Unfortunately, making a Pinewood Derby car is well outside my skill set. And Cub Scouts don’t currently have any contests for the handful of things I’m moderately good at: Excel spreadsheets, hemodialysis, jiu-jitsu chokes, and eating ice cream.
We made valiant efforts last year and the year before. But the results were awful. Last year, despite great work together as a family and a design that we pretty much liked, we misaligned the wheels. The car wobbled and dragged on the track. Ike had to compete in heat after heat after heat of races, and lost every single time. It was torture.
This year, I had hoped that he would be traumatized enough from previous experiences that we could just bypass the activity. But instead, he had in mind a sort of phoenix rising from the ashes experience. He wanted to make a car that would look good enough and race well enough to restore his honor.
What a nightmare.
But in some sense, I was excited by the challenge. My own honor was on the line here too. I did horribly bad in all of my own childhood Pinewood Derbies and now I’d passed on that shameful tradition to my son. Maybe if we could work together and get it right this year, my grandchildren will be able to hold their heads up proud when they race their own cars someday.
Ike, Wendy, and I came up with a strategy for success:
- The design had to be simple but still “cool” to 10-year-old peers
- I had to get professional-level help for all cutting and sanding
- We would invest time into all the voodoo stuff like filing and buffing the axles
- I’d find someone else to put the wheels on or at least make them watch me do it
This all proved to work pretty well. Our troop had a local garage meeting where we all got together and used one of the leader’s power tools to cut, shape, and sand. In the past, I’d foolishly tried to do all this by hand like the instructions say to do. And I’d even let my Cub Scout do some of the cutting! Not this year! This year, I joined the other dads in doing this work while the kids stood around in a state of complete boredom and ate too many donuts.
I made Ike pick a simple design. And actually it was genius: a package of Reese’s peanut butter cups. It looks great. Other kids think it’s cool. Wendy could help with the painting and appearance. And it required only six very simple cuts. I could handle six simple cuts. Sort of. I still made these three guys (and two others) help me with the cuts and the sanding.
So I asked around for help and was able to do some filing and polishing to smooth out my axles.
We walked into the Scout office and walked up to the counter. We dropped our stuff in front of the woman behind the desk, and I said something desperate like, “I can’t leave this building until you help me get these axles in. I don’t care if it takes hours to do it or costs hundreds of dollars. I’m not leaving until it’s done right--and I can’t do it on my own.”
She smiled and reassured me. Then she brought out a whole bag full of fancy tools. Some of these were worthless, but a few were amazingly helpful. We went to the back room and carefully used all the tools at our disposal to straighten the axles and drive them in straight and to the right depth. I was sweating profusely and cussing up a storm in front of my 10-year-old son. But an hour later, we had four wheels on and they were straight and smooth. Once we sprayed in some Teflon dust as a lubricant, the wheels could spin on and on with very little disruption.
Although I couldn’t believe it, we seemed finally to have made a decent Pinewood Derby car.
The race was a few nights later and I was a wreck. I was “that dad” who can’t sit down, can’t shut up, and freaks out about other kids breathing on my son’s car. Wendy finally had to rein me in and put me in a kind of time out.
But Ike did great. The car looked awesome. It was the perfect weight. And it ran smooth and fast. We didn’t win overall. That still went to the cars made by dads who actually knew what they were doing. But we did win several heats. And we didn’t have to go home with a crying Cub Scout like we did in the previous two years.
We had lots of moments like this through the course of the night:
I was reminded of sound council from our Prophet, Thomas Monson, that good parenting often means allowing our children to fail and to deal with heartbreak: “life was never intended to consist of a glut of luxury, be an easy course, or filled only with success. There are those games which we lose, those races in which we finish last, and those promotions which never come. Such experiences provide an opportunity for us to show our determination and to rise above disappointment.”
I agree with that whole-heartedly. And we do try not to shield our kids from disappointment and loss.
But you know…we let him learn a lot of those lessons last year and the year before. This year was the last Cub Scout Pinewood Derby he’ll ever race in. And this year, it was a whole lot of fun to let him learn lessons about how you can also sometimes win.