It was May 15, 1953, when Don Murphy, a Cub Scout leader for Pack number 280 based out of Manhattan Beach, Calif., held the first Pinewood Derby. His young scouts wanted to race in the annual Soap Box Derby -- an event that was already big enough to draw celebrities like Roy Rogers -- but they were too young. That's when Murphy hatched his derby idea. "It was originally done for the kids to have some fun and give them the chance to build something with their parents," said Gary McAulay, a derby historian, now a board member of Cub Scout Pack number 713, which incorporated number 280.
The original derby ideal caught on locally, and then came an article in Boy's Life Magazine, the official Boy Scouts of America publication, in 1954. That one article about Don Murphy and his Pinewood Derby started a nationwide -- then worldwide -- sensation. McAulay estimates that to date, more than 90 million parents and scouts have raced in derbies.
In a Pinewood Derby, racing physics sets the rules for the car creators, but it's the functional design and almost fanatical passion that's made the sport one of the most popular forms of gravity competition in the country. What started as a Cub Scout alternative to Boy Scouting's popular Soap Box Derby has sprung into a phenomenon reaching every state in the United States, church groups and youth organizations, corporate training rooms across Canada and Europe.
The derbies are simple. Each racer crafts a car from a block of wood, generally pine or balsa, using a standard kit with four wheels and four small axles. The cars are then raced down a sloped wood or aluminum track -- no motors, just gravity -- achieving a top speed of about 15 or 20 miles per hour (24.1 or 32.2 kilometers per hour) during the seconds-long run.
While simple in plan and execution, any racer will say the reality is slightly different. Especially when you ask the derby speed shop owners that sell all the products needed to squeeze every last bit of oomph out of a car that has no motor and can be held in the palm of one hand.
Often the races are noisy scrums, but the winning cars are usually the quietest. They whisper down the slope tracking a dead-straight path, delicately balancing the forces of gravity, angular momentum and friction to flash across the finish line -- sometimes less than 1/1000th of a second ahead of the nearest competitor. The losing cars (for winning and losing is a venerable derby tradition) tend to pulse, chatter and vibrate their way to the end sending their creators back to the pits for a between-heat tune-up and perhaps an attitude cooldown, too.
Win or lose the races are about physics, technology and the elusive human factor that adds passion and fun into the mix. In this article, we'll take a more in-depth look at how derby cars are made, what rules they race under, and find out exactly who's racing them. Here's a hint: It's no longer just for the kids -- that is, if it ever was.