Pinewood Derby—Miniature Racers with a Million Fans
By Kris Gilbertson
January 30 was a crisp and sunny Saturday, barely a week after the two-foot snowstorm that brought the Metro area to its knees. At the Del Ray Methodist Church in Alexandria, the Cub Scouts of Pack 135, with their family and friends, surged into Lunceford Hall, the church’s big, open facility for community events. But on that day, 80 Cub Scouts, ages 7 to 10, seemed to fill the space with energy alone—enough to light up half the city, if needed. And all in anticipation of the Pinewood Derby.
The Pinewood Derby is a stock car race, but the cars are 7 inches long, weigh 5 ounces, and are powered by gravity. They’ve been handmade by millions of Cub Scouts since the first Pinewood Derby was held in Manhattan Beach, California, in 1953.
What began as one Cubmaster’s way to encourage father-son bonding grew into a highlight of the scouting year for packs nationwide. That includes most or all of the nearly 20 Cub Scout Packs in Alexandria and close-in Arlington.
Cub Scouting is a Family Affair
Boy Scouts and Cub Scouts are both part of Boy Scouts of America, but they are very different programs. Cub Scouting is family-oriented, designed specifically to address the needs of boys in the first through fifth grades, or seven to ten years of age. Most adult leaders have one or more sons in the pack, although that is not required.
Within a Cub Scout pack, each age group comprises a den and each den can be identified by a different color of hat and kerchief: 1) Tiger Den – orange; 2) Wolf Den – yellow; 3) Bear Den – blue; 4,5) Webelos I, II – yellow, blue and red plaid. (Webelos is an acronym for We’ll Be Loyal Scouts.)
Pack 135 is sponsored by the Maury Elementary School PTA and most of its 82 scouts live in the Del Ray and Rosemont area, according to Committee Chairman Kevin Jahns. But he notes that kids are not restricted by where they live, and can join any pack.
Cub scouting introduces young boys to many new, usually fun, activities. The Pinewood Derby is just one of several throughout the year. By BSA rules, Cub Scouts cannot go camping overnight as a den. Pack 135 “turned that around,” says Jahns, “so we do family camping.” The pack provides the food and equipment; the scouts come with a member of their family.
Pack 135 takes five camping trips each year: two in spring, two in fall, and one in winter. The spring and fall outings are tent camping to places like Round Hill in Loudon County and Prince William Forest Park.
Winter outings are to weather-appropriate destinations like a snug cabin on the Appalachian Trail and to an “old boat in Maryland that the kids sleep over on,” says volunteer leader Seth Bolte. The old boat is a decommissioned Coast Guard cutter, the USCGC Taney, that after 50 years’ service in four oceans and two wars, was retired to a dock in Baltimore Harbor.
On February 15, Pack 135 will join several other packs, along with local Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and Brownie Scouts, to march in Alexandria’s George Washington Birthday Parade.
And on February 27, their annual Blue and Gold Banquet will celebrate the birthday of Boy Scouts of America, founded February 8, 1910. That evening will include the Crossing the Bridge ceremony, when scouts aging out of Webelos II will graduate to Boy Scouts.
Current Cubmaster Rob Maccubbin will leave at the end of February as his son crosses the bridge. Seth Bolte will assume Cubmaster duties in March. It’s a voluntary position with no set term of service. Kevin Jahns points out that 135 has been “very lucky with volunteers.” There is a waiting list for most of the leadership positions.
“The Derby ended at noon, but it felt like a full day.”
And on Pinewood Derby Day, volunteers were essential. Lunceford Hall filled with at least 160 people, half of whom were excited elementary school boys. The noise level was powerful.
Specifications for Pinewood Derby cars haven’t changed in 63 years, but almost everything else has. With workshops conducted by local businesses like Old Town Ace Hardware and Lowe’s, scouts fashion wild designs while sticking to strict specifications.
Each car registered for the race was weighed and measured, then whisked away to a secure holding room until post time. The cars ran four abreast on a smooth metal track to a computerized finish line that calculated speeds to the fraction of a second.
Each four racing partners were organized by computer, keeping age groups together. In addition to divisions by den, there was a family division for entries that family members helped build. It was all very 21st century—except for the cars and their makers.
Leading the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, with each scout saluting, was 9-year-old Avery Evans, from the Bear Den. Avery is no stranger to public presentations. In December he was a cast member in the Little Theater of Alexandria’s production of A Christmas Carol.
“I picked Avery because I knew he’d be comfortable with it,” says Jahns. “When I asked him to do it, he stepped back at first, and then his face lit up. He was ready.”
And then it was underway. Twenty heats, with every car’s performance recorded. Ribbons, medals, and trophies were awarded to dens and to the overall pack, based on speed and design. All of it started with a piece of wood, four wheels, and four nails.
“Almost every Cub Scout Troop nationwide does Pinewood Derby,” says Kevin Jahns. “Technically, there are badges that require you to build something out of wood, so a scout could use the car that way. But Pinewood Derby—you build the car with your family and race. We don’t do much more with it. It’s just for fun.”