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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.

More pinewood derby fun:

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38 Comments on How to Make a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

  1. you should cut your car into a “boat shape” (cut into the bottom of it). It’ll save you fractions of a second.

  2. I can’t wait until the race on Saturday!!!!!! It is my first year racing. Do you have any tips?? I am going to win!!

  3. 1st time caller, long time listener // February 24, 2010 at 10:39 pm // Reply

    Tiger Cub dad here…not mechanically gifted. rounded the axles (took off burrs), rounded wheels put some tungsten weight in the back, graphite…eyeballed the alignment, son did ton of the work and worked together each step of the way. I was just hoping that he would compete. To my astonishment, he did end up winning his pack. Craziest thing I have ever seen. Districts are 3/21/10, I thought it would be funny to see how far it could go. I think we will go just to see.

  4. most original // February 24, 2010 at 5:44 pm // Reply

    I never went for speed I always go for most original because it is easier than speed.

  5. Who says that plain looking “fast” designs can’t be crafted well and be both fast and “cool” looking?

  6. I made a bananna car, and one first place! it was very surprising.

  7. get up and go // February 16, 2010 at 11:06 am // Reply

    Are model rocket engines legal if the car still weighs under 5oz ?

  8. tip for you:dont have your car primered and painted like a real car i did that and i only won a participant ribbon

  9. beat up your car and it will win 8 races i did

  10. how do you make it go 759mph

  11. its all about axle alignment in the end, make a test track ( a piece of drywall works great) raise one end with a 4×4, ensure your car rolls straight and true.

    • I think its about axels and weight. we had our weight in the front then we put it in the back and won by alot more.

  12. i used this tips and won 100 races in a row

    • I used the speed secrets last year on my sons car and he won first place in his den, first place over all and first place at the district race. I also wanted to let evcery one know that attention to detail is what wins the race. we did a test with 3 cars without graphite and with graphite, with graphite all three cars picked up 1/10 of a second in time. Graphite makes the differance.
      Good luck to all racers and have fun.

  13. already have speed secrets i am getting design book

  14. A person told me awhile ago if you want to win speed then go with a wedge and get it as close to the weight requirement as possible. That was the best advice ever. All the other ideas are tweaks but, if you put together a boring old wedge you will be top 3 at least, with pretty much no axel polishing, straightening etc. Another great tip for weigh in is thumb tacks. Easy to place and move off or on. The cars right at the weight do the best everytime.

    • Engineer Dad // January 29, 2010 at 3:18 pm // Reply

      This will depend on how competitive your Pack is. My Pack dads are engineers and builders. If you don’t polish axles, you won’t be a speed contender. Then again, we give certificates for good looking cars, goofy looking cars, and the most obviously boy-made car. It’s about fun.

  15. geo pack 162 // January 26, 2010 at 6:18 pm // Reply

    i cant find stickers

  16. My son just won for the 2nd year in a row. Kept axle space the same per local rules. used tungsten weights which are much heavier and also used a COG kit to balance the car. We made a Batmobile and even put red LED lights in the front. We also won the most orginal design trophy

  17. Last year I went for looks with a sweet looking 1933 Ford Coupe design;AND WON FIRST PLACE!!!!! This year is my first to go for speed points, and my Dad recommended these tips to me.

  18. Axels are not to be moved from the origional markings. And 3 legged cars are not allowed in our rules.

  19. We had a scientist dad in our Pack whose son is now in Boy Scouts that built their own track at home, and made hundreds of minute changes to their car to develop a very fast car. They did this every year and won every race in the Pack and District. The book is simplistic compared to this guy’s secrets. I just wish he had written a book. But if you’re not in an overly competitive pack with alot of kids, it’s great.

    • Engineer Dad // January 29, 2010 at 3:15 pm // Reply

      Encourage the parents who win EVERY year to leave some room for everyone else. My son won 2 years in a row. The third year we made a fun, goofy car that was fast enough for him to win a few heats, but not enough to win overall. Its good to let everyone have a taste of victory.

  20. these tips are the best my son one first place when he raced his first year

  21. We came in first the very first year we entered the race. Every year after that we were dead last. I’m going to try the tips.

  22. i am excited to race in my first race this saturday, my car is black and sleek, I hope i do well

  23. These tips are really helpful! But i thought it would be much better instead if putting more weight in the front than the back.

    • The longer gravity can push your car, the greater the final speed when your car exits into the flat portion of the track. Gravity; placing the weight near the rear of the car will place it high on the track, providing a longer drive or push into the bottom. Simply stated, having the weight at the rear means it has further to drop. Allowing gravity to push your car a little longer than if the weight where at the front.

  24. Very interesting

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