What does a 7-inch block of wood, four nails and four wheels have to do with father-son bonding, or teaching elementary school-age boys how to become men? The answer: more than you'd think.
Cub Scouts from Magnolia's Pack 80 - approximately 60 kids, grades first through fifth - participated Saturday, Jan. 22, in the annual Cub Scout Pinewood Derby at Magnolia United Church of Christ, displaying their craftsmanship as well as their design skills for unmotorized speed.
The rules haven't changed much since the first Pinewood Derby was held in 1953, including the number one dicta - as announced by Pack 80 Pinewood Derby chair Tom Lange - to just have fun.
Although becoming a man proverbially includes a bit of blood, sweat and tears, none were shed Saturday.
Well, there was one racer who, dissatisfied with his car's finish, did get a tad teary-eyed - only to be comforted into giggles by his father's consoling whispers.
After all, the Derby isn't solely about placing well. According to Cubmaster Brian Keaton, the event helps with the transition from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts, from dependence to independence, from boyhood to manhood.
"The Pinewood Derby starts you down the path of doing projects and learning about communities and how they function," Keaton said. "The kids mostly design the cars themselves, with a bit of parental help, and then are able to apply what they've learned later in Boy Scouts where the kids mainly run things themselves."
Each participating scout is given an official Pinewood Derby Kit, which includes a wooden block that can be shaped into any design, as well as a set of plastic wheels that are held in place by axles made of nails.
The cars cannot exceed 5 ounces. Some are weighted by lead slugs or metal plates.
After sanding down their design, the kids then paint their racers, often adorning them with flames and numbers. During the Derby itself, the cars are placed in one of three lanes at the top of a 32-foot pine ramp.
After the gate is released they whiz down the slope to the finish line. Each car gets three tries - once in each lane - to ensure fairness.
During the designing process, parents usually provide the kids with some guidance, especially when they are cutting out the design.
Secretary of Pack 80, Jim Pappin, said he is happy to still have all his fingers; during the process, he helped his son Henry use a scroll saw for the very first time.
Before the Derby, Pappin discussed the importance of the tradition while also proudly peering over the display of cars from all age groups.
"We all know who the fastest runner is here," Pappin said of the scouts. "Or who has the best jump shot. But this event is not sports related as much, and gives the kids a chance to display different skills in a competitive environment... and we also include an award for best craftsmanship."
Pack 80 committee chair John Hertog said he enjoys the feeling of tradition created by the Pine-wood Derby. Many of the dads raced cars when they were Cub Scouts; some still have their cars.
According to Keaton, who one year as a kid took first place for his Pack, the cars are pretty much the same save the fact that, rather than nails, his racer had actual wooden axles that you had to glue to the body of the car.
"The kids get a chance to show-off and display what they've done, and they get together and have fun." Hertog said. "They learn good sportsmanship - not everybody can win, they realize that."
During the Derby's mandatory "pizza break," Lange was all smiles handing out the ribbons for the first and second graders. The event ended in an all-pack race in which the first-place ribbon winners in each age group would vie for the all-pack, all-category trophy, the mother of all races.
It wasn't all fun and games, however; turns out just getting the Derby rolling takes a lot of work. "I was a reserve in the Air Force and used to set up Air Force bases," Lange said of the Derby. "Doing this is harder."
Still, he remained light-spirited throughout, at one point asking Pappin's son Henry - who placed third in his second-grade group - "Is it true that your dad sent your car away to a wind tunnel in Britain?"
"Noooo," Henry answered.
"That's a good answer," Lange said.
As Lange said, learning to have fun might be part of learning to be a man.
You can write Brian Kidd at firstname.lastname@example.org.