This annual event was actually once rated as one of the 100 greatest things about America (Reader's Digest magazine, 2006). I can only assume that the author had never been involved in one, or that in 2006 the country had absolutely gone to hell.
The point of this "friendly competition" is to build little cars and race them down a slanted track. Each 8-11 year old is given a standardized block of wood and 4 wheels, and can do what they want with them. Since the stakes are so high (winner gets a plastic trophy from Big Lots), the cars are carefully examined, weighed, and locked away 3 days before the race. This is to make sure that illegal modifications, like adding a jet engine, aren't carried out.
The whole part about this being a competition among the boys is absolute BS. It's between their testosterone charged fathers, living vicariously through the kids. Dads build the cars, and (occasionally) let junior make a few finishing touches (like putting a Pokemon decal on).
Of course, no one actually admits to this. So at each derby one of the finest moments is when the person in charge brings in the cars from the nuclear-bomb proof hiding location, and boys go ask dad which car is theirs. "Oh! That's mine? Cool job, Dad!"
(In our family, it's actually Mrs. Grumpy who does all this. I'm just a shill).
You can always tell the ones that the boys actually made themselves because they have uneven paint jobs, strange angles, and an odd number of wheels. Of course, they never win a race, because they're no match for the ones that some dad, who by day designs jet fighters for Lockheed, built (and claimed his kid did, using a wind tunnel testing facility that's coincidentally in the basement).
They ask you to arrive at 6:00 p.m. SHARP, which is a joke. The races never start on time.
So we arrived at the Wingnut Elementary School cafeteria at exactly 6:00, to find they'd just started setting up. To lend atmosphere (and help us forget that we were in a school cafeteria) some guys were hanging racing posters and pennants everywhere. A bunch of moms were off in one corner setting up a bake sale. And, most importantly, several dads were putting up the racing track, grading it with a computerized angle & level measuring device, as if it were made of gold.
While this is going on, to get you in a cheerful mood, they show fun racing moments on a large screen: cars and drivers in gory high-speed wrecks, flaming rocket boats hurtling out-of-control into screaming crowds, Indy cars exploding as they fuel up, and other humorous stuff.
Finally the races begin. This is kicked off by them blasting early 90's dance music. So if you've had a burning desire to hear C & C Music Factory, M.C. Hammer, and (not early 90's) ENDLESS replays of "The History of Rock & Roll, part 2"*, this is the place to be.
Each race features 4 cars, and they run them 3-4 times each, changing lanes each time. The race itself takes 5-10 seconds. Then they hand-carry the cars back to the starting point. Each is then reinspected (to make sure their owner didn't, say, use a blowgun to secretly attach a V8 engine while they were going down the track), carefully returned to the starting gate, and we begin again. And in the background 2 guys are still busy putting up racing poster decorations.
The race results are presented on a constantly-changing computerized time sheet, projected on the wall. This, I swear, measures finishing times TO SIX DECIMAL PLACES (i.e. 5.756381 seconds). Because, you know, that kind of space-travel level of precision is absolutely necessary when small wooden blocks are rolling down a track. And the dads obsessively stare at this like it's a topless dancer, while the kids play their Nintendo DS.
At some point your kids come to you asking for money. Why? Because they're selling pizza and various other junk food. They even asked you to bring something, because it's "for a good cause" (they never tell you what the good cause is. For all I know it's Botox for the counter lady). So you stop at Costco, pick up a HUGE box of Oreos, and give them to her. The Oreos are then marked up to 50 cents each, and the box is now worth more than an equivalent amount of plutonium. We discovered it was best to feed the kids before leaving our house, and making sure we have nothing but credit cards when we get there. "They only take cash? Sorry, kids."
This insanity goes on for 3-4 freakin' hours. Most people start to leave as soon as their kid is disqualified from the finals, but some parents (due to, say, their wives secretly signing them up to be involved in taking apart the damn track and not telling you about it until you ask if you can leave yet, for example) are stuck there until the bitter end. So you tap your feet and watch 2 guys continue to heroically put up racing posters.
Toward the end you start looking for something to do. Like helping the school janitor put away the folding chairs (he wants to go home, too). So if anyone stands up, you grab their chair and toss it in the closet, hoping they weren't planning on sitting down again. I figured if anyone fell and hurt themselves, I could hand out business cards.
Finally, it's over. If your kid didn't win, you don't care who did. As you're leaving, you notice the 2 guys are finally finishing putting up the last racing poster.
*Kind of ironic considering how Gary Glitter ended up, eh?