Pine Wood Derby History
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 past—so today's Cub Scouts could meet the man who started it all nearly 50 years ago.
The Father-and-Son Connection
Concept Was Perfect for Cub Scouting
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 discover—and possibly locate—the 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 surprised—and honored—to 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.