The Founder and the Finder
By Barbara M. Wolcott
A Cubmaster from the California community where the first pinewood derby took place went looking for his counterpart from the pastso today's Cub Scouts could meet the man who started it all nearly 50 years ago.
The event is officially recorded in the annals of Cub Scouting history: The pinewood derby started in 1953 with Pack 280C in Manhattan Beach, Calif.
In the same Manhattan Beach some four and a half decades later, Gary McAulay, Cubmaster of Pack 713, set out to discoverand possibly locatethe person who had started it all.
Looking for 'the founder'
Using some of the investigative skills he employs in his job as a police sergeant, McAulay began by locating some of the original Cub Scouts from Pack 280C.
At the Los Angeles Area Council service center, he copied some of the more uncommon names from the pack's original 1941 charter and then looked for them in the phone book.
He was surprised to find six former Pack 280C Cub Scouts. And one of them, Ted Tedford, told McAulay that he golfed with the man who had invented the pinewood derby, one Don Murphy.
Although council records listed Murphy as Cubmaster in 1953, McAulay still had doubts.
"There were no records of Murphy's accomplishment at the council office," he explained. "And I thought it was just too good to be true to have located the actual person...still living right here in the district."
McAulay's interest in Murphy became even greater when council records showed that his own Pack 713 had a direct family tree connection with Pack 280C, which had split in two when it had grown too large. Pack 280C membership later had dwindled, however, and the unit was discontinued, its remaining Cub Scouts assigned to Pack 713.
When McAulay called on the 79-year-old Murphy at his home, he asked, "Are you Don Murphy?"
"Did you ever live in Manhattan Beach?"
Then he asked, "Did you create the pinewood derby?"
Not only did Murphy say yes, but he astonished McAulay by showing him a collection of papers, including the first rule book, from the derby's beginnings.
It was Murphy, however, who was most astonished, to learn that his brainchild of so many years ago is celebrated around the world.
A Cubmaster's idea
Murphy explained to McAulay that the derby idea began in the Management Club at North American Aviation, at which Murphy had worked. The company club of management-level volunteers promoted employee activities, especially for families. One project helped children participate in the national Soap Box Derby by buying the race-car kits and assisting the young participants to enter local and regional races.
Murphy's son, Donn, however, was not old enough to participate in the Soap Box Derby, and no similar racing events were available for his age-group. So Murphy came up with the idea of a miniature car race, recalling the time when he was growing up in La Porte, Ind.
"I'd made models of airplanes, cars, boats, and any number of other structures and remembered the pleasure I got out of doing it," he said. "I also wanted to devise a wholesome, constructive activity that would foster a closer father-son relationship and promote craftsmanship and good sportsmanship through competition."
He asked the Management Club to sponsor a miniature racing event for his Cub Scout pack that he had named a "pinewood derby." The club agreed to pay for the wood and other materials.
Murphy designed a miniature car that could be carved out of soft pinewood and wrote the rules.
"Pack 280C had seven dens and den mothers," remembers Murphy, "and totaled 55 Cub Scouts at the time. Originally the block of wood we included in the kit was carved down in the forward third to a kind of cockpit. We put the wood, wheels, and nails into a brown paper sack with an assigned number. Some Cub Scout fathers built a 31-foot race ramp with two lanes and a battery-run finish line made from doorbells. Light bulbs would identify the winner."
Catching on like wildfire
The derby was an instant success and for a time was copied, with the Management Club's permission, by the Los Angeles County Department of Recreation. Then word reached the national director of Cub Scouting Service, O. W. (Bud) Bennett, who wrote Murphy:
"We believe you have an excellent idea, and we are most anxious to make your material available to the Cub Scouts of America."
Within the year the pinewood derby was adopted for use in all Cub Scout packs. In its October 1954 issue, Boys' Life publicized the event and offered plans for the track and a car, which featured "four wheels, four nails, and three blocks of wood."
After his son left Scouting, Murphy continued to run the derby program through the Management Club until his retirement from North American. That was in 1978, and until Gary McAulay came knocking on his door, Murphy never realized how much the derby had grown.
"We wanted to recognize [Don] Murphy for his contribution and decided that the 1997 pinewood derby in Manhattan Beach would be held in the old Scout House for the first time in many years," said McAulay.
Over the years the inside had been remodeled, but Murphy had no trouble getting his bearings.
"I was astounded to find the building just as I remembered it," he said, "even to the old clock on the wall!"
He was also surprisedand honoredto find on the front of the building a bronze plaque commemorating his accomplishment.
Just three weeks after the Founder and the Finder (as they called themselves) had met, Murphy visited the Pack 713 pack derby. And he agreed to serve as grand marshal of the 1997 Pacifica District Pinewood Derby, an appearance repeated in 1998 and 1999.
Cubmaster McAulay worried that the activity might be hard on the grand marshal, now 81 years old. But the Cub Scouts showed an extraordinary respect for Murphy, and many asked him to autograph their cars.
Little has changed in the derby since 1953. During that time an estimated 43 million sons and fathers (mostly) have participated. And today's generation of Cub Scouts and dads share the same fun, thrills, and rewarding moments.
Freelance writer Barbara Wolcott lives in San Luis Obispo, Calif.
The Father-and-Son Connection
Pack 713 Cubmaster Gary McAulay has clear memories of the time in 1963 when he was 9 years old and working with his father on his first pinewood derby car.
At the time, his father was refinishing a piece of maple furniture. McAulay remembers the wood finish impressing him so much, he chose to use stain instead of paint for his car.
The elder McAulay cut the rough shape, then gave it to his son to file and sand smooth. The 9-year-old tried to be patient, but he was in a hurry to finish. He sanded and sanded for what seemed like an eternity, then decided he was done. His father encouraged him to do morewithout success.
"I have a very clear recollection of my father showing me how to put a little stain on the cloth, then rub it on," says Gary. "Unfortunately, every scratch and imperfection that was not visible before, now showed up under the stain."
Despite the less than perfect results, McAulay saved the car and still treasures it. ("Even with the scratches, it's beautiful.") This, not so much for the accomplishment of making it, but rather for the unique time spent with his father that it represents.
Like father, like son
Gary McAulay's son, Thomas, has entered four pack pinewood derbies. Although racing is fun, he admits that "I like working with my Dad and designing the cars" as much as anything.
Professing to be no more handy with tools than he was in 1963, Dad admits he has no trouble letting Thomas do most of the work. "Even if I wanted to do the work, I really can't," he confesses, "but I love just hanging around to help him as needed."
Thomas was frustrated making his first few cars because Dad was reluctant to let the boy use power tools. "It's a little block of wood, and it's soft pine, so I figured he might as well learn to use a hand saw," he explains, "even though, for a little kid, that means a lot of work."
Although both Dad and son claim not to be very good with tools, the derby experience offers many other areas for participants to enjoy and excel.
"I can tell he enjoys working on the project just as I did working with my father," says McAulay, "but I think the thing he loves best about it is designing his race car. He'll draw a dozen designs before he makes a choice. The big project then is to turn that design into reality."
Gary reassures Thomas that his car doesn't have to be the prettiest or the fastest. "I want him to realize that it's more important that he keep the Cub Scout motto in mind, to give it his best and have fun racing it."
In his first pack competition, Thomas finished in second place. The next year, however, his car was a winner. The first-place finish was an exciting time for the family, even though Thomas's car was eliminated early at the district competition.
"Losingright after being a winnerwas hard for him to take," Gary McAulay says. "I told him it was O.K., that we had made it all the way to the district race. We gave it our bestand while it was disappointing to be eliminated early, the experience was priceless."
His third year in competition taught Thomas a lesson about the importance of design and weight distribution. With a new car design, he won nothing. For his fourth derby, Thomas returned to his previously successful designs, and the change paid off.
He took first place again.
Concept Was Perfect for Cub Scouting
In the pinewood derby's first year, the idea spread rapidly, and competitions were held across the country, mainly with recreation departments and nonprofit organizations.
The originator of the ideaDon Murphy and the Management Club of North American Aviationsent out thousands of brochures to anyone who requested more information. Of all that early enthusiasm, however, only Cub Scouting made it part of an official program.
In 46 years the rules for the pinewood derby have changed about as much as the U.S. Constitution. Of the 11 rules in the derby today, eight are the same as they were originally, and one is amended to change the maximum length of the car from seven and three-eighths inches to seven.
Two rules have been added: the requirement that the car be made for the current year, and that no loose material of any kind is allowed in the car.
November-December 1999 Table of Contents
Copyright © 1999 by the Boy Scouts of America. All rights thereunder reserved; anything appearing in Scouting magazine or on its Web site may not be reprinted either wholly or in part without written permission. Because of freedom given authors, opinions may not reflect official concurrence.
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