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The Legacy of the Pinewood Derby

At a mere five ounces in weight and seven inches in length, these small pinewood cars have a big presence in millions of households every year, each with its own unique experience...

Did you know that Don Murphy makes a cameo appearance in the movie?

On May 15, 1953, the first Pinewood Derby was held by Cub Scout Pack 280C in Manhattan Beach, California. Since then, over 100 million Pinewood Derby cars have been handmade and raced worldwide and this event has expanded beyond just a scouting tradition to become a crowd favorite in school, church, community and fundraising venues.

The history of the Pinewood Derby, as written by its creator, Don Murphy follows:

In 1953, my son was ten years old and expressed a desire to join the Cub Scouts. My wife and I encouraged him since, as a child, I was a Scout and enjoyed the experience. My wife became a Den Mother of Pack 280C, which was composed of 52 Cub Scouts and seven Dens. Pack 280C needed a new Cub Master and I volunteered. I had no idea when I made that commitment that someday an idea of mine would evolve into an international tradition.

Each month the Dens would meet in our newly built Scout House in Manhattan Beach, California. I had felt for a while that Scouts needed more opportunities to participate in active challenging games to promote good sportsmanship and acquire a variety of skills and abilities. At that time, I was the Art Director at North American Aviation and a member of the Management Club. The Management Club sponsored the Soap Box Derby for the children of employees and provided the materials for the cars. I wanted my son, Donn, to enter the program and have a chance for him to win a scholarship. He was 10 years old and, to our disappointment was too young to enter the Derby. Children had to be 12 years old to participate. I felt that something needed to be done for younger boys to be able to race in our Cub Pack.

During my youth, I used to make model airplanes, coaches and cars working with soft pinewood and balsa. I thought, why not design a small racing car to run down an inclined track. It would be a safe activity for young boys and something that dads and mothers could also participate in with their children. So, I set into action the design and making of a 7-inch racer cut from soft pinewood to be raced down a 30-foot wooden track, self-propelled by gravity and named the event the "Pinewood Derby." I took my idea to the Management Club and not only did they accept the idea but they wanted to sponsor my Cub Pack 280C with trophies and promotional backing.

I presented the Pinewood Derby idea to my Cub Scout Committee. With much enthusiasm, we created the design for the track and used an electric doorbell mechanism for the finish line. A light would indicate the winner. We then established the official rules and regulations, which are largely the same today. In individual brown paper bags, we placed a copy of the rules, a 7-inch pinewood block, four nails and four wheels and presented them to each Cub Scout with an assigned number, used to identify the participant and the car. The finished car could not weigh more than five ounces.

DERBY DAY! This was the big day! In a small packed Scout House on May 15, 1953, in Manhattan Beach, California, the races began. Contestants raced across the wooden track in three classes: for example, the first race for 8-years olds, the first race for 9-year olds and the first race for 10-year olds. This was repeated for the remaining heats. The winners immediately took their cars back to the pit for the remaining heats. From that moment in time, the Pinewood Derby became an instant hit! The expressions on the boys faces and the interest of the parents said it all. While my own son did not win that day, he always remembers the race. I relive the experience today when I watch the Derbies being run. Many fathers who participated in Derbies years ago still have their cars. Today, they watch their sons embark on the same adventure.

News of the Derby reached the National Directors of the Boy Scouts of America and they decided to promote the event throughout the United States. Director O. W. Bennett wrote to me saying, "We believe you have an excellent idea and we are most eager to make this material available to the Cub Scouts of America." I gave them my permission to proceed with the program. I was quite rewarded knowing that I had made a contribution to the Boy Scouts of America and created a meaningful family event that has become a worldwide tradition among millions of Scouts today.

Recently, I was inspired to write and publish a book entitled "Pinewood: the Story of the Pinewood Derby." This book includes reproductions of photographs of the original Derby, the first car and track plans, the official rules and how the Derby was staged. There are humorous accounts drawn from past and present events as well as illustrations, cartoons, stories and photos of past and current Derby races.

Additional information about this book can be obtained by writing:
Don Murphy, PO Box 3881-E, Torrance, CA 90510
(or go to website: Pinewood Pro)
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