Pinewood Derby Unleashed

The Following is from a collection of short-short fictions I’m writing about my home town Pleasant Grove. Below in the comments feel free to discuss the joys and sorrows of pinewood derbys past and present.  


Some folk remember it as the year the Bishop of the Pleasant Grove 2nd Ward went mad. But it was a delightful insanity and created one of my favorite childhood memories. It was pinewood derby time. The whole ward took this very seriously. Very seriously indeed. Every year the boys were suppose to get their official pinewood derby kit and with minimal help from their parents have a fun race down the track amid the cheers of all the participants. But it was never like that. Parents were involved and every year a black market for derby secrets would emerge with some people, like the Hilliards and the Wilds, spending hundreds of dollars on winning designs from the pinewood derby underground. This was before the Internet, so finding those who would sell their secrets was sometimes tricky. But if you got desperate, you could always find pinewood derby designs among the ads found in the ‘Pleasant Grove Soldier of Fortune Monthly’ or in ‘The Feel’n Grovy Beat’ and other rags of ill repute.

That year the Bishop was fed up with telling the parents to let the boys do their own work and no one listening, so at the big meeting where the kits were distributed the Bishop stood up and said, “This year we are going to do things differently.” A hush fell over the crowd. The painfully rich Wilds had a scowl, and their eyebrows were raised to the top of their foreheads, because you can bet they had been on the prowl for some hidden knowledge and maybe had even gotten involved with the local mafia or those who practice black magic to obtain it, and so were not going to take any ‘new’ regulations kindly.

The Bishop looked over the crowd and said, “This year there are no rules. Do anything you want.” After a moment of stunned silence, a zillion hands went up, all asking for clarification. But the Bishop kept repeating, no rules. Can parents help their kids? No rules. Are there weight restrictions? No rules. Do you have to use the wheels in the kit? No rules? Does it have to stay on the track the whole time? Yes. One rule. That. On and on the questions came until the room was abuzz. Can girls race? No rules. Can people work together? No rules. There were some who were angry at first, but for the most part there was an air of palpable excitement. Parents started whispering with their kids. The room was charged with electricity. Even the Wilds and the Hilliards had a gleam in their eye after a few minutes of red-faced outrage.

The day of the race the track was set up in the gym and shortly after it looked like things were about to go sour. The Stake President, a gruff old ex-Marine Colonel, had come to see his grand-nephew race a car made of lead that was as heavy as that sounds. When the president saw one of the cars had an Estes A8-3 model rocket engine sticking out he angrily called the bishop over. The bishop said, let’s discuss this outside the gym and they walked out together with the SP gesticulating wildly. In a few minutes the Bishop came back in alone and when one of his councilors asked where the stake president was, he said cheerily, I’ve locked him in the utility closet. He’ll be mad as hell when we let him out, but what’s he going to do? Release me? Well, let’s get started!

The ones based only on gravity were eliminated pretty fast. I think everyone was a little sad when Widow Simmons’ doily covered pie racer (so called because it was made of baked pie dough) was eliminated, but we all gave a cheer for every one of her 97 years. Those rocket-powered, or that used a small BB-gun CO2 cylinder, did better, but tended not to stay on the track. Seeing pinewood derby cars flying helter-skelter through the gym was great fun although people diving out of their way and protecting small children tended to create worried looks among the spectators until a few wised-up and got blankets out of their cars under which they would hide whenever a rocket powered car was racing about the gym. Soon the rest caught on and did the same, sometimes sharing a large blanket among those that had none. Of course when a car left the track they were disqualified, because of the one rule, so the later heats were a little less star-spangled-bannery. By this time, though, there were some pretty deep scorch marks on the gym floor.

Well, every time there was a pause in the action for set up, we could all hear the Stake President bellowing to be let out, but even though we gave each other knowing glances no one made a move to release him. We really were having fun.

We were all secretly pleased when it turned out that the Wilds and the Hilliards were out early. The Wilds used a rocket engine on an inverted wing sitting on the car to keep it on the track, but they ran against the McNultys’ daughter, Sarah-anne, who rigged up a clip of paintballs and a short-barreled airgun to fire as it went down the track. That knocked the Wild’s car a good ten feet off the track in the first seconds of their heat, even before their rocket engine had fired. Because of the paintball it took to the side it was still airborne when the engine ignited, and it beelined straight into the basketball standard, cracking it a bit. They complained to the Bishop who just looked at them, then shook his head smiling, and said, No rules. The Hilliard’s car just plain exploded and we were just glad the track wasn’t damaged enough to stop the races, but their car was unsalvageable.

There was a hamster-powered car (not that fast), cars that had a wound-up rubber bands powering propellers, cars launched from slingshots, and lots of very heavy cars. Some cars were just good old fashioned street-legal high craftsmanship kit-cars that would have faired well under normal rules, which we all thought were lame until we realized they were the only ones eligible to go on to the regional level races (one of which took fourth!).

Well, the final race was between Sarah-anne (who had literally knocked out the competition) and the Davises who had attached a two-cycle model airplane engine to power thick soft rubber wheels on a modified axle. It was wicked fast. When the lever was pulled the Davises who had seen the take down of many a car by a paintball round did something smart, they reversed the propeller so it held steady in place. Down the track, fairly slowly, went the weaponized car popping out paintballs as it went. Half way down it was out of ammo. The Davises then turned that airplane engine to full throttle and that car zoomed down the track in a cloud of oily smoke as fast as any rocket-powered car that ran that day. It shot past Saraheanne’s ten feet before the end, taking the cup. The place exploded with cheers, whistles, and hoorahs. Even Sarah-anne who just lost was clapping and smiling like a rodeo queen.

The bishop was released and disfellowshipped for locking up the stake president, which the bishop didn’t seem to mind if the truth be told. And the $6000 in damage to the gym and track was covered by an anonymous donor. We suspected it was the Wilds and/or the Hilliards, which let us forgive them for being rich. All in all, though, it was the best pinewood derby we ever had. And I suspect we ever will have.


  1. A Happy Hubby says:

    Now who has said, “church is boring!” Great story. See if the Friend will carry this story!

  2. Awesome, SteveP!

  3. Oh, this is fantastic!

  4. Oh my.

  5. Doesn’t the Timpanogos Storytelling Festival have a liars’ contest? This would be perfect!

  6. Magnificent! Sounds like a great improvement over the normal Pinewood Derby.

  7. Reminds me of something Neal Chandler would have written. Got anything about one of the Three Nephites in PG? Seriously, can’t wait.

  8. I’ve been in wards that have done two Pinewood derby races: first a “normal” race, and then a second race with prison rules like you described. I think the boys (and their parents and sisters, who also got involved) enjoyed the prison rules race more.

  9. As a young girl I was allowed to participate in the pinewood derby twice, once in North Carolina and once in Utah. I’m not entirely sure how that happened but I do recall rubbing my brothers’ faces in my victory. The secret is to weigh the front of the car, boys!

  10. This is awesomesauce, Steve.

  11. My home ward was full of Motorola employees with access to early-generation 3d printers. They would use the pinewood derby as a missionary opportunity, challenging coworkers to design the slickest possible industrially-crafted derby cars they could. We would usually have about a dozen design professionals who would show up with some of the fanciest cars you’ve seen. To my recollection, they would receive awards in the aesthetics categories, but us young scouts (more concerned with weight distribution than rear spoilers) would typically scorch them on the tracks.

  12. evilhrlady says:

    This may be my very first comment at BCC. I loved it.

  13. Steve, this is brilliant! Thanks so much for posting it here!

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