Feminists will howl, but this is the truth: Sometimes, girls are
meant to sit on the sidelines.
I came to this un-p.c. conclusion many Kodachrome-colored years
ago, as I sat in the family garage, watching with just a twinge of envy as
my dad and younger brother prepared for the Cub Scout pinewood derby. This
annual ritual, which begins every January in school gymnasiums and American
Legion halls, is now a half-century-old. An estimated 40 million dads and
sons have participated in the races while their wives and sisters cheered
It's the simplest and purest of bonding experiences: a father,
his boy, a kit containing one block of soft pinewood, four nails, and four
tires, and their joined imaginations. The objective is to create a little
wooden car that will start from an elevated standstill and race down a
32-inch plywood track. The track is an inclined ramp with wood strips down
the center to guide the miniature cars.
There may be no fancy electronic gizmos or computer software
involved, but the competition is as thrilling as any televised BattleBots
match-up. Yes, there are always eager beaver dads who go overboard in an
angst-ridden quest to build a winning speed demon. (There are even Internet
sites that peddle winning secrets.) But generations of sons hold the warmest
memories of the derby and the preparations leading up to it as precious time
spent with the most important man in their lives.
It's the designing and building of the car, more than the racing
of it, which is at the heart of the tradition.
"It was probably the worst-looking thing, but my memory was that
everything was perfect, because it was something me and my dad made," Pat
Rose told the Virginian Pilot, recounting his own Cub Scout memories of the
pinewood derby last week as he helped other fathers and their children
prepare for the 2003 races.
Michael DiSanto recalled working with his father in 1976 on a
patriotic red, white and blue derby car. "I made it during the Bicentennial
and called it 'The Spirit of '76,' " he told the Chicago Daily Herald. "I
truly don't remember if it won, but that wasn't the important thing."
Amid the chaotic masculine jumble of coping saws and sandpaper
and glue guns and chisels are valuable lessons to be learned on friction,
gravity, aerodynamics, patience, collaboration, good sportsmanship, and
following the rules. The specifications are stringent: The car must weigh no
more than five ounces. The width (including wheels) shall not exceed 2 and
three-fourths inches; the length not more than 7 inches. No springs, no
starting devices, no washers allowed.
Of the 11 rules for the derby today, eight are the same as they
were originally in 1953 when Scoutmaster Don Murphy ran the first unofficial
race in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The rule on length was amended to shorten
cars by three-eighths of an inch; two new rules were added prescribing when
the cars must be built and banning loose objects in or on the vehicles.
Scouting veterans note wryly that the rules for the pinewood derby have
changed about as much as the U.S. Constitution.
Rigidity and tradition are no longer fashionable, of course. And
it is probably just a matter of time before the Boy Scout-bashers and no-fun
feminists start clamoring for gender equity at the pinewood derby. (Call
your lawyer, Martha Burk!)
This kind of selfish encroachment into male-only rites of
passage and traditions is a sad and seemingly unstoppable trend. But it is
with unabashed fondness that I look back on the scene of my father and
brother, before they grew up and apart, puzzling together over a block of
pine and absorbed in a common purpose while my mom and I sat on the garage
steps -- letting the boys be boys for a fleeting moment in time.