Kids are scouting the competition Essay: Year after year, Cubs and kin race to see who can take the heat when the Pinewood Derby rolls around.

March 16, 1998|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Competitive car racing has never ranked among my top, oh, 5,000 interests. But now, when March arrives, bright little cars with saucy stripes and sleek contours start popping wheelies in my mind.

It's Pinewood Derby season.

If you're not a parent of one of the hundreds of thousands of Cub Scouts who take part in this 45-year-old annual ritual, those words are probably meaningless. But for those who know how to turn a 7-by-2-inch pine block, four plastic wheels and four finishing nails into a lean, mean gravity-using machine, Derby season means feverish preparation, strategizing and unbearable anticipation.

A surly little Brownie during my youth, I certainly never expected -- in this lifetime at least -- to be an enthusiastic Derby mom. And, in fact, "enthusiastic" may be a tad too strong a word. But going into this year's contest, let's say I had a lot at stake: the emotional equanimity of an entire household.

Somehow last year, against all expectations, my son Ben fended off some 30 fellow members of Cub Scout Pack 5 -- as well as a ringer dad who entered his own dragster, a feisty little girl named Ruthie, and a vengeful fellow Scout with a pocketknife -- to run away with the title. Heat after heat, his car whizzed down a wooden ramp to victory.

Returning this year as reigning champ, Ben, 9, was out to prove his victory wasn't a fluke. And besides all the other Scouts gunning for him, this year Henry, his younger brother, was entering a car for the first time.

It would take a lot to top last year's victory in any case, claimed after a raucous contest marked by questionable rulings and bizarre breaks.

It began with one of the Scout leaders -- we'll call him Mr. Kidd -- entering the slick model he'd fashioned from an official $3 Pinewood Derby Racing Car Kit bought at the local Boy Scouts of America store. It was a wondrous vehicle -- aerodynamically correct, precisely painted, impossibly sophisticated. Not surprisingly, the car kept winning its three-car heats.

After each heat, the Derby dads in charge offered Mr. Kidd the opportunity to gracefully withdraw from the competition. But every time, Mr. Kidd, looking as unruffled as a Las Vegas card counter, declined to fold.

He eventually got the picture, and slipped out of the race.

But Ruthie Griffith didn't. Not anticipating an upset, Scout masters allowed her to be part of the fun by racing a spare car. But 5-year-old Ruthie kept winning until she reached the final heats. As it dawned on the Derby dads that spunky little Ruthie could possibly win, she was promptly eliminated on the indisputable grounds that she wasn't a Cub Scout. It was a good call, but Ruthie wept uncontrollably and an uneasy feeling swept over the crowd.

Amid all this chaos and disconsolation, Ben's car, a black blur struck by gold lightning bolts, improbably finished first.

Then a cry went up. It came from a Scout who bore a more than passing resemblance to Sid, the bully in "Toy Story."

"Ben won!" he yelled. "We didn't! Let's kill him! I've got a pocketknife!"

And here I'd thought pocketknives were used to carve Pinewood Derby cars, not their makers. Before we found out otherwise, we hustled Ben into the car and celebrated elsewhere with ice cream and lots of toppings.

As the Pinewood Derby season again approached, Ben's initial assumption that last year's win would guarantee another devolved into a frantic, last-minute scramble to just finish his car on time. We would be lucky not to show up dripping with wet paint.

Adding to the panic, we learned that some dads and kids were going digital, tapping into the burgeoning Web sites run by Pinewood enthusiasts. Here debates rage on how to build the fleetest cars, Scouts proudly post photos of winning Pinewood efforts, advice for "tool-impaired" Cub Scout leaders is proffered, and advertisers pitch gizmos for $9.95 that promise the winner's edge.

Our pit crew decided to stay low-tech. No downloaded computer designs. Instead, with pencils, the boys outlined low-riding, NASCAR-style machines on their wood blocks.

Gary Harkness, one of the Derby dads, cut them out with his band saw. Looks good, he said. High praise from someone who also happens to be the construction manager for the new Ravens stadium.

(Later, at the race, Harkness would confess that despite five years of engineering school, he still couldn't say what made a Derby winner.)

Four days before race day, the dad of our house prepped the two cars for the boys. He sanded rough edges and drilled holes and installed weights to reach the maximum Pinewood regulation weight of 5 ounces. He didn't sand down the wheels or axles to reduce friction, something the big boys do. Ben and Henry did some more sanding, painted, attached axles and wheels, and suffered the long wait until the big moment.

On Friday, the day of the race, I ran into Mr. Kidd, the clueless dad of last year's Derby. With his son a year older, he reported, he'd moved on from Cub Scouts to Boy Scouts.

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