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How to make a fast pinewood derby car

SAFETY FIRST: Ask an adult to help with tools you haven't used before.

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Packs around the country are preparing to hold their annual pinewood derby. There are many ways to make your pinewood derby car go faster. Here are some of them.

General Guidelines for Pinewood Derby Car Design

The possibilities are endless when it comes to picking a shape for your pinewood derby car. Before you begin, consider the following guidelines:

Avoid designs with a pointed nose. A pointed nose will make it difficult for your pinewood derby car to rest on the pin at the starting gate. It may also cause your pinewood derby car to get bumped around when the pin drops, and it can create problems for electronic timing systems.

Leave enough wood in the rear of the pinewood derby car so you can place additional weight there. You will end up putting most of the weight in the rear of the pinewood derby car.

Make the maximum weight. Your car should weigh as much as it’s allowed. In most races, that’s 5 ounces. If your car weighs less than that, add coins or other weights.

Be sure that it is very clear which end of your pinewood derby car is the front and which end is the back. In many races, the race officials —- not you -— will actually place each pinewood derby car on the track. Sometimes the officials put the pinewood derby car on the track backward because they can’t tell which end is which.

Choose a design that allows the air to move over and around the pinewood derby car body in a smooth manner. Pinewood derby cars with aerodynamic profiles go faster.


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Designing the Ultimate Pinewood Derby Car

You don’t have to strive for the “ultimate pinewood derby car” to build a fast car and have fun competing in your pinewood derby. But if you and a helpful adult are willing to put in the extra time and effort, these tips are for you.

Bake the Block: Start with your block of wood, and before you do anything else, bake it in the oven at 250 degrees for around two hours to remove moisture and make it lighter.

pinespeed4Create the Design: Select a fast design. A rectangular car is not an aerodynamic design. The most basic aerodynamic design is a simple wedge. If you don’t have time to design a complex car, a wedge will work just fine.

Cut the Design: Draw the outline of your pinewood derby car on a sheet of paper, cut it out and attach it to your block of wood.

Make a Three-Wheeler: Raise one wheel about 1/16 inch higher so it never actually touches the track. Less friction = more speed. Rules vary from pack to pack, so make sure this is allowed in your race.

Extend the Wheelbase: The front and rear wheels should be as far apart as possible.

Determine Weight Placement: A heavier rear increases speed. Add weight to the rear of your pinewood derby car. Remember to make your car as heavy as the rules allow.

Create Glue Holes: Glue the axles firmly in their holes to ensure that they stay perfectly placed.

Sand the Pinewood Derby Car: Make it smooth to reduce friction.

Lubricate the Wheel Well: The less friction between the body and wheel, the better.

Click here for more speed tips from a former NASA engineer


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Choosing and Polishing Your Axles and Wheels

The quality of your axles and wheels may be the most important factor in building a fast car. Here’s how to choose and polish your axles and wheels.

derby2.jpg1. Start with a set of raw axles.

2. Can you tell the difference between the axles in the top row and the ones on the bottom? The ones on the bottom aren’t straight and will slow your car.

3. To tell which are straight and which aren’t, mark each axle with a marker about 1/2 inch from the pointed end.

4. Have an adult clamp a power drill into a vise, a device that will hold it perfectly still.

5. Have an adult help you clamp each axle into the drill at the location you marked in Step 3. Have the adult turn on the drill.

wobble-200x2006. Bent axles will wobble as they turn in the drill. Straight axles will hardly wobble at all. Pick the ones that wobble least.

7. Once you’ve selected the four straightest axles, use a file or fine-grit sandpaper to remove small burrs and mold marks that can cause friction and slow a car. These imperfections should be removed from both the axles and the wheels.

8. Use polishing compound from the auto supply store to polish the wheels and axles. One easy way to do this is to clamp the axles back in the drill and let the drill spin the axle while you polish it.

9. When you install the axles and wheels, make sure they are aligned perfectly straight. You can test the alignment of your axles by pushing your car across a smooth floor or table. It should roll in a straight line.

10. Don’t forget to add graphite or another dry lubricant to your wheels and axles.


Remember: The No. 1 rule of a pinewood derby is that it’s supposed to be fun. While you should always strive to do your best, don’t get caught up in winning. Just enjoy the ride.

Adapted from the book “Pinewood Derby Speed Secrets,” DK Publishing, $12.95 softcover.

More pinewood derby fun:


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49 Comments on How to make a fast pinewood derby car

  1. first car, kina hard.

    • i agree with durbykid. first cars are really hard. this is only my second time trying the derby. my dad wont work on it just because he doesnt no the date when its gonna be!!!

  2. Cubleader514 // February 1, 2011 at 11:43 am // Reply

    When you open the box of the car it has a set of rules and instructions. Read them it says to use the original axle slots. Extended wheel base is against the rules!!! You must use the original axle slots. You can straighten the slots. Only dry lubricant is allowed no oil. Axles can be polished only and the burrs removed and the wheels can have the spot that is from the mold sanded smooth.

    • some car plans call for the extended wheel base, we went to the district and they removed the rule stating that you have to use the original axel slots.

      • Derby goof // January 19, 2012 at 7:19 am //

        Too bad, I guess it depends on where you live. In our area, all of the winning cars had extended wheel bases. I guess it is up to the local rules.

  3. My son won his pack races using the speed tips in Mr. Meade’s book. After the races, our pack leader stated that our extended wheelbase “might not” pass district inspections. He also stated the axles must be viewable. Neither the pack or disctrict rules mention anything about using original axles slots or that the axles must be viewable. The wheels and axles must not be modified, but there is no mention of the axle slots themselves. We don’t want to modify our car if it ends up being allowed, nor do we want to be at a disadvantage if it is allowed. Anyone else run into this type thing? Thoughts? Ideas?

    • ~ for clarification ~

      Exact local rules:

      Car Specifications:
      I. Width .. not greater than 2 3/4 inches.
      2. Length .. not longer than 7 inches.
      3. Gross weight .. shall not exceed 5 ounces.
      4. Width between wheels .. 1 3/4 inches
      5. Clearance .. no less than 3/8 inch.
      6. Height .. 3 inches max.

      Car Rules:
      I. Wheel bearings, washers, bushings and springs are prohibited.
      2. Only official Cub Scout Grand Prix Pinewood Derby wheels and axles are permitted.
      3. The car shall be freewheeling with no starting device(s).
      4. Only dry type lubricant is permitted. (Graphite).
      5. Wheels and axles may not be altered. Wheels and axles may be polished to remove imperfections. No changes to the size or shape of the wheels and axles are permitted.
      6. The entire car must line up behind the starting post.
      7. Weights must be fastened securely and paint shall be dry.
      Race Rules:
      I. Cars shall be inspected, and then weighed on the official race scale. Cars will be checked to assure that none of the construction limitations have been exceeded.

    • BurlingtonRR // February 3, 2011 at 9:48 pm // Reply

      Ask you pack if there are specific rules they abide by. Same goes with the district or council. My pack had a set of rules we used and removed the originals out of the boxes before handing them out. Any car that did not follow the rules was disqualified. It was unfortunate but it was stated before the cars were pasted out to the boys.

  4. Today and yesterday I worked on a pinewood derby car, just for fun. I know it is agenced the rules to use oil but I dont have a derby coming up so I gess It’s ok

  5. I did not win a trophy but i won a medal

  6. its true that if you put weight in the back you get more overall speed, but if you put it in the front, you get a big head start

    • I’ve never heard about the head start thing. Putting weight in the front should have no effect on the start unless the weight causes your car to drop dramatically after the pin goes down. Any advantage gained there would be lost to the inherent instability of the car. The weight in the rear is the way to go. Gravity is the only engine. The higher the weight (furthest back on the car), the more it is going to drop. I showed my son this by dropping a pencil on an slight ramp from different heights. The further up it dropped from, the further it rolled.

      • If your track gets steeper after the starting post a front weighted car will accelerate faster that a rear weighted car (because the weight is over the steeper section sooner) but this advantage may be lost if the car hits the center guide (it will have more trouble realigning if it is weighted in front)

    • Not necessarily!! My son has won multiple races and he has never had any car with the weight in the front beat him from the start or the finish. It is weird and seems to go against logic but any successful derby racer will tell you to place the majority of the weight in the rear of the car.

  7. Is this all true? I have a pine wood derby this weekend and I want to win for both speed and coolness.:)

  8. i like this articale

  9. i am going to win this year.I am going to come in first.

  10. Mr. Person :D // January 18, 2011 at 8:34 pm // Reply

    I dunno what my design will be… The derby is on Saturday and it’s Tuesday…

    • procrastinator // January 19, 2011 at 7:12 pm // Reply

      I just opened the pinewood derby block for the saturday’s race.
      It does not look anything like the ones shown on this website.
      hmmmm….do they allow a block shaped car??

      • yes they do.

      • RegMaster // December 5, 2011 at 9:14 am //

        Yes, they do allow a block car. We had a boy one time just put paint the block, put the wheels in and he won!!

      • Spongebob Pinewood Pants // December 13, 2011 at 1:47 pm //

        I won the same way, my wheels said #13 on the insides but it won anyhow. I painted with sisters water kolors. I forgot to build it early and we was in a hurry.

  11. I hope I don’t lose on the 29th.

  12. i totally agree with awesome Man. Every first time Pinewood Derby Racer should have some help.

  13. cool cars

  14. DoubleTrouble // January 5, 2011 at 5:39 pm // Reply

    my dad showed me but made me use the tools and do all work myself. Helped alot but I made my own car and learned alot.My dad says that means I won.

    • Congrats to all of the parents who helped guide the scout through this project. What these guys learn from doing this Derby-win or lose- is monumental! Confidence, persistence, humility, problem-solving, etc. Way to go Scouts! Keep doing your best!

    • Awesome!!!! We also have Derby Clinics where the boys build their cars together with their dad or mom as a group. Try this with your pack. It is a lot of fun!!

  15. my idea is an iPod

  16. harry potter not snapes 1 fan // January 4, 2011 at 12:51 am // Reply

    i won 3 gold trophies competing with my friends

  17. webalo scout pack 767 // January 2, 2011 at 5:02 pm // Reply

    I got the 1st place trophy 4 times

  18. I just started scouts and I need Ideas for my Car because I got it today and I need some Ideas (like I said earlier)so I can win the race. What stinks is that the kit I got barely has anything inside. Can anyone give me Ideas?

  19. did not work

  20. When I was a tiger scout, i got first place.

  21. pinewood derby jerk // December 28, 2010 at 9:45 pm // Reply

    my friends wheel flew off his car and it hit my face and i was in hospital for 24 hours because i had an axle in my face

  22. i won yesterday!!!!!!

  23. this is my first time doing it

  24. I one in a race with my den but the pack did much better then me.

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