From Pinewood Derby to Real Steel: A Garage Adventure

This post originally appeared in Tinkernation, see it here.

My first car-building experience didn’t involve grease and engines at all – it involved a block of wood and four plastic wheels. Just like thousands of other kids across America, I too participated in pinewood derby racing. Unlike the other kids however, I showed up with completely unique cars. Thanks to my active imagination and my Dad’s master tinkering skills – my pinewood derby entries ranged from egg and squiggle shaped, to mirror covered and Jellybean filled creations.

Winning was never the goal of these races – and I don’t recall ever doing great in the speed categories – but I did take home ribbons for “Most Unique” or “Best Design”. What I liked most was arriving with a car I felt proud of – my design, work, and originality had created it.

Perhaps these experiences shaped me more than I know– because the desire to have a hand in creating the things around me remains strong – especially with cars. I had wanted a classic car for years – not only did they have a style and personality all their own, but they necessitated tinkering. Owning a classic wouldn’t feel right to me, unless I could work on it (not to mention the cost of hiring a mechanic)!

Having always been logical-thinking, creative and handy – I knew mechanics was something I could pick up, I just hadn’t up to that point. I began asking about how engines worked and to be shown how to change a tire and oil. But I didn’t really begin learning until keys were in my hand. In 2006, during a move to Southern California, I made the leap and purchased it – a 1955 Studebaker Champion. I needed a car to get me around LA, and this was to be my daily driver. I had no idea what I was getting into.

Life in the garage was a whole new world for me. Little by little I got acquainted with the vocabulary, learned how to use tools, and gained confidence in my tinkering (which I usually call “wrenching”). I had to face my fears about asking dumb questions and doing something incorrectly, or worse yet, something that would cause damage. It took a year and a half to get my car roadworthy (in which time I had quite a bit of help.) Along the journey, I gained not only skills and confidence – but a whole bunch of new friends.

24-hours after the car was deemed “finished,” I set out alone across the desert heading to a large car and rockabilly music event called Viva Las Vegas. The journey went off without a hitch. And although I won no car show trophies, I didn’t need one. I swelled with pride to be escorted by my “Stude.” It was the same pride I’d had as a kid entering the pinewood derby. Stude isn’t something I just went out and bought – it’s something I helped to create.

Looking back across the past few years, I see how much I’ve gained by stepping into the garage and beginning to tinker. I’ve accomplished tasks above my ability, seen things through that I didn’t think I could make work, and figured out that it’s okay to not have all the answers. Most importantly, I’ve built relationships with a whole new car “family.” Tinkering usually isn’t a solitary activity – both because you need others and because when you make something you’re proud of you want to share it.

With a desire to open my new-found world up to others, I launched Grease Girl.  It’s a blog where I chronicle my adventures, obstacles, lessons, and joys… and hopefully encourage the next person to pick up a wrench and begin to tinker!

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