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Connecticut Days: Swept away in go-kart mania

The message was on the answering machine on our return home from Britain after Christmas. It was an invitation, discovered one day after the event, to attend a Tiger Cubs go-kart clinic at the house of a neighbour. We played the tape a few times more, but still we were baffled. A go-kart clinic?

Whatever it was, it sounded ominous. Jonathan, our six-year-old, became a Tiger Cub last autumn on his way to becoming a full Cub Scout later this year. The deal was that this was strictly Daddy's department. This Daddy has since learned that most other Daddies take Cub business fearfully seriously. It is not for mucking about.

But nothing in the Tiger Cubs calendar can be quite so intimidating as the annual Pinewood Derby. Open to Cub Scouts of all ages, it is an evening of desperate competition with fathers and sons racing model cars down a sloping length of wooden track. It sounds fun, but there is a catch. The cars have to be made at home out of seven-inch blocks of very unforgiving wood. Therein is the skill of it all. And the agony.

The clinic; if only we had not missed it. The surgeon-in-chief whose wife had left the phone message had been John and he, I know, is a man whose basement is fairly jammed with things like chisels and, most of all, a vice. Usborne Towers is not so richly appointed. Our workbench was a tea-tray and the chisel a putty knife.

You do, at least, have an official "Pinewood Derby Kit" from which to work. Provided is the block of wood, four nails to serve as axles and four plastic wheels. And there are instructions. The notion that Jonathan was meant to be making this thing on his own was plainly ludicrous. No six-year-old could do this.

The instructions turn out to be a rule-sheet. "Wheel bearings, washers and bushings are prohibited ... The car shall not ride on springs ... Dry graphite is the only lubricant permitted ... no starting devices ... " Most crucial are the dimensions and weight. Wheels must be 1/32 of an inch from the car's body. The vehicle must not weigh more than 5oz.

I decide to team up with William, an English friend. Together we hit the local hardware stores only to be met by giggles and ridicule. We might as well have worn signs that read "Hopeless Fathers About to Let Down Their Sons". My vintage English fret-saw with its crooked blade caused particular uproar. "In this country, sir, saws like that would be disposable." What I needed was a new coping saw, but they had all gone to all the other fathers making cars.

It must be said that when the big night comes, neither of our cars are a disgrace. William's model is almost sleek, although ours boasts a rather special windscreen and steering-wheel arrangement ripped from one of Jonathan's Lego sets. But our cars were mere Trabants next to the Ferrari's produced by most of the other parents. Just how many hours and how many dollars did you people spend, I want to shout out.

The races are in a series of heats with three cars at a time. Some fathers crane intently over the track. One is reprimanded by a Cub master after he is caught red-handed squirting last-minute graphite on his axles.

The brilliance of it all is how the British entrants perform. We are persistent second-placers, which means all humiliation for our sons is avoided, as is any danger of going on to the regional Cub Scout finals. Nor do we suffer the embarrassment of another English father, Andy, who last year was awarded a special prize for a car that had clearly been made by his child alone, so utterly crude was its design and finish. His son, of course, had had nothing to do with it.