by Chris Call
Like any devoted father with an ego the size of a banana tree, I
prepared for the annual cub scout pine wood derby with the cunning and
patience of a lioness in wait. My seven year old Tiger cub thought the
car we had constructed, was “cool”. Having been exposed to the rigors
of previous derbies with my older son, I knew that many scouts, along
with their aerospace engineer fathers, would craft six inch vehicles
that would put Detroit’s Big Three to shame. As race time approached, I
employed all my creative energy to produce a car that would do my son
The school cafeteria had been converted to a scale model of the Indy
500 Speedway. Checkered flags and Pennzoil posters decorated the
walls. A grandstand lined the track, a downhill drag strip that had
been electronically wired to capture photo finish winners and display
the results on a video projected image on the wall opposite the
spectators. This was serious business.
Pre-race festivities included a showcase display of all the cars and,
as I had anticipated, many of the cars appeared to be scale replicas of
the Formula 1 racers, complete with miniature leather seats and chrome
plated stick shifts. Our car fell somewhere between these prima donnas
and the unpainted cars that some fathers had the audacity to let their
cub scouts make on their own. I was confident that we would make a
respectable showing when the wheels hit the track.
My son eagerly watched as our car was placed along side three others at
the top of the track. Every car would compete in four separate heats,
each time on a different track to eliminate any advantage a particular
track might offer. As the wooden starting gate fell, my son cheered as
our car began its descent.
It took only a few seconds for the enthusiasm to turn to
disappointment. Our car limped weakly through the finish line, dead
last of the four cars and not even a serious challenge for third place.
The humiliation repeated itself in the subsequent three heats, each time
the morale of my little scout dropping ever deeper into an abyss.
After we had retrieved our embarrassment of a car, my son’s despair
turned to tears. We huddled behind the grandstand, father consoling son
in the face of a mutual defeat. Although I was technically responsible
for the construction, and therefore the performance, of the car, my son
claimed ownership. It was his car. His peers had beaten him in front
of parents, siblings and scout leaders. He was humiliated.
My words seemed inadequate at the moment. I simply held him close and
told him I was sorry. His troop leader, seeing us struggle with our
defeat, came over and offered a few platitudes about how winning isn’t
everything and the important thing was to have fun.
Later, as we drove home, I talked further with my son. Winning is
important, I said. We should feel bad when we lose. It does matter
whether we win or lose. It is fun to compete, but it is more fun to
win. Strive to be the best, I said, and don’t be satisfied if you’re
A strong lesson for a seven year old? Yes, but an even stronger lesson
for his father. I realized that as adults we often accept mediocrity,
we tolerate imperfection. We teach our young to be complacent in
defeat, we shelter them from vicissitudes of the competitive urge. By
discrediting the importance of winning we breed a generation that is
content with sub-optimum performance.
Not everyone can be the winner. Those that are should be congratulated
for achieving what we have not. We should then turn our own
disappointment into a renewed effort to do better, to keep trying until
we can stand in the winner’s circle.
My son and I agreed to start early for next year’s race. We’re
determined to bring home a trophy. We’ll spend time learning and
working together to build the best car we can. That’s the whole purpose
of the pine wood derby anyway, fathers and sons working together. That,