Pinewood Derby

When I was a boy, I was also a scout. I don’t have a plethora of scout memories, but I do remember Pinewood Derbies.
For those of you who don’t have a clue what I’m referring to, a Pinewood Derby is a car race. The cars are approximately 8 inches in length and are made out of…you guessed it. Pinewood. The race is run on a straight track, and several cars compete at the same time.
Several weeks prior to the race, each scout is handed a bag with the following contents:
1 rectangle block of pinewood
4 plastic wheels
4 nails (wheel axels)
? sheet of instructions
Each scout would take his trusty pocket knife (in those days, we called them pocket knives because we were actually allowed to carry knives in our pockets), and start whittling away at the block of pinewood.
There are probably thousands of rules and regulations you have to comply with if you want to enter a car in a NASCAR race. In a Pinewood Derby, there are only two rules and regulations you have to meet in order to race.
Rule #1: The racecar has to meet a specific weight limit.
Rule #2: This is a scout project—not a father-of-a-scout project.
By the time each scout removed all of the non-racecar pinewood from the racecar pinewood, there was always a few bloodstains in the wood where the pocketknife accidentally shaved off some non-racecar scout skin.
After the whittling came the sanding. The trick was to remove any obvious chips, nicks, and blemishes that could act as air pockets, that could act as speed inhibitors, that could act as excuses for coming in last place, that could act as reasons for all of the other scouts to ridicule you.
Like most other scouts, before putting blade to wood (and scout skin), I put pencil to paper. I would design the shape, style, color, and paint scheme of my pinewood racecar.
And like most scouts, the actual shape, style, color, and paint scheme of my pinewood racecar turned out slightly different than how it looked on paper; okay, significantly different. But that was okay. There was always a sense of scout pride to do something from start to finish by myself. And while my racecar would never end up in the Boy Scout Pinewood Derby Hall of Fame, I was still confident that it would take less time to travel the length of the racetrack than anyone else’s racecar. Each year, I would reserve a piece of bedroom shelf real estate to display the winning trophy.
The night of the big event would arrive and the first thing most scouts noticed were the scouts/scout fathers who violated Rule #2. It was easy to tell. No blood stains. Some scouts never got to whittle away a single splinter of non-racecar pinewood. Their dad’s would design the shape, style, color, and paint scheme. And if the scout dad was an engineer, he’d take the racecar to work with him and test it in a wind tunnel chamber. Over the years, my pinewood racecars competed against some very aerodynamic racecars with spectacular paint schemes.
At the end of the night there was always one winner and a whole bunch of non-winners. Nobody likes to lose. Even scouts. Scouts are Trustworthy, Loyal, Helpful, Friendly, Courteous, Kind, Obedient, and Cheerful. Thrifty, Brave, Clean, and Reverent. But nowhere in the scout oath does it say anything about being a good sport.
Then one year something incredible happened. I won. It was not my best design. It was not my best whittling job. It was not my best sanding job. It was not even my best paint job. It was obvious to everyone participating that the winning scout’s dad played no active, or even consultant’s role in the development and construction of the winning racecar. It was definitely a scout-only effort. I don’t know who was more surprised when I took home the trophy—my bedroom shelf or me.
So here’s the deal about Pinewood Derbies. They’re as much about life as they are about racing.
* I am a block of pinewood. I am responsible for whittling away the “non-me” part of the pinewood, and leaving only the “me” part.
* Occasionally each of us wins a race, but most of the time we don’t. Sometimes we start strong. Sometimes we finish weak. Sometimes we don’t even make it out of the starting gate. Some people win even though they don’t even try. Some people finish last, even though they try very hard. Not winning can either motivate or debilitate. Our choice.
* A trophy will tarnish over time, unless it is won unfairly. Then it starts out tarnished, and remains that way forever.
* The only true losers are those who choose to stay in their bag—unwhittled, unsanded, and unpainted.
Check out L. Dustin Twede’s website at He can be reached at

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