A History of the Pinewood Derby

Pinewood Derby strengthens relationships, while promoting craftsmanship and healthy competition

The First Pinewood Derby

Race day, 1953. The first Pinewood Derby was such a huge success that the Boy Scouts of America adopted the program nationwide the following year.

The moment the first group of miniature cars started down the 32-foot race ramp with the battery-run finish line made from doorbells, the Pinewood Derby enjoyed instant success.

The brainchild of California Cubmaster Donald Murphy, the Derby arose from his search for an activity that he and his 10-year-old son could work on together. Murphy, an art director, was inspired by his employer, North American Aviation, which sponsored Soap Box Derby races, as well as by his own childhood experiences.

“I’d made models of airplanes, cars, boats, and any number of other structures and remembered the pleasure I got out of doing it,” Murphy told Scouting magazine in November 1999. “ 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 presented his idea for carving and racing miniature cars to Cub Scout Pack 280C of Manhattan Beach, California, which heartily endorsed the project. He then proceeded to design a gravity-propelled car that could be carved out of soft pine and wrote the rules for racing the miniature vehicles. Those rules stated, “The Derby is run in heats on a two- to four-lane track. Two to four cars starting from a standstill will run self-propelled down an inclined track to the finish line. Cars are guided by a raised spacer on the track between the wheels.”

Original pinewood derby plans

The first Pinewood Derby was held May 15, 1953, at the pack’s newly constructed Scout House in Manhattan Beach. The Management Club at North American Aviation sponsored the event. Contestants from the 55-member Cub Scout pack, using kits consisting of a block of pine, two wooden axles, four nails, and four wheels, raced in three classes: Class A, for 10-year-olds; Class B, for 9-year-olds; and Class C, for 8-year-olds.

The following year, a local newspaper and the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Department sponsored a citywide Pinewood Derby, and the national office of the Boy Scouts of America® adopted the program for Cub Scout packs nationwide.

More than a half century after the running of the first Pinewood Derby, the event continues to be immensely popular not only among Cub Scouts® (more than 100 million of which have participated in the Derby to date), but with members of other youth groups as well. The program has been adopted by the Girl Scouts®, Awana® Clubs International (as the Awana Grand Prix), Scouts Canada (as the Kub Kar Rally), the Christian Service Brigade® (as the Shape N Race Derby), the Royal Rangers®, the YMCA Adventure Guides®, and the Woodcar Independent Racing League (WIRL). It also has spawned related events, such as the Raingutter Regatta®, which uses boats instead of cars, and the Space Derby®, which uses rockets.

The first racing kit

The first racing kits were composed of a block of wood, a pair of axles, four nails, and four wheels packed in a paper bag. The finished car shown here belonged to Donn Murphy, son of Pinewood Derby founder Don Murphy.

The Pinewood Derby has also spawned a whole genre of products and services for car builders and racers.

When the Pinewood Derby observed its fiftieth birthday in 2003, Murphy, then 83 years old, was honored with a proclamation from the president of the United States. He also received commendations from the national director of Cub Scouting, the governor of California, both of California’s U.S. senators, and the mayor of Los Angeles. In Manhattan Beach, the Derby’s birthplace, Pack 713, a direct descendant of Pack 280C, hosted a commemoration for the city’s Cub Scouts, staging several races with retro 1953 cars in the same Scout House that was the site of the first Derby.

Because of Don Murphy, father of the Pinewood Derby, generations of parents and children have built strong relationships as they developed valuable skills.

His legacy lives on.

Winners of the first Pinewood Derby in 1953

Winners of the first Pinewood Derby in 1953, from left: Dennis Lowrie, Class C, age 8; Richard Hoffman, Class A, age 10; and Mike Thorne, Class B, age 9. Hoffman also won the grand prize trophy for classes B and C. Pack institutional representative Jack Swofford is pictured at right.