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Tuesday Talkback: 3 big questions to ask before your next pinewood derby

Tuesday-TalkbackEven the most finely tuned pinewood derby event needs an occasional tune-up.

So before your pack waves the green flag this year, ask yourself three questions to make sure your derby doesn’t have any red flags.

With each question, I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments section below. After all, I don’t call it Tuesday Talkback for nothing.

Question 1: Who really made that pinewood derby car?

pinewood-derby-2In Cub Scouter 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!”

Not good. An 8-year-old boy shouldn’t carve and paint the car by himself, but neither should Mom or Dad. The point is to make it a fun, collaborative process that ends with a boy who takes ownership in his work.

Does a dad who built the car from start to finish get much joy out of seeing his son’s car take first place? He shouldn’t.

Carl B. says you can tell who did the majority of the work by seeing who carries the car to the check-in table. “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.”

So how do you strike the perfect parent-son balance?  Have a designated car-making workshop where parents and sons build the cars together and parents bring tools to share. I like Damon E.’s breakdown: “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.”

For more Scouter-tested ideas, read this blog post.

Question 2: What will Cub Scouts do when they’re not racing?

pinewood bassoLike a professional drag race, pinewood derby races feature lots of buildup and a few seconds of payoff.

So how do you keep your pinewood derby from, um, dragging?

Start by adding more activities for boys. Some ideas:

  • Create a tournament bracket that gives each Scout several races, even if he loses them all.
  • Invite Boy Scouts to lead skits, games or songs.
  • Offer a concession stand where Cub Scouts can get a snack between races.
  • Give Cub Scouts (and parents) specific, staggered arrival times to minimize waiting around.
  • Only give Cub Scouts their cars right before their race.
  • Offer secondary tracks for Cub Scouts to play with their cars after racing.

Those ideas and more come from this 10-year-old but still-relevant Scouting magazine article.

Question 3: Does your son’s car have a chance?

coke-car1There’s more to the pinewood derby than winning or losing, but that doesn’t mean you can’t help your son create a car with a great shot at crossing the finish line first.

Or maybe your son’s more interested in winning his pack’s awards for Best Design or Most Creative.

The decision belongs with the boy. But whatever path he chooses — or maybe he wants the best of both worlds — you’re not in this game alone. Boys’ Life has plenty of inspiration for both the speed seekers and the design devotees. Find thousands of car photos and dozens of speed secrets at this link.

Your thoughts?

Share how you answer any or all of these questions in the comments section below. And happy racing season!

29 Comments on Tuesday Talkback: 3 big questions to ask before your next pinewood derby

  1. In addition to regular racing we also have a backward race for cars that finish near the end of the timing. Cars can have very different timing backwards vs. forward. Sometimes these results are very surprising.

  2. Our pack has an open class for family members, which helps to give parents who want to design a car an option that doesn’t involve taking over their son’s car. We have software that sets the races so that each car gets to race in each lane of the track, giving every car several chances to race, and then the top cars move on to the finals. We always have a meal at the derby and boys get new pinewood t-shirts each year (generally designed and voted on by the boys) which then serve as the pack activity shirts. Between the prelims and the finals, the boys go outside and can run their old cars in rain gutter tracks for a fun break. Our MC always keeps the race excitement high with color commentary during the races.

  3. H. David Pendleton // January 14, 2014 at 12:21 pm // Reply

    Some of my ideas:
    1. Big Container of Legos for younger siblings & even Scouts to play with when their cars were not racing. Couldn’t get them to quit when it was time to clean up.

    2. “Official Photographer” who took a picture of the Scout & their car after it was eliminated (we run divison races & top 3 go into the Pack finals). We had 2 checkered flags on the wall so the Scout could stand in front. Pack parents could download the photos from somewhere on line. I didn’t ask how it worked, but it did.

    3. Coloring pages with racing themes downloaded from the Internet for younger siblings. Even had some of the younger Scouts do them.

    4. Race car Neckerchief Slides. Cheap cars from Oriental Trading Company, PVC pipe, hot glue gun (operated by parent), & black Sharpie to make a checkerboard design on the PVC pipe.

    5. Every car gets a minimum of 2 races & usually more. Final 8 in each division run 8 times, once in each of the 8 lanes on our wooden track so no one can complain of being in the “slow lane.” 3 Cars from each rank division get to the Pack Finals.

    6. We stagger the start times, but tell the parents/Scouts to get there at least 30 minutes early in case races get over early (usually never occurs).

    7. “Outlaw” race for parents & siblings, previous year cars, etc. in hopes that the Scout will get to do more with their own car.

    8. Pizza & concessions to sell on Friday night for test runs & weigh-in. Donuts & other concessions on Saturday morning for the PWD itself.

    9. Lots of good ideas out there. Just google them.

  4. considering that according to BSA’s tool use policy, most saws that are used in Pine Wood Derby car construction can ONLY be used by adults; is it surprising the car becomes a heavy parent lead project? I agree, mom and dad shouldn’t do much more than cut the car out of the block of wood.

    Most of my boys are lower income and the parents don’t have access to specialty saws. Last night, we had boys draw the side profile of their cars and my husband cut them out, did a quick sand with our belt sander. Our derby is this weekend, I doubt most of the boys will have time or funds to paint their cars.

    It’s a shame, cause there are such complex rules at the District Level derby because the dad’s from surrounding areas compete through their sons derby cars. Most of our boys will be left in the dust at the district race.

    • Bsa’s tool use policy would apply to a den or pack building the dad’s together. It doesn’t extend to your family taking the time to teach a child to safely use tools that exist in their house.

      Who ever said those rules apply outside the meeting place?

  5. My son always went for show, and usually won. There were times, if the car was fragile, that he had me carry the car to the entree table. Over the years he had a cardinal car (wings and feathers included), a pug car (too cute), an orca car, a one eyed one horned flying purple people eater(legs sticking out of the mouth), and a hundred years of scouting birthday cake car. He did very well in the competitions. Plus he got a lot of pride out of doing it himself. Some of them didn’t even fit on the track. Lol.

  6. I have supervised many successful Pinewood Derbys. Many Dad’s have attempted to check-in their boy’s car, and we flatly refuse to accept it. We tell them that this is a Cub Scout event, and a Cub Scout needs to check-in the car. It’s actually kinda fun to watch some of them as they realize they will have to allow their fragile jewel to be carried by a six-year-old. :) And at check-in, we deal directly with the Cub. We don’t ignore the parent, but the Cub is our customer at that point.
    After check-in, no one touches the car until it is given to the Cub at race time. And only Cubs are called to the track. Parents are spectators at that point.
    We strictly enforce our rules about wheel-base. official parts, no bushings, etc. That part is always done by an experienced volunteer. We try to shield our salaried career Scouters from angry parents. :)
    The boys love it. It is always a big event.

  7. When my son was in Cubs (we had to fend off dinosaurs), he drew the design on the car and I cut it out, all by hand . He was in charge from then on, but I helped install the wheels and axles to make sure they were properly oriented to the car. I don’t remember if he won or lost, but he had a good time. We cheered no matter what.

  8. We make a bigger deal about design (paint job, etc) than about speed… every boy gets a certificate for Most Creative, Best Animal Themed Car, best paint job, etc (titles created to fit that year’s selection of cars) and I think that helps the boys push for ownership. They all realize it will be a faster car if Dad makes it; but they know it will be “cooler” if they can create it. We also have a work day a week or two before the race when Scouts can come and share tools and ideas… All cars race the same number of heats, interspersed, so no one is done a lot earlier than the rest. We have fun concessions, and scouts can invite grandparents etc. The boys sit up front on the floor so they can see, and we don’t have a big issue with them running around. I do like the above idea of coloring pages or legos for the siblings and youngest scouts too!

    One last thing we are doing for the first time this year, is having a Car Show at our chartered organization (could work at a school too) where the parishioners voted on the cars. A lot of the parishioners stopped by to vote (after services the weekend before the race) and many shared stories of their own Pinewood memories! Next year we plan to let them purchase additional votes for $1… many cast extra ballots this year! It’s hard to pick just one!

  9. Kevin Warmack // January 14, 2014 at 1:55 pm // Reply

    We held a race just for the dads. That way, the boys had their chance at glory and the Dads cnaget the same chance at glory.

    There was one year where one scout didn’t have a parent with the right equipement to prepare the car, nealy won because he , drew a design on the car and put the wheels on correctly. We gave him the award for creative design.

    • Phil Tilghman // January 15, 2014 at 3:11 pm // Reply

      What about a race just for Moms?

  10. About 4 years ago we switched how the design judging was done. The scouts vote for the design winners. In fact, we do this at the pack meeting the Tuesday after the derby (usually on a Saturday). To ensure a minimum of parental interference on this, we schedule the annual FOS presentation to occur in another room where the parents have to head off to, while the scouts are doing the design judging.

  11. For tools, the BSA has guidelines: http://www.scouting.org/filestore/healthsafety/pdf/680-028.pdf
    However, since most cars are built at home, or someone’s home, you should use your judgment. I taught my son and his best friend the use of power tools at a rather young age. I tought them to always use eye protection, hearing protection and use of gloves (I found that car detailing gloves are good, because they are tough yet allow you to feel through them) and most of all power tools are not toys.

    1. This is where parents need some restraint. Every year, there is a council wide event where there, each top two entries per Pack compete against everyone. Our two, you can tell the scout built them. However, the winners of the Council are clearly not made by the scout, level of detail and design are artwork masterpieces that are really fast. Everything needs to be age appropriate, but the design should be the scout, not the parents. So, to get close to the design of your son, use the power tools necessary to get it close and let him sand it down to the detail as needed. If you have brushes, let your son paint the car, you should put some kind of sanding sealant to make it easier for you son to paint it. If you need to spray paint, then have your son do the masking. For Bear and above, I would let the boy to the spray painting. For Tiger and Wolf, use your judgement and let them practice.

    2. Normally, we have monthly Pack meetings, and prior to that we let the Dens have their Den meetings. Dens can have their own meetings as the Den leader deems appropriate at a location that they decide. So, for the Pinewood Derby days, the boys who aren’t racing (either they’ve finished or they are waiting), the Den leader usually have their den meetings. We have 5 dens (Tiger, Wolf, Bear, Webelos I, Webelos II) and roughly 10 boys per den. So, we’ve have to run the races in two days. Basically, we allocate 1 hour per den, with a four lane track, we need run each car in each lane against every car. This results in us running 48 heats per den, sometimes there are empty lanes. 1:00 P.M. Tigers; 2:00 P.M. Wolf; 3:00 P.M. Bear, etc at 1hr intervals. You come to the race at the scheduled times, the boy brings his car in for weighing and we take custody of the car. You can also race “up” (e.g. if you are a Bear and can’t make the time, you may race against Webelos I or II, but you will not race against Wolves or Tigers) but you cannot race “down”. You can leave after your race is fininished. The top two leave their cars, with us, those who wish to compete for best design and most creative leave the cars with us. All 48 heats takes about half an hour, but we leave the “extra time” for weigh-in and prep. We have multiple car trays, mainly cardboard and duct tape. The trays mean we are constantly racing, there is very little idle time. The second day, the parents vote for the best design and most creative. Then we run the finals race (since some are the winners and can also win best design and most creative). Top two racers are declared the winners. Set them up for running in the council race. Then we run one for the girls (relatives of the scouts). Then we have the “outlaw” races, where the Boy Scouts and parents can race their cars. Those don’t usually take too long. The whole second day event is done in about an hour since we usually don’t have to run as many heats. Then we have a big party.

    3. We usually don’t win the council races, our boys get eliminated rather quickly. So far, no one has won from our Pack. But there is a Coucil wide event going on and the military participates heavily (we’ve got artillery, heavy vehicles and once we had a Marine helicopter) so the familes get to see what they normally don’t get to see, so the kids really love it. There is a lot of food, and units run activities. There are also Boy Scout competitions.

    Our races will be on a new aluminum track, starter gate and timer, for our next Pinewood derby. I usually run the computer and we’ll see this year if the races are run faster. We’re going to have a trial run prior to the race days. We could possibly make it so that we can cut down the heats (our current track is very old and there are defininte fast lanes and slow lanes). Currently we run about 3 heats per minute, which, since the computer entry is by hand (Excel spreadsheet), I don’t get any rest while the race goes on. This year, also, we’ve bought a racing program. We had garage sale and we made a lot of money; enough to pay for the track, leveling kit, start gate, finish timer and the software. My son can only race in the outlaw races since he is currently a Boy Scout. I am COR (Chartered Organization Representative) of both the Pack and Troop. I am also Cubmaster of another Pack, and Assistant Scoutmaster of its Troop (where I got my Eagle). For the other Pack, I’ll go back to the Excel spreadsheets.

  12. Ed Sholander // January 14, 2014 at 4:52 pm // Reply

    We always has a seperate parents race for those who wanted to run a carl
    Ed Sholander Pack 206. N. Merrick NY

  13. I don’t see the relevance of who caries the car to the check-in table. That seems to be an odd method by which to descriminate. Who carries the car does not really tell you who spent the most time building it. I carried my son’s car this year and likely did so last year (don’t recall) but that was only so he did not have to stand in line and could go play with the other scouts. It had no relation to the amount of work he put into the car (less this year than last unfortunately). I could have just as easily required him to stand in line and then have him place the vehicle on the scale, get his number, and then move on – just as I did.

    It seems to me the appearance if the vehicle is a greater indicator of how much work a scout put into their vehicle. It is not difficult to tell which ones have had an inordinate amount of parent work performed.

  14. David Williams // January 15, 2014 at 1:32 pm // Reply

    Good blog entry. This will be my first year running the PWD for our pack. This responsibility goes to the Bear Den leaders each year. This was also reinforced because my son has won pack the last 2 years and district last year.

    We’ve followed the progressive build approach described above where each year he’s doing more of the work himself. I the block to the side profile he selects using a bandsaw and let him do all the rest of the shaping using a scroll saw, rotory tools, or handtools. He then works with his mom on the paint. And finally works with me on wheels/axels (doing all of the prep himself) and alignment.

    Open races have been an effective tool to keep me from taking over his project.

  15. Andrew Rodriguez // January 15, 2014 at 2:35 pm // Reply

    I enjoy and look forward to promoting the “dad’s circuit”. It was very evident at the last district derby that some cars were more “parent supervised” than others. So one of our packs made a dad’s circuit so father and son can work on their cars together. the dad got his racing fix while still watching his son make something and be proud of it. This will be the first year that the district will have the parent races so I look forward to those speed machines and artistic mobiles.

  16. Years ago when my son was a Cub Scout, one of the other parents in our den was a Girl Scout leader for her daughter. She started a race day for all the Girl Scout troops in the school. It’s an idea to make extra money if your pack has a track.

  17. I have a woodshop in my garage, so I suppose that’s an advantage. For his fifth birthday, we gave my son his first tool bag with some basic tools (screwdriver, hammer and measuring tools). He only competed as a Webelos, but he won show car awards both years for scout themed car in his pack and took 3rd and 1st at the Council level. Our division of labor was very simple. I handled the power tools and he did everything else. I also didn’t cut, until he marked the block.

    Our first place car was a Cub Scout pocketknife with blades that could fold and unfold. I showed him how to use a chisel so he could glue in a Cub Scout tie tack flush with the surface of the knife. I was so scared that someone would claim that I did the work, that I documented the entire build with photos. Was I proud? We were both beaming over his accomplishment.

  18. I remember the first time I opened up a Pinewood Derby box; I thought, What the heck am I supposed to do with this??

    We can talk all we want to about those “evil dads” who do all the work on their sons’ cars but can we inject some reality here? Unless you’re willing to give a 1st thru 3rd grader dangerous power tools, the ONLY way to make the races fair is to give everybody the same pre-cut car (with better axles-this is 2014, right?) to weight and paint and put the wheels on, and may the luckiest Scout win.

    IT WOULD BE BETTER TO END THE LIES. Because really, we all know that probably less than 1% of Scouts built their entire car, cutting and sawing and power sanding included. Certainly Tigers and Wolves aren’t building their own cars, but we kind of just ignore it. You can’t even just open up the box, take out that hunk of wood and slap some paint on it and cram in the wheels BECAUSE IT’S TOO HEAVY.

    What the BSA would be smart to do is keep all the big rules – no major modifications to wheels, no propellants, length of wheel base, weight of car – and just make a Scout family racing team, that we can then admit involves the parents and we can stop lying about who really built the car.

    Because ultimately, we’re building those cars in the privacy of our homes and it boils down to who can lie the most effectively AT the races. You don’t have to worry about the guy whose kid doesn’t know his own car; ya gotta worry about the guy who preps his kid to know his car, even if he never saw it before Race Day.

    • CentralILScouter // February 7, 2014 at 4:00 pm // Reply

      Usually it’s the parents of the cub scout who didn’t win complaining about who built what, grown-up versions of tattling. He has fun racing, I have fun helping him build. My son and I can only keep our side of the street clean, y’know?

    • “Do your best”… that’s all anyone can ask.

  19. Carrie, this may be a matter of people not knowing how to use tools today, adults and kids. When I was a kid in the eocene (ok 1960s & 1970s), I played with real tools, on real wood. Everything was smaller, for my hands, but I wasn’t playing with plastic toy hammers, I was learning what happens when you smash a finger with a real hammer.

    Power tools make some tasks faster, but there is nothing in my son’s two cars that he couldn’t do with hand tools and enough time. It might be beyond a tiger to get started, but a kid with a Whittlin’ Chip has all the dexterity, and safety knowledge to build a car. My own son is on the autism spectrum, and very short of patience, but he loved making his cars, maybe because I let him use my tools and I showed him how to do more than some other parents.

    Back to people not knowing tools, my own son can sharpen a blade better than most adults I know. He understands how and when to use hand saws, chisels and rasps. He also sanded everything by hand, stepping through 80,150 and 200 grit papers. He even tackled one task that I told him to ignore because I didn’t think he would have the patience for it (rounding a small corner with a rasp near a wheel mount).

    I understand that some Councils hold separate races for adults to pacify those “evil” dads, but I would back down on the rules or requirements. I think I’d rather see a parent or Boy Scout with the right hand tool skills, teach a tool clinic for parents and Cubs. If a Boy Scout (probably star or above) could run the clinic, it would not only make everyone more comfortable about how easy it might be, but it would also serve as an awesome recruitment tool for that Scout’s troop.

  20. We started having work days during the den meeting times starting 3 weeks before the race. All of our dens met on Monday or Tuesday night so the Pack leadership and families volunteered to set up saws, bring sandpaper and other tools, as well as have some design templates and pinewood derby books. This allowed all families to have access to the tools and helped every boy participate.

    The final meeting before the race we set up the track so that the boys could try out their cars. This also allowed us to make sure the electronics and software were working before the big day.

    We also asked the Order of the Arrow to do a summer camp presentation while the leaders got all of the boys names entered into the computer and did the last minute set up. Day camp and resident camp participation increased and the OA got to promote camping. The Cubs loved it and sat quietly while the Boy Scouts talked.

  21. In our Pack in Omaha, we had 3 divisions for racing. Open (parents,leaders,siblings etc.)
    Cub Scouts and Girl Scouts as many of the boys had sisters in Girl Scouts. We had a car
    cut out meeting and a couple workshop meetings. We encouraged parents to join in, show
    the boys what they were doing on their cars so that they could do the same. We had raffles
    between the races and pizza to eat. All this started when a young man asked his mom, “Have you seen Dad, I don’t even know what color my car is?”…..Wow, what an eye opener.
    Every participant received an award for something. Fun was stressed, winning a race was a bonus. My oldest son painted his first car in brush strokes from front to back, when I asked why, he said because of the airflow. (Very thoughtful for a Tiger Cub)
    Had a great time knowing the boys were very involved in creating their own cars.

  22. Last year (wolf) my son and I both built cars. I helped him cut his blank and that was pretty much it. I sugested that he should do this and that, and he did half heartedly. He went on to win fastest car in the pack, and took 3rd in districts.
    My car, for the parents race; I polished axles to a mirror finish and used all the tricks in the books. He smoked me! I guess sometimes less is more.

  23. Keep it simple. A coping saw and sandpaper is all you really need to build a good pinewood car. If your scout can’t do it all…it’s okay. Help him and teach him. It’s all about bonding with your son. Have fun and don’t take this to seriously!

  24. I have taught all 3 of my boys on how to use the tools and how to achieve an excellent looking finished “car”. Many people thought that I did all the work and the kids just show up, so I started taking pictures and video to prove it. Even my youngest ( a wolf) knows it takes a lot of sanding to get a good paint job. Spray paint and tape can make an ordinary looking car look like a hotrod!
    We usually have a day where boys and parents that don’t have all the tools can come and work on their cars a couple of weeks before the race.
    The night before the race, we have the registration/weigh-in and then we quarantine the cars until the next morning and race per den. We have found that having the adult “pit crew” handling the cars on trays during the race is the safest way to make sure the cars make it through every heat.
    After every den has raced, we have the Pack Championship Race where the winner from each den races for the big trophy!
    The adults can participate in an “outlaw” race too with the only restrictions being the weight and size. this year we have also invited the Girl Scouts to make and race cars! Should be a fun day!

  25. Cub Scouts are only supposed to be using hand tools (unless I am mistaken). In the past I’ve had my den work at a meeting to use the saws to rough cut their cars and the sand paper and sanding blocks for them to work at smoothing them down. About the only thing I have helped my sons with in the last many years is “concept” and axle sanding and wheel alignment.

    I have for years suspended derby cars, regatta boats and space race ships from dental floss hanging on a tree limb and given my son a can of spray paint. Or balanced his vehicle on push pins atop a card board box. Either way, he paints it.

    When our old pack got too serious about the fastest car winning, we started bringing an old 3 lane track as a place for the boys who were eliminated from the double elimination official track. The boys would race their cars until they were not able to keep 3 wheels attached and sometimes they could still go down that track on 2 wheels. Everyone laughing and not one kid was crying in the gym.

    Now we use a four lane track with lane timers. The first time down the track each car is timed. The next time a car races it is against other cars with similar times. Not loser against loser, not winner against winner, time against time. This makes every race close and the cheering never stops. At the end of 5 heats, it is the FASTEST cars that get recognized. But also the best designs and themes get recognized.

    We have a “class” for parents and siblings. At the end of it all, the top 2 from “Scout class” race against the top 2 from “parents and siblings”.

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