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The Story of the Pinewood Derby

February 06, 2018

The story of the pinewood derby starts in 1952  with Don Murphy, Cubmaster for Pack 280C in Manhattan Beach, Calif.

Don wanted to create a new father–son Cub Scout activity he could do with his 10-year-old son, who was too young to race in the soap box derby. The ideas started percolating in Don’s mind.

“I wanted to devise a wholesome, constructive activity that would foster a closer father–son relationship and promote craftsmanship and good sportsmanship through competition.”

Fast forward to today and Pinewood Derby racing remains one of the most memorable events of a Cub Scout’s career. So how do you make this big day the best it can be? Check out Bryan on Scouting’s blog post here.

Don had been a model maker all his life, so the idea of racing small cars down a track came natural to him. He presented his idea of racing miniature pinewood derby cars to the Management Club at North American Aviation, where he worked. They already sponsored the soap box derby, so perhaps, he thought, they would also sponsor the first pinewood derby car race. The Management Club was excited about Don’s new idea, and agreed to sponsor the very first Pinewood Derby Car racing event for Pack 280C by donating trophies along with funds to make the car kits.

The original block of wood in the pinewood derby kit was carved down in the forward third to a kind of cockpit, and wheels were added with nails. Some Cub Scout fathers built a 31-foot race ramp with two lanes and a battery-run finish line made from doorbells. Light bulbs would identify the winner.

On May 15, 1953, the Scout House at Manhattan Beach was packed with enthusiastic parents and Cub Scouts ready to race their miniature pinewood derby cars. Don decided on three “classes” of racers based upon the boy’s age: Class A for 10-year-olds, Class B for 9-year-olds and Class C for 8-year-olds.

This first pinewood derby race was a huge success, and the news traveled fast. The Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Department asked Don and the North American Aviation Management Club for permission to conduct pinewood derby races at city parks. Don agreed, and Los Angeles was off to the races!

Don prepared a booklet, “Pinewood Derby,” and sent it to the BSA National Office to promote pinewood derby as an event to roll out nationally to all Cub Scout packs. The National Office recognized this to be a fun, exciting father-son activity — perfect for the Cub Scouts. While the California “pinewood derby scene” was running races throughout the Los Angeles parks system, the Boy Scouts prepared to roll out the pinewood derby as a Cub Scout event nationwide.

Most of the rules and regulations of the Pinewood Derby remain the same as Don Murphy wrote them more than 60 years ago, with only minor modifications.

Pinewood Derby Cars of the Greater St. Louis Area Council