What is the Pinewood Derby?
A pinewood derby is a racing event for unpowered, unmanned miniature cars. Pinewood derbies are often run by Packs of the Cub Scouts program of the Boy Scouts of America. Scouts build their own cars with adults' help from wood, usually from kits containing a block of pine, plastic wheels, and metal axles.
The first pinewood derby was held on May 15, 1953, at the Scout House in Manhattan Beach, California, by Cub Scout Pack 280C. The concept was created by the Pack's Cubmaster, Don Murphy.
Murphy's son was too young to participate in the popular Soap Box Derby races, so he came up with the idea of racing miniature wood cars. The cars had the same gravity-powered concept as the full-size Soap Box Derby cars but were much smaller and easier to build.
The pinewood derby had a sensational first year. Murphy sent out thousands of brochures to anyone who requested more information. The idea spread rapidly, and competitions were held across the country. However, of all that early enthusiasm, only the Boy Scouts of America made it part of an official program. The National Director of Cub Scouting Service, O. W. (Bud) Bennett, wrote Murphy: "We believe you have an excellent idea, and we are most anxious to make your material available to the Cub Scouts of America." Within the year, the Boy Scouts of America adopted the pinewood derby for use in all Cub Scout packs.
In its October 1954 issue, Boys' Life Magazine publicized the event and offered plans for the track and a car, which featured "four wheels, four nails, and three blocks of wood.
Murphy continued to run the derby program until his retirement. He died in 2008.
In 1980, the block's design was changed from a cutout block, consistent with a 1940s style front-engine Indy 500 car, to a rectangular block. The tires were also changed from narrow, hard plastic, to wider "slicks."
In May 2005, the Boy Scouts of America registered Pinewood Derby as an official trademark.
The track usually has two to eight lanes and slopes down to the ground, since the cars are powered by gravity. The race is run in heats, giving every car the chance to run on each lane. The racers are grouped with others from the same rank (Lion, Tiger, Wolf, Bear, WEBELOS, and Arrow of Light).
First, second, and third-place winners usually receive ribbons, medals, or trophies. Some packs also award on the basis of car design or styling. The first and second place race winners get to advance to the district level.
When using a kit sold through Boy Scouts of America (BSA), the Scout begins with a block of wood, four plastic wheels, and four nails for axles. The finished car must use all nine pieces, must not exceed a certain weight, must not exceed a certain width and length, and must fit on the track used by that particular Scout pack.
Blocks can be whittled with a hand knife, bandsaw, or a carving tool. Other than the previous basic design rules, the Cub Scout can carve and decorate the car as they choose. Cars vary from unfinished blocks to whimsical objects, to accurate replicas of actual vehicles. Weights can be added to the final design to bring the car to the maximum allowable weight. A high-density metal weight, such as tungsten carbide, which isn't toxic like lead, reduces the volume of wood, which reduces air friction and increases speed. Axle friction can be reduced by polishing the nails and applying graphite as a lubricant.