The History of the Pinewood Derby

Boy Scouts Pinewood Derby

One of the oldest and most notable organizations in the U.S. has to be the Boy Scouts of America, or Scouts BSA. And with a member list that includes astronauts, presidents, filmmakers, athletes (just to name a few), it’s a well-earned reputation. Of course, within this gigantic organization, there are subcategories, one being the Cub Scouts – a sort of young version of BSA. As it turns out, Cub Scouts have one of the most time-honored traditions of the BSA as a whole – the Pinewood Derby.

The Pinewood Derby isn’t as old as the Boy Scouts, which started in 1910. Or even the Cub Scouts, which began about 20 years later. In fact, it was only introduced in 1953, by Cub master (head of a Cub Scout Pack) Don Murphy in Manhattan Beach, California.

At the time, the soap box derby, which required a driver to ride a small homemade car down a hill, was a huge pastime for youths and teenagers around the nation. However, Don Murphy’s son was ten years old – two years too young for the soap box derby. Before long, Murphy began designing a Scout-exclusive version of the derby that both fathers and sons could participate in.

The Original Pinewood Block

Murphy’s commitment to Scout values and family-oriented activities, as well as his lifelong hobby of model-making, drove him to create a sort of miniature soap box derby that involved materials and requirements that Cub Scouts and their parents would create their car according to. A two-lane 31-foot track, a 7 3/8” block of pinewood, thin finish nails to act as axles. The Scout could easily carve the block into whatever design he wished.

Finally, Murphy was ready to introduce the Pinewood Derby to the world. His Scout pack consisted of 55 8, 9, and 10-year old’s, and at the meeting on April 17, 1953, each of them was given a brown paper bag with the materials and instructions inside. Their goal? Have their car ready to race by May 15. The idea spread like wildfire, and by May 15, the Manhattan Beach Scout House was packed with Scouts and their families ready to show off their skills.

Word traveled fast about this new attraction, and before too long, the Los Angeles City Parks & Rec Department was conducting pinewood derbies of its own. By October 1954, it had become so popular among Cub Scout troops that “Boys’ Life” – the national magazine for Boy Scouts – released an issue featuring the derby’s specifications, so anyone around the nation could participate.

Since its origins, the Pinewood Derby has remained as popular as ever. Murphy ran the derby until well into the 1970’s, and although the specifications and requirements have undergone some changes over the years, the derby has stayed strong in the tradition of Scouting.

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