Thud the wooden doll pins plunged downward catapulting the sculptured vehicles forward. Sitting declining on a 26 degree angled slotted wooden track these weighted vessels rolled away. As they built up momentum and more speed within seconds the entire 35 foot race was over. If you blinked or sneezed missing the race became a great possibility. Winners keep advancing while losers were sent packing. All your efforts and time designing your wooden speed roadster dashed.
Westchester Southern Baptist Church on 19th Street in Chesterton, Indiana would be hosting the annual pinewood derby races. The event was sanctioned by the Northwest Indiana Southern Baptist Association and 24 February, 1973 the race would commence.
Each contestant would be given a blank pine block of wood and would design and sculpture there own vessel. Each of the entrants received a just alike 7 inch by 1 3/4 inch piece of pine. The kit also included 4 black plastic wheels and 4 shiny bright silver nails used for the axles.
Contemplating exactly which design and style of car to carve into our blank block of pine was a true challenge. I therefore carefully studied some of my drawings of numerous race cars. Ideas popped into my thoughts like popping corn over an open fire. Of course no cutting, sanding or drilling was to be done without dad’s supervision.
Dinner couldn’t get here fast enough each night in order to go downstairs and work on our roadsters. My exact designs were to duplicate an Indy 500 type vessel, sleek and hopefully quick. Ron on the other hand had a more direct approach, just whip out whatever comes up. Not much planning or designing just something fast and easy.
Finishing dinner we pushed our chairs back away from the table and bolted quickly to our design laboratory. As I revealed my intentions dad pondered carefully over the design. Looking astutely over my drawings we discussed the final outcome. The design showed the car almost perfectly rounded with a curved front and rear.
Trying to round the car and design it exactly like the Indy car presented a real challenge. Once your car was completed it could only weigh 5 ounces. Anything over that weight disqualified your vessel. No second chances!
Dad decided to give it a try and we started cutting and sanding like to busy beavers to a piece of wood. The process was slow and painfully meticulous. After some discussion dad insisted that we only round the top halve, front and rear. This would leave the bottom square to place the nails inside the slotted axle slits. It’s look resembled a silver bullet.
Working on the cars day after day became an after dinner evening event. Dinners went faster and seat time at the dinning room table shorter. Excitement about the pending race had totally consumed my every waking moment. As a nine year old boy, this became the biggest event of my young early childhood.
After the long week wound down my sleek car was nearly complete. Some final finishing touches with sand paper were still required. Also, dad needed to drill some holes to place some weight in the car. With no weight the cars wouldn’t move down the track nearly as fast. I had found some firetruck red paint and began spreading a fresh shiny coat onto the entire car.
In the meantime dad had purchased the required materials necessary to make a mock race track of our own. With 2 x 2’s and 1/4 inch concrete backer board dad soon assembled his version of the derby track. His version was 10 inches wide with 2 inch concrete backer board strips adhered to the edges and one down the center. Creating two side by side testing lanes. The sloped section was roughly seven feet long which had a transitional section connecting to the straight away. The overall length was roughly 32 feet. The raised section sat approximately five feet high with legs attached to the sides.
I’m not sure if the dimensions were exact to the real race track but the results were perfect for testing. Dad said, “If you want to do something right, you must put in the required time “. Insisting the track would aid us immensely in gaining the required knowledge in order to have the best car possible.
Now with the cars complete and the test track all setup, daily we’d test our carved vessels. Ron and I decided one afternoon immediately after arriving home from school to proceed directly to the basement. Trial run after trial run was accomplished.
Although the trial runs seemed harmless. Dad said, “We’d practically ran the wheels off the cars”. They were loose, dry and in need of much attention. My particular version of the derby car was much faster than Ron’s. That afternoon during one of our trial runs the unthinkable thing happened.
After loading both cars into the starting block position, I released the starting pins. The cars zipped forward downward and increased in momentum. Unfortunately, Ron caught his car but allowed mine to crash into the basement concrete block wall. Parts and pieces went flying everywhere with one axle and wheel snapped. Completely detached from the vessel.
As I whirled over to gather up the pieces, Ron bolted away quickly exiting the basement. Now with the race only days away, I had no car to enter. All the hard work and meticulous design ruined. No more red comet to have for race day. Was it an act that Ron did on purpose? I definitely felt he allowed it to happen.
As race day approached I now had to design and complete a new derby car. No longer would a meticulous touch be adhered too. Speed and something more practical became the order of the day. No trial runs were going to be available either because dad was installing the wheels just hours before the race event.
Pulling into the church parking lot and entering the sanctuary the place was packed. The normal Sunday morning pews were against the wall or out in the hallways. The track ran from the doorway forward towards the alter. The track was twice the size as dad’s allowing four cars to race side by side against each other.
Unlike earlier I found out that the race was actually a double eliminating event. First the judges weighed each entrants car. Cars exceeding the maximum of five ounces had one more attempt to make the proper weight. Once that process was completed each contestant was placed into a pool based on age and given a number. This represented your car and your order and position into the race day event.
One by one each racer is called to the starting block, it’s time to shine and hopefully win. When Ron finally gets called he hurriedly gets to the starting line. As luck would have it as he places his car on the outside lane it slips off the edge. Crashing to the hard tile concrete floor his car is broken abruptly into two separate pieces. Race over!
I remember feeling how unfortunate especially on the day of the race. But wondered if this was karma for what I thought he’d done to my car. Upset and highly disappointed he plopped down into a pew crossed his arms and got teary-eyed.
I couldn’t worry about him any longer I would be next and had to be ready for my chance. I remember thinking if I could get lucky and win maybe that would help. Eventually I got my call and as I gently placed my car in the starting block. It was time for my car to slam downward and fly like the wind.
Race after race and challenge after challenge my brown beauty kept coming out the winner.
(This is a replica of my second designed car.)
With the final race approaching dad enhanced the car by spraying graphite on the wheels. This greatly improved the performance and aided in increasing the speed. Finally the field was set and down to the remaining four cars to determine the ultimate winner.
45 years later I still remember that Huge smile on my face when I WON that race! More importantly I cherished the time spent together with dad and Ron. We had fun and learned about hard work, dedication, disappointment, believing in yourself and sportsmanship. In this short couple of week process I’m pretty sure that the reason for the annual event was exactly that. Fun and sportsmanship and time spent together. Thanks dad, I will Never forget!
(Sorry for such a crummy picture, I guess 45 year old newspaper article’s don’t hold up)