of competition! And then about twenty years later all of a sudden such competition was very much the thing to do! What has changed?
    YIS
    Bill Wilcox

    • The ScoutShop now offer compressed air powered cars for Boy Scouts to build and race. They are pretty cool. There is no need for the build and race thrills to end as crossover time.

  4. James Michael Hinson // February 23, 2012 at 3:40 pm // Reply

    The controversy of who actually built the car is one for the ages. As much as I dislike the pettiness and childlessness of some parents concerning the cars and the races, I would never suggest that we stop them any more than I would suggest we end sports competitions for the same reasons. As a Scouter who has been intimately involved in all sorts of Scouting competitive events I have seen all sorts of behavior ranging from incredibly stupid to tearfully beautiful. What I have learned in my years is that it is all a learning experience for everyone involved. I have had to bear the task of “explaining things” to a parent and the thrill of congratulating a boy for a job well done. In my own way, I treasure both opportunities. Never forget that our purpose is to develop good citizens; not wood carvers or even good sports. It goes way beyond those simple, but important skills.

  5. This is possibly the single most contentious subject in my 10 years in Cub Scouts as Den Leader and Committee Chairman. (I’m the timer/announcer for pack and district derbies.)

    I have had parents yelling at me and pointing in the direction of another child. I have had snide comments made in the presence of another child’s parents. I’ve had people get mad because one boy looked up the best weight position on the Internet and they didn’t. (Well, whose fault is that?) People get hysterical about this stuff.

    (We have several competitions each year: Pinewood Derby, Marble Shoot, Rain Gutter Regatta, Pack Olympics … different boys tend to shine in each. But it’s always the Derby that gets parents blood boiling.)

    Our rules are simple. Use what is in the box or what is officially sanctioned by BSA Supply at the Scout Shop. (Our pack issues a kit to each boy at the December meeting as a “present.”) Be under 5 oz. Do not modify the wheelbase. Do not use silicone spray (powder is fine and available on race day). Use any *legal* tips that are out there on the Internet, in books, etc. Have the boy do as much of the building as is possible. HAVE FUN!

    The joy of the derby — we preach this constantly — is getting to build the car and work with parents on a project. The racing should be an after-effect.

    Personally, my son has never won more than two heats in any given year at the Derby and has never finished in the Top 3 for his den. And he still loves building his car and coming up with different ideas each year.

    And THAT’S what the Derby is all about.

  6. The best you can do is give your parents guidelines on how much work they should do at each age level of the scout. To make too big a deal of things only means that some will be more sneaky about it. Instead our pack found other ways to try and even things out. 1. We have an adult or “outlaw” category and a sibling/friend category 2. We have a 6 lane track and each car races in each lane against different racers each. This gives the boys 6 opportunities to win a heat. When it comes down to winners we then break the boys up into ranks (with outlaws and siblings being their own rank) and 1,2 and 3rd place each get a medal. Then the overal winning scouts 1,2,3 get Trophies. In addition we have a design contest and we try and have the boys focus on designs and creativity because not everyone can have the fastest car. We’ve had snakes and sharks, snickers bars and conestoga wagons- lego men drivers and patriotic monster trucks. It gives the boys and their parents many ways to achieve and be proud. In some years we had den leaders hold workshops and that has worked out very well too- with parents helping to ‘teach’ the boys more and more of the work is boy done.

  7. agreed, Steve, Its all about the time spent between the boy and his father/mother/guardian…F-U-N! Sure, ya always want to find a way to get a leg up like weight placement (make it legal, and its one more lesson in how to Do Your Best), but its the memories and the fun that the boys have are what really matter. Win or lose, both my boys have always walked out of the races with their heads held high and a smile on their face.

  8. BSA just muddles the project with all the BSA sanctioned parts and devices for wheel polishing. wheel alignment. I was in Hobby Lobby and the display for BSA approves things has exploded this year. Then there is the book about pinewood derbies with all the great pictures and tips like only let 3 wheels touch the track. You could have a thikd book of rules if you try to out think all the possibilities out there on the internet.

  9. Reblogged this on Lewis and Clark District Committee.

  10. Always a problem. At some point, however, you just have to take a parent’s word on the Cub Scouting work done by their boy.

    We tried to solve a number of problems a few years ago by having a pinewood derby clinic at the local home depot. The boys made their designs, and all the basic cutting was done with power tools largely operated by the home depot employees. The boys then could sand and paint there, or take their creation home for more tinkering.

    Our District pinewood disallows most of the “tricks” described in the BSA pinewood secrets book. Lots of disappointed parents and kids each year, but our rulebook is published on our website and handed out months before each pinewood …

  11. Years ago the pack had a set of brothers that joined Cub Scouts, and had these identical high polished incredible PD cars that traveled the track like rockets and blew away every other car in the Derby. Both cars were Den Champions and these cars were the only competition to each other in the Finals. In the background you could hear the grumbling that the cars were not built by scouts. These brothers barely watched the race. The leaders never said a thing and handed out awards and trophies — The only time the scouts were excited. For a weeks there were still comments made about the “super PD cars”. A few weeks later an internet site was found and shared where you could buy PD cars that looked very very similar. The claim was on the website that these cars are wind resistance tested and designed by a Big 3 auto engineer. The cars came in one of 4 colors and after shipping and handling would cost over $100 each. Who would pay that to win a $10 trophy? Mysteriously the family moved over the summer. My son’s last year in the Pinewood Derby he built a car for that didn’t resemble a car, hot glued coins on the bottom at weigh in and was a den champ. We still laugh that the car even rolled down the track.

  12. Patricia Matlick // February 24, 2012 at 2:53 pm // Reply

    There is a movie produced by Feature Films for Families entitled “Down and Derby”. It is absolutely hysterical.. It is very well done and stars Greg Germann, Lauren Holly and Pat Morita. Three dads, who have been buddies since youth, go a little crazy over their sons’ Pinewood Derby competition. A fourth dad, Ace Montana, a competitor of theirs since moving into the area, has won everything and is now expecting his own son to follow in his footsteps. Of course, all the boys are in the same pack and one of the (very diverse) moms is the den leader. You will cry you will be laughing so hard. I know….I was the mom den leader of my two Eagle Scout sons’ den and the wife of a Pinewood Derby “expert”. The movie jacket also has a Parents Guide for Family Discussion regarding self image, sportsmanship, etc.

    Take the time to view this, you will not be sorry!!! Enjoy!

  13. Let the parents do the pinewood and hold a raingutter regatta or prop driven rocket for the boys.

  14. When it came to my son’s car, I asked him what he wanted it to look like. He’s a wolf, and has difficulty with using a hand saw. He drew a picture of how he wanted his car to look, and I had my brother (the one with the tool skills) cut it as bet he could. My son then did all the rest of the work, except for the clear coat over the paint and decals. He sanded, filed, and painted until it looked the way he wanted it to.

    And he was happy with winning two heats.

  15. Larry Geiger // March 7, 2012 at 3:02 pm // Reply

    In another time, in a district I once knew, far, far away, the “best looking car” rarely won the Best Looking Car competition :-) The judges circulated amongst the Cubs and quietly asked questions and then rendered their verdict. The results wer always educational.

  16. At my son’s race, there were a few extreme and perfect cars that were clearly built 100% by the Dad!!!! It is unfair & contrary to all scouting principles!!! Of course those cars won all the races. Even the best design award went to a scout who admitted that his grandpa built the car!! Then give the awards to the dads & grandpa because the child (through no fault of their own) did nothing to earn it.

  17. We always let our son design his cars and help where we need to. This year was his last season. He built a really fast car on his own. It won 2 heats, blowing past the competition, with the fastest 2 times of the day. The other 4 heats, it dragged through, and he barely got 2nd place. Clearly, something happened to his car, because he should have won based on those first times. After the race, we found a hair that had gotten wound up in a wheel. He didn’t care that he got 2nd place. The fact that he knew he designed and built the fastest car there was reward enough, and I am very proud of him for seeing beyond the trophy.

  18. In my scout days if dad diddnt do most of the work then you diddnt have a chance. Just started my sons tonight and the only thing old dad did was cut the block with the band saw and show him how to put the sandpaper in the block.

  19. My son, as a 7 year old Wolf, uses hand saws and drills ect to do 90 percent of his car. It’s hard, since his friends dad’s do more of the work so their cars look nicer and might beat his, but the PRIDE her gets from saying he cut the wood to sanded to painted to doing the wheels is a great feeling for him. He did almost all the work on his car last year and still talks about it.
    It’s sad how parents put winning and looks almost over how the cub needs pride in his work

  20. One thing we do every year is we have the pack race but we also have a sibling race and a parent race. We let the siblings and parents make cars and race as well. The siblings get little medals and the parents get bragging rights. But this usually lessens the arguing and competitiveness on the scouts side. We tell them if they want to say anything purchase a car and come race against other parents and leaders.

  21. Year 1 we lost like everyone else (he was a Bear). Year 2 we won our pack , and it wasn’t even close. I cut the basic shape of the car (his design), and my son did everything thing else (Weblos 1). WE researched it on the web, and I bought Tungsten weights, an axel straightener, and the $9.95 thing to put your axels in straight. He inserted the weights properly in the rear, and straightened the axels. Almost everyone else glued coins to the middle of their cars. I also helped him with the spray can (we held the can together) and paint came out decent (no runs, and no paint brush). I am handy and have power and hand tools in my garage so can help guide my son – which is the point of the exercise (some parents don’t even know how to work a screwdriver!)

    Definitely lots of negative comments and people (snidely) congratulating me, not my son. Many disappointed parents. Anyone who would listen, I described our weight ratio and approach to build. But after year one, we definitely stepped up our game while everyone else was still amateur hour (not worried about the science behind the car or putting in the 4+ hours my son did to get everything as best as he could).

    This is our final year, and I definitely took pictures of my son at EVERY step of the build, because my son has done more research and this year’s design (by design) should be even faster.

    If there is an unfair advantage in all of this, it is definitely the tools available and the Tungsten weights (although they are EXPENSIVE!). Getting the right design is free, but if you want to really compete, you have to use a good design and its going to cost you at least $30 for the weights and basic pinewood derby tools. Maybe an unfair advantage if other kids / parents don’t bother, but is it cheating?

    • I came to the realization that my son just wants to put a car together, I am good with that although I think next year he will see it differently. I did help him a bit with paint as he was having a tough time. Having fits getting the axles in straight.

  22. As an old industrial art (read as wood shop teacher) , I found build two cars works great. We researched designs together, then move into demonstration (me) followed by practice ( his). Through the years, my son can work independently (with supervision) on his own car. By his Webelos years he did 100% of his car.

  23. Our Pack encourages parents to HELP, but we’ve found that many around here don’t have the tools or the means to do so. So we turned building the cars into a Pack and family event! Some years we have turned out 20 -30 cars in a day.

    I started opening up my garage for a few weeks every year before our Pinewood Derby. After a strict safety briefing, the boys (parents required for this) start at a design table, pick a design or draw their own, and trace it onto the block.

    Next is the saw station; this area is blocked off in the back corner. The boys approach the line, are asked THREE times if they are sure about the design :-) After they confirm, an approved adult ensures all boys back away from the line, don safety glasses and fire up the band saw.

    From there, the boys go to the sanding station and sand the car to their liking before heading to the paint station. At the paint station there are spray paints, brushes and plenty of paints to paint with.

    There is also a station for polishing axles, though we adhere strictly to adults only because of the power tools involved (simply drills with the axles chucked, but still…). As Cubmaster I usually have the axles polished before anyone arrives. My son is long out of Cubbies so there is no chance of favoritism. The boys come in, grab four axles out of the box, and go…

    All in all, the boys do roughly %90 percent of the work (excepting the band saw cutting and axle polishing). I’ve found that they walk out of the garage with a greater sense of satisfaction and ownership when we’ve done this. The pride is evident and parents have picked up on that.

    The day of the derby is boys only. No one else is allowed to handle the cars except in case of an emergency. The boys walk their car through the inspection process and place it in impound until their name is called to race.

    It works for us 😉

  24. My troop, crew, and pack get together and work to make the PInewood derby happen every year. Since the scouts and Venturers are also involved, we make sure that we have multiple categories: Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, Venturers, and Senior division. At the end, the winners from each category race for fun, which is considered the highlight by most people (especially the Cub Scouts). Looking at the past cars, only the youngest Cub Scouts get significant amounts of help from parents. Most cars are what the scouts talked about wanting to do, and they can tell you every single hard thing about making it.

  25. Where there is competition there will always be people who go to extremes for whatever reason. We are not to judge. As long as the rules are followed why try to change things because of a parent, grandparent, etc. being more competitive than the others? Who are any of us to judge ones parenting skills?

    Sounds like sour grapes to me. Little Johnnys Dad built a fast car! Cry me a river, this Country has turned into a Liberal “participation award” weak minded cesspool.

4 Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  4. Stuff You Should Know podcast covers pinewood derby

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