Contributed by Bob Vail
Eric was a winner…and I became one too.
Back when the purpose of building a race car with your son was not to build a car…….
Eric was an awkward kid with no father.
Rita was a mom who wanted the best for her son.
I was a person who had a large collection of race car pictures and a belt sander.
Our paths crossed at the right time.
I knew Eric's mom from the phone company and she asked me if I would help her son make a race car. But not an ordinary race car, it was to be a pinewood derby race car made from an official block of wood, and would compete at their church.
Eric and I spent hours looking at race car pictures.
He picked out an Indy 500 car that he wanted to build
I had no idea how we were going to build something like that.
But you never tell a kid that you can't do something.
I bought one of the official wood blocks.
I would show him how to hold the official wood block against the belt sander.
I did the belt sander “machining” first on my car, step by step, bit by bit, and he would imitate me step by step, bit by bit. Our first cars were crude, crude, crude, but he was so proud. We widened the car body with a folded 3 X 5 card held on by thumb tacks and we added a rear wing. We painted them with model car paint and I found some miniature model car decals. Eric won the Design Award Trophy first time out……..but we got better.
I recall when we used a power mower to carve out a dirt track the property line and made a course to ride around on a mini-bike. I spent more time getting back on, than I did riding. Eric was closer to the ground and never fell off. We both shared the laughter.
When Erics goldfish died, we held a respectful funeral at the furthest corner of the property next to the mini-bike track.
The next year we built silver Porsches with red taillights and reflective thumb tack headlights. We made long vertical stabilizers and fenders. I found a way to lower the body. We cut out Porsche emblems from magazines. One of the parents made a car for his kid from a 2 X 4 and got disqualified. One kid taped a battery and a light to the car body.
Eric easily won the Design Award Trophy the second year………but we got better.
When soccer season came along, I would show up at Eric's before games and before practice sessions because I knew the stretching exercises. One of the dads worked for a company that made hot dog wieners and sponsored the uniforms…….. so Eric's team became “THE RED HOTS”.
The red hots were not that hot and never won a game.
Mel's was where we went to eat hot dogs. Eric and I created the “Longest French Fry” game. As you ate through the always crisp Mel's fries, when you found a long fry, you placed it on the napkin on the table between us and proclaimed: “I have the longest French Fry!”………just like the Power Rangers cartoons loudly exclaiming: “I have the power!”
As they say in the movie Highlander, “There can be only one!” It didn't matter who won the contest, the laughter provoked incoming customers to say: “I'll have whatever those two are having.”
By our third year racing we spent less time looking at car pictures and more time sanding and painting a great finish on the wood with Eric duplicating everything that he saw me do to my car. I found a way to belt sand a wood scrap and make a roof for the cars and we sanded them smooth. We discovered the year before that the “official” scale read differently than mom's postal scale, so we created a “gas tank” where Eric could add tiny bits of metal to bring his car's weight up to everyone else's.
Like a lot of male kids, Eric really liked the military and the GI Joe cartoons on TV. We went to Orlando and hit every Army Surplus store along the way. We got him a camouflage hat and sewed on a “Screaming Eagles” (101st Airborne) patch.
Eric loved everything Star Wars and that year we cut out Star Wars letters, logos and Porsche emblems from magazines.
I was racing a real Porsche at Sebring during that time. As it turned out, our new engine that was supposed to last 12 hours blew up. Eric did better than me! He won the Design Award Trophy a third year. Woo Hoo!
Star Wars Porsches Rule!
Eric's 4th. and last year. he wanted to once again make Indy 500 cars. We made plastic wings front and rear….made side gas tanks to streamline around the wheels and used tooth picks to simulate suspension arms.
Roger Penske had 3 cars on the front row at Indy. We painted our cars the same bright yellow. Mine had Pennzoil decals. Eric had Coca-Cola “6 pack to go” decals.
More important, we made exhaust pipes, spark plug wires, fuel injectors, all from bits of scrap wires that I found in a phone company trash can. We stuck a pin in the wood for a gear shift, and Eric pulled the head from a Star Wars figure to make a driver's head. Our cars were works of art!
After 3 years using the belt sander, Eric had gotten good at it. Our cars looked so good with the bright yellow color. The race official’s son won the Design Award Trophy.
More importantly, Eric raced his car at his Pinewood Derby Racing peak and Eric earned a class win!….and another trophy!
And me? I raced Eric once in each lane, and won both times! As Dominic Toretto says in the movie “Fast and Furious”,: A Win is a Win.
But the real purpose of building a Pinewood car with your son was not to build a car!
The real purpose of building a Pinewood car was not to win a race!
The real purpose of building a cheap Pinewood Car was to spend time together with father and son. And the time you spend together is PRICELESS!
Eric works on computers these days.
I still have a collection of race car pictures.
Sometimes I take out my Pinewood Derby Race Cars.
and I recall when an awkward kid became a winner.
…….and I became one too.