Lessons at the Derby

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It is a few days before my boys will participate in their Boy Scout Troop’s annual Pinewood Derby, and pretty much everything in this house is focused on getting ready for the Big Race.

A few weeks ago, I came home to find four wooden rectangles baking in my oven. My oldest son had been doing research and discovered this is a good way to rid the wood of excess moisture. If we somehow manage to take home a trophy this year, baking the wood might be the reason.

Over the past several days, there has been cutting and sanding, painting and sanding, some drilling, weighing and a lot more sanding. Further research from our eldest has pointed to a need for excessive sanding.

Paul and I were marveling recently that we have become professionals at this particular scouting event. That’s not to say we are winners, certainly not in the traditional sense. We are heading into our sixth year of competing in the derby, and so far the only major award anyone has brought home was for “Most Fuel Efficient Car.”

Adding multiple years and multiple boys, Paul has been Chief Engineer on over a dozen derby cars. It’s a lot of hard work and, really, a lot of fun. We’ve learned about dealing with the thrill of victory, but mostly the agony of defeat. It’s a challenging but important lesson to learn.

The first year we participated in the Derby, it was our oldest son racing his very first effort. Before that year, Paul and I had barely heard of the Pinewood Derby. We certainly knew nothing about the need to bring extra graphite or the importance of sanding the axels, and it occurred to none of us to paint the car before attaching the wheels.

That year, I watched my son deal with a rickety car and sticky, bumpy wheels. We had no idea about any of it, and as I stood there in the school cafeteria and watched all the other cars zoom by, heat after heat, I wanted to grab my little boy and go home.

“Let’s just leave,” I remember telling my husband, mostly joking. I thought about going home, packing up the house and moving to an undisclosed location where we didn’t need to deal with disappointments ever again. We could just stay together, our little family, and I could protect my children from all the hurts of the world.

An older friend overheard my frustrations and offered encouragement.

“You can’t go put your head under a rock,” he said.

He was right of course. That day, I pushed through and saw the bigger picture of the race. This wasn’t just about winning, or even about losing. It was about learning to be gracious in either situation. It was about building character and having life experiences – and having fun in the process. My son certainly had a lot of fun that day, despite the setbacks with his car.

Here we are, several years later. I look back on that first Pinewood Derby and realize it was mostly a teachable moment for me. At that point in my mothering journey, I was still hoping I could shield my boys from any of life’s potentially painful experiences. Back then I might have even thought that was part of my job, that no problem should be bigger than my mothering capabilities.

Now I realize that while it is my heart’s desire to protect my children, there will be moments in this journey of life when I cannot. There will be times when they will experience hurt or sadness, maybe even times when they must shoulder a burden that Paul and I won’t be able to take from them.

In those moments, the problems will be bigger than a rickety wooden car, and maybe even bigger than me. But they will never be bigger than God. Our hope is in him. 1592″>



  1. At my house, when there are four wooden rectangles baking in the oven, my family call it “dinner.”

  2. mammamilk says:

    Our oldest son is participating in his first derby in a week. I fear we will have a car much like your son’s first one (though my husband is working diligently on it with him!).
    On a different note – I see one of your sons name is Augie. Is that short for Augustine? We are expecting our fifth, and we’re considering Augustine, shortened to Augie.

  3. Mamma: it’s actually August, which is a family name (but a shortened form of Augustine). I’m all for Augie!

  4. Rachel,
    2 things:
    1, this is exactly what I needed to read, as my fifth grader was just on the end of a stupid prank for the first time.
    2, you are allowed to sand your axles? wow, that gets you disqualified at ours!

    I feel just as strongly about each of these comments. 🙂 I am a boy mom.

  5. My husband always remembers the Pinewood Derbies of his boyhood with disappointment because his parents were divorced and he had no Dad to help him as his father lived in another state. From the way you describe it, even if they never win another derby award, your boys will look back on the experience fondly as it was a family affair.

  6. Thanks for sharing this. I needed that. We just lost our second derby. My son, who is normaly nonchalant, came home in tears. We run our derby in heats. After all that hard work, he couldn’t beleive he didn’t win even one heat. I tried to tell him “the fun is in making the car.” I guess sometimes you just have to feel the disapointment and cry. My mother in law felt so bad for him she wanted to buy him a trophy. I said “NO WAY”. What fun is a trophy you didn’t earn?

  7. Elizabeth M says:

    My son just crossed into Boy Scouts on Friday night. So we don’t have any more Pinewood Derbies, as participants. He’s now looking forward to getting to be one of the Boy Scouts who “come back” to help run the Derby for the Pack. After our first Derby, I didn’t want to do another one! His car didn’t win much. But our Pack has some very helpful dads and leaders who now do all they can to give tips to parents and scouts about how to make the cars steadier and faster. Also, last year, knowing it was his last, he focused on design and made a really cool Wii-motor! In our Pack too, we were allowed to sand the wheels and the axles — as long as they were the official ones and as long as it was sanded with sandpaper, not a lathe or electric sander. It takes off the burrs from the manufacturing.

  8. Elizabeth M says:

    I hope that didn’t double post — sorry if it did. I got the word verification screen twice.

  9. My husband was never a scout, and I came from a big scouting family. So you can imagine my husband wasn’t too keen on the derby. Now despite the work, I think he sees how much the boys like it. I also like that we only compete within our dens. We do not go to districts or anything like that. And according to the rules, you are allowed to sand the burr off your wheels and axles, and powdered graphite only, please. The trick is to get it as close to 5 oz as possible. Take it to the post office and have them weigh it. Glue pennies on if you have to. We’ve never done better than 3rd, but 3rd is comfortable in a group of 8-10.

  10. PS–I also have a fantasy of dressing up like the Kentucky Derby for derby day at our school, but I think only a very few would get the joke.

  11. Great post. Great blog! I have five boys and can soooo relate!

    Stop by and enter my Give Away!

  12. Hey! Finally delurking…this is a post I can really relate to as we were at the same derby. And Lawrence came in 3rd or 4th in every race. 3rd when there were only 3 cars (although he did get 3rd twice when there were 4 cars – my bright spot during the derby). His award? “Most Fuel Efficient Car”. I’m telling myself that next year will be better! One thing that did make me feel better – apparently a lot has to do with the car you get in the package (and if that’s not true, just leave me in the dark:)