A Day at the Races: What Good Dads Do

Stephen McGarvey

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.

The rest of the story is the stuff of legends, at least in my family. I won—well, I won first place in my den, and second place in the pack. That meant that I now had two medals for my uniform, and my car was displayed in a store window. It was quite an honor at the time. I was only a second-year Cub Scout, and the winners were usually the third-year boys. For a kid who hated school and was not very good at sports, this kind of minor victory in life was a big deal.

Lifetime Bond

At least it was for a while. After I left the scouts I gradually forgot about the Pinewood Derby. Life goes on, and I wasn’t exactly the camp-craft type. Yet my dad didn’t forget. He mentioned it when he spoke at my graduation. (I graduated as part of a homeschool group in a “class” of five. All of our dads said a few words.) He talked about how we had worked on the car together and how he was just as excited as I was when we won the race.

For some reason this incident stands out in my mind as a prime example of what being a dad is all about. Of course, over the years, my dad did many more important things for me than help me build a little wooden race car. He worked long hours at often thankless jobs to provide for my brothers and me. He taught me the meaning of honor and self-sacrifice. But helping me build a winning race car is somehow seared into my mind.

Most of what I know about being a dad I’ve learned by example more than experience, since my son is not quite one year old. And I have seen how one of the most important things a dad can do for his kids is spend time with them. It seems so obvious it almost sounds cliché. Dad was there when the chips were down; he knew how to encourage me and channel my energy in the right direction. He understood that the little dramas and setbacks we face as children prepare us for how we handle life’s stresses as adults. And he rejoiced in my triumph—be it large or small.

In the 2002 movie the Count of Monte Cristo, the Count toasts a young man at a coming of age party:

Life is a storm, my young friend. You will bask in the sunlight one moment, be shattered on the rocks the next. What makes you a man... is what you do when that storm comes.

The storms of life refine our character. Losing the local Pinewood Derby is pretty mild as far as trials and tribulations go. Yet Dad knew how much it meant to me, and he came through. In many ways, his love for me represented the love of our Father in heaven.

For most, the path toward faith is often rocky—rockier for some more than others—but good dads help us through it. In his book Becoming a Dad (Relevant, 2005), David Thomas writes:

Now I have the opportunity to walk my own children through their journeys of childhood and adolescence. I have a lot of fear around that journey. I don’t look forward to any seasons of life that include introducing my kids to pain and disappointment. . . . Even though I know and believe, with everything in me, that it will make them strong, resilient, courageous, and compassionate.

To that I can only say, “Amen.” I saw my dad face this, and now it is my turn. This Father’s Day, it’s appropriate to reflect on the ways our dads helped lead us down the right path. Be the right kind of dad, the kind that helps with the race. Statistics tell us that such dads are becoming rare in our culture. We need to make sure they don’t become extinct.

So, happy Father’s Day, Dad. Thanks for your help with the races, Pinewood Derby and otherwise.

Stephen McGarvey is the Executive Editor of and He previously worked for BreakPoint. He is also a Fellow of the World Journalism Institute and a freelance writer. He lives with his wife, Candice, and son, Alex, in Virginia.
"From BreakPoint, June 16, 2005, reprinted/posted with permission of Prison Fellowship,”

Original publication date: June 16, 2009