August 23, 2017

The Pine Derby Goes High-Tech

By Pam Laughlin

The Pine Derby event is one of the most popular and well attended Cub Scout events of the year.  It was started in 1952 by Cub Scout leader Don Murphy to create a new father-son Cub Scout activity that he could do with his 10 year old son.  His son was too young to race in the Soap Box Derby, which requires the boy to drive a homemade car down a hill. Don’s young son couldn’t wait 2 years to race in the Soap Box Derby, so Murphy decided to create another activity to do with his son and the younger boys in his Cub Scout Pack.

Bridgewater Cub Scout Pack 96 leader, Jim Alaimo, agrees with Murphy when he said, “I wanted to devise a wholesome, constructive activity that would foster a closer father-son relationship and promote craftsmanship and good sportsmanship through competition.”  Jim says this about the event, “I personally think that the Pinewood is one of the most beloved Cub Scout events because the boys get to build something with their parents, the parents get to build something with their sons and neither really need any prior experience or any tools to participate. The event works like all scout events –  those with the knowledge and skills willingly share this with newer members. Race night is always an exciting time.”

Cub Scouts, with the help of parents, build their own cars from wood, usually from kits containing a block of pine, plastic wheels and metal axels.

A Boy Scout himself as a child, Jim became a Tiger Den Leader when his oldest son, Christopher, joined Cub Scouts with Pack 96 at Van Holten School and wore many hats before becoming Cubmaster in 2008. Pack 96 has been in existence since 1964 when Van Holten School was first built.  Jim says, “During my first 5 years at Pack, we had a wooden track and we had to have judges call the winners by eye. In 2004 we purchased an electric eye finish line and purchased the Pinewood derby software that we use to this day.  Before the January 2005 derby, the pack purchased the aluminum track that we use to this day and donated our old wooden track to another Pack that needed one.”

Jim says this when asked about how he became involved running the Pine Derby, “We in Pack 96 have been lucky to have many volunteers that help with the event. This year Brian Bizjak took over the coordination of the Pinewood Derby from Marcus Harte. Each year we have two dads who no longer have boys in the Pack that return for our tune-up night. Tune-Up Night is held about a week before the actual race and volunteers help everyone in the pack build their cars and share their skills and knowledge with the newer attendees.

The event takes several weeks of planning including ordering the car kits, the trophies, software updates, and verifying the laptop and electronic timer are in proper working order. .Jim notes, “This year we needed to replace our laptop and the Dialysis Center, Inc. of New Brunswick was kind enough to donate a used laptop based on the request of Toros Kapoian who works for them and is one of our Assistant Den Leaders.”

After tune-up boys typically have one week to paint and decorate their cars before weigh-in.  During weigh-in cars are placed on scales to assure they weigh no more than 5.0 ounces.  .Jim explains, “On the night of the weigh in we help the boys add or remove weights and put graphite dry lubricant between the wheels and axles.” 

There are various ways to win trophies, such as Most Creative, Best Scout Spirit, Funniest, Coolest, Most Patriotic.  Jim says,” This year we added a “Most Technologic” for an iPhone car.”The Pack design trophies go to the top three (3) cars by average score in the pack. The Pack Design trophies winners are taken out of the rank level awards which go to the top three (3) cars by average score for each rank (Tiger, Wolf, Bear, Webelos I, Webelos II – 1st – 5th grade).

On the night of the race we race in order of rank youngest to oldest. The software makes sure each car runs once on each of the five (5) lanes of the track. The slowest lane run for the car is dropped. The goal is to be the car with the lowest cumulative time. The top 3 (three) get the rank trophies and are run in the Pack finals so they are eligible to win a second trophy for the Pack.  Cars that are not in the top three (3) are given back to boys to race on our two lane wooden test track.

Jim says, “We hope that the participation trophies help to lessen the blow for the boys with cars that did not win design awards and which are eliminated early in the night.”

This fun event can sometimes be taken a little too seriously by the overzealous.   Jim admits, “I have heard that some dads around the country have taken this extremely seriously. I have heard that some dads that have access to certain equipment have done things like have the axles teflon coated like non-stick pans.  I have hear of other packs in the area stamping the blocks with an ink stamp to make sure the parents do not buy cars on the internet from the many sellers of finely tuned pinewood cars.  But that’s not the case with our pack.”

Want some tips on how to get the fastest cars?  Jim shares this, “For a car to win the speed award takes some skill and some luck.” Skills requires finely tuned axles.  During the manufacturing process burs are left behind and need to be removed and the nail/axle needs to be polished to a fine level. Jim shares the following hint, “For the past few years we have had volunteers polishing the axles down to 2,000 grit emery paper (the higher the number the smoother the finish). Some enthusiasts also polish the inside of the wheel where the nail goes with a pipe cleaner and some polishing gel. “

Cub Scouts is for boys in first through 5th grade and Boy Scouts if for 5th grade 10 year old Cub Scouts who have received their Arrow of Light award or 11 through 17 year old boy.  Interested parents can sign up their sons up at

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