My grandfather’s basement workshop was pristine and overly outfitted, like he’d won it on a gameshow. As a boy, I would venture down there with him to fix a wobbly chair or grab a hammer needed to re-enforce a birdhouse. He was over prepared.
I was ten years-old and in the Cub Scouts for the first time. The Pinewood Derby was the big event of the year—our gender’s equivalent of Girl Scout cookie season. Each of us received the same kit: one rectangular block of wood; four wheels, and two axles. We could paint it however we liked, add passengers, cover it in stickers—anything that made it uniquely ours. The trick was the weight. Heavier cars are faster. Before the race, officials would weight them, like in a prize fight.
My grandfather accepted the challenge of helping me turn my wooden slug into a race car. He decided we would drill small holes in the body and fill them with fishing sinkers. I want to say we dusted off his trusty drill, but I think it was probably the first time he’d ever used it. He helped steady my hand as I bore twelve equally spaced holes, and then dropped a tiny lead pellet into each. We filled any extra space with wood glue and set our future hotrod on the shelf to dry over night.
The next morning we sanded it and gave it a few coats of metallic blue paint. After dinner we attached the axle and wheels, and then put it on the scale. She was the perfect competition weight. I paraded that car around to my friends, and gave my grandfather with false credits, like “auto mechanic,” and “master carpenter.” When my mom and I arrived at the derby, I remember feeling as if I was carrying something more valuable than a hunk of painted wood filled with tackle.
It was a single elimination tournament. Races were held on five different tracks of four cars each. Losers went home and winners stayed to face three new opponents. I was randomly selected to be in the first race, and soon realized that the other cars didn’t have a chance—two of them weren’t even painted. I took mine out of a shoe box, unfurled the dish towel in which I’d wrapped it, and placed it on the starting line.
A whistle blew, the stable doors opened, and our racers started rolling down the tracks. Already in first place, I smiled, pride blooming in my stomach. But as they built up speed, my car veered to the left and contacted another car, disqualifying me.
For the first time in my life, I felt like something impossibly unfair was happening to me. I began sobbing and screaming for a do over. “My grandpa helped me build that car!” I couldn’t understand how something that seemed to be built so perfectly, in the perfect conditions, and with the perfect person, could fail. My mother tried to contain me, but I’d lost it. I was embarrassing myself and I knew it, but I couldn’t stop.
My grandfather never asked me how the race went. My mom must have told him what happened.
I understand now that all the boys that day had a story about how their car was built with someone special to them. That was the whole point: to get us to seek the help of a family member and experience the joy that comes with working together on something you’re both proud of. We were all too young to understand that winning the race didn’t validate our loved ones.
My father told me the next day, “Jace, you know that track you lost on? They stopped using it because the lane was bent.” I’ve always chosen to believe him.