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History of the Pinewood Derby

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Pinewood Derby Article in Boys' Life Magazine
Article from the October 1954 edition of Boys' Life Magazine.

Image courtesy of Boys' Life Magazine

I LOVE the Pinewood Derby!  Walking into the room for my very first Pinewood Derby was an unforgettable experience.  Every year, I can't wait to watch it again!

The Pinewood Derby celebrated its 60th anniversary in 2013.  It started with Don Murphy who was the Cubmaster for Pack 280c in Manhattan Beach, California.  Mr. Murphy's son wanted to participate in the Soap Box Derby, but he was too young.  So Mr. Murphy took his life-long hobby of building models and combined that with the Soap Box Derby's concept of gravity-powered vehicles.  And the Pinewood Derby was created.

After gaining support from his employer, the Management Club at North American Aviation, Mr. Murphy enlisted the help of Pack Committee members to create and assemble the kits which were handed out to the boys in brown paper bags.  Some of the Cub Scout dads built a 31′ race ramp.

The first Pinewood Derby was held on May 15, 1953 at the Scout House at Manhattan Beach.  About 55 Cub Scouts raced their Pinewood Derby cars that day.  Knowing how exciting the Derby is today, I can't imagine the enthusiasm that was running through the Scout House.

First Pinewood Derby 1953
Image Courtesy of Art of Manliness

The Derby was so successful that the Los Angeles City Recreation and Parks Department asked Mr. Murphy and his employer for permission to conduct Pinewood Derby races at city parks.  Two years later, over 300 people attended the Los Angeles Pinewood Derby Championship at Griffith Park.

Word of the Pinewood Derby soon reached the BSA national office. The national director of Cub Scouting Service, O. W. (Bud) Bennett, wrote Mr. Murphy saying, “We believe you have an excellent idea, and we are most anxious to make your material available to the Cub Scouts of America.”  Mr. Murphy agreed, and so the tradition we still love today was born.

Mr. Murphy remained involved in his local Pinewood Derby until his retirement in 1978.  In 1997, Gary McAulay took over as Cubmaster of Pack 713.  When he discovered that his pack was a descendant of Mr. Murphy's Pack 280c, Mr. McAulay set out to find Mr. Murphy.

Imagine Mr. Murphy's surprise to find that his creation has been a part of the lives of an estimated 50 million boys!  He became involved again in many Pinewood Derbies.  Mr. Murphy was 83 years old in 2003 when the Pinewood Derby turned 50.  He was the guest of honor at many anniversary events that year.

Mr. Murphy passed away in 2008, but his Pinewood Derby legacy lives on today.

Yours in Scouting,
Sherry

P.S. If this article was informative, sign up below for your free guide, How to Build the Best Pinewood Derby Car Ever!

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8+ Articles to Help You With Your Pinewood Derby ~ Cub Scout Ideas

Friday 23rd of October 2020

[…] out about the history of the Pinewood Derby and how exciting the event really […]

Amy

Sunday 17th of December 2017

Love the history of such a fun activity. My boys love making cars for the pinewood derby

Articles to Help You With Your Pinewood Derby | Cub Scout Ideas

Friday 12th of May 2017

[…] out about the history of the Pinewood Derby and how exciting the event really […]

Peter Conway

Thursday 16th of February 2017

Sherry, I love your article. I was at the very first Pinewood Derby in May 1953. I was in Den 4, Dorthy Rickert was our Den Mother. Her husband was a cabinet maker and he helped us all with the building of the cars during our den meetings. I still remember my car. It was blue and gold after the Los Angeles Rams and I put # 40 on it after my favorite player, Elroy “crazy legs’” Hirsch. Of course, no one had any idea at that time, but it was terribly exciting. I believe I am in the lower photograph, but it is blurry and very difficult to be certain. It heart warming to know we were part of something, that is still a tradition. Thanks for the memories, Peter Conway

Stephanie Houser

Sunday 19th of February 2017

That is so awesome!! What an amazing story and such an amazing tradition that has touched the hearts of so many boys. Where ever you are I encourage you to go to a local Derby!! The boys would LOVE to hear from someone who was there at the beginning, it would be such a treat for them. Our scouts are in Virginia and would love it if you happen to live around here. Regardless, thanks for sharing your story and have a great day!! Stephanie Houser Pack 462, Three Rivers District Chesapeake, Virginia

Sherry

Friday 17th of February 2017

Oh, wow!! That's incredible. Thank you so much for sharing!

Down & Derby Movie Review | Cub Scout Ideas

Monday 11th of January 2016

[…] very special moment in the movie is a cameo appearance of Don Murphy, the creator of the Pinewood Derby.  Mr. Murphy passed away 3 years after the movie was […]