Tuesday, March 8, 2011

It's Derby Time !

     You would think, knowing my penchant for parties and for games of chance, that this blog would be about the upcoming Kentucky Derby, but you would be wrong.  This blog, inspired by a visit to my sister's this weekend (her youngest has his first Derby next week), is all about the 10 Pinewood Derbies that my boys and I have been in.  I'm a fan of Scouting, as you know, and an even bigger fan of the Pinewood Derby for Cub Scouts.  

Pinewood Derby track
I never was in a Derby when I was a Cub Scout, so it was a new experience for me when my son, Dan, became old enough to compete in one.  The box with the wood block and wheels came home with him from a Pack meeting and I learned that the project was to build a car with your Scout.  Truth be told, I have no construction abilities, and really struggle around power tools, but we gave it a try each year, and the enjoyment I got out of it, more than equaled the hours spent building the 10 cars.  With a travel job, inevitably the kit would sit on the fridge for months, untouched each weekend in lieu of other projects and activities, until finally my wife would remind me with, "You know it's next weekend, right?".  I, of course, knew this, but always worked better under pressure.  It's not done correctly, if your car is completely dry heading to the event, right?  So Dan and I jumped in with both feet and built his first car, the Batmobile.
The picture below doesn't really do it justice as the bad ass  fenders broke off after a lot of use, but for a first car, it wasn't half bad.  It also wasn't a winner.  This started our tradition of valiantly attempting to build winning cars but valiantly losing each year.  Mine and Dan's overall Derby record places us squarely in the middle of the pack.
Dan's Derby Year # 1 The Batmobile
The process was the same with Dan as eventually with Nolan. They would think up the design and either sketch it, or print it, and then we would use our combined woodworking skills, or lack of them, to try and create what was drawn.  The points on the cars were never in the same place as the pictures, sometimes we would improvise if the Dremel bit a little too deeply, (you wanted a cockpit, right?), or add other features if the situations that would arise, warranted it. Two things were always true, that we did the work ourselves and together as intended, and each of the cars that we built ran down the track.  In some years they ran down with 3 wheels touching, but they all ran.  We were proud of that. 
Dan's next three cars.
The next 3 attempts were more rudimentary in design, with us trying hard to get the weight just right and in the right position.  Some years we hollowed out the bottom of the cars, and screwed the weights in (FYI if you try this, make sure the screws don't scrape the track on the way down, OOPS.) other years, we'd place them on the side or attach them to the top.  Our best efforts netted us a solid 6th place one year, our year of glory!  Surprisingly each year we would place in the Best of Show category as our designs grew more and more original each year.  The red car shown had a bubble attached to it originally (it was the top of the graphite package, but it looked really cool glued onto the car).  We hadn't built the Garaj-Mahal for all these cars, so we worked in an unheated space or in the wet basement to do these cars, no workbench or vises to hold the cars, just a will to do our best, and we did.  The last year that Dan was able to be in a Derby he approached me early and asked if we could just build a car for show, not for speed.  I said "Sure" and instantly fell in love with his design.  It was guaranteed not to win, in fact it was barely able to not tumble down the track but it was original, a really cool car, and remains my favorite to this day, it was the Mystery Machine from Scooby Doo.
We started by cutting the block in half and gluing it on top of the other.  We then dremeled the windows and windshield in, place wire on the top for the roof racks, and shellacked images from the internet on the sides and back.  The colors were dead on, and we did win Best of Show that year, as if there was any doubt when you show up with the Mystery Machine.  This ended Dan's time with the Derby and he finished on top, well sort of.  I think it was safe to say, that he liked attending and competing, even if he wasn't a front runner.  We approached each year like we would win though, and I liked how the next year, we would take what we learned from the previous year and apply it to our designs.  It's a lot like life, you learn as you go, you apply what you've learned, but most importantly you remember to enjoy the journey, not the finishing position.  I know I wouldn't trade those hours spent together for anything, and I hope Dan feels the same way. I suspect he is
Dan's ribbons and Derby trophies
proud of what we did together, as he has kept all of his cars and awards (I borrowed them to take pictures for this blog, shhh don't tell him).  Dan is now finishing his Scouting career, he made his Eagle last year, and is slowly separating from the Troop, but I suspect the lessons he learned in Scouts will stay with him for his life.  I think this is true no matter how long you are able to be involved in Scouting too.  I see my former Scouts around all the time, and they all are doing well in their own right.  If you have children, I can't speak more highly of involvement in both Girl and Boy Scouting.  My family has benefited from them, and yours could too!  

    By the time my son Nolan was able to participate in a Pinewood Derby, the Garaj-Mahal had been built.  It made the work a lot easier and right off the bat, we got better at sculpting the wood into recognizable shapes.  His first idea was for a big rig.  I liked this one as it required a lot less woodworking, but true to form the day of the race, we were at the Post Office weighing the truck to see if it qualified.
As nice as it looked, we were firmly placed in the rear view mirrors of the eventual winners.  I distinctly remember getting the wheels perfectly aligned the night before the race and when tested it ran straight as an arrow.  On the way over to the Post office I kept hearing a weird noise from the back seat, and upon arriving I realized that Nolan had turned the truck over and was using his hand to spin all the wheels, to entertain himself on the drive over. So much for perfect wheel alignment.  We learned from that mistake and didn't repeat it the next year.  Nolan's next 3 cars were good looking cars too, but none of them did anything to endanger our Derby records.  He seemed to have a penchant for the color red, and used it on all 3 cars.  He had some good records for Best in show as well, and the year he did the red, white and blue car, with the Scout Fleur de Lis on it, he won first or most colorful.  
Nolan's next 3.
In one of his cars, he placed a driver in the cockpit, and this car had a windshield glued onto in.  We got better at polishing and drying the cars more quickly too, utilizing the registers for our forced air furnace.  Our house always smelled like spray paint the week of the Pinewood Derby. Our graphite stained fingers would carry the cars, year in, year out, to the Derby and we would come away with our dreams of victory dashed each time.  The first year, Nolan was so convinced that he was going to win, that he actually cried when he didn't do well.  By the last year, however, the tears were a thing of the past, and he just enjoyed competing. I don't handle tears from my kids well, which is very odd since I was an emotional kid myself (cough, Crybaby).  It took me many years even into adulthood before I could control my emotions and not cry in stressful situations.  When it came time to parent, I found myself using my Dad's standards lines like "For God's sake, your not crying about it are you?" or "Dry up" but rarely used the patented "I'll give you something to cry about" one.  What?  I told you I was no good at parenting crying kids.  Back to the Derby...

     Nolan, like Dan, wanted his last car to be his best but unlike Dan went for show and for speed.  We did all the normal tricks with getting the axles and weight right, aligning the wheels and everything else, but we did them on a Spongebob car !
I loved this design as there was virtually no sculpting of the block other than to rough it up a little on the edges.  The painting was a little harder, but we gave ourselves a couple of days to do it that year, and even had time to put a sealing clear coat over it (warm garage, remember?).  The car actually did pretty well too, it wasn't in the top ten, but in his class it qualified to go to the District race, where we were soundly defeated, but no tears were shed.  I chalk that up to my excellent parenting, or maybe it was just growth. As a Scout Leader, I always pushed my Scouts to be a little more independent than the other kids their age.  I think it is one of the characteristics of a good Scout.  When given the choice, the last year in Cub Scouting, to stay in Cub Camp or to go up to Boy Scout camp, my boys have always chosen to move up and forward.  I rarely lost a kid from that first camp to home sickness, but one year, I had to talk 4 into staying, but they did stay and were better Scouters for it. 
Nolan's trophies from the Derbies are pictured to the right here.  It looks like he was more successful, but in actuality the ribbons were replaced with participation trophies the year he started.  I suspect he has learned a lot in his Cub Scouting career and he is progressing nicely in his Boy Scouting one too.  He got elected to lead the Troop this year, and he is the youngest Scout in it. I've learned a thing or two at the Derbies myself.  One year the Cubmaster called out one of my new Scouts for an irregularity in his car.  He did it in front of the entire audience and it turned out that he had no right or reason to do it.  My assistant leader and I insisted that he give the Scout a pubic apology for his actions, and he gave the gift we had provided to the Scout, but never admitted his guilt.  I learned, that day, how not to lead a group of impressionable boys.  When I make mistakes in Scouting, I own up to them, try to learn from them and don't repeat them.  I hope you have enjoyed this blog on my Pinewood Derbies with my sons.  Feel free to share your experiences by commenting below.  The last picture is my den of Cub Scouts in one of their last Derbies.  It's a good ending, don't you think?


cdyarger said...

Good blog! I know it is one of the favorite activities of any Cub Scout I have ever met!

Anonymous said...

Great story...Now what I want to no is...Who types this in here? I see it was 4 something in the morning....lol!!!! Love you both....

Bill said...

@ Anon, These are all me, but Char is nice enough to edit them for me before I post usually. On a good week, I'll finish on Sunday or Monday and auto post at 12:01 Tuesday AM. On a bad week, the auto post doesn't work, so I put it up when I get up in the am, this week at 3ish.

Daphne Mays said...

My kids weren't scouts, but their church youth group (AWANA) did a derby. Oksana actually won it the first time she made one, even beating out her dad who raced in the adult division. Not nearly as huge a competition as Canandaigua, I'm sure, but she was THRILLED to beat out her dad! They had a great time building the cars together and researching ways to make them go faster!

Anonymous said...

I was a den leader for both of my boys. I spent many hours working with boys helping them through to acheive the Arrow of Light. My favorite memory was a mother telling me she was taking her son out of scouting because I was not a man. How could I argue?????

Bill said...

I could easily have argued that point, I have seen how effective women can be as Scout Leaders, both as Cubs and Boy Scouts. I'm happy and lucky to have one of my assistant Scoutmasters as my wife, and she was the leader of the den prior to that group coming up. I think every individual has the opportunity to create future leaders and still follow the Scouting methods their own way. I am terrible with knots, but love to speak publicly. My Scouts will not win awards for their knot tying, but you would recognize one, if he had to speak in front of your group. I'm saddened to hear your story, it sounds to me like we lost a great leader.