The victory lane

March 04, 2006|By PETER JENSEN

The first three months of the year are too cold for camping - at least by middle-age parent standards - so Cub Scouts often devote this time of year to the Pinewood Derby. This is not to be confused with the Akron, Ohio, Soapbox Derby, where youngsters get behind the wheel of gravity-driven cars. In Pinewood Derby, kids are asked to carve model racing cars out of 7-inch blocks of pine to run on an inclined track. It's safer - and very popular.

Cub Scouts have been building these cars for more than a half-century. Boys ages 6 to 11 are given a kit that includes a block of wood, four plastic wheels and four nails that serve as axles. The rules are straightforward. "Cars should be built by the Cub Scouts with some adult guidance," according to the accompanying instructions. A completed car can't weigh more than 5 ounces or have washers or springs or "starting devices," whatever they may be. (Firecrackers? Engines? Gerbil drivers?)

It can become competitive. A winning car may finish the three-second course only a few hundredths of a second faster than its challengers. It's not hard to see why the event poses a challenge to grown-ups, and not just because woodworking tools are involved. What is a well-meaning parent's proper role? Or, to put it more bluntly, are you a "let the kids do their thing" person or more the "just win, baby" mom or dad?

If you're like most rational people, you would say the former. But that fails to explain the proliferation of Internet sites devoted to winning the derby. Not just a few helpful tips, mind you, but actual products - some of which are likely against the rules and others that probably should be. One company touting "maximum pinewood performance" sells plastic wheels that have been sanded to aerodynamic perfection for $21.95, or about eight times what an entire Pinewood Derby kit costs.

And there are many more. For $26, there's a pre-cut block that looks like an Indy car with lead weights inserted so it's exactly 5 ounces. Its maker claims to sell the fastest axles on the market for $9.95 a set. They take the standard nails, nickel-plate and polish them and cut a groove to eliminate wobble. A competitor's "ultra-lite" wheels are trimmed to a svelte 2.7 grams. The Web site boasts that the technique involved "makes it very difficult to detect" the alterations "unless you know exactly what to look for." All that stealth for a mere $24.95 plus shipping and handling.

Between the pre-cut bodies, the slick axles, the customized wheels, the industrial-strength lubricants, the polishing pastes, the calipers, scales and various guidebooks, a person could easily spend several hundred dollars creating a dream car. Appalled? Absolutely. Intrigued? Heck, yeah.

It's easy to dismiss this phenomenon as adult hyper-competitiveness. That's controllable (forcing offenders to officiate youth sports is but one option). The more vexing culprit is parental indulgence. Who doesn't want the best for his or her child? That's the essence of modern parenting (and often its downfall). Surely, that's why so many of these sites carry irony-free endorsements from happy Cub Scout parents. "I can't even describe the joy on Greg's face as he watched his car speed down the track and finish first in all but one race," a presumably satisfied "Jeff K." offers in a recent testimonial.

Let the parent who has never spoiled a child cast the first drill bit. Intrinsically, parents know they need to set some limits. And certainly they know an activity such as Pinewood isn't about winning, it's about enriching the bonds between parent and son. You can't pin this on the Boy Scouts of America, either. Any rules they wrote were bound to be stretched (and polished, and weighted).

And if some parent with a flair for mechanics has the knowledge and equipment to upgrade a car, and shows the youngster how to do it and the changes are legal, is that really so bad? Then why is it wrong if the dad who doesn't know a lathe from a ladle uses the one tool he can figure out - his personal computer - to help his son?

Ultimately, every parent must decide: Are ultra-lite wheels worth the price? Perhaps there's a parent-child lesson in that as well.

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