A father’s reasons why this 70-year-old event may have run its course
It’s four in the morning, my apartment looks like a war zone, and I hate The Absolute Everything™ about Scouting right now. Everything. And this is coming from someone who, once upon the 1990s, made it to “Life Scout” (otherwise known as “Not Eagle Scout”). Anyway, over the course of the last 8.55 hours, I’ve hurled as much profanity across my apartment as I have whatever objects were within quick reach. My neighbors have no doubt heard all the hammering, the drilling, the anguished screams, some surprised shrieks, and maybe even a sad sob or two. In fact, I won’t be surprised if the police are seconds away from knocking…
Hand tools. Assorted bottles of glue and paint. Angrily crumpled pieces of paper. Plastic toy tires. Sheets of stickers. Oh, and lots of these tiny, shiny, way-heavier-than-they-look weights made of tungsten. There’s this fine silt of pine dust everywhere, too. My poor cat keeps nosing around, looking like some shell-shocked soldier wandering their World War I trench.
And that’s just the state of this apartment, Cub Scouts of America…
Let’s talk about what you’ve done to my 46-year-old body. I mean, first, there’s my heel. Yes, right where the Frozen Band-Aid is. No, I didn’t see the upside-down tire with the nail sticking out. My brain didn’t even register that I’d just stepped on it until it was almost all the way in. I also have enough black, powdered graphite on my fingers and face to audition for Mary Poppins Chimney Sweep #4. Even my face even hurts from hours and hours of scowling and using “fuck” like a comma.
In other words: it’s Pinewood Derby Time.
Now, when it comes to the Pinewood Derby, I really think …wait.
Wait. Just. A. Minute.
It just occurred to me that you might not have any idea what a “Pinewood Derby” even is. As much as I envy you right now, perhaps I should take a few steps back…
Like the atomic bomb, sock hops, or slang such as “Daddy-O,” the Pinewood Derby first emerged in the 1950s. It was conceived as a simple competition where Scouts race one another with wooden cars that they designed and built themselves.
So, if you’re a Cub Scout, this is the idea:
- You receive a rectangular box, which contains a 7-inch, 5-ounce block of pine, four plastic tires, four ready-to-puncture-your-feet nails, and a specification sheet like the one below:
- You forget about the race kit for a couple of months.
- Somewhere after Christmas, you hastily draw a race car design, which is supposed to be cut out of the wood block.
- The wood block magically gets cut into your shape.
- You paint the car with whatever your parents have left over.
- You tack the wheels on.
- Then, in front of your friends, family and all of your fellow Scouts, you proudly show off the demon dragster you’ve been working on.
- At the top of a steep, inclined track, you’ll place your car.
- Seconds later, you watch that bastard scream past all of the inferior wastes of wood and wheels around you, hurtling across the finish line to victory…
Well, that actually sounds pretty great, you’re probably thinking. What’s your problem? What’s your deal, man? Can’t you just enjoy something that’s equally wholesome and entertaining?
I agree. The Derby does seem like some perfectly quaint, innocent little throwback, where dozens of uniformed kids and their proud parents bond over a project. Unfortunately, it’s just too 1953 for 2023. And in most every way, the event bears little resemblance to whatever it was supposed to be. There’s an inclined race track, sure. Handmade cars? You bet. But if we’re talented at just one thing as Americans, generation after generation, it’s diluting and draining something with meaning into the pale shadow of its former self.
The Derby is no different, having become a literal exercise is going through the motions. You see, it’s metastasized into an unnecessarily aggressive and dangerously dishonest event — one that pretends to speak to Scouting’s core values, all while it quietly encourages the very opposite of them.
So while I sit here, surrounded with signs of my own shortcomings, I know that I’m also surrounded by clearer signs of how we’re failing our children. Myself included. The Derby has somehow managed to call into question my understanding of fatherhood, reveal some uncomfortable truths about the nature of tradition, and challenge what it fundamentally means to be a parent.
Buckle up for the seven reasons why the Pinewood Derby and I will — until something changes — remain forever-enemies.
1. I’m somehow never ready for it
This is not Scouting’s fault. Let me say that up front. But every year right around Halloween, this text message from their mother arrives: I’ve just picked up their Pinewood Derby kits.
It’s like a sniper’s rifle shot: swift, clean, never saw it coming.
Here’s the thing, though: from that point on, my kids and I have roughly four months to build a car together. Not four weeks; not four days. Four GD months. And yet, due to history, the text still sends me into a spiral of negative self-talk: How could you let this happen? You promised yourself that this year would be different. You should’ve seen this coming. You should’ve prepared.
That last one, by the way? Literally the Boy Scout motto. Even if you know absolutely nothing about Scouting, you probably know three things: (1) khaki uniforms, (2) popcorn, and (3) “Be Prepared.” But if “Be Prepared” is London, then I’m Tokyo. Caught unaware for the zillionth time, despite having gone through this hell before, the shame is on me. At the very, very, very least — as a former Scout — I should have been prepared for this, but I never am.
I deserve to be retroactively knocked back to Tenderfoot.
2. Most kids aren’t building these themselves — and no one cares anymore…
I’m certain this has been the case for time immemorial, but it’s never been more glaringly obvious than now. There’s a staggering shamelessness about it that just stuns me. I suppose there’s some full-circle symmetry in the Derby if you’re a father who used to be Scout, meaning that you’re contracted by karma to do all the Derby car work thirty years later. I mean, my father (who wasn’t a Scout) did the vast majority of my car, but he didn’t build me anything remotely close to what I’ve seen on display in recent years. He sure as shit didn’t build me a Super Mario Bros. racer with blinking lights, sound effects, and an animatronic Bowzer shaking his fist at the other cars (real thing that I saw).
In 1987, “I” won a third-place trophy at the Pinewood Derby for a simple wheeled wedge. My contribution was painting it black and white. The emptiness of that third-place win has stayed with me ever since. I quickly came to hate that trophy. Strangely, that same guilt drives me to “help.” But me helping my kids with the Pinewood Derby is like inviting gasoline to a grease fire. And in 2023, you don’t dare show up to a science fair with a baking soda volcano. No, you’d better arrive with a sentient, wisecracking android who can also throw knives and dance.
These days, if your Derby car is elaborate, impressive, and seven streets ahead of everyone else’s, it doesn’t matter that the kid didn’t build it. It just becomes its own thing. Still, I’m endlessly fascinated with the Scoutmasters with no self-awareness who, every year, openly fawn over the cars shaped like Mjölnir or maybe a Waffle House diner that’s so perfectly detailed that it even has a miniature, depressed post-Derby dad sitting alone and staring out the window. They can’t help themselves, these Scoutmasters.
It’s probably because we’re from the generation that applauds spectacle, no matter where it came from or how it got there. That car shaped like some dad’s MDMA experience at 2009 Burning Man? Sure, it’s balls-out amazing but it also instantly undermines the whole point. And what’s worse is that we seem to be collectively fine conditioning a generation of kids to be completely unafraid of grabbing trophies for things they absolutely don’t deserve. The trophy doesn’t even matter — it’s just a foregone conclusion. There won’t be lifelong guilt. No, a first-place trophy is just another participation award, and one that these kids ironically haven’t earned, either.
3. Do all fathers have a woodshop or something?
The Pinewood Derby Box may as well belong to Pandora. The second you open this thing, the next few days of your life are gone. The project seems like it should be simple and easy — which is its insidiousness. Look at it. It’s just a block of goddamn wood, plus four wheels, four axles, and the requirement to keep it all under five ounces.
Obviously, it’s much more complicated than that — and I have several years’ worth of disappointed faces from my boys to prove it. I’ve bent dozens of axles; I’ve splintered wheel channels; I even broke a car completely in half once, and I still don’t know how.
There are more suggestions, hints, old-wives’ tales, and urban legends out there about how to win the Derby than those surefire gardening tips crammed in a Farmer’s Almanac:
- Bake the wood to get out all of the moisture.
- Put one tire up higher than the other three.
- Bless it with the bottled tears of your kid from last year’s Derby.
Here’s a super-secret I’ve told no one, by the way. It’s about wood. Here, lean in close. I have to whisper. You see… when it comes to wood? Well, wood is a material that I work with … never.
Even in 1953, I find it hard to believe that every father knew how to carve, plane, and sand a block of pine. There had to have been dads back then, just like me, who weren’t upset because of the Derby so much as the fact that they knew were incapable of participating in it. Otherwise, I’d have to believe that everyone had a woodshop in their 1950s garage, just like everyone had a fondue pot in their 1960s kitchen.
Woodworking just isn’t a skill that I have, let alone a skill that anyone in my immediate network possesses. I don’t know whether I should be mourning this fact, or simply ashamed. Let’s face it: the 2023 American Thing to do would be going online to complain that the Cub Scouts of America are “triggering” me or something similarly thin-skinned. That way, if enough people agree, they’ll just move the Derby finish line closer to my level. After all, this is how we get all the edges rounded off and all of the walls cushioned when it comes to our kids: complain. If things aren’t going my way, well, I’m just going to demand that they offer spelling bees, movie trivia competitions, or whatever else I’m sadly guaranteed to win for my children.
4. I came real close to cheating
It’s one thing to say you don’t have many hours to devote to building a car that will see less than a minute of actual race time. It’s another to say that you don’t have weeks and weeks to learn aerodynamics or woodcraft.
I wouldn’t be writing this if I did.
I’m disappointed to say that I found myself on eBay at midnight (more than once), scrolling through all the listings of ready-built cars. But as my kids’ track records prove, I never gave in to that very real temptation. That said, I discovered that there’s a massive sub-industry built around the Derby — one that continues to grow in all the worst possible ways. For the low, low price of $125, you can buy a brand-new, rarin’-to-go, “guaranteed winner.” Or if you just want a tried-and-true used model? Well, eBay has you covered there, too: for roughly $75, you can apparently bring the Derby equivalent of John Wick out of retirement for one last ride. (The actual product description for that $75 model reads as follows: “Won four races, #1 each time. Definitely has one last sweep in him. Guaranteed winner!!!)
No matter how many exclamation points you throw my way, eBay Vendor, I’ve yet to see one single money-back guarantee.
I don’t give into many pressures these days, so it’s been surprising to feel this one bearing down so heavily upon me. And while I didn’t give in (and trust me, I almost clicked the quick-fix “Buy It Now” button twice), it’s clear that there are countless parents who understandably do. But all this does is create an arms race (no pun intended) where the wins aren’t even won but, instead, purchased — a fact that puts Cub Scouts on the same playing field as special-interest groups and Congress.
In my mind, the Derby exists (in some part, at least) to teach kids how to lose if and when they can’t deliver in life. But since my generation can’t bear the thought of our kids ever being uncomfortable, we reflexively pad the walls and roll out all the safety nets. Just take a look at YouTube. For any given subject, it’s as much a DIY-instruction paradise as it is amateur humblebrag porn.
For example, this one dad’s video was basically him sleepwalking through his explanation of how he repurposed his wife’s unused treadmill (a gloriously passive-aggressive detail) to test perfect alignments, wheel-lubricant viscosities, tungsten-weight distribution, and every miniscule detail in between.
Similarly, the much-worshipped former-NASA-engineer-turned-YouTuber Mark Rober got in on the action, testing every conceivable Derby car variable imaginable — almost to the point where I felt like he was revealing how David Copperfield made the Statue of Liberty disappear. (Don’t tell me.) There are also dozens upon dozens of shops online like this one that’ll sell you any number of “speed supplies,” if you’re okay with not caring about integrity.
I’m not saying a former NASA engineer can’t weigh in on how to turn a block of wood into a champion racecar; I’m simply pointing out that his video signals that the Derby is done. It’s clearly run its course. Specialized tools. NASA physicists. “Guaranteed-to-win” cars online. This can’t be what 1953 Scout leaders had in mind when they conceived of the Derby, right?
But like most every enjoyable event that can be hacked for pointless personal gain, we’ve successfully managed to mathematically mine a Cub Scout competition for every last surprise it had to offer our kids. At this year’s Derby, I can’t tell you how many dozens of yawning, defeated Scouts I saw sitting on their folding chairs — each of them checked out and hunched over TikTok on their phones.
When a Scoutmaster has to loudly repeat every other Scout’s name with the microphone — sometimes three times over — just to get their attention… well, this just means everyone at the Derby has lost, including the Derby itself.
5. “Derby Dads” are the worst
You know who likes to win the Derby more than anyone on the face of this planet? That’s right. You nailed it. The goddamn dads, that’s who. Let me put it this way: I’ve yet to come across one single, nine-year-old Cub Scout with narrowed eyes, gritted teeth, and a vein popping out at his temple as their car careens down the track. But I’ve seen the adult version many times over at every single Derby. At least two. These “Derby Dads” (a name that I’ll extend to the occasional rage-monster mom, too) have zero problem loudly contesting race results, shaking their heads in disgust, and/or demanding do-overs.
This isn’t isolated. This isn’t just something that happened that with that one dad that one time at that one race, by the way. Ask anyone who’s attended a Derby and they’ll tell you the same thing. These are people who showcase yet another fundamental flaw with both the Derby and modern parenting. They might as well pull their son close before shouting, “It’s not about who wins or loses. But we’re going to goddamn win. Stand back!”
The Pinewood Derby isn’t a competition for the Scouts anymore, it seems, so much as a competition for an extremely dedicated minority of parents. I say this with no dog in the “We Should Have Won” fight, either, since the cars I’ve just finished barely resemble my kids’ designs, let alone qualify as race-ready. I’m under no illusion that these cars are destined for Dom Toretto greatness — and I’m happy about that. Whether it’d have been my kids’ own slapdash work or their chronically non-mechanical father’s, they’re perfectly imperfect and that makes them real.
“Winning isn’t everything” is one of the few well-worn adages that can comfortably function as either a lie or a truth. The problem nowadays isn’t how and when adults use it with their kids; it’s how “winning” has evolved into something darker than most people realize. This is thanks to all the Derby Dads out there who, year after year, keep elevating the proceedings to hilariously hollow heights. But between all of the admittedly impressive, look-at-me creativity on display, as well as the technology and research work beneath it all, these parents have erased more than fun. The Derby, and all that it represents, largely ceases to matter to anyone.
Case in point: my kids will never learn how to lose at a Pinewood Derby. Why? Not because of TikTok. It’s because there’s no such thing as “the middle,” “the bottom,” or “dead last” anymore. We’ve allowed them to be erased. Sure, technically, these are categories that do exist, but they certainly don’t matter to anyone. The armchair-engineer dads have made sure that there are no stakes, no surprises, and no self-discovery. Kids can feel this shift, too. They are aware, increasingly so, that going through the process of building and racing a handmade car has the exact same outcome as doing nothing at all.
Winning isn’t everything because winning, after all, now means nothing.
6. My kids should know better
Look, let’s be honest here. There are myriad lessons my kids could glean from a Scouting event, but the only one they’ve consistently learned from the Derby is that they’re trusting the wrong person to help deliver a working car. They get that message loud and clear. These cars vaguely resemble my kids’ designs, complete with wonky wheels that won’t stop wobbling, and remind me of that time I left my old Knight Rider KITT car out in the sun too long. It didn’t look right after that, but I couldn’t tell you why. Same with these things.
So, yeah, every single year, my boys come up short. And when I say my boys have “come up short,” I mean it’s like someone had a tractor beam on them. When my kids go to collect their cars, they’ll give me these split-second glares of shame and contempt that’s so thick that you could drizzle it over waffles. But here’s the thing: I can’t even get failure completely right. Even worse than being, say, dead last is being second-to-dead last, I’ve discovered. It’s like getting a “C-” instead of a “D.” They don’t even qualify for the “Turtle Race,” when all of the slowest cars to race against each other and The Slowest of Them All is the winner. Nope. They’ve never even qualified for that.
I majored in English. Twice. I barely know how to read a ruler. In fact, you’re reading the words of someone who once had to disassemble a small lawnmower engine in high school shop class, which was a mistake my parents that they paid in the form of a brand-new lawnmower. What I’m saying is that you don’t soon forget the look of accusatory defeat in your children’s eyes. It’s just something I’m pretty powerless to change about myself.
Discovering that your father isn’t all-knowing or capable is a formative moment, but I’d prefer that I fail in my kids’ eyes over something other than a goddamned block of wood with wheels.
7. The Derby has arrived at the end of its line
I met this kid in third grade named Neal and for the next thirty years, he and I were ostensibly best friends. What I discovered not that long ago, however, is that the longevity of a friendship doesn’t automatically mean it’s a quality friendship. Most of us fall into familiar, comfortable patterns that we’re loathe to change or break. I was the best man in Neal’s wedding, for example, so when our friendship fell apart, I was pretty upset. Not long after, however, my life dramatically improved. Addition by subtraction.
This is how I feel about the Pinewood Derby. It’s as if Scouting is clinging onto an idea that has no relevancy for the majority of families in 2023, but refuses to admit it. Maybe it’s because they’re all about celebrating the past which means Scouting is all about constantly looking backward. The Derby seems like a tradition for the sake of having a tradition, though traditions can and should evolve.
An all-new endeavor is long overdue — especially one that Scouts and parents are qualified to do in the first place. Something that encourages curiosity and togetherness — not a project that has a father like me think about cheating to win. Something where our kids can have true ownership, feel genuine excitement, and experience a real sense of fufillment when it’s all said and done. What about a project where parents and children aren’t just going through the motions? I’m not arguing to see STEM projects or coding competitions introduced at the next summer camp, but we could at least have an alternative to a wood-block competition that’s been Dracula’d of all vitality by the Derby Dads, right?
The basic idea of the Pinewood Derby remains as strong as I know Scouting’s spirit to be. I believe in Scouting. I really, honestly do. I just don’t believe that holding onto the past is always the best thing when now, more than ever, we’re all forced to look ahead every minute of the day. We need an event built around bringing families together through a shared challenge, absolutely, but the Derby is no longer that event. It’s the product of a bygone era.
But until a new event emerges, Scouting is bound to remain all twisted up in the knots of the past. Undoing those figurative knots won’t unravel the essence of Scouting, as many seem to fear that it might. No, I’m convinced that doing away with tradition-traps like the Pinewood Derby will not only free Scouting from becoming yet another fast-fading institution, but help tightly tether families to one another in stronger, more meaningful ways.
Paul Fuhr is the author of the award-nominated recovery memoir Bottleneck. His writing on the subjects of mental health and addiction have been published in The Literary Review, The Fix, InRecovery, and McSweeney’s, among many others. He produces several podcasts and has two books forthcoming this winter.