Chris Birnie was a Cub Scout for only one year, when he was in second grade, but he vividly remembers his less-than-stellar performance in the pinewood derby. The derby has been a scouting tradition since a southern California troop organized the first one in 1953: boys construct cars from kits containing a seven-inch-long block of wood, four nails, and four wheels, then race them down four-lane tracks. “Mine kind of stopped halfway down the track, and it looked bad,” says Birnie, 34.

Birnie hadn’t thought much about the race since then–until late last year, when he came up with the idea of putting together a derby for adults. He figured the idea would naturally appeal to ex-scouts–“people whose dads made the cars for them and didn’t get to build anything,” as well as “people like me who built their own and lost,” he says. But he wanted women to compete as well. One female participant, Birnie says, “had four brothers, and every year she had to go watch them do this thing in a church basement. So she’s in this just for sheer revenge.”

Since moving to Chicago with his wife, Carrie Shield, in 1999, Birnie had wanted to organize a group art show that centered on a single idea–the sort of thing he participated in during the eight years he lived in Seattle, where he earned his MFA from the University of Washington. He contributed a jean-jacket triptych for one show with a Pat Benatar theme; for another he invited artists to create works from a package of art supplies he’d assembled.

In March he bought 90 pinewood derby kits from an online scouting supply store for about two bucks each and sent them to the friends, visual artists, musicians, and writers who’d signed on to make a car for Friday’s race at Architectural Artifacts. Hideout co-owner Tim Tuten, art collector Curt Conklin, cartoonists Heather McAdams and Tony Millionaire (Maakies), Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh, and Reader columnist Liz Armstrong were among those who agreed to participate.

Many of them had never heard of the pinewood derby. “I had no clue,” says Robert Plogman, a photographer from Cincinnati. “I thought he was talking about the soapbox derby. I thought I was going to have to put this giant thing in my car and haul it to Chicago.” Amy Everett, an office manager at a local engineering firm, hadn’t heard of it either, but she designed a car shaped like a lipstick tube, coated in paint and nail polish. “I don’t think I’m going to win for the most tricked-out ride, so I thought I’d try for speed,” she says. “I’m kind of proud of it.”

Birnie originally intended just to host a race, but the derby soon expanded into an evening-long event including live music. DJ Jump Cut will spin and the Grounded, a trio of preteen girls, will play “Little Honda” at the opening ceremony. Ryan Berg, an art professor at the University of South Florida who attended graduate school with Birnie, is bringing his kitschy glam-rock band Chariot to perform a set of racing-themed songs. Berg’s outfitting for this show in a costume made entirely of award ribbons. “I went to the scout store here in Tampa and hit the mother lode of scout regalia,” he says.

Awards will be given for the first- and second-fastest cars as well as for the best design. Any money Birnie raises above the cost of the event will be donated to the local nonprofit Possibilities in Life: Art for Youth. Before the races all the cars Birnie’s received–he expects to have 75–will be on display. “I think about 75 percent are in it for the race, and the rest will just be objects,” he says. “Some of them don’t even roll.”

Chicago Pinewood Derby Invitational

When: Fri 6/24, 6:30 PM

Where: Architectural Artifacts, 4325 N. Ravenswood

Price: $20 donation


Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.