The Pinewood Derby has a long tradition. For years, groups such as Boy Scouts of America ® and Awana ® have been participating in the Pinewood Derby ®, racing homemade cars on specially created tracks. This particular tradition is rooted in a history dating back to the 1950s and has continued on today as an activity rooted in family fun and bonding with one another to create a meaningful experience.

In this article, here’s a thorough rundown on the history, importance, and current rules and activities that are associated with the Pinewood Derby ®. Not only this, but we also want to give you tips on how you can start your own races if you choose to!

History of the Pinewood Derby

Don Murphy, a Cub Master for his own troupe in 1953, wanted to create a father and son activity that he and his young son could enjoy. You see, since his son was only 10 years old, he was still too young to participate in the Soap Box Derby. With his son eager to participate in a race and not willing to wait the two additional years, Murphy set out to create an activity that would fulfill not only his son’s wishes but also something that could be enjoyed by other cub scouts.

With Murphy being an excellent model maker, and also having a familiarity with racing smaller cars, this was a perfect challenge for him to set out and accomplish. This is what brought him to present the idea of racing miniature pinewood cars as a way for the younger scout to have the fun of racing, like the Soap Box Derby, without the age requirement. 

After presenting this idea to the Management Club at North American Aviation, they were entirely on board with the concept and were set to move forward with sponsoring Murphy’s family-friendly approach. They not only sponsored it but assist in donating trophies to the races as well, giving even more excitement to the activity. 

The activity only continued to gain traction as other Pack leaders were told about this ingenious idea and many other Pack leaders within the community chipped in to make it even more exciting.  As some of the leaders were skilled in electric wiring and woodworking, they were able to create a track that could hold the races on it, complete with a little stop and go light. 

The Pinewood Derby was gaining speed and fast! And by 1955, Cub Scouts and Boy Scouts nationwide were itching to get on board with this idea. It wouldn’t be until the 1970s, however, that the humble races would truly take off and become a staple in the Boy Scout community.

Off to the Races

So how did this work? Was every boy just able to build their own car from scratch, giving it as many tricks as possible? Nope. During the very first races in the 1950s, each kid was given a brown paper bag that was only filled with four plastic wheels, four nails, and three blocks of wood for the body of the car. This way, everyone had a fair shot yet still had the freedom to customize their cars with unique designs. Today, this methodology has not changed much at all, and each pack has specific rules about what sort of parts are acceptable for your car.

After the incredible success of the first Pinewood Derby races, The Boy Scouts of America® had lost touch with Murphy after his son had left scouting. When approached later by a fellow Cub Master, Gary McAuley, he was amazed to learn that more than 100 million Pinewood Derby ® kits had been purchased since he left. This small and simple idea that was created as a way for his son to participate in racing, had become a national pastime!

The Pinewood Derby ® Today

The Pinewood Derby ® continues to thrive since its Manhattan Beach debut back in 1953, where about 55 cub scouts raced their cars on the handmade track. In fact, in 2013, it celebrated its 60th anniversary.  And while it has come far from those roots to become a national activity, with championships included, the basics of the race are still the same.

While there are no national derby rules to follow, each pack still follows some of the original protocols. Kids are required to use a standard car model. No electronics or motors are in these, just wood, wheels, weights, and nails. Each car are the same size as one another, with the only difference being the design and numbers that reflect the rider. This means that each vehicle must adhere to specified length and width sizes for the body and wheels. As well as maintaining an acceptable weight. Each car must also pass an official inspection before it is allowed to make its way onto the track.

Here are just a few of the rules usually present for your pinewood derby car:

  • Wheel bearings, washers, and bushings are prohibited
  • The car shouldn’t ride on springs
  • The car must be free-wheeling, with no starting devices
  • Only dry lubricant is permitted
  • Each vehicle must pass inspection, the owner will be formed of the reason for failure, and will be given time within the official weigh-in time period to make an adjustment

There are many other rules, and some may even be added depending on the pack.

Other rules that surround the derby are all very much optional and are dependent upon your leaders, pack, district, or council. But if you want a taste of what some packs may consider when making the rules about their derby race.

  • Must the car be built during this Pinewood Derby ® season?
  • Can users re-use a car from a previous season?
  • Is it okay to adjust the distance between the front and rear wheel?
  • Can the wheels be shaved, shaped, or narrowed?
  • Can the axles be polished?
  • Does it matter which materials are used to make the car? Does the chassis need to be wood, or can it be made of plastic or metal? 

These are only a few questions that many of the leaders concern themselves about when thinking of the Pinewood Derby ® . Despite times being more modern, the idea of the Pinewood Derby is to keep it simple and fun for everyone.

Getting Started With Running A Pinewood Derby ®

So now that you know about the history of the Pinewood Derby ® races, maybe you want to start one for your Boy Scout group, Awana ® community, or perhaps even another small group. If that’s something that you are looking to do, then here are some tips for planning and putting on a successful derby race.

Prioritize and Delegate Responsibilities

If you want to plan a successful and fun derby for your scouts, it all starts with planning and delegating. Split up the group of volunteers that you have into committees that can handle different duties. For example, one group can handle the construction of the track, another the event planning (location, cost, etc.), and another group could handle food and beverages. No matter how you split it up, this will not only help with keeping things organized but also lower the stress. Ensuring that the day of the race is fun for everyone! 

Another tip to keep in mind is to reach out to other pack leaders or community council members for some insight on what may go into planning an event like this. This will not only be helpful for you to know what to expect, but also it is beneficial to share and exchange information with someone and learn from their mistakes and triumphs in planning. 

Know the Rules

Although there are no official rules to the Pinewood Derby ® , there are strict clarifications that every racer should follow including the dimensions and size of the car, materials that can be used, and amount of participants.  Bring up the need for simple inspection of the vehicles and other items to just ensure that the race is fun and fair. 

For more information on rules, you can check many of the kits, and also check online to see what other groups are using as their rule book for events. This way, you can get an idea of what is already out there and make adjustments when need be.

Recruit Volunteers

The more, the merrier when it comes to running something as involved as this, so get going and recruit volunteers to help you out! The Pinewood Derby ® was created to increase involvement between parents and scouts, so try getting parents to volunteer for the set-up of the race itself. It’s an excellent way for them to have direct involvement in a memorable and fun event for their kids. 

Also, keep in mind that with more volunteers, you will be able to get more tasks done in a shorter period of time. For an event like this, you definitely need to have all hands on deck to pull it off.

 

Building Cars

You can’t have a Pinewood Derby ® without cars, that’s a given. So, one of the first priorities should be providing your group with all the information and materials that they may need about their cars. For some of your scouts and parents, it may be their first experience building derby cars, or even building any like this. 

To make sure all parents and kids are on the same page, and nowhere to start, maybe hold a small class. This way, you can teach everyone who needs it about building and making pinewood cars properly. Show them what a typical kit comes with, how to make sure the vehicles meet the judging regulations and ways that you can customize the care and make it unique. 

Have Fun

Finally, just have fun with everything. The event was founded as a way to be fun for everyone involved and build relationships with one another in a positive way. Also, this event should be a positive experience for the participant, and that is the main point.

So whether you wanted to know more about the beloved event, or want to start your own, what you should know is that the Pinewood Derby ® is an event that was started with family fun in mind, and keeps that ideal to this day. So, find a local Boy Scout Group or Awana ® community near you, and find out how your kid can get involved.