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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.


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.


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


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.

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25 Comments on How to Make a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

  1. Finally, I'm the fastest kid // March 29, 2009 at 4:23 pm // Reply

    Used tips in Speed Secrets book to win 1st & 2nd & 4th at family reunion against 20+ cars. Other adults’ cars, including machinist and doctors, got humbled by the flying wedges. Solid information throughout the book helped me and my 12 yr old son build three cars into winners. Only used stock BSA parts from the scout store and kit. My axles beat ‘pro’ axles because of the speed tips.
    Had a great time w/ my son building and racing the cars.
    Also SHARED the tips and book w/ everyone. Helped my brother and his son take third.

  2. Shape the inside of the wheel’s hub to a cone. Less friction against the body of the car.

  3. Pinewood Dad // March 19, 2009 at 8:01 pm // Reply

    David Meade’s book, Pinewood Derby Speed Secrets, is FANTASTIC!!
    It explains the science and how to have fun, learn and do well.
    He explains over and over again several key points that many racers ignore.
    Check the local rules PRIOR to making radical modifications.
    Good Luck!

  4. Mammoth007 // March 1, 2009 at 5:49 pm // Reply

    Wheel and axle preparation is the key to speed followed by low profile car design. I have won first place for 5 years and fastest overall for 4 years and placed in the top 10 in District for 5 years.

  5. Me and my dad just finished the finnal touches for my derby car. I hope these touches will get my car the win.

  6. This stuff will hopefully work for my race.

  7. pinewoodderbyracer // February 27, 2009 at 7:57 pm // Reply

    Me and my dad just did the finishing touches on our winning car (hopefully). The district races are tomorrow at 10:00 AM. We followed the wheel adjustment and the weights in the back idea so I hope this will be the key winning feature. I willget back to Ya’ll tomorrow after the race BYE!

  8. FIRE ARROW (BENTON AR,) // February 25, 2009 at 12:32 pm // Reply

    Buy Good Wheels/axles!!!! (A must) The weight a little in the middle, a lot to the rear of the car. Drill new holes for the axles and extend as far as you can. lift the right front wheel up just a little. A little graphite goes a long way. Soak your wheels/axles in grahite untill the race. Use a low profile car design and win the race.

  9. Nascar driver // February 17, 2009 at 3:25 pm // Reply

    On gPH cars There are almost flat wheels and have wooden axles. Any tips or secrets

  10. Nascar driver // February 17, 2009 at 3:22 pm // Reply

    Hey tjhawk I have GPH cars. Any tips. Yes i put graphite on and sanded the wheels.

  11. Make sure your Axles are free of burrs. When the Axels are made there are small, extra pieces of metal around the axel head. Have an adult place the axel in a drill and use a small file to remove this excess metal. Not doing so will allow the metal to cut into your wheels and slow the car down. You can use emery sand paper to polish it then. Go a step farther and use steel wool.

  12. pine wood derby is the best

  13. I have never heard of the baking idea.

  14. concentrating the weight(lifting one wheel) will slow you down….spread the friction(all wheels balanced well) and make sure your axels are firm in the wood …no chance to move at all out of perfect 90 degree angles to the body…good paint to cut air resistance(sand and re-paint alot)then go right to the max. weight…use a method that centers easily removed washers(you can bring the weight down a little at a time to qualify at race time..graphite and a little prayer and HAVE FUN!

  15. i won 1st last year

  16. shadowrocks1o1 // February 6, 2009 at 7:11 pm // Reply

    these tips are SWEET!!!!!!!

  17. i love pinewood derby.

  18. thats why i named it eagle wing

  19. the fastest derby car i have made had an air channel underneath the car to lift the car off the track meaning less friction.(i got fourth out of about fourty kids)

  20. Which hot wheel gos faster.

  21. i once was playing as a guest in a pwd and got second place with a friend!

  22. i only got 4th this year

  23. Raising one wheel is cheating and not fair to the other racers.
    So race fair and have fun!!

  24. good info
    should try it

  25. I like speed tips because its awesome.

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