A fascinating look at the history of the Pinewood Derby

Don Murphy

Decades before precision starting gates, glow-in-the-dark cars and electronic finish lines that measure time to the thousandth of a second, there was a two-lane wooden track in California.

A lot has changed since Cubmaster Don Murphy dreamed up the idea for the Pinewood Derby in 1953.

But a lot has stayed the same, too.

The Pinewood Derby is still about Cub Scouts and their parents turning four plastic wheels, four nails and some wood into a custom race car.

It’s still about designing a 5-ounces-or-less car that goes fast, looks cool or both.

But most of all, it’s still about a parent and child working together to build lasting memories.

Don Murphy and his son

The year was 1953, and a 10-year-old Cub Scout named Donn Murphy of Manhattan Beach, Calif., wanted to compete in the soap box derby run by the Management Club at North American Aviation, where his dad worked.

But this race involving kid-size, gravity-powered cars was just for those ages 12 and up.

Donn’s dad, Don, had the perfect idea to cheer up his son. The pack would hold a miniature soap box derby using hoagie-size cars the Cub Scouts could build with their parents.

Don Murphy remembered how much fun he had making model cars as a child in La Porte, Ind. Why not bring that same joy to his Cub Scout pack?

“I also wanted to devise a wholesome, constructive activity that would foster a closer father-son relationship and promote craftsmanship and good sportsmanship through competition,” he later told Scouting magazine.

A track and a brown paper sack

Murphy and the other parents in Pack 280C built a 32-foot, two-lane track. Impressively, the track had a battery-run finish line made from doorbells. Light bulbs identified the winner of each race.

Every Cub Scout got a brown paper bag containing four plastic wheels, four nails and three blocks of wood — all supplied by North American Aviation’s Management Club.

Why three blocks of wood? One was for the car’s body, and the other two formed the axles. (Today’s cars are made from a single block of wood, and each axle, or nail, goes directly into the body of the car.)

The first Pinewood Derby race was held May 15, 1953, in Manhattan Beach’s Scout House.

An instant success

Other packs in the Los Angeles area held their own races that year.

By 1954, word got to the national director of Cub Scouting Service, O. W. (Bud) Bennett. Bennett and other officials at BSA headquarters — then in New Jersey — thought it was a swell idea.

Bennett wrote a letter to Murphy, saying, “We believe you have an excellent idea, and we are most anxious to make your material available to the Cub Scouts of America.”

Boys’ Life makes it official

Boys’ Life magazine published Pinewood Derby plans [PDF] in its October 1954 issue.

That was the first reference to the Pinewood Derby in any BSA publication.

Before long, packs across the country made the Pinewood Derby a part of their annual calendar. Most packs, districts and councils settled on January, February or March as Pinewood Derby season.

The tradition lives on

Murphy continued to run the Pinewood Derby until his son left Scouting. After that, the Pinewood Derby founder lost connection with the BSA for more than two decades.

And then, in 1997, Gary McAulay showed up at Murphy’s house.

McAulay was the Cubmaster of Pack 713, which evolved out of Murphy’s original Pack 280C.

“Are you Don Murphy?” McAulay asked the man who answered the door.

“Yes.”

“Did you ever live in Manhattan Beach?”

“Yes.”

“Did you create the Pinewood Derby?”

Murphy said yes and wowed McAulay by showing him photos, handwritten notes and the letter from Bennett.

Then it was McAulay’s turn to amaze Murphy. He told the then-79-year-old that the Pinewood Derby had become a nationwide sensation with more than 100 million Pinewood Derby cars purchased and built since its inception.

“I had no idea at all that it had grown so big, because I left Scouting when my son grew up,” Murphy later told the Daily Breeze of Torrance, Calif. “But now that you mention it, I’ll blame it on my boy for getting me involved.”

The founder returns

McAuley convinced Murphy to serve as grand marshal of the 1997 Pinewood Derby run by the Pacifica District of the Greater Los Angeles Area Council.

The Cub Scouts at that year’s race treated Murphy like a hero, even asking him to autograph their cars.

Murphy, who embodied the true Scout spirit, was happy and humble about doing the ultimate Good Turn of giving Cub Scouts everywhere the gift of the Pinewood Derby.

“For Don it was never about money. It was about fathers and sons,” McAulay told the Daily Breeze. “He was an old-style gentleman, a thoughtful and kind man who was delighted that the boys were still racing and still enjoying themselves.”

The legend races on

Don Murphy went on to tell his story in a 2001 book called Simply Pinewood!

He later had a walk-on role in the 2005 film Down and Derby, starring Greg Germann and Lauren Holly.

Donald Wright Murphy died on July 1, 2008. He was 90.

Murphy’s obituary in the Daily Breeze ran under a simple, powerful headline: “Father of the Pinewood Derby.”

A beloved, signature part of Cub Scouting was started by a humble Cubmaster who wanted to do something special for his son.

And now that moment of parent-child magic is repeated again and again by millions of Cub Scouts.

About Bryan Wendell 2780 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is senior editor of Boys’ Life, Scouting and Eagles’ Call magazines.