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A Golden Opportunity to Appreciate Gravity

Anaheim event marks the 50th anniversary of the Pinewood Derby, which combines physics lesson, carving skills and fun.

November 02, 2003|Daniel Yi | Times Staff Writer

At the California International Auto Show at the Anaheim Convention Center on Saturday, car manufacturers from across the world touted their latest engineering feats, the hottest trends in automotive technology.

Outside in the entrance hall, Mark Lane and his 13-year-old son, Aaron, worked on their own fast and furious wheels: two blocks of carved pinewood with plastic tires.

"He's the designer," the elder Lane said as his son watched him carefully grease the axles of their race cars. "I'm the builder."

The Lanes were among about 500 Boy Scouts and their parents -- fathers for the most part -- participating in the 50th Anniversary Commemorative Pinewood Derby Race this weekend at the auto show.

On Saturday, a crowd watched as the handmade cars raced in groups of four down a 40-foot-long track.

It wasn't quite NASCAR, but it wasn't all child's play either. Among the pinewood creations that took to the track Saturday were sleek aerodynamic designs and intricate carvings.

Dave Carroll, a freelance design artist from Huntington Beach and a Boy Scouts of America volunteer, carved his car to resemble a witch on a broomstick.

"It took me eight hours," said Carroll, who helped organize the event.

Carroll also carved a station wagon with a family of chipmunks packed for a picnic and towing an outhouse. The piece was displayed in an exhibit case that included a Model T replica and pinewood cars carved by designers from such automakers as BMW, Hyundai and Ford. BMW's creation, a futuristic blue-and-white piece with silver wheels, won a promotional race Wednesday.

A fair amount of engineering goes into turning a hunk of wood into a race car, said volunteer Greg Scoble of Westminster.

"You have to smooth the axles," said Scoble, with 9-year-old son, Dylan, by his side. "Some guys just lubricate the wheels, and that doesn't do anything. You can always tell the ones the kids did and the ones the parents worked on for hours and hours."

Indeed, many fathers are very serious about the races. Mark Lane had painstakingly glued pieces of lead to the bottom of his son's cars in the hopes of making them faster.

"It is sickening really," his wife, Nicole, said jokingly. "They are just bigger boys."

Lane and Steve Rodriguez, whose sons belong to the same Boy Scout troop, worked 500 hours building the racetrack, outfitting it with electric sensors connected to a laptop computer that calculates each car's time and tabulates the winners.

"We can do it by point system based on first place, second place

Nearby, Don Murphy, who created the Pinewood Derby race 50 years ago, signed autographs and greeted fans.

Murphy, an airplane designer, came up with the idea so that his son, a Cub Scout who was too young to participate in soap box derbies, could have something to race. He organized the first Pinewood Derby contest in Manhattan Beach on May 15, 1953.

Today, the event is a Boy Scout tradition.

"It took on a life of its own," Murphy said.

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