Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson may face stiff competition in a decade or so if the biggest race of the Scouting year is any indication.
Around 100 Cub Scouts, their siblings and adult volunteers from Pack 69, comprised almost entirely of Kaiserslautern-area military families, converged on the Vogelweh Elementary School cafeteria Jan. 24 for food, fast-paced fun and the annual Pinewood Derby.
Some 58 cars constructed by Tiger Cubs, Wolves, Bears, Webelos, siblings and adult family members competed by den or open category in an afternoon punctuated by close finishes, cheering Scouts, tasty treats and hijinks. The top three finishers in each den or category won trophies and a year’s worth of bragging rights, with the top three pack performances earning special recognition.
Pack automakers employed a variety of designs and decor. Competing cars ranged from hotrods, tactical vehicles and “spaceships” piloted by robots to virtually unadorned blocks of wood. A “Batmobile” and a skateboard competed, and a “police cruiser” promptly pursued them down the wooden track.
“The Pinewood Derby is our signature event,” said Maj. Michael J. Swienton of the 21st Theater Sustainment Command, the Pack “cubmaster,” or senior leader. “A lot of work and a lot of expression go into the event. They learn a lot and use a variety of skills — design, artistry, woodwork, painting, even public speaking.”
The cubmaster personally arranged most of the public speaking opportunities, transforming himself into a “roving reporter” during the derby and conducting live “interviews” with Scouts and participating sisters between heats. Their analysis of design techniques, family automotive efforts and racing results added color and creativity as well as trademark Scout humor to the event. An engineer by trade, Swienton encourages Scouts to apply — or at least consider — scientific principles as they design and construct cars.
“At the higher end, the Scouts are actually thinking about design, aerodynamics and all the factors that influence the speed of the cars,” he said. “The skill level is obviously a little lower for the younger kids. They’re relying a little more on the dads, but they’re involved in the planning, the decoration and all the preparation for the event.”
The derby inculcates values as well as woodworking skills.
“They learn sportsmanship and teamwork,” Swienton said. “Not every kid can win every trophy, but he can be part of a team and enjoy the camaraderie of participating with the other Scouts and supporting each other. And even if his car isn’t the fastest, it might be the coolest — it might have the best design or look like a cool video game or spaceship. Maybe next year, his car wins a trophy and the other Scouts cheer him on.”
Alvina Cooley, Troop 69 scoutmaster, whose eight Boy Scout volunteers played a major role in organizing and conducting the event, said the big lesson is to do your best.
“The derby teaches good sportsmanship. It’s a little cliched, but they’re all winners as long as they build a car and it crosses the finish line,” Cooley said.
Cooley, a veteran of eight Pinewood Derbies and whose sons occasionally even used hand tools to cut and refine cars during their tenure as Cub Scouts, described the recent race as an organizational as well as a competitive triumph.
“Everyone did a good job of working together and keeping the kids happy,” she said. “That improves morale for the volunteers and makes them want to participate in more events. And the younger kids also benefit from the example of the Boy Scouts playing a leading role in a big event and different organizations all cooperating to put it together.”
Like most major Scouting events, the Pinewood Derby typically comes with a double-helping of food and family fun. Scouts, parents, siblings and volunteers rotated among racing, indoor picnic and seating areas throughout the late morning and early afternoon.
Several Scouts offered surprisingly substantive assessments of their vehicles’ performance in the aftermath of the derby.
“I thought it wouldn’t do so well because my car didn’t do so well last year,” said Archer Swienton, 10, whose car claimed second place in the Webelos One Den. “But this year I polished my axles to get rid of the ridges, and that made it smoother. I think the wheels turned faster because of the smooth axle.”
Albert Vandeway, 9, whose Seattle Seahawks-themed car captured second place in the Bear Den, said putting weights in the back helped his car.
“I think that made it go down the track faster,” he said.
Even some of the youngest Scouts attempted to apply aerodynamic principles.
“We made it heavier at the front with a point on it so the wind wouldn’t push it back,” said Tiger Cub Ezra Hunsaker, 7, the son of an Army officer assigned to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, whose pointed car finished second in his den and third among the entire Pack.
Hunsaker offered a concise assessment of the derby almost every Scout, sibling, volunteer and parent could endorse.
“I think this is the funnest Scout event,” he said.
The Pack Blue and Gold Banquet is slated for Feb. 22 at VES.