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A Scout's Guide to Pinewood Derby Cars and Races

Don Murphy, Cub Master for Pack 280C

Donald Wright Murphy (1918-2008) was a man of great talent: Not only was he a father, cubmaster, and employee at North American Aviation, but he created the Pinewood Derby. Murphy invented the derby as an activity for his son and his Cub Scout pack, since the 10-year-old and his friends were too young to participate in the local Soap Box Derby. Murphy, who'd been a model-maker in his youth, came up with the idea of racing miniature wooden cars. He approached the Management Club at Northern American Aviation and asked them to sponsor the race, and the members of the club, who already sponsored the Soap Box Derby, agreed. Murphy then presented the idea to Cub Scout pack leaders. They approved, and the Pinewood Derby was born.

Murphy wrote racing rules and car specifications for the race, and with the help of committee members, he built a racetrack. The track measured 31 feet and included a battery-powered finish line fashioned with doorbells and light bulbs. These bulbs, one red and one white, would indicate the winner. The first race took place on May 15, 1953, at the Manhattan Beach Scout House. It was successful, and afterward, it was emulated by the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department. This prompted the national director of Cub Scouting service to write to Murphy to request permission to run these events throughout the country. Murphy wrote an instruction booklet and submitted it to the Boy Scouts of America national office, and the Pinewood Derby became a national event.

Pinewood Derby Car Design and Kit

Murphy's original car kits were comprised of a 7 3/8-inch pine block with a carved-out cockpit, small wooden struts, and axles made from finish nails. These kits were placed in brown paper bags, numbered, and given to the Cub Scouts at the April 17, 1953, pack meeting. The scouts could design and carve the blocks in any manner they wished.

In 1955, Henry Henning served as a buyer for the Boy Scouts supply division. Given the task of finding a supplier for the car kits, Henning turned to Art Hasselbach, a model airplane builder, to make the kit. Hasselbach's company, Beta Crafts of New Brunswick, N.J., accepted, and for more than 44 years, Beta Crafts was the sole supplier.

The car kits have seen a few modifications since 1953. One change involved the length of the block of wood, which was set at seven inches. In 1977, the axles were moved to an offset position along with the wooden struts. In 1980, the struts were eliminated. The pine was no longer carved to include a cockpit: Instead, it was issued as a solid block. The wheels also underwent changes: In the 1970s, the thin wheels were dropped in favor of those with a wider tread. Other than these alterations and packaging, the car kits of today remain the same. Designs are still determined by the Scouts, as they were during the first races.

The First Pinewood Derby Races

The success of the first Pinewood Derby led to interest from other groups outside of the Cub Scout organization. The Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Department contacted both Murphy and the Management Club and requested permission to start their own races. They agreed, and on March 17, 1954, the first non-scout race was held at Griffith Park.

By 1955, the popularity of Pinewood Derby racing had grown in Los Angeles, and the parks department distributed kits to more than 100 playgrounds. January and February saw preliminary trials throughout the city, while district races occurred on March 5 at seven different playgrounds. Winners moved on to the championships at Griffith Park. On March 12, 1955, 116 finalists competed in the second annual Pinewood Derby. More than 300 people attended.

Boys' Life Describes the First Derby Race

Don Murphy's Pinewood Derby had become a special event and was featured in the October 1954 issue of Boys' Life. The one-page article detailed the car specifications and the race, but it did not explain how to run a derby or where car kits could be purchased. If a scout wanted more information about how the track was set up, he could send in 15 cents and Boys' Life would provide him with the plans.

The Cub Scouts featured the Derby in their guide for scout leaders, the Cub Scout Program Quarterly. The article was called, "Wheels, Wings, and Things." It described car and race track designs as well as strategies for the facility layout. The article also set the Derby's date as during the June pack meeting. In a 1956 issue, the magazine advocated for the Blue and Gold Banquet as a new setting for the Derby, and it transformed into a winter event. This association did not last, however: The Derby swiftly separated from the banquet and became a stand-alone event again.

Pinewood Derby Celebrates 50 Years

In 1997, Cubmaster Gary McAulay assumed control of the Manhattan Beach Scout House and Pack 713. Little did he know that Pack 713 was a direct descendant of Murphy's Pack 280C. McAulay researched the history of the pack, and upon discovering this fact, he went looking for Murphy. He met him at his home in Torrance, CA, and invited him to be grand marshall at Pack 713's Derby races. Murphy accepted and returned to scouting after a 20-year absence.

The Pinewood Derby celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2003, and Murphy was the honored guest at several California Pinewood Derby events during the year. In March, the Mount Diablo Silverado Cub Scouts Council paid tribute to Murphy at their "Black Hawk 500." This Derby took place at the Black Hawk Museum in Danville, CA. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institute, the Black Hawk was once an automobile repository, and the scouts raced amid antique cars. Another museum, the Petersen Automotive Museum, held a celebration with the Western Los Angeles County Council's Crescent Bay District in May. More than 100 scouts from 20 packs competed in show, design, and racing events. McAulay hosted the Manhattan Beach Scout House celebration. Races included retro cars from the 1950s and members of the 1953 pack who returned to race each other. McAulay presented Murphy with a plaque during the festivities.

Murphy also received awards from President George W. Bush, Gov. Gray Davis, Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn, and Cub Scouts national director Alan Westberg.

Pinewood Derby Rules

Three basic rules are followed when building a Pinewood Derby car. The width cannot surpass 2 inches, the length cannot surpass seven inches, and the car cannot weigh more than five ounces. Other than these three rules, there are no national rules for the Pinewood Derby. Rules are decided by local packs, districts, and councils.

Local organizations consider several details when choosing rules for the Derby. Some of these include car specifications, substitution of kit parts, what kits should be sanctioned, inspections before race time, and repair of damaged cars. The rules can be as simple or as complex as the pack, district, or council wish. This allows greater flexibility for local situations.

How to Run a Pinewood Derby

Once the rules have been decided, the race committee should begin planning. It's best to start 60-90 days before the event. The race committee should consider the following when planning a Derby:

  1. Whether the committee or parents should buy the kits. If the committee buys the kits, they should be given to the scouts at least 30 days before the event.
  2. Procurement of the race track: Should it be built, borrowed, or bought?
  3. The time and length of the event
  4. The venue
  5. Whether the pack should have a workshop day
  6. Assignment of parent roles (workshop day supervisors, car inspectors, car transporters, track officials, score-keepers, judges, and referees)
  7. Race methods (elimination, chart, or elapsed time)
  8. Trophies and recognition awards

Pinewood Derby Supplies

All Cub Scouts who want to enter a Pinewood Derby will need a few supplies. The base price of a car kit can be as little as a few dollars, so no car title loan quote will be needed; however, more expensive versions of some of these parts are available.

  1. Pinewood Derby car kit (block of pine, axles, and wheels)
  2. Additional wheels and axles
  3. Adjustment tools
  4. Weights
  5. Optional accessories and paints

Other Pinewood Derby Information

Murphy's book Pinewood! The Story of the Pinewood Derby recounts the creation and the history of these races. The book contains photos of the original race, the first car kit, the first design, and the first track. For a more entertaining look at the subject of the Pinewood Derby, people can also check out Down and Derby, a comedy starring Greg Germann, Lauren Holly, and Pat Morita. The film examines competitive parents, and the DVD includes an interview with Murphy.

Today, the Pinewood Derby continues to be enjoyed by generations of Cub Scouts, and in addition, the concept has been adopted by a variety of other organizations, including the Girl Scouts, Scouts Canada, the Royal Rangers, Awana, and the Woodcar Independent Racing League.

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