PIEDMONT -- One by one, race officials place custom-designed wooden cars in their starting places. Moments later, the starter begins the race, as the gates lower and gravity carries the little vehicles down the track while their makers and other interested spectators look on.

Pinewood derbies, as these events are known, have a long-standing tradition among Cub Scout troops across the nation. In Piedmont, the Girl Scouts get into the act, too. On Saturday, Girl Scout Troop 31526 held Piedmont's ninth annual Pinewood Derby at Piedmont Community Church. The event, which also involved Scout troops from surrounding communities, took place in the afternoon after the Cub Scout Pinewood Derby in the morning.

Competition took place within the different levels of Scouting: Daisies, Brownies (further broken down into A and B divisions for younger and older Brownies, respectively), Juniors and Cadettes/Seniors. Organizers also held a special competition for siblings and friends of the Scouts. Then there were the cars themselves, all of them made from a standard-approved Pinewood Derby kit consisting of four nails, four wheels and a block of wood (pine, of course).

"The designs can be quite elaborate," event co-chair Eliza Chin said. "Some of the cars can get very creative, though they may not be the most aerodynamic."


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Indeed, while some of the cars were painted blocks of wood, largely unchanged from their original shape, other entries involved vehicles sculpted into the shapes of sports cars or Formula One racers. Others were cut and painted to resemble cheese wedges. Or Hershey bars. One enterprising Brownie A entrant even made her car look like a princess bed. Not surprisingly, many parents have a hand in making the cars -- especially fathers in search of their long-hidden inner car designer.

"Kids can spend a lot of time on this," co-chair Buffy Yeh said. "The girls care about (the cars) looking good. The parents care about them going fast."

To maximize speed, competitors attach weights to their cars. But there are limits. Finished cars must not weigh more than five ounces and cannot exceed certain lengths and widths (organizers place each car in a measuring box at check-in; the cars must fit inside that box). Still, other gremlins can surface. Despite meeting all requirements, one unfortunate entrant saw her car get stuck at the gate due to lack of ground clearance. The event actually was the final stage of a process that takes place over three successive Saturdays.

"We actually had a car-making workshop (on Jan. 26 that involved) cutting, sanding, painting and putting on the design features," Chin said. "Then we had a short practice race (Feb. 2)."

On the national level, Don Murphy, a Cubmaster from Manhattan Beach in Southern California, organized the first Pinewood Derby in 1953. Murphy's son had not yet reached the age to compete in the popular Soap Box Derby (in which entrants actually "drive" the cars), so Murphy had his young charges race miniature wood cars instead.

Organizations such as Girl Scout Troop 31526 -- along with some fellow East Bay troops -- are keeping the tradition alive 60 years later.

PINEWOOD DERBY
WINNING ENTRIES
Division Champion
Daisy: Angelina Fuller,
Troop 32509, Oakland
Brownie A: Meleah Washington, Troop 30017, Oakland
Brownie B: Julia Mastracci,
Troop 30456, Oakland
Junior: Sydney Knight,
Troop 32619, Oakland
Cadette/Senior: Tielyr Franklin, Troop 30017, Oakland
Sibling/Friend: Isabella Wire,
Sibling of Troop 31027, Piedmont