Pinewood Derby Memory – Some Things Never Change

I just celebrated my 75th birthday. I had five sons all who eventually became Eagle Scouts, and of course all five sons were in Cub Scouts also, and we began to participate in pinewood derbys beginning in 1970. My oldest son is now 50, and my youngest son, 35, so it has been a long time since I have been involved with pinewood derbies in any way. However, my sons won every single pinewood derby that they entered over a 15 year period of time, and whenever we encountered a track with timers, we invariably broke the track record.
However, now my grandsons have reached Cub Scout age, and recently several of their fathers told their sons to contact Opa (that’s me), because I knew all the secrets to winning. On a hunch, last week I began surfing the Internet to see if there was anything regarding pinewood derbies. What a shock! After poring through your website, I see you have revealed every single trick we used, and not only that, but you now provide specialty tools making it much easier to accomplish what once took us 100’s of hours.
1. In those days there were no rules against extended wheels, so we created our own wooden jig to re-drill the holes often with many mistakes and many trashed blocks.
2. There was also no rule against lightening the wheels, so we bought a small hobby lathe and lightened the wheels in many different ways, including making them into discs, and drilling a dozen holes in them (quite similar to what you now sell). As a young man, I used to race sport cars, and had already learned the rule about lightening of unsprung weight (i.e., wheels, flywheels, crankshafts, piston rods, etc.), as well as allowing more weight in the body.
3. We reasoned logically that as much weight as possible should be as far to the rear as possible, thus leaving more weight on the downhill portion of the track. So we would actually saw a square hole into the rear of the block, temporarily clamp two pieces of wood on each side of the hole, then melt core-less lead solder into the hole, then after cooling, un-clamp the two pieces of wood, thus leaving a perfectly square hunk of lead at the extreme far rear of the car (If tracks had an abrupt change from the downhill portion to the flat, this would not work with our an extended wheel base, because when hitting the “dip”, the front wheels would sometimes rise up). When rules began to be touchy about the wheel base, no one ever seemed to are if the rear wheels were moved further back, they seemed more concerned about the front wheels. So sometimes we left the front wheels standard with the rear moved back a bit.
4. Our car shapes were always very similar to two of your kits (Detonator and Velocinator), except that the wood area between the front and rear wheels was always sanded down to about the size of a pencil, then just in front of the rear wheels we would shape the wood up to about an inch high. Our logic of having a higher rear end with a square back was based upon the sports car theory that if the front of the car is very aerodynamic with the back of the car squared off, the wind supposedly whips around and pushes the car forward. I have no way of knowing if this really worked, but that is what we always did.
5. Our major secret which we never revealed, was to balance the wheels. I never heard of anyone doing this in those days. The older pinewood derby wheels were always very much out of balance. We balanced them by putting two razor blades into a rubber eraser, cutting and putting a tight-fitting nail into the wheel hole and placing it between the two razor blades. Just like when using your balancing tool, the heavy side always went down. Since we had always drilled eight holes into the wheels (similar to a mag wheel), we balanced the wheel with a normal hand drill by making the hole on the heavy side slightly larger.
Obviously everyone in those days would make sure the car ran straight by testing it on a hardwood floor. However, even though many cars were running on three wheels, we were never able to make any of our cars faster by using that method. We had built a single wooden track with a 1/1000 timer, and could never find a difference using the same car before and after raising one wheel.
All of the tracks in those days were made of wood, often causing accidents due to a car jumping tracks. Since we had to lathe our own wheels, and with all the holes we put in them, they were very fragile. Each time we would create a set of wheels we would always create 8 wheels in each of the lathe passes. A couple would always break during the lathing process, but we would always have two or three spares that were exact matches. There was hardly ever an event where we didn’t have to replace at least one wheel.
As to axle polishing, grooving, and the utilization of graphite, we did about the same as you are doing today.
In conclusion, tweaking one of your car kits and using your wheel accessories is obviously the way I will go with my grandsons. Thank goodness for your website. As costly as some of those items are, it is certainly a cheaper and quicker way to go than the hundreds of hours that we used to spend in the olden days.
Roger Walton

From Pinewood Derby Times Volume 9, Issue 13

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