Buying a Track? – Important Points to Consider

By Steve Monk
Selecting and buying a pinewood derby track for your group or organization is a great responsibility and often a considerable investment. So, careful consideration of the various features and options is certainly appropriate.

To help you in your decision, here are some things to consider when shopping for your ideal pinewood derby track.

Probably the number one complaint heard at many races is “One lane’s faster than the other!”, and often it is.

— Track Joints —
A major source of lane unfairness is the smoothness of the track joints, a common problem on wood tracks where wear-and-tear and warping  affects the joints. This was the most frustrating problem we had with our local pack’s tracks. We had one track which was several years old and showing considerable wear. Many hours were spent each year to shim and even out the lanes. We even tried wood putty in the joints, and gluing and nailing down the plywood lamination to make the joints smooth so they wouldn’t throw cars off of the track. No matter how much care was taken we still had one lane faster than the other. Our final races were so close that when it came down to the last couple of cars, we couldn’t determine a winner because whichever car was in the “fast” lane always won. One of the leaders in our group volunteered to build a new track for the next year’s race. Even though it was brand new, we still had a fast lane.

— Track Finish —
Wood warps, and unless you have a humidity controlled environment, you will need to seal a wood track with a varnish or urethane finish of some sort. Unfortunately, it’s nearly impossible to apply a paint or varnish to a wood track and have it come out equally smooth and even the entire length.

Non-wood tracks are less susceptible to both of these issues. Neither aluminum nor plastic tracks require a sealer. Moisture may cause discoloration, but it doesn’t affect the performance of the track.

Aluminum tracks are virtually unaffected by temperature or sunlight, while plastic tracks can be sensitive to both.

The starting gate is an important component to consider when buying your track. To ensure that the start is consistent for each race, the starting gate should have the starting pins held in the up position by a latch. The pins should then swing down quickly under power when released. Ideally, the power source (spring, rubber band, etc.) should be adjustable by the user to drop the gate as quickly as desired. Some start gates have the starting pins held in the up position with a spring, and operated by pushing down on a lever by hand. Inconsistency by the starting gate operator can cause inconsistent starts. Also, if the lever slips out of the operator’s hand as the cars are passing over the starting pins, the pins can pop back up, launching the cars off the track.

What do you do if your group doubles in the next year? Can you expand your track or do you have to replace it? Some tracks, especially wood ones, are built to a specific length and width, and are hard to expand. Aluminum tracks are extruded one lane at a time and can be easily expanded in length or width as your organization grows and your budget allows.

Most home built wood tracks follow the suggested track designs found in Cub Scout manuals or on the internet. These designs often follow the standard 3-1/2 inch lane width and the 1/4 X 1-5/8 inch center guide. The center-guide design probably represents 98 percent of all tracks in existence.

Edge guide tracks control the direction of the car with raised edges of the track. The advantage of an edge guide track is that a car with the wheels set too high on the body, or too far in from the ends has less of a chance of dragging on the bottom while going through the curve. Weights attached to the bottom of a car can cause dragging on a center-guided track.(1)

A disadvantage of edge-guided tracks is that the many pinewood derby wheels (BSA, PineCar, Awana, etc.) are designed for center-guided tracks.(2) The inside edge of these wheels are smooth (at least after some work), while the outside has serrations, raised lettering, spokes, etc. These features can hamper performance on edge-guided tracks.

Another disadvantage of edge-guided tracks is that they are different than most other tracks. Since edge-guided tracks represent only a small percentage of tracks in use today, using one at a local race could affect the cars that advance to a district race. A car that performs really well on an edge-guided track may not perform as well on a center-guided track.

Safely stopping your Pinewood Derby car is important. You don’t want to win a race and then have your car zoom across the floor, crash into a table leg, and knock off a wheel, thus eliminating the car from the rest of the race. A good stopping system will gently slow the cars to a safe stop in a short distance without damage. Many groups use pillows or coats or whatever is handy. I have even seen plans for a top dragging carpet stop which suspends strips of carpet over the end of each lane. This works pretty well except it also rips off some of the fine detailing some racers add to their cars, such as radio antennas, mirrors, etc. A similar foam “garage” design could have the same problems.

The best stop systems stop the car with a raised center lane. The cars then skid to a stop on their ‘bellies’. These stop systems either have the rolling surface drop away to a raised center strip, or they use a ramp to raise the cars off the track.

Most wood tracks are built from standard dimension plywood which is 8 feet long. Tracks made from other materials are not constrained by standard lengths and can be made economically in any length sections. With 7 foot sections, the track can be transported in an SUV or minivan. However, with 8 foot sections, a truck or large van is generally required.(3)

Weight is also a factor to consider. Wood tracks can be quite heavy, thus increasing the risk of damage due to bumping or dropping the track. Other track materials (aluminum and plastic) are much lighter, greatly easing transport and reducing the risk of damage.

The support structure of the track should be sturdy and rigid to give good support and prevent swaying if bumped. Flimsy support stands could cause cars to jump off of the track if the track is bumped during a race.

Pay close attention to the amount of work required to set up the track on race day. Most tracks need some sort of pre-assembly the first time they are set up. However, on race day the track should be able to be set up with a minimum of fuss and time. This is especially important as race officials change from year to year. If the track requires a lot of time and knowledge to set up, each new team will have their hands full, at a time when they don’t need the stress!
The initial set-up is also a factor. Tracks with pre-drilled or pre-punched components, and sliding bolt slots or other features will not only speed assembly the first time, but will also ensure continued ease of use long into the future.(4)

Ultimately, the major consideration when purchasing a track is whether the track will provide many years of quality, trouble-free racing. So time spent considering the various options is certainly warranted. I hope that these track considerations will greatly help you in your purchase decision.

Steve Monk is the President of SRM Enterprises, Inc., the manufacturer and distributor of BestTrack Aluminum Pinewood Derby Tracks. SRM Enterprises is a small family run business building quality products and serving satisfied customers since 1984.

Here is a personal note from Steve:
“Frustration with our local Cub Scout Pack’s track is what led me to start building the BestTrack aluminum pinewood derby track. As a scout leader I took it personally when a parent would complain that one lane was faster than the other and their kid didn’t get a fair shot at winning, or when a car would get damaged because it was thrown off of the track at a bump caused by warping. We spent several years designing and developing the BestTrack aluminum track, and believe it to be the fairest and safest track available.”

You can learn more about the Best Track at:

(1) The modified center guide on the BestTrack aluminum track may be the best of both worlds. It is center-guided for compatibility with other tracks, but has the center portion of the guide cleared out to accommodate cars with weights which hang below the bottom of the car.

(2) Royal Ranger, Royal Ambassador, and a few other kits are designed for either center-guide or edge-guide tracks.

(3) The BestTrack aluminum track is made in 7 foot long sections. I recently transported a 4 lane BestTrack in my Ford Explorer. Of course I had to fold down the back seats and slide the front passenger seat all the way forward to get it in.

(4) Ease of assembly on race day was an important consideration for us when we designed the BestTrack aluminum track. Although the initial assembly takes longer, on race day a small team can generally setup a 4 lane track in 15 -20 minutes. This is possible because only four bolts attach the stand, and the lanes are held together with easy to apply spring clips.

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 3, Issue 3
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