Thursday, March 02, 2006

Demolition Derby

My self-worth is measured in hundredths of seconds. If the clock says 2.5 or lower, I am a god, 2.7 or higher, a complete failure. This is the Pinewood Derby, the annual Cub Scout event that churns my stomach and crushes my irrational optimism with far more power than five ounces of plastic, metal and wood should be able to muster.

For the uninitiated, the Pinewood Derby is a race where Cub Scouts build cars from a small block of wood and race them down an inclined track for trophies and bragging rights. Sounds like good clean fun for the kids, right? No big deal, you might think, but you would be wrong, at least for Pack 818 of Jacksonville, Maryland, where the Pinewood Derby is the Daytona 500, the Super Bowl, the highlight of the scouting year.

The race takes place in the elementary school gym. Officially, it's called the cafetorium, a term that always makes me think I'll run into Bill Murray wearing a toga and carrying a bucket. The walls are decorated with large colorful banners like the sponsor signage that you would see at a NASCAR race, I guess. There is a table where you register your car, making sure it is in compliance with the weight and size restrictions. Once your car is registered, it is numbered, taken to the stage and placed in a wooden grid. If you take it out of the grid, even just to show it to a friend, you must reregister to ensure that you are still in compliance and didn't make any illegal adjustments. The Boy Scouts monitoring this area take their jobs as seriously as the guards at Buckingham Palace.

Across the room from the registration table is an area that I call Pit Row. Here you will find drills, saws, sandpaper, files, wheels, axles, graphite lubricant, and anything else you might need to make any last minute adjustments to fine tune your car's performance. I find Pit Row more intimidating than a Catholic school teachers' lounge and, 30 years ago, I bet it was just as filled with cigarette smoke.

The four-lane track is made of wood and runs about 20 feet long, quickly descending from a height of about five feet to a flat straight away. This area is roped off with traffic cones and the ropes with the small, triangular, plastic flags you see at car dealerships. Six rows of seats surround the track, and they fill up early. A computerized timing system instantly records the finish of each heat, and the times are posted on a large drop-down movie screen on the stage. There are four heats for each Cub Scout age group and the winners of each division run off at the end to determine an overall winner. Before the advent of the computer timing, heated disputes broke out over the order of the finish. Now, the arguments are about which lane provides an unfair advantage.

A month or so before the race, each Scout is provided with a block of wood slightly larger than a stick of butter, four plastic wheels and four nails for axles. In our pack, the youngest scouts, the Tigers, are not allowed to carve or modify their block, just decorate it and put on the wheels, so there is not too much opportunity to get carried away. For the older Cubs, however, the cars are cut, carved, filed and sanded into all sorts of shapes to match whatever concept the boy has set in his mind; not that anything goes, in fact there are strict standards of weight, ground clearance, distance between axles, etc.

Again, you might say to yourself, "So the boys get to use some tools and paint and get to express their creativity. I'm sure they don't really care if they win the race, just as long as they have fun building and racing a car." And again, you would be wrong. This event is more competitive than private preschool admission and involves just as much parental input and pressure. The cars that show up on race day are beautifully sculpted, immaculately painted and precisely engineered. Now, I don't fault anyone for helping their children - I am just as guilty - but don't try to pretend that elementary school kids can turn out the kind of craftsmanship I saw last Sunday.

I was never a Cub Scout, so my initial foray into this event began two years ago, when my older son was a Tiger. Together, we sanded the wood smooth, and he painted it with some watery yellow paint we found in our art supplies drawer and covered it with stickers. The day before the race I hammered in the axles, cracking the wood as I tried to straighten them. The car made it down the track the next day, and I honestly don't recall where it finished, but I don't think we got even a sniff of Victory Lane. So there were neither tears of joy nor sorrow, but one look at my son's face told me that we needed to do better the next year.

This is the point in the Disney movie where the father gently puts his hand on the son's shoulder and the theater audience watches a musically driven montage of father and son buying tools and materials (the father sighs and whips out the plastic as the digital tally on the cash register quickly reaches triple digits), sawing and sanding (both wear proper eye-protection, of course), painting with an airbrush (Dad shoos away the dog but not before he gets a red stripe down his back), drilling (the boy's face a mask of concentration as the father watches vigilantly yet approvingly), Mom shaking her head and laughing as they ignore the sandwiches and lemonade she has put out, until finally, as the sun sets and the music slows, they peel off the last decal, and the camera pulls back to reveal a gleaming, sleek reproduction of a classic roadster with the name "Firefly" in perfect flaming script down the side.

In real life, only the expensive shopping trip took place. My skills with tools would sooner land us in the emergency room than the winners' circle, but these are the lengths to which we go to try to make our children happy. The hand tools in the kit I bought from the hobby shop - complete with a Pinewood Derby Seal of Approval - quickly proved inadequate. Maybe they were intended for a Retro Derby where rules forbid power tools like those all-natural bodybuilding and weightlifting contests where the competitors are supposedly steroid-free. Or maybe the tool kit had been in the hobby shop for 50 years because no self-respecting man would actually be dumb enough to buy it. And I thought I was lucky to get the last one.

So, despite our best efforts, raceday last year brought a similar result as the year before. We actually managed to fashion a car that made it down the track but again I had cracked the body putting on the wheels and that, combined with being a hair under the weight allotment, took us to our spot well back of the winners. Again, we slunk home, defeated by the men with better tools and expertise.

At the annual fall campout a few months ago, as the boys played flashlight tag in the dark, a group of dads stood around the campfire swapping secrets of preeminent Pinewood performance. Cambered wheels, lathe-turned axles, bandsaw versus scrolling saw, minimizing friction, all this and more was bounced around amid nods and knowing chuckles. Forget the beating of tribal drums, this was a pure expression of primal American middle class masculinity.

We received our car materials a few weeks later, and the discussion in our house immediately turned to design ideas. We had two entries in the race this year, one for my six-year old Tiger Scout and one for the eight-year old, who is, I believe, a Bear, although he might be a Wolf (who can keep track of these things?). Because they watch ESPN every morning, the boys have become NASCAR fans and each decided that he wanted his car to look like that of his favorite driver. My front-running younger son chose reigning champion Tony Stewart while the older boy went with Matt Kenseth, whose DeWALT car is his favorite color, yellow.

Work on the Kensethmobile began in earnest about two weeks before the big day. Using the jigsaw I had bought for the previous year's car and used only once since, we cut the shape and finished it with files and three grades of sandpaper. I had cut a little deeper than I intended but the axle slots were still intact so I set about drilling the holes to add the weights. This was a near calamity as I drilled through one side of the car, but a little wood filler that I had bought to cover a botched kitchen cabinet repair came in handy. Next we added a few coats of sealant to make the wood grain lie down for a perfect painting surface (at least, that's what it said on the side of the bottle).

Over the next few days, we sprayed both cars with several coats of paint, finally adding in details like numbers and sponsor logos (Home Depot for Stewart, DeWALT for Kenseth). The wheels were the final step. After using a specially purchased tool to sand the sides of the wheels to reduce the surface area that would contact the track, thereby reducing the friction, we applied Teflon and graphite lubricants, and then I gently but firmly pressed the axles into the precut slots. Miraculously, the wood did not crack. If the wheels were cambered, it was purely accidental. We placed the Kenseth car on our digital scale and it read a perfect 5.0.

The race was on a Sunday, and I am sure I was not the only person saying special prayers for Pinewood success at church that morning. Sure the other prayers came from kids, but didn't Jesus preach that we should strive to be like children? We arrived at the school a few minutes after the doors opened. After dropping our coats in the front row, we got in line to register. When the official scale read the same as the one at home, we exchanged high-fives and checked in.

The variety and originality of the cars is always the most entertaining part of the day. I suppose my opinion might change if we ever won, but I most enjoy looking at all the cars, noting the skilled details of the work. Because there are awards for creativity and appearance,the kids come up with some great ideas. There were dragsters, pickup trucks, and a Trans Am that looked like it had been built from a model kit. There is always at least one car that looks like a piece of Swiss cheese, sometimes with an accompanying mouse, but this year there was also a wedge of watermelon and a flat car painted like a Hershey bar. Cars decorated with American flags routinely dominate the "Most Patriotic" award, but this year they had to compete with a space shuttle and a Torino Winter Olympic Games bus. There was no American Idol car, but if there had been, I am sure it would have blown the Olympics car off the track.

There was a Batmobile of course, but also a Superman car where the Man of Steel figurine had been glued to a car painted sky blue with clouds. There were two skateboards, one topped with sandpaper just like a real board and one topped with a tiny poodle. Another car featured a pair of driving lizards while yet another had Star Wars Lego figures dueling with light sabers on its roof. And in the brilliantly over the top category, one car was cut like an ice floe with a plastic penguin and an igloo that lit up like the Aurora Borealis as it rolled.

Finally the cars were all registered, and the Packmaster called the audience to order. The colors were presented, the Pledge of Allegiance recited and the first four cars were placed in their lanes. The time from the start to finish is usually an unbearably long 2-3 seconds. The Tigers race first; without any additional weight in the cars, anything around 2.6 is usually good enough to win. They conduct all the heats for the Tigers first and wrap up their competition, so that the little guys can go home if they want to. Our Home Depot car won one of its heats, finished a respectable sixth overall out of about 20, and took home one of the design medals. My younger son was happy. He's a competitive guy, but he understands that part of competing is risking a loss.

A few minutes later it was time for the Matt Kenseth car to hit the track. I sat next to my son, both of us on the edge of our seats; he was wearing the DeWALT Racing Team cap that Santa Claus had brought him for Christmas. I was wearing a look of grim anticipation. The start was clean, but as we hit the straightaway, the other three cars pulled away to touch the padded wall at the end of the track first. Like everyone else, we turned to look at the big screen to see our time. 2.67. I turned to my son. He was not happy. It's a look no father ever wants to see on his child's face. We sat and watched as the other cars in our group raced their first heat before moving on to the next division. The next heat was a major improvement; our time was 2.61, and we finished third. We got shut out in the design awards; but the competition was pretty stiff, what with Igloomobile, Skateboard Poodle and the Watermelon Wedge all in our age group.

As the third heat rolled around, I told my wife it was her turn to sit with our son. Maybe the improvement we'd seen from Heat 1 to Heat 2 would continue. But as they say in the investment ads, "Past performance is no indicator for future results," and since Disney had not as yet taken over production of this feature, Heat 3 was a disaster. 2.71. When they posted the standings, we were dead last overall.

A friend stopped me and said something about how we had gotten a bad lane that heat. "A lot of cars looked wobbly in Lane 3 today," he noted. His son's car had finished last a few years ago, so he knew how I was feeling, and I appreciated it, but it really didn't help much. In Heat 4, we climbed back to respectability with a 2.61, but I didn't need a calculator to figure that we would still be at the bottom of the final standings.

The boys found their friends and cheered for their favorites in the finals, Cheese Car and Watermelon Wedge among them. I plopped down next to another dad. "Bad news," I said. "DeWALT just called. They're pulling their sponsorship."

Cheese Car took home the big trophy. Somehow, a second grader had built a car that beat even the fifth graders'. My theory is that the fifth graders insist on doing most of the work themselves and won't let their dads help as much.

I used to say that I had two very modest goals for the Pinewood Derby: make it to the finish line and don't come in last. Now the latter appears to be beyond my reach. What I'd really like to do is to build a car that will spontaneously combust, bursting into flames as it rolls down the track. Of course, this would probably ignite the track as well, not that that would be a bad thing necessarily. I don't need a Carriesque conflagration, just a little fireball to make me a Pinewood Derby legend.

When my son asked why he hadn't won anything, why we couldn't make a faster car, I had no answer for him. The standard "Can't win 'em all," or "We all have different talents" just didn't cut it. I am sure that psychiatrists and Oedipal scholars would now step in and point out that an important milestone of childhood is reached as we begin to come to terms with our parents' fallibility. Fine and good, but I felt a lot better about milestones like first steps or even first curse words.

Besides, I've already figured out a winning strategy for next year. I've petitioned the Pack Leadership Council to add a Pinewood Derby Essay Contest next year and I, I mean my son, is going to write the best essay in the history of Pack 818.


Rick said...

You've got Style (as in section), Bill. I had Betty Buckley appear singing "Memories" while I was reading. Very nice Blog !
You had me worried with no blogs for several days , but the wait was worth it.
My condolences to your sons, as we Phillies fans like to say "better luck next year".

Sometime send me an email through my Profile.

jon said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
jon said...

Oops, sorry about that last post. Didn't know what I was doing (as usual). What I wanted to say was that this column is causing me to have traumatic flashbacks to Columbus Ohio 1975. It was exactly as you describe, except that my Dad had no power tools; he bought me a lame wood-carving knife at a craft store. I remember him making some incomprehensible jokes about "sittin' and whittlin' on the porch." Needless to say, the results were not pretty. I can remember the stunned embarassment when I saw my "car" up against the competition. That experience, combined with a mental block when it came to learning how to tie knots, spelled the end to my cub scout career. Your kids are gonna have better memories of their derby days.

Erin O'Brien said...

You remind me of Robert Pirsig.

joe said...

Was looking for info on Pack 818's 2007 Pinewood Derby and ran across your blog. Funny stuff!
You have a next-door neighbor who built a 30 ft. wooden boat in his basement and turns out Duncan-Phyfe furniture to pass the time! The best you can do for equipment is a cheap coping saw from Cranbook Hobby?!
The difference between 2.71 seconds and 2.25 is proper utilization of ones' resources.
If you get stuck this year, call me. I've got plenty of tools and a refrigerator full of beer in the garage. God knows my wife has hit your wife up for plenty of free advice this year - call it payback.
By the way, if a car was designed like a camel hoof do you think the aero-dynamics would create more speed, or would it act as a ball and chain?

Katherine Shirek Doughtie said...

Great essay, Bill. And it's good to know that this is not limited to Pack 13 in Pasadena, CA.
Every year our plans get more elaborate -- we've been longing for flame throwers for awhile -- and by the end of Derby Day we're all happy to have just psychologically (sort of) survived.
Apparently, someone did do a movie about this, called "Down and Derby," in which the appropriate amount of disaster ensues. I suggested that we take the Pack to see it as some kind of badge requirement but the idea was roundly rejected.