Open for debate: What’s your philosophy on the Pinewood Derby?

Photo by Dan Bryant

Here’s a little bit of Cub Scout trivia for you: Cub Scout packs are not required to participate in or host a Pinewood Derby.

In the most recent editions of the Cub Scout den leader guides, the Pinewood Derby is mentioned only as one of several events that you’ll want to get on your pack calendar as early as you can.

In the Cub Scout Leader Guide (more than 170 pages in all), the concept of the Pinewood Derby gets only a few paragraphs of explanation, along with a couple of other mentions about making sure your families are aware of it and fundraising to pay for a track, if necessary.

When it comes to advancement, the Webelos/AOL Engineer elective Adventure gives Scouts the option of building a car (or using one from a previous race) to learn about the principles of mechanical engineering.

The Baloo The Builder Bear required Adventure allows Scouts to learn about tools, some of which could in theory be used to build a Pinewood Derby car.

So, when it’s all said and done, a Cub Scout could technically go through their entire time in Cub Scouting and never participate in a Pinewood Derby.

Yet, that concept seems almost blasphemous, does it not?

It begs the question: What’s the purpose of the Pinewood Derby? Why do we do this?

A lot of it might depend on how you, as a parent and/or Cub Scout leader, approach the big event.

Competitive? Or not competitive?

When it came to the Pinewood Derby, my son was not super competitive.

During his five years in Cub Scouting, I attended five Pinewood Derbies. I watched as some families sat on the edges of their seats the entire time, fixated intently on every race in which their child participated, while others talked with each other and had a good time, even as they were mostly uninterested in the results of the races themselves.

Personally, I had no problem with either group.

Recently, I asked my son, now 16, what he remembers the most about the Pinewood Derby races in which we participated. He said he remembers building the car with me over a period of several weekends before the race, then getting some satisfaction from doing well in the race itself.

I asked him if he remembered the year we finished third in the pack, and he said of course he did.

I asked him if he remembered the year we finished second-to-last in our den, and it’s funny how his memories of that race are kind of fuzzy.

(What we did wrong from one year to the next I’ll never know. Probably didn’t spend enough time here.)

By the time my son was about to age out of Cub Scouting, I had developed what I feel like is a pretty solid Pinewood Derby philosophy — just in time to never have to use it again.

That’s why I’m here now to share it with all of you.

Photo by Dan Bryant

Where I stand

It’s OK to try to win your Pinewood Derby race.

There. I said it.

Just as kids learn from camping in the woods and doing service projects for their community, there are lessons to be learned from working hard to build the fastest car possible and seeing it do well on race day.

(There are also lessons to be learned from working hard to build the fastest car possible, only to find out that other kids in your den also built fast cars, preventing you from finishing as high in the standings as you would have liked.)

It’s also OK to not care if you win your Pinewood Derby race.

Yep. I said that, too.

Some of the best-looking cars we’ve ever seen are not the fastest. Some of them didn’t even require any fancy tools.

This is why it’s a good idea for packs to give out awards for things like best paint job, best use of stickers and other categories besides simply speed.

Your Cub Scout might be a good driver

Here’s the key: Let your kid be the one who drives these decisions (pun intended).

If your Cub Scout says she wants to build the fastest Pinewood Derby car possible, that’s great! Just sit down with her and explain how much time and work that will take, and make sure she’s willing to put in that kind of effort.

Note that you should definitely not build the car for her. You should build the car with her. If she’s willing to put in the work, then your family is in for a fun and memorable time.

At the same time, if your child decides he doesn’t care how fast his car goes, as long as it features 15 lightsabers sticking out in every direction, maybe that’s OK, too? After all, there’s some value in building a car like that together, isn’t there?

We’ve learned again and again and again that people have strong feelings about this event. Let us know in the comments how you approach your Pinewood Derby.

Photo by Dan Bryant
About Aaron Derr 317 Articles
Aaron Derr is the senior editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines, and also a former Cubmaster and Scouts BSA volunteer.