The History of Pinewood Derby

Don Murphy, Cub Master for Pack 280C

In 1952, Don Murphy, Cub Master for Pack 280C, wanted to create a Cub Scout activity he could do with his son. At 10 years old, Murphy's son was too young to participate in Soap Box racing, so it was up to Murphy to think of another activity he could enjoy with his son and the younger kids in his Cub Scout Pack. Having made models all his life, Don turned to the idea of racing miniaturized cars down a pinewood track as a safe alternative to Soap Box racing.

When Don shared his idea with his fellow Pack Leaders, they agreed to help make his dream a reality. Along with some of his fellow members who knew woodworking, Don built a 31-foot race track. The track, little more than a ramp extending to a long straight-away, was also rigged with a finish gate made from door bells. When a car passed the finish gate, red and white lights would flash to signify the winner.

Pinewood Derby Car Design and Kit

The final step to Don's dream was making the derby cars. Originally, the cars were made of a 7 3/8'' pine wood blocks. Wooden struts held the axles, made from finished nails, in place. Overall, the derby racers were designed to look like Grand Prix race cars. Murphy also came up with rules to govern the races and make them feel official.

The design for pinewood derby cars has changed little over the years. The length of the car has been shortened to 7". The wood struts were moved to the current axle offset position in 1977. The wooden struts were removed altogether in 1980, and now use a solid pine block. The wheels have changed several times as well, with the thin wheels of earlier models changing to a wider tread in the late 1970s. Since then, the wheels for pinewood derby cars have remained essentially the same.

The First Pinewood Derby Races

On April 17, 1953, the first pinewood derby car kits were handed out during a Cub Scout Pack meeting. The boys were told to finish their derby cars by May 15th if they wanted to take part in the race a month later. The day of the race, the Manhattan Beach Scout House was packed with Cub Scouts and their parents, ready to see the first pinewood derby. Before the race, Murphy separated his racers into classes based on their age.

The first pinewood derby was a hit, and wouldn't be the last. Within a year, pinewood derby racing moved out of the Scout House and into city parks in the Los Angeles area. The first city-wide race was held in Griffith Park on March 17, 1954, and people couldn't get enough. A second race was scheduled for 1955, and the Parks Department began handing out derby racing kits at over 100 city parks in preparation. 116 winners from smaller races met to compete in the first pinewood derby championship on March 12, 1955. As derby mania swept through Los Angeles, the Boy Scouts of America began eyeing the sport for a national event. Don Murphy gave the Boy Scouts permission, happy that he had made a contribution to the organization both he and his son enjoyed.

Boys' Life Describes the First Derby Race

Boys' Life, a magazine devoted to scouting news, made the first mention of pinewood derby racing in their October 1954 issue. A one-page article contained two pictures from the first race held at the Manhattan Beach Scout House. An engineer's drawing of a derby racer and a car kit were also shown. The article failed to mention how to conduct a derby race, or where kits could be purchased. The kits used by Murphy's troop were put together by hand, and there was no national supplier.

In 1955, model airplane builder Art Hasselbach was approached by the Boy Scouts to create a kit from Don Murphy's original design. His kits contained all the necessary parts individually wrapped and were boxed in sets of 8. The company, Beta Crafts, became the first official makers of pinewood derby kits and was the exclusive supplier of the kits until 1999.

The new kits were advertised in the 1955 Cub Scout Program Quarterly. The article told readers how to run their own pinewood derby and suggested it as an activity for the June Pack Meeting. A year later, the event was suggested not just for the June Pack Meeting, but also as entertainment during the annual Blue and Gold banquet. Pinewood derby racing was so popular that no scout function was complete without at least one competition.

Pinewood Derby Celebrates 50 Years

Pinewood derbies were an instant sensation, and continued to be so for the next fifty years. They have been held in city parks, Boy Scout functions, museums, and backyards. In March of every year, the Blackhawk Museum in Danville, CA, hosts the Blackhawk 500 derby. The museum took special care in preparing for the derby's 50th anniversary celebration. Scouts raced their derby cars in a display area surrounded by cars from the early twentieth century. Another 50th anniversary event was held at the Petersen Automotive Museum. Don Murphy, a father with a simple dream, was honored with a presidential proclamation from President George W. Bush. He also received honors from Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer as well as California Governor Gray Davis.

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