In Praise of the Pinewood Derby
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Feminists will howl, but this is the truth: Sometimes, girls are meant to sit on the sidelines.

I came to this un-p.c. conclusion many Kodachrome-colored years ago, as I sat in the family garage, watching with just a twinge of envy as my dad and younger brother prepared for the Cub Scout pinewood derby. This annual ritual, which begins every January in school gymnasiums and American Legion halls, is now a half-century-old. An estimated 40 million dads and sons have participated in the races while their wives and sisters cheered them on.

It's the simplest and purest of bonding experiences: a father, his boy, a kit containing one block of soft pinewood, four nails, and four tires, and their joined imaginations. The objective is to create a little wooden car that will start from an elevated standstill and race down a 32-inch plywood track. The track is an inclined ramp with wood strips down the center to guide the miniature cars.

There may be no fancy electronic gizmos or computer software involved, but the competition is as thrilling as any televised BattleBots match-up. Yes, there are always eager beaver dads who go overboard in an angst-ridden quest to build a winning speed demon. (There are even Internet sites that peddle winning secrets.) But generations of sons hold the warmest memories of the derby and the preparations leading up to it as precious time spent with the most important man in their lives.

It's the designing and building of the car, more than the racing of it, which is at the heart of the tradition.

"It was probably the worst-looking thing, but my memory was that everything was perfect, because it was something me and my dad made," Pat Rose told the Virginian-Pilot, recounting his own Cub Scout memories of the pinewood derby last week as he helped other fathers and their children prepare for the 2003 races.

Michael DiSanto recalled working with his father in 1976 on a patriotic red, white and blue derby car. "I made it during the Bicentennial and called it 'The Spirit of '76,' " he told the Chicago Daily Herald. "I truly don't remember if it won, but that wasn't the important thing."

Amid the chaotic masculine jumble of coping saws and sandpaper and glue guns and chisels are valuable lessons to be learned on friction, gravity, aerodynamics, patience, collaboration, good sportsmanship, and following the rules. The specifications are stringent: The car must weigh no more than five ounces. The width (including wheels) shall not exceed 2 and three-fourths inches; the length not more than 7 inches. No springs, no starting devices, no washers allowed.

Of the 11 rules for the derby today, eight are the same as they were originally in 1953 when Scoutmaster Don Murphy ran the first unofficial race in Manhattan Beach, Calif. The rule on length was amended to shorten cars by three-eighths of an inch; two new rules were added prescribing when the cars must be built and banning loose objects in or on the vehicles. Scouting veterans note wryly that the rules for the pinewood derby have changed about as much as the U.S. Constitution.

Rigidity and tradition are no longer fashionable, of course. And it is probably just a matter of time before the Boy Scout-bashers and no-fun feminists start clamoring for gender equity at the pinewood derby. (Call your lawyer, Martha Burk!)

This kind of selfish encroachment into male-only rites of passage and traditions is a sad and seemingly unstoppable trend. But it is with unabashed fondness that I look back on the scene of my father and brother, before they grew up and apart, puzzling together over a block of pine and absorbed in a common purpose while my mom and I sat on the garage steps — letting the boys be boys for a fleeting moment in time.

Michelle Malkin is author of Invasion: How America Still Welcomes Terrorists, Criminals, and Other Foreign Menaces to Our Shores. Click here for Peter Brimelow's review. Click here for Michelle Malkin's website.


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