A day at the races

Pinewood Derby

Pinewood Derby 


Have you ever wondered what Formula 1 people do on the weekend off between Grands Prix? I am sure there are some who lie on exotic beaches, smoothing suntan lotion into the pores of wild and wicked women, but most of us have rather more boring lives and do things like gardening. However on the weekend between the Australian and Malaysian Grands Prix I went to a car race.

Sad fellow, you may think, but this was not your average car race. This was a Pinewood Derby.

Most Europeans will never have heard of such a thing but I am reliably informed that in the 52-year history of Pinewood Derby racing, there have been at least 100 million cars built. Pinewood Derby racing is a very serious business.

If you are still looking blank at this point perhaps I should explain: in 1953 a boy scout leader in Manhattan Beach, California, by the name of Don Murphy decided that his Cub Scouts Pack needed a new activity.

"I wanted to devise a wholesome, constructive activity that would foster a closer father-son relationship and promote craftsmanship and good sportsmanship through competition," explained Murphy.

The answer was the Pinewood Derby, a competition racing miniature wooden cars which the Cub Scouts had built, with a little help from Mums, Dads and brothers. The rules were very basic with each boy being presented with a kit consisting of a 7-inch block of wood, four plastic wheels, four nails to serve as axles and a set of rules, which state that cars must weigh "not over 5 ounces" and can be powered only by gravity.

The idea took off immediately and nowadays two million cars are constructed every year by Cub Scouts around the world.

Actually, that is not true. Two million cars are constructed by Dads around the world. The Cub Scouts get to watch.

My son is a member of Pack 112 of the Boy Scouts of America which has its headquarters in Paris and last weekend I found myself at the American School in the suburb of Garches to watch the Paris Pinewood Derby. I had paint under my fingernails, sawdust on my shoes and a couple of cheerleaders in tow. My own car (or rather I should say my son's car) was a rush job, cobbled together with wheels un-aligned and axles which had not even been sanded. It was bog slow. My son was a little sad but I saw other small boys weeping when their cars proved to be uncompetitive. Small wonder the Dads had joined in. Seeing your kid jump for joy is a lot better than seeing them getting weepy.

What was fascinating, as a professional motor racing reporter, was to watch the action off the track. It was all very serious stuff with electronic devices to register the winner (some of these races are decided by less than 0.001s) and computer programmes to make sure that cars get to race in different lanes because one parallel track can, apparently, be slower than another. And that matters to some people when their child's happiness is at risk. The average Cub Scout is not too bothered about friction, drag, axle lubrication and all the rest of it. They like to watch races and hope their cars will win. Leave a kid to build the car and he is guaranteed to finish last in a Pinewood Derby. A rush-job like mine has no chance. Cars which have coins taped to them in order to get up to the weight limit do not figure amongst the winning machinery - although there were plenty of them.

What was so familiar in all of this was the feeling of tension. In Formula 1 they spend hundreds of millions to build fast cars, in the Pinewood Derby it costs virtually nothing although some of the Dads may have been busy trying to figure out the wheel alignment and whether to use graphite powder with molybdenum particles or not.

If you want to you can spend hundreds of dollars and buy dozens of specialist tools in order to straighten the axles, round the wheels and so on. There are several books on the market about how to build a fast car and each has sold 50,000 copies (which at $6 a pop is a nice little business) and you can buy not only pre-cut cars but also such exotic things as polished, nickel-plated, tapered-head axles with secret grooves to eliminate wobble and decrease friction, not to mention precision-sanded, graphite-coated wheels. The Pinewood Derby industry is, in fact, a major economic activity.

There was scrutineering with electronic weighing devices and checks to make sure that cars had all wheels touching the ground (a wheel off the ground is an advantage because there is less friction) . There were questions of legality and a lengthy discussion ensued when it became known that one of the cars had been raced previously. In fact, the car was discreetly excluded from the event. The previous year's winner was a Mom who decided to design the same car for a second consecutive year but felt obliged to bring the old car along to prove that it was not just a new paint job.

Some of the cars were beautifully constructed, well beyond anything that that a 10-year-old could manage. Others, like mine, were a mess. I am sure that there were kids there who were hoping that one day when they grow up they will be able to build cars for their sons and get the full enjoyment out of the racing.

Anyway, it was good fun and we all bowed down to Travis Faro's pick up truck, which proved that aerodynamics is not important, by beating a Spiderman car that looked a lot like a NASCAR body. There was one F1 car, a brilliant piece of woodworking, but it was bog slow.

Slower even than mine.

And in the course of all of this action we pondered what the F1 teams would make if someone gave them each a kit.

Now that would be a contest!

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