Tuesday, January 28, 2014

A Pinewood Derby Miracle

I had never been exposed to a Pinewood Derby as a child, and now my son Alex stood before me with a small block of wood in his hand.  “Here, Dad,” he said, “You’re supposed to help me make a fast and fabulous race car. 

Crafting a fast and fabulous race car

Wikipedia offered little help on the design, but after a session with my scout leader brother and following Alex’s simple design, Alex (with his uncle’s help) created a simple blocky race car.  He then sanded it in thirty seconds and painted it in ten; it wasn’t pretty, but it was done.  I put on the wheels, which obscured the car number Alex had stuck to the sides, and we were off to our very first Pinewood Derby. 

The weigh-in crisis

The car only weighed 3.2 ounces on the official Derby scales. How strange!  It had weighed the required 5 ounces at the local grocery store’s produce scales.  I’ve wondered since if I’d been paying too much for bananas and lettuce. The Derby lady suggested confidentially that I add some additional weight to the car. What was I going to use for weight?  The Wikipedia article said nothing about that.  I didn’t have any coins in my pocket.  What was I going to do?  And then it dawned on me.

We were in the local Mormon church building and I had the keys to the clerk’s office.  Maybe I could scrounge up something there.  I stealthily slipped in and snooped around until I discovered some old discarded keys.  I hurried back and glued three of them onto the car. (See photo below.) “That’s 4.9 ounces,” the Derby lady declared. 

The horrific pre-race festivities

Satisfied, Alex placed the car on the table with the other 20 cars, and I gazed in shock at the display before me.  The other 20 cars looked like expensive store-bought models—sleek, smooth, and cherry.  And none of them used keys for weights.  In the middle was Alex’s awkwardly painted clunker with the old church keys glued on top.  Obviously, I was out of the loop; was there a Derby car black market out there I didn’t know about?

Before the first heat, the judges awarded Alex the Funniest Car Award, which I think hurt his feelings because he wasn’t trying to be funny.  I worried about what might happen if Alex’s car fell apart on the track or some other disastrous event occurred. 

When it was Alex’s turn to race, the uniformed Derby dude looked at Alex’s car and his mouth dropped—was this a race car or a dump truck?  He stared at it for a full three seconds.   Finally, he shook his head dismissively and placed it in on the track.  I held my breath, praying the wheels would stay on.

The great and amazing race

The Derby dude released the vehicles.  In an instant, moments with Alex flashed through my mind. Was this Judgment Day?  Suddenly, I was back to reality—the race was on. 

Alex’s car actually stayed on the track, and it wasn’t going slow. In fact, it won the heat!  And suddenly everyone was cheering for Alex.  One of the other cub scouts said, “I thought for sure you’d come in last.  Way to go, Alex!”  It was a miracle. I reflected on the old saying “God watches out for drunks and idiots,” and since I don’t drink, well…. 

Alex took his automotive marvel back up to the Derby dude for the second race, and he gave it another three seconds of scrutiny.  Apparently, it looked legal to him because he placed it back on the track.  Zip!  Alex won again! 

Disaster on the track

In the third heat, tragedy struck.  Alex’s car took second place, and two keys were violently ejected after the car crossed the finish line, rolled over, and crashed into the pit. Quickly, we gathered up the keys and glued them back onto the car and checked the wheels for damage.  We were still good, and no one was injured.

By this time, the other fathers were taking a measure of Alex and me.  And I, being ignorant of Derby culture, would ask the other fathers things like “Is 2.7 seconds a good time?” and “Do you think the graphite spray on the wheels really helps that much?”  One father thought I was rubbing our success in; most realized I was an innocent neophyte.  Anyway, Alex won two of the next three heats.  Then they announced the winners.

An improbable finish

“In third place, Colby.  In second place, Alex.  And in first place, Dillon, who won by four one-hundredths of a second.” Wow, if only we had sprayed more graphite on the wheels, maybe we would have won. 

It didn’t matter.  Alex was a celebrity, and I was just glad that Alex’s “fast and fabulous race car”--winner of the now-coveted Funniest Car Award--had held together for the entire event.  Since then, my appreciation of the keys of the church has grown immeasurably.  Keep living!

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