Pinewood Derby Time

By Chris Joker
Pinewood derby cars are serious business. Last month it was pinewood derby time for my son’s Cub Scout pack. I was so excited I couldn’t stand it. I remember my Dad helping me when I was a scout. Now I could pass down the long standing losing tradition to my son. We didn’t really lose so much as we didn’t win. I really don’t know what that means, but that’s what my Dad used to tell me and it really does sound better. Things have changed in the thirty plus years since I was a scout. Now we have packaged plans, pre-carved kits, specially designed weights, aerodynamic paints, axle optimizers, special lubricants and, of course, The INTERNET.
The pack provided the kits for the boys (a block of wood, four nails, four axles, four official wheels and a copy of the rules) for free — free. This is great, I thought, we can spend quality time together and it won’t cost me anything. After we received our kit it was straight to the Internet. An initial Google search for “pinewood derby” returned 589,000 listings. Included were sites such as:, (maximum-velocity and lowerfriction — yeah I was a little worried about those too),,, and PinewoodPRO? Come on, are there really pinewood derby PROs???? When I visited his site and saw what he was charging for tips I came to the conclusion that he did fit the definition of a pro. There is actually a page from Stanford University that explains “The Physics of the Pinewood Derby”. Oh, and one of my favorites, (I’m guessing he got his PhD from Stanford). The professor says “Be Smart! Use Science and Physics to Make The Fastest Pinewood Derby Car Possible!” The professor offers a “new cutting edge DVD” (just $14.99 plus $5.01 S&H) to help you do that. Did I say it wouldn’t cost me anything? We don’t need no stinking DVD!
We had about a month and a half before race day to build our winning car so I had to narrow the list. I typed in: “guaranteed winning pinewood derby car” (sounded logical). This search returned 17,400 listings. Still
too many for our time frame, so I typed in: “pinewood derby cars that will allow you to say in your face to the other dads”. Jackpot! This search returned only two listings. A quick check of these sites found we could
spend from $6.00 for plans to $109.90 for all-inclusive kits. We don’t need no stinking plans! We would just find a car design we liked and re- create it. After two weeks of looking at car designs we finally choose a smoking hot one. Now we just had to draw the design, transfer it to the block, and cut it out — simple. Problem: this design has fenders, Our block does not. No problem: after we cut out our basic car shape we will simply glue some extra wood on for fenders. We transferred the design. Problem: in order for the fenders to match up, our design called for the wheelbase to be different than the stock block. I checked the rules; nothing in there said we could not change the wheelbase. Some of the Internet sites said you couldn’t. A quick call to the scout leader for confirmation, and we moved the wheelbase. Then we cut it out. Now we just had to cut the fenders and glue them on. Problem: the fenders proved to be too high for the block we just cut. It was off to the hobby shop to buy a new stock block (only $4.00, not bad). While we were at the hobby shop we checked out other supplies. They had some interesting weights. According to the rules the cars may weigh up to 7 ounces. Back in my day my Dad and I melted lead weight into our cars. Yes, I said lead. Kind of explains a lot, doesn’t it? I decided we would use some of these hobby store weights instead. I mean it wouldn’t do anything to bring back my brain cells but it might benefit my son. We went ahead and bought weights in anticipation ($8.00). Did I say it wouldn’t cost me anything? When we got back we added extra wood for the height of the car and the fenders, transferred the design, and cut it out again. Now, time for sanding. Problem: the rotary tool was dead. Believe me when I tell you that “back in my day we didn’t have any fancy rotary tools; we just used a block and some sandpaper”. Did not work. Okay, we will buy a new one ($57.00). Did I say it wouldn’t cost me anything?
After sanding it was time for painting and attaching the axles and wheels. It looked great. We put it down for a test “drive”. Problem: only three of the wheels were touching the ground. A quick Internet search and I discovered (from the pinewood pro, no less): “Free speed tip: Friction can actually be eliminated! (eliminate friction? No wonder this guy is a pro) How? By removing the surface that is causing the friction. In our speed section titled ‘Triple Trouble’ we tell you how to eliminate friction by lifting one of the front wheels so it doesn’t touch the track at all. Your car is rolling on only three wheels, thereby eliminating friction from one wheel!” Okay, I’m not going to sweat the three-wheel thing. Call it a happy accident. Now we had to add weights to get us right at the 7-ounce limit. I do not have a scale to weigh 7 ounces. The post office does. We took the car to the post office. Ten ounces. I’m glad we bought those $8.00 weights. So we brought it back and drilled a bunch of wood out of the bottom. We went back to the post office. I weighed it again. Nine ounces. Let me just apologize now to the person behind me that was trying to get me to hurry when I shouted, “Back off lady, I’m weighing my car here!” Sorry. It was obvious to me that the post office was not the best way to check the weight of the car. I bought a kitchen scale ($14.00). Now we can drill and weigh until we get it right. We got it right. 7 ounces. My $14.00 scale is not really as accurate as the post office so I wasn’t convinced. Back to the post office to weigh again (sorry again lady). We were slightly over so we  drilled out some more. One more trip to the post office and we were good.
Just under $100.00 in supplies and tools and a month and a half in prep time and we were finally ready. Tomorrow is race day.
We show up at the race site. Outside I see fathers and sons with power tools making last minute adjustments to their cars. One guy’s car was like 16 ounces. He should have gone to the post office. Our weight was right on so we helped the guy with the heavy car. I held it while he drilled. Just before the race he had it down to weight and even patched and painted over the holes. It was race time!!!! Let me just say that the “three-wheel eliminate friction” thing: not so much. Between races they allowed you to re-lubricate. My son got so happy with the graphite that if they re-weighed us we probably would have come in at 10 ounces again. The guy we helped with his car, yeah, he came in first. We won the “Dreaming Award”. I’m not sure what that means, but I do know that I am dreaming about next year. I’m also thinking about getting a sponsor, so
if you know anyone who works at Home Depot or DeWalt maybe you can have them give me a call.
Columnist Chris Joker is a single father of two, and editor of Family Pastime Magazine available online at:
Used by Permission
From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 7, Issue 15
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