Until a couple of weeks ago, the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby had remained a suburban legend to me.
Sure, I had heard tales of thrilling victory and agonizing defeat, but none of them measured up to experiencing the derby firsthand.
Never in one room had I seen such a competitive, anxious — and tired — group of dads. “I finished a car two nights ago,” one dad lamented, “but then I tried to tweak the wheels and broke it. We bought another kit yesterday. I was up past midnight balancing the thing.”
Some took it all in stride. “I don’t know why my son chose to decorate his car like a banana,” another dad commented. “I questioned his choice from an aerodynamic standpoint, though I admit it has a certain appeal.”
And it turned out I wasn’t the only rookie there. “I didn’t realize we had to actually make it ourselves,” yet another dad said. “I couldn’t believe it when I opened the box and a block of wood fell out.”
But not every dad had fashioned his own (son’s) car.
“My grandpa cut mine since my dad couldn’t find the saw,” my son told his friends. This is because I hid the saw after the ceiling debacle of ’02, never to be wielded by my husband again.
Luckily my dad had fashioned many a winning derby car for my brothers back in the day and was happy to emerge from retirement for another go at a title.
More than 90 cars raced down four parallel tracks, rotating through each track and timed with Olympic precision to the nearest one-thousandth of a second. Round after round, hours of sawing, sanding and sweat were put to the test.
There were tears, there were cheers, and there were boys who did not notice the race going on around them. But it was the dads who saw their reputations speed along the track with each run.
A shaky start on the first run held my son’s car back from placing within his den, but the next three runs were just fast enough to qualify him for the pack finals. My son was relieved. His grandfather was mortified.
“He didn’t win the den?” he muttered to himself as he shook his head. “My cars always win their dens.”
Unable to re-graphite the wheels, the two were forced to sit by and watch as their car raced against the other 30 finalists. Tanks, rockets and even the banana flew down the ramp, until the checkered flag waved and the results were announced.
“Papa, I got sixth place!” my son beamed, holding his trophy.
“That’s … great!” his grandfather said, forcing a smile while mulling over design changes for next year. Then he turned to me and whispered, “You aren’t going to tell anyone I came in sixth, are you?”
“Oh, Dad,” I grinned, patting him on the back, “no one would believe it, even if I did.”