Pinewood Derby exciting time for special education students

By Karie Angell Luc For Chronicle Media

Danny Lazar (from left), 7, a first-grader, Olivia Belga, 6, and Matthew Williams, 5, all of Lincolnwood are on the sidelines. (Photo by Karie Angell Luc/for Chronicle Media)

The need for speed is often a good deed by Mike Currier of north suburban Green Oaks.

Currier, a professional Pinewood Derby producer, donated his services for the second Pinewood Derby on Feb. 10 at the Julia S. Molloy Education Center (8701 Menard Ave.) in Morton Grove.

“I’m very excited,” said Currier, as the first of three approximate 45-minute derby runs took place at Molloy that Friday.

“It’s the joy of the kids, seeing their excitement as the cars run,” said Currier, who reaches out to the Niles Township District for Special Education (NTDSE) 807 to offer his resources to Molloy free of charge.

Some of the 60 cars featured at the second Pinewood Derby at the Julia S. Molloy Education Center in Morton Grove. (Photo by Karie Angell Luc/for Chronicle Media)

For special cases or needs, Currier will consider pro bono ops. He’s renowned in the Midwest on the Pinewood Derby circuit as a hired pro who uses computer-based timing technology.

“I enjoy this race (at Molloy) because I have a special needs brother,” said Currier, referring to his older brother, Skip.

Currier is known for introducing himself to the children, walking around at the beginning of each event to generate excitement. He also announces race-car heats typically via microphone.

With music played back on overhead room speakers, such as the song, “409” performed by

Professional Pinewood Derby producer Mike Currier (right) has just announced the heat as Maggie Lannoye (left), occupational therapist, releases the cars down a 35-foot track. (Photo by Karie Angell Luc/for Chronicle Media)

The Beach Boys, Molloy’s multi-purpose area was transformed into a Pinewood Derby racing venue on a school day.

Bright rope lighting encircled the track. Here, 60 cars took turns, thanks to trusty gravity, down Currier’s 35-foot wooden track.

The track, made of maple with a natural finish, has been cared for by Currier for nearly three decades and gets a perpetual hand-rubbed polishing by its owner before cars take a spin.

Heirloom wood tracks are becoming rare, many adult organizers on the derby scene agree.

Metal, such as aluminum, or plastic tracks are featured at hobby stores or sold via websites.

Youngsters like to clamor as close as they’re allowed to be near the track.

“These kids don’t care about winning or losing, they’re here to have fun,” Currier said.

Agnes Candea (left), a paraprofessional, talking to children on the sidelines. (Photo by Karie Angell Luc/for Chronicle Media)

“Seeing the faces on the kids makes it all worthwhile.”

Was Danny Lazar, a Molloy first-grader from Lincolnwood, excited about the Pinewood Derby?

“Yes!” Danny said.

The Molloy Education Center accommodates students from preschool until their 22nd birthday. NTDSE serves school districts in the Cook County communities of Morton Grove, Niles, Lincolnwood and Skokie.

Helen Conroy, occupational therapist, launched the Pinewood Derby at Molloy.

“This is our second time and we want to make this (derby) an annual event,” she said.

“He’s amazing,” Conroy said, of Currier.

Mike Currier (left) of Green Oaks, a professional Pinewood Derby producer, is trackside with George Moulinos of Skokie, a kindergartner. (Photo by Karie Angell Luc/for Chronicle Media)

Currier is self-employed as a painting contractor and has been known to turn down jobs if he’s booked a derby gig months in advance.

“He begs us to do this, calling and emailing,” Conroy said, with gratitude.

“He doesn’t even need to be asked, which is amazing,” she said, complimenting Currier’s character.

Cars at Molloy were made from kits. The kits were donated from a hobby company, Conroy said.

After wood blocks were precut, in class, students sanded, painted and decorated cars. Fun names were encouraged.

“It brings our community together,” said Tarin Kendrick, NTDSE executive director/superintendent. “Everybody is involved.”

During the race, children danced. They held posters, which promoted the names of the cars they were rooting for.

“The learning opportunity for the Pinewood Derby is that it builds the community within each of our classrooms,” Kendrick said.

“All of the kids get involved and come together as a community.

Guess who’s dancing? Meet Danny Lazar, a first-grader of Lincolnwood. (Photo by Karie Angell Luc/for Chronicle Media)

“The fun,” Kendrick added, “is that they’ve actively engaged with their peers, they’re cheering each other on, there’s a lot of team spirit … just a good feeling.”

STEAM curriculum principles are at play when building a derby car, Helen Conroy agreed.

STEAM stands for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics.

Conroy said she was inspired to host a Pinewood Derby at Molloy after seeing her son succeed at the derby tradition during his time in Boy Scouting.

“I thought, ‘Wow, we could have a derby at the school,’” Conroy said.

Pinewood Derby events are a Cub Scout offering endorsed by the Boy Scouts of America (BSA).

But the derby, with other names, guidelines or rules, is also for siblings and Girl Scouts.

Young and older adults also compete when restaurants or venues such as shopping malls or clubs accommodate events for circuit fans.

An example of the 60 cars featured at the second Pinewood Derby at the Julia S. Molloy Education Center in Morton Grove. (Photo by Karie Angell Luc/for Chronicle Media)

Car building can involve intergenerational support to sons and daughters.

Kids are encouraged to construct the cars on their own with ideally minimal adult intervention. But adult assistance is often needed for operational tasks such as band saw electric wood cuts. The Internet is a resource.

“The Pinewood Derby is a tremendous event,” Currier said.

“You learn good sportsmanship and working as a team, which is very important at Molloy,” he said.

“The kids see their work pay off,” Currier said.

“And for me, that’s my reward.”

Amanda Singer, a paraprofessional, holds a “Go Happily Ever After!” poster. (Photo by Karie Angell Luc/for Chronicle Media)




— Pinewood Derby an exciting time for special education students —