We’re only a week into 2023 and I’m already in the lead for Worst Father of the Year. Instead of a coffee mug that says “number one dad,” the top prize is the disappointed sighs of my children every time I walk into the room. I can practically hear them now. What powered my meteoric descent to the bottom? (Consequently, the phrase “meteoric rise” makes no sense since meteors go down, not up. We’re not exactly launching them from earth.) The Pinewood Derby, of course. Wood car season is upon us. I spent the twelve months since the last race gaining no appreciable woodworking skills—or any other kind of skills for that matter. That’s not entirely true. I did get better at hurting myself by doing things like sneezing or rolling over in bed. This weekend, I was once again forced to face my own inadequacies as I dazzled my children with the wide array of things I can’t or won’t do. They built their cars, no thanks to me. My work here is done because I refused to admit it was mine in the first place.
I don’t own a single tool that can shape a proper Pinewood Derby car. That didn’t stop my dad when I was a kid. He cut my car with a hand saw to create a slick looking wedge that lost every race it entered. Dad was in college at the time with four kids and no money. I should have taken the incident as a lesson that, even in the worst of circumstances, you can still show up and compete with dignity and pride. The actual lesson I learned was that I need friends whose dads own body shops. Several scouts showed up with cars painted by professional automotive spray guns. I don’t have any proof that a slick paint job actually made those cars race better, but I was at the age when cool shoes made you run faster, so the logic tracks. My silver doorstop never stood a chance. That should be the origin story for how I became an automotive engineer and tested my future children’s Pinewood Derby cars in a wind tunnel. Instead, I spent three decades avoiding those memories like Neo dodging bullets in the Matrix. That all changed when three of my kids suddenly joined Cub Scouts against my will and I was right back in the Thunderdome of emotional trauma once again.
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Last year, my now-seven-year-old did well enough at the Pinewood Derby to win an award. It was no thanks to anything I did deliberately, but I did help in a roundabout way years before that. Because of when she was born, Waffle ended up in a tiny group of Lion Cubs that enabled her advance to the second round of the derby almost by default. Her older sisters weren’t so lucky and got crowded out. Afterwards, there were more than a few tears that Waffle won something and they didn’t. They can’t claim I played favorites, though. I was hands-off with all their cars. I neglect my children equally.
My kids were only able to race at all thanks to two volunteers who put on a Pinewood Derby workshop a week or two before the big race. I made sure to have my kids there bright and early when it opened. These were dads whose own kids were long since grown but who had so much fun making cars that they now did it for other people’s children. In other words, they were the exact opposite of me. These guys owned all the tools and were eager to show them off. I’d list them here, but I don’t even know what they were. Let’s call them the sharp thing, the other sharp thing, and the other other sharp thing. Taken together, it looked like an assembly line for chopping off fingers. I kept my hands balled into fists just in case.
Last year, my now-ten-year-old (I’m not doing math to figure out how old she was exactly one year ago) made an un-aerodynamic boat on wheels. It caught all the air and none of the acceleration. It’s like it was specifically designed to go slow. It’s so unfair that it didn’t win. Mae wasn’t really going for speed anyway, which turned out to be a critical oversight come race time. Her main goal was to be quirky and original, which she achieved in spades. She traced her unconventional design in pencil on the side of the block of wood and the volunteers cut it out. After that, it was up to her to paint it. That’s when I stepped up. I didn’t help her paint it, but I did buy the paint. I also covered the table so she would survive the painting process. If she got paint on our ornate dining room table, her mother would have considered it a justifiable homicide situation. Old newspapers save lives.
This year, those same two volunteers offered the workshop again. Saturday morning when the doors opened, we were the second people in line. You have to be early if you’re going to mooch right. Mae learned her lesson from last year. Instead of an inefficient shape like a boat, she went for something much faster: reading glasses. Nobody in our family wears them, so I’m not sure what inspired her to go that route. She could have shaped her car like any inanimate object in the world, and she chose that one. When she traced the design on her block of wood and showed the volunteers, neither one of them questioned her design. They’ve seen enough things over the years to just go with it. That’s an experienced parenting move right there. They won’t save you from your mistakes, but they will help you get those mistakes all the way down the track.
Waffle also wasn’t concerned with aerodynamics. Last year, she made a big, boxy camper. This year, she made a big, boxy camper. That strategy made her the champion of the Breakwell house last time. Why mess with success? Since last year, her pool of competition has gotten even smaller. She went from four kids in her den to just one. I can neither confirm nor deny that she ate the others. That’s just what happens sometimes when you’re the alpha of the group. Rather than letting her advance automatically because she’s a den of one, I suspect she’ll get tossed in with a bigger group, negating her advantage from last year. She may then regret designing her car with a big, flat windshield that slams into the air. Then again, maybe her massive beast of a vehicle will power through and win by sheer force of will. That’s how she goes through life. Why should her Pinewood Derby car be any different?
Then there’s Lucy. She also didn’t change her approach from last year. In fact, she made almost the exact same car. Perhaps she’s counting on all the other scouts getting slower while she stays the same. Slow and steady wins the race. So what if that strategy depends on your opponent stopping in the middle of a five-second race to take a nap? She prefers the same basic doorstop shape I used for my first car. Unlike mine, however, hers was expertly sawed by the finest tools money could buy. The volunteer who worked on it explained how he had maxed out the toys he could buy for wood and was thinking of branching into metalworking. He had his eye on a piece of equipment that could drill ventilation holes in the barrel of a gun. Don’t worry: It’s perfectly safe. He watched some YouTube videos. When you see a news story about a guy in Indiana who accidentally blew himself up with a heavily modified firearm, please remember he was very nice and did an excellent job on Lucy’s car. Just don’t go to the firing range with him and you’ll be fine.
Last year, after I bought the paint, I still had one job left: adding weight. Each car can be up to five ounces. The heavier a Pinewood Derby car is, the faster it goes. That’s just science. That’s why all the best marathon runners are north of 300 pounds. Mae’s car is severely underweight. Not only did it get the middle carved off, but the car was also sliced in half vertically to make it super skinny. In fact, after the initial sawing, she was left with two identical eyeglass shapes. The only difference was one of them had slots for wheels. One of the volunteers drilled holes in the leftover piece, leaving her with a primary car and an exact copy as a spare. She only painted one of them, but now we have a full backup should the worst befall her first car. What could possibly happen? In a house with three sisters and two pigs, the disaster options are infinite. It could be anything from a good old fashion trampling to a meteor, which would definitely be falling and not rising.
With two underweight cars, the primary one is in need of an urgent mass gaining phase. In 2022, I superglued a bunch of pennies to the cars and called it a day. Please don’t turn me into the U.S. Secret Service for debasing federal currency. This year, I didn’t even have to do that much. One of the volunteers explained to me in great detail how I could drill holes in the cars, add fishing weights, and reseal them with wood putty. After seeing my face, he then added he would be at the pack meeting Thursday to handle it all for me. Spectacular. They’ll weigh everybody’s cars that night and add weight as needed. With so many kids, the volunteers probably won’t drill any holes, but they will handle all the supergluing, and with official Cub Scout weights, no less. My kids are in good hands when other dudes do all the dadding.
I’ve now officially outsourced 100 percent of the Pinewood Derby process. I should be overwhelmed by parental guilt for missing out on this father-daughter bonding experience, but had I been involved, I doubt we would have been creating happy memories. There would have been screaming and tears and more than a few missing digits. In this house, being “all thumbs” would have been more than just a saying. Doing any craft with a kid is a lot like putting together IKEA furniture with a spouse. It’s not a team-building experience. It’s just a fast track to marriage counseling. I spared my kids from a huge amount of emotional scarring by simply accepting my limitations and deferring to the volunteer professionals. They’re worth every penny. The kind without any superglue on them.
With all the manufacturing details accounted for, all that’s left to do is show up on race day. I can handle that part. I’ll be my kids' biggest cheerleader. Not really. At less than five seconds per race, there’s not even time to yell. That’s what makes the Pinewood Derby so great. It’s the same reason the Kentucky Derby is my favorite sporting event. You don’t have to know anything about horse racing beforehand, and in two minutes, it’s all over. The Pinewood Derby is like that, but condensed down into two blinks. I might not yell or jump up and down, but I’ll be there to help my kids celebrate or console them. Probably just the latter. We might not be a family of champions, but we are a family whose members still sort of like each other since we didn’t burn ourselves out on a shared craft project. Sometimes time apart is the most valuable quality time of all.
Anyway, that’s all I’ve got for now. Catch you next time.