Derby racing builds bond

The evolution of a Pinewood Derby car starts with a block of rough wood, 7 inches long and almost 2 inches wide.


It ends with a little racer that can travel the equivalent of 203 mph.

The real story is what happens in between.

The Pinewood Derby is a test of ingenuity and creativity that the Boy Scouts of America started in 1952. The challenge is to create the fastest and most original car while keeping within the guidelines governing weight and size.

The car with the fastest average time in eight races is the winner.

Each Scout starts with the same kit of four wheels, two axles and a block of wood. What happens next is usually a combination of open secrets, family tradition and failed experiments.

Derby cars have a history in the Lewis family of North Augusta. Scott Lewis still has a car he made with his dad when he was in Cub Scouts three decades ago.

That car wouldn't stand a chance in today's races.

His sons, Wyatt, 10, and Connor, 12, have a history of winning derby car races, and it's not by following dad's example. The old tradition of slapping together a car with glue and painting a racing stripe has given way to tungsten steel weights and high-quality polish to grease the wheels.

There's also physics to consider. It might seem counterintuitive, but the weights are placed in the rear of the car -- not the front -- to help it gain speed. Gravity pulls it down much like a pendulum so that it really starts to fly by the time it passes midtrack, Lewis said.

The design takes a little more time.

For almost three months out of the year, the kitchen counter becomes the laboratory for tinkering with sets and brainstorming ideas. Mom is glad the boys have a project, but less than thrilled about the setup.

"Graphite is really hard to clean," Kim Lewis said with a smile. "It's super-fine and doesn't really wipe up."

The Lewis boys' cars win for speed but rarely style. Their winning cars are flat, almost like skateboards, with a simple racing stripe or color scheme.

In the past, they made a short tank with a stubby turret and an ant car with long spindly legs that everyone confused for a spider. Neither got far in the competition.

This is Wyatt's last year as a Cub Scout and, consequently, his last time in derby car racing. He's bested his peers in the den, pack and district levels and will be competing on the council level Saturday.

Another competitor from North Augusta is Brad Wilson, who will also become a Boy Scout next year.

Brad's design this year is based on one he found in a book of derby car models. It broke a speed record at the district meet by traveling 48 feet in 3.6 seconds, or the equivalent of 203 mph.

Brad and his father, Donald Wilson, start each year's derby car build by declaring war on friction.

"Friction is the enemy," Wilson explained, so they focus on each of the spots that hold friction, including inside the axles and along the chassis.

As far as tips and tricks, Wilson has heard that baking a car to eliminate moisture is effective, along with rubbing toothpaste along the axles. Brad hollows his car and inserts tungsten weights, then covers it back over with tungsten putty before a paint job. Each step of the process is followed by weighing the car to see how close it is to five ounces.

By the time the competition begins, Brad will have the car within a thousandth of an ounce of the desired weight. Strips of lead tape are added to the car until it is within near perfect weight.

Wilson laughs when he describes their first car, with the weights in front and glue all over the axles. That one finished at the bottom.

It wasn't until the third year of competition that they started doing their research and experimenting with the best model.

While it's great to having a winning car, the Scouts and their fathers walk away with more much than a trophy. The event builds camaraderie, encourages craftsmanship, teaches sportsmanship and bonds father and son with a common goal, Wilson said.

"It's just good fun," he said.

Learn more

- Read the history of Pinewood Derby racing:

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