In 2005 I celebrated my first Father’s Day as a dad. Of course, now being a dad has caused me to reflect on what makes a good dad. Despite plenty of bad examples in our culture, we all know that the good dads coach Little League and read bedtime stories. The release of the recent movie Down and Derby reminded me of my own experiences with a common father-son rite of passage for many American boys: the Pinewood Derby.

If you are not familiar with this Cub Scout tradition, search the Web. My search turned up 179,000 hits. Each young cub is given instructions and materials to build a little wooden race car. Then during a monthly pack meeting, they race their cars. (Cub Scout chapters are called “packs.” Within the pack, each boy is assigned to a “den” of about ten kids. There are about one dozen dens per pack. Cubs usually meet once a week with their den and once a month with the pack.) Winners in our pack were given trophies and a medal that they were allowed to wear on their Cub Scout uniforms. Local merchants displayed the winning cars in their store windows.

Like many scouting events, the Pinewood Derby is an opportunity for father-son bonding. I had not yet seen Down and Derby at the time of this publication, but the trailer indicated that the obsessed dads, so determined for their sons to win, take over building the cars. The race becomes for them a chance to beat their childhood Derby rivals, and their kids are left on the sidelines. Neither my dad, nor my friends’ dads, behaved this way, but we knew of those who did.

Boxcar Physics

For my first Pinewood Derby, I built my car entirely on my own. I don’t remember exactly why I did, since I know my dad would have helped me had I asked. But I remember thinking at the time that a good Pinewood Derby car, or “boxcar” as we called them since they could fit inside a shoe box, had to be two things. First, it had to look cool. You didn’t want to be the kid who showed up with a dumb-looking car. Second, it needed to be light, because everyone knew that fast things were small and light. Big, heavy things were very slow.

Of course, my 8-year-old brain did not comprehend physics quite yet—even very simple physics. The boxcars do not run on any power of their own. They are released down a ramp that levels out to a straight-away, and the first one across the finish line at the end of the track wins. So, when my very cool-looking gold car with the neat racing stripes came in dead last in its heat, I was shocked and crushed.

My dad, who had brought me to the meeting, watched the races intently. Dad is a machinist and handy at building and fixing things. After my race was over, he found me moping on the sidelines, not really interested in the final heats. “Come with me,” he said. “I want to show you something.” He then led me over to the staging table where all the boxcars not racing were lined up. Handing me my own car and someone else’s hand-crafted masterpiece, he asked, “Can you tell the difference?” And I could. The other car was heavier.

Dad then explained to me why I lost, why I did not want my car to be as light as possible—but rather as heavy as was allowed. The heavier cars moved down the ramp more quickly, and thus were the cars that won. This explains why the rules printed on the slip of paper included my kit included a weight maximum (five ounces), not a weight minimum—a fact that made sense to me only when it was too late.

Returning the cars to the table, my dad looked down at me and said, “Next year, we’ll build a car that goes really fast. You’ll see. I’ll help you.” And the next year, we did.

I painted that next car blue with silver stars, different from last year’s sorry look. But it was what was “under the hood” so to speak, that really made the difference. Dad showed me how to add weight to the car so it was exactly five ounces. He told me that I needed some graphite on the axles to help the wheels spin with less friction. Dad even helped me sand it down so it even looked a lot more like a race car, and a lot less like a block of wood with four plastic wheels nailed to it.