The Pinewood Derby is the sacred event in all of Scouting — when ordinary moms and dads help their children face off against Newtonian forces. It is on this day that scouts unveil and compete with cars that only months or days or hours before were blocks of wood. Each boy, with the help of an adult, designs, carves, paints, decorates, and modifies this block to race on a gravity-driven 30-foot wood track which is set up at the Forest Park Community Center. While several design honors are awarded, most compete for the title and 1st Place trophy of the pack’s fastest car.
Although we had a pack Pinewood Derby workshop back in November at ReUse Depot, where Logan (my fourth-grader) had Uncle Keith cut his wooden block into the classic “wedge,” his car has been in the box waiting for that prime moment when his mother’s procrastination meets panic, driving us to finish the car by adding weight, painting it, and attaching wheels.
With four days before the derby, it was time to pull the car out of storage. Logan and I carefully used carving tools to make space to insert tungsten and lead weights to reach the optimal 5-ounce weight class. It would take several layers of glue to seal the weights into the car, so using the last dregs of wood glue in the house we put the first layer in and let it dry overnight.
I meant to stop at Schauer’s on Wednesday for more wood glue but only remembered that task late that night. I had two options: 1) go to Home Depot and buy a bottle of wood glue or 2) use a different glue. Driven by fatigue and faulty logic, I wondered, “How different could wood glue be from Modge Podge?” Not only did we pour in the second layer using the substitute Modge Podge on Wednesday, we poured a third layer on Thursday, completing the necessary final layer to completely fill the hole made to store the weights.
Friday night, after our regular scout meeting (and our run to Office Depot to buy the needed certificate paper for the special pack awards), Logan and I sat down to sand our perfectly measured 5-ounce car filled with mostly dry Modge Podge. After using several different grades of sand paper, we realized that the Modge Podge had formed an impenetrable sheath that was not responding to a variety of ordinary sand paper. So at 11 p.m. I started the orbital sander with the over-used metal grade paper in the garage and managed to decimate the surface of the car, melt the weights, and create a surface that was unmanageable and possibly a health hazard.
Logan, still awake to finish the car, thought he could revise his decorative plans by gluing sand and glitter to the top of the car to seal the lead and mask the rough mangled surface that was once his sanded wedge. He had only one concern, wondering, “Will the sand weigh the car down?”
As a mother with strong Eastern European heritage, I assured him it would be “fine,” and watched as he painted a precise layer of Modge Podge on the car and sprinkled sand. We carefully sprayed a thin layer of clear gloss paint over the sand to give a surface to fasten the glitter.
To hasten the drying process, we put the car in the oven with low heat and, after an hour, put it on the scale. When we took the glitter-sand wedge masterpiece out of the oven, and placed it on the scale to check the weight. The car was 5.4 ounces, a full 0.4 ounce of disqualifying weight.
Now challenged by the weight of the dried sand and glitter on the face of the car, we tried first to take some of the sand off, but the glue on the top was dry, and in our attempts to remove some of the sand layer with sandpaper we destroyed the delicate balance of glitter to sand that Logan had painstakingly worked on. I looked for the Dremel — the king of tools when working on a derby car — to see if the grinding attachment could penetrate the sand layer.
The Dremel was not in the box. It was nowhere to be found.
Quick to find a solution, I pulled out a large drill bit and drill and thought perhaps I could skim the sand layer using a sweeping motion. Perhaps because the car and Modge Podge mixture was warm, the drilling motion pulled out a chunk of sand-dredged Modge Podge once securing the weights and wrapped around the drill bit.
The car now weighted 5.2 ounces, and had a deep crevasse where the Modge Podge once was.
Our only option was to turn the car upside down and try to carve weight from the belly. It was ugly and the weight reduction was minimal. It was very late, we were getting sloppy but we managed to remove 0.1 ounce more from the bottom of the car. We repaired the top and agreed that sleep was necessary to finish the car.
Bright and early Saturday morning, just hours before the derby, while Logan slept, I worked to correct the calculation errors forewarned by my 9-year-old. As I did, I managed to accidentally tear a hole in the car through the top of the car, while digging in through the bottom to remove weight. Horrified, I pressed on, and channeled a surgeon’s precision and managed to extract the final 0.1 ounce of weight.
As a Pinewood Derby purist, I believe the scout should build the car, and be involved to his maximum capacity. This morning, just hours before the derby, I broke that covenant, and let Logan sleep from the late night, which was due, after all, to my misjudgment of the sand’s weight. I decided to continue to forge ahead: to put the wheels on without him.
Over the past eight years, I have easily hammered, or assisted in hammering, over 50 wheels into derby blocks. This morning, without the aid of a youngling, perhaps riddled by subconscious conflict, I managed to hammer each wheel in a way that prevented the car from rolling — a fatal flaw.
I readjusted each wheel, and tweaked and tried again until I had to stop. It was time for me to set up the derby. The car was left on the counter for my husband and son to bring once they arose.
See, as the Pack Committee chairperson for Pack 109, I am privileged with the responsibility of housing the Pinewood Derby track and electric timer. Custom-built by volunteers Jim Flanagan and his brother Tim Flanagan, the track was planned to meet the specifications that coincided with a gift from Kiwanis Club — a laser timer that records speeds to the ten-thousandth place. The pack track is stored in my temperature-controlled, waterproof, back porch at my house for the 364 days not in use.
The races were thrilling and Logan’s car was respectable. The competition was unbelievable. Lego cars, a police car, a surf board, cars that lit up, cars that had decals — one boy even put Batman on a car. The level of detail and customization was impressive and the pride from every boy was palatable.
Logan’s “Sand and Glitter Wedge” was respectable, and it did roll down the track. The scouts gave it one of the highest honors bestowed from one group of boys to another boy: a chant. The boys called out: “sand and glitter, sand and glitter, sand and glitter.”
Although Logan’s car was not the fastest car in the Webelos 1 division race, the scouts voted the Sand and Glitter Wedge the honor of “Best Craftsmanship.” In addition, his car scored a three-way tie for “Funniest Car.”
The greatest honor was the chant representing opposing forces, “sand and glitter,” which may become an inside joke for years, sealing a bond beyond that day.
The greatest award that one can receive, however, is friendship, that coveted bond holding community together.