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Use Science to Make a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

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A former NASA engineer explains how you can use science to succeed at your next pinewood derby.

For seven years, I worked at NASA on the Mars Curiosity rover. It is just like a pinewood derby car, except it has six wheels, it’s nuclear powered and it shoots lasers.

My Cub Scout son and I decided we would take the science principles I used while building stuff at NASA and apply them to making his pinewood derby car.

Take a look at some of those science principles in this video and check out my list of the most important steps for making fastest pinewood derby car possible.

Seven Steps for Making a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

1. Max out your pinewood derby car’s weight at 5 ounces and make sure the heaviest part is about 1 inch in front of the rear axle. This is the most important step. Science shows if you do this correctly, you will beat a pinewood derby car built exactly the same — except with the weight toward its front — by 4.6 car lengths. It works because the farther back the weight is, the more potential energy you have because your center of mass is higher up on the track. (Don’t put it too far back, or your pinewood derby car will become unstable and pop a wheelie.)


2. Use lightweight wheels. This is illegal in some races, but if it’s not in yours, this is a must-do step that will give you a 2.1-car-length advantage at the finish line versus a car with normal wheels. It works because heavy wheels take away from the kinetic energy (the energy something has due to its motion), which makes the pinewood derby car slower.


3. Use bent polished axles. Bending your axles with a bending tool will make the wheels ride up against the nailhead, which creates less friction than if the wheel is bouncing around and rubbing against the wooden pinewood derby car body. See video for details.


4. Railride. Railriding means you steer your pinewood derby car into the center guide track just enough that you keep the car from bouncing around. This helps reduce friction and saves energy for speed. See video for details.


5. Create a pinewood derby car that is reasonably aerodynamic, meaning its design cuts down on drag caused by air. No need to get crazy here, but simply having a wedge-shaped pinewood derby car instead of the standard block out of the box will equal a 1.4-car advantage at the finish line.


6. Ride on three wheels by raising one wheel off the track. (Check the rules to make sure this is allowed in your race.) You will move faster if you have to get only three wheels rotating, giving you a 1.1-car advantage over an identical pinewood derby car riding on four wheels.


7. Use lots of graphite. There isn’t a big difference in types of graphite, so buy the cheap stuff and use as much as possible. Be sure to get plenty around each wheel and on the axle.

It works! After my research, my son and I wanted to do one final test to prove that this is a good list. So we built a simple pinewood derby car using this list in 45 minutes, and we beat the fastest pinewood derby car in our local race by two car lengths. Turns out, science works!


roberMeet Mark Rober

Mark Rober worked as a mechanical engineer at NASA for nine years. During this time, he worked on Curiosity, a car-sized robot that left Earth in 2011, landed on Mars in 2012, and has been exploring, conducting experiments and sending back pictures ever since. Now Mark makes high-tech Halloween costumes.


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29 Comments on Use Science to Make a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

  1. RosieIsAwesome // February 26, 2016 at 8:10 pm // Reply

    Girl Scouts are doing this now 😂😂😂

  2. pinewood derbyer // February 20, 2016 at 6:51 pm // Reply

    HORRIBLE! GOT DISQUALIFIED!

  3. a_man_from_around_the_corner // February 9, 2016 at 5:12 pm // Reply

    On one of the pinewood derbies I had gone to, a boy had tried out the wedged block trick. What I also heard about what he did was obvious, he maxed out the cars weight, but before, he had baked the block in the oven for a half hour on 350 degrees, making this as light as a feather. Shortly after that, he had taken out parts of the block so that he could replace it with weights, this being on the center balance point of the vehicle. The last major adaptation to his winning car was all of the graphite that he applied to his cantered wheels. For years afterward, he won the derby, making him someone to follow after.

  4. Anonymous 123 // January 19, 2016 at 8:07 pm // Reply

    Cool tips will use this at derby! !!

  5. #7 couldn’t be more wrong. Go ahead and use the cheap stuff and overpack it if you want to lose vs someone who uses good stuff correctly.

  6. Also the axles (nails) have a raised edge under the nail head from the manufacturing. Chuck the axle nail in a dremel tool and use a jewelers file or even sandpaper to remove it while the axle is spinning, like a lathe (clamp the dremel to a work bench to make it easier). Then polish that section of the axle. But don’t take off too much metal!

  7. epic!!!

  8. A wedge with little grooves in it works better than just a wedge. Tried it. I quit a while ago so I don’t care if anyone tries this trick.

  9. i’m doing a science fair project, and so far this has worked

  10. Random Minecraft zombie // October 15, 2015 at 2:40 pm // Reply

    I personoly wouldent do the three weeler thing.
    P.S. the cars go to slowly to make airodenamicks
    matter.

  11. Spaceman Spiff // July 22, 2015 at 1:03 pm // Reply

    Some of these sound questionable.

    • 3 wheels touching the track creates less friction than 4 wheels. It works.

      • Wrong… friction per wheel increases so the net friction is the same. What makes 3 wheels faster is less rotational inertia. There is one less wheel that has to accelerate (radially). This means faster acceleration.

  12. If I only knew all this in 1978, I would have placed first instead of second! 😉

  13. I gonna try this at the pinewood derby.

  14. Is it true

  15. Best info ever

  16. fast

  17. derby master // February 26, 2015 at 6:56 pm // Reply

    ill try this

  18. that’s nice

  19. cool

  20. next derby im gunna domanate if i try this ……im exciteded

  21. Good Ideas for This Month!!!

  22. do you need the special tool to bend the axles?

  23. Can you send a picture of the car

  24. District competition rules may be stiffer than the Pack rules.
    Parent and sibling races may have looser rules since they don’t move on to District.
    This is a great video for explaining the principle’s of why all cars don’t run the same.
    It may be better at explaining that to some overly competitive parents than to the Cubs.
    ALWAYS make sure the Cub has a good time building it…fast or not in the end.

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