Pinewood Derby Times Volume 7, Issue 12

– Feature Article – Pinewood Derby Race Organization
– Pinewood Derby Car Showcase
– Memory – What a Difference a Year Makes
– Q&A

Pinewood Derby Race Organization
By Scott Morris & Randy Davis

The Pinewood Derby (Grand Prix, or whatever the title of your race) is an exciting, but oftentimes chaotic event. Due to the exuberance of participants, the keen (sometimes pathological) interest of parents, and the seemingly infinite number of race details, race officials can easily be overwhelmed.

After running our local races for many years, we have learned how to maintain our sanity while conducting a reasonably organized race. Today’s article will share the principles we use to run our local races. We hope that you will glean some useful information from these principles.

Announce and commence kit sales 6 to 8 weeks before the event – the timing of the kickoff is crucial. If the kickoff occurs more than two months before the race, enthusiasm will wane during the long wait. Also, purchased car kits will tend to sit on the shelf until the event draws closer. On the other hand, if the kickoff is too close to the race, many people will choose not to participate, as they will have schedule conflicts, or will believe that they do not have the time to build a car.

Provide complete, detailed rules with the car kit – Participants must be given the complete rules at the time of kit purchase. If the rules are not provided, cars will be built which do not follow the rules, leading to extreme participant frustration. For the same reason, rules must not change once kit sales begin.

Scott: I begin selling car kits 2 months prior to the race. An important part of the kit is the construction rules and speed tips. This gives the kids and their parents precise rules concerning the construction of the car, and the race itself – this has proven to be very helpful in removing questions about car specifications.
Randy: I announce the race 8 weeks before the event, and start selling kits at 7 weeks. I also provide complete rules, and speed tips and guidelines.

Provide at least one workshop where builders can rough-cut their car. Garage workshops are becoming rare, and many car kits will never be touched unless there is a convenient way for builders to perform the basic woodworking.

Scott: Immediately after sales begin I hold a workshop where the participants design their cars, and the leaders cut out the cars using a band saw, drill press, and disc sander. I then supply the participants with sand paper and weight to finish their car at home. About three weeks prior to the race I hold a mini-workshop during one of our club nights where I help kids with weighting issues.
Randy: I hold two workshops to allow participants to use our wood shop. Along with two volunteers, we help the single moms, and anyone else that needs access to tools. I also have a track available for testing cars. Generally, the people that show up at the workshop end up with the top performing cars at the race.

Don’t try to do it yourself; sign up volunteers – Running a successful race requires lots of trained volunteers. Get people signed up early. Look for people with skills that fit the need: ‘techy’ people for sound and computers, organized people for registration and inspection, eloquent people for announcing, providing a devotion, etc.

Scott: Get as many volunteers as necessary to set up, run an organized event, and to tear down. Usually the leaders fill these positions, but key parents and outsiders may also be needed. I have the following positions:

  • Two people for registration
  • One computer operator
  • Two for the pit area and inspection station
  • One emcee
  • One race judge
  • Three design judges

Randy: Over the years, I have found certain people that I know will do a great job. I seek them out, and then fill in the gaps with new people. Generally, club leaders are used, but I also bring in a few key outsiders and alumni with special skills. I fill the following positions (in addition to myself):

  • Two people for registration/inspection
  • Two workshop helpers
  • Three design judges
  • One devotional speaker
  • One announcer
  • One computer operator
  • One sound person
  • One camera person
  • One starting gate operator
  • Two car stagers (for younger group race)
  • Two car retrievers (for younger group race)

Allow enough time for check-in and inspection, and be prepared – Check- in and inspection is potentially the most chaotic time. Depending on the number of participants, up to two hours may be needed to complete this task. A few things that will help this go more smoothly include:

  • Written procedures for helpers.
  • Accurate, calibrated official scale. I recommend a scale with 1/10 ounce accuracy (5.0). Scales with 1/100 ounce (or more) accuracy will lengthen the time requirement as participants try to hit the magic 5.00.
  • Separate area for making final tweaks to cars, with a separate scale (but all cars must be weighed on the official scale).
  • Helpers to assist participants with weight adjustments.
    Scott: I hold the check-in on the same day as the race – two hours prior to race time. This gives the kids and parents as much time as needed for their cars. If the number of racers warrants it, the check-in can also be done on the club-night just prior to the race.
    Randy: I hold the check-in on a club night before the race. This takes the pressure off getting all the cars checked-in, and allows for a shorter race night. The cars are then impounded until the race. This also allows the participants to be entered into the race software, and the race schedules to be created prior to race night.

Race Setup
Set up early and thoroughly test the equipment – Things never go perfectly according to plan, so allow enough time for the set up and for the unexpected. Trust us on this, the more electronic equipment you use, the more extra time you will need to provide for the unexpected.

Scott: I hold our race in the morning, so I set up the night before the race. Activities include:

  • Set up and fine tune the track and timing systems – fine tune lighting so the timing system works flawlessly.
  • Set up the computer racing system – run a short, mock race to ensure the computer operator knows how it works before race day.
  • Set up the pit area and the car inspection station.
  • Set up the racer registration station.
  • Decorate with lots of racing stuff.

Randy: I hold our race in the evening, so I set up the afternoon of the race (cars are already checked-in). I allow five hours for:

  • Decorating and room set up.
  • Track set-up and testing.
  • Computer set-up and software testing.
  • Sound and camera set-up.

Race Time
Be organized, keep to your schedule, and display confidence to participants – Participants want to feel that the race is properly and fairly run. The more organized and confident you are, the more confident the participants will feel.

Scott: A few additional points:

  • Arrive early on race day to make any final arrangements and to turn on any needed systems.
  • I run two rounds of racing; each participant races four heats, one heat on each lane in round one. The top seven racers move on to the Grand Finals round. In between the two rounds I have a half-time devotion delivered by one of our pastors.
  • After the Grand Finals round, I present three design award trophies and three trophies for speed. All racers receive a participation ribbon.
  • Racers and families stay for hot dogs and all the trimmings.
  • After lunch, I run a just-for-fun race for our leaders and parents who built cars.

Randy: Some points about our race:

  • I start with hot dogs, nachos etc. This helps people arrive on time.
  • Right after the opening ceremony I have a devotional time. Then I quickly cover the agenda for the evening, followed by the presentation of design trophies.
  • I run two rounds of racing for each age category. Each participant races four heats, one heat on each lane in round one. The top racers then participate in a finals round. In between age categories I have a five minute intermission.
  • After each finals round, I present the speed trophies for that age category. This allows younger participants to leave early if they desire.
  • After the kid’s races, I hold an open race for parents and siblings.

There are many ways to run races. But regardless of the particular format, planning and organization are crucial for a successful event. Good luck with your race!

Pinewood Derby Car Showcase

Wii: Dan Van Lieshout

Here’s a picture of my son’s car from our pack’s Pinewood Derby last week. He took First Place in his Bear den this year. Christopher is becoming an old hand at car construction by doing more and more on his car every year. He got his start at age four helping dad building and racing cars in our pack’s Open Class. He was up to his third car by the time he was a Tiger. This year we didn’t have a lot of time so we decided to keep the shape simple, but still came up with a clever design. Thus, he built the Wii. Aside from using the table saw and general machine setups, Christopher did pretty much all the work on his car.

Red Dragon: David Keith

We just had our derby last Saturday, and we not only won first place but set the track record. I love pinewood derbies! I’m 42 and still have the cars my dad helped me with.

Fire Dragon: John & Jakob Harig

You probably remember me – I’m the guy who ordered from you this year only to get notified of new rules a week later. Well, despite the rule change, Jake won again! The margin of victory was much smaller, but still the fastest car of the pack.
Under the aft canopy we hid two of your tungsten cylinders. We installed a single tungsten plate on the bottom angled section. A hole in the back included two more cylinders secured in place by tungsten putty. The COG was aggressive, about 0.8 inch forward of the rear axles.

Pinewood Derby Memory
What a Difference a Year Makes

Last year was the first pinewood derby race for my son and I. We worked together to design and paint the car. Since he was just a Tiger I did all the dad stuff. We decided to use a surfboard model and were quite proud of our end result. I didn’t do enough reading and at the day of the race the car could not reach the finish line. I had the car weighted to 5.0 ounces and I thought evenly balanced. Regardless of the reason, my son was devastated (I was equally upset).

Enter 2008. This year I was determined to have a much better car – one that would at least finish the race. As my son was a year older he had more input into the car design and the building of the car. Like all boys of his age, he is greatly influenced by his father and is a fan of classic Rock and Roll music. He wanted the car to look like his electric guitar. I told him that would not be possible due to the placement of the axles. He told me that he wanted a Rock and Roll car. My wife suggested that we make it look like a rock and call it Rock-N-Roll. He LOVED the idea. We worked together shaping the car. We took some modeling clay to give the car a more rounded look. The clay was a paper base and I didn’t plan on it providing much weight, so I attached a bar weight to the top of the car to assist the clay’s adhesion. Once we got the clay on and dried I took it to the Post Office for the initial weighing. It was heavy – almost 8 ounces. We took the car home and removed a good deal of clay and wood. I had bought a scale (it was not a digital scale – the first of my mistakes) and thought I had brought it down to 5 ounces. So I began the paint job. We used the “fleck stone” paint that looks like granite, and had the car looking like a rock. It was neat and everyone was excited to have Rock-N-Roll race.

I had purchased a second car kit to build my daughter a car. Really I just wanted to build another car and try some of the things I had read from This one was more of my design, a shaped surfboard, but with the weights placed inside the block not on the bottom. I was working on this car, but focusing most of my attention to “Rock-N-Roll”.

Now for the second of my mistakes. I had read the announcement for the official weigh-in and registered it for the Thursday and Friday before race day. I showed up at the weigh-in on Thursday, just as it was starting. I placed “Rock-N-Roll” on the scale and it registered 7.4 ounces! I was stunned. But I was thinking that I had all night to get it to weight, re-set the wheels and have it ready for the next day. Then the race master said that I should have come by the night before to weigh my car — I had misunderstood the dates and I showed up on the second night of weigh-in. I had two hours to get the car to weight!

We drove home and I told my daughter that her car (which was also overweight) would have to sit this race out as I needed to spend all my time getting “Rock-N-Roll” to weight. I carved out as much as I could without affecting the axle grooves and wheels. I went back to weigh the car and was down to 6.4 ounces — still greatly overweight. I returned home and started drilling out even more of the car and in my haste I hit the axle groove. Rock-N-Roll would never race. I was crushed. I told my son and he again was devastated. I called the race master to let him know that we would not be able to get Rock-N-Roll to weight and that I had broken the axle placement. He remembered that I had brought the second car to the weigh-in and suggested that I bring it by to weigh again to see if we could enter it. I stripped some of the top-side weights off the car and shaved some more wood off of it so it would make weight. Placed the car on the scale and it registered 5.05 ounces. The race master told me that I should take a little more weight off the car so I could paint it and bring it to him in the morning.

For all his help and understanding, I volunteered to help with the setup on Friday night, and assist in running the race on Saturday. I sanded down the car again, re-painted it, and while the paint was drying spent some extra time prepping the wheels and axles. We turned in Red Racer on Friday with it weighing exactly 5.00 ounces

Friday I helped put the track together, and had brought what was left of Rock-N-Roll to the school. The race master wanted to see how a heavy car would run. So even with the damage to the wheelbase we ran it against some other cars, and it performed horribly. Now I was scared. I had a car that was overweight and I still couldn’t compete against other cars. How would Red Racer perform? How would my son react? I did not sleep well that Friday night.

Race day came and Red Racer was not scheduled to run until the third Wolf heat. I am busy shuffling cars back and forth from the staging area to the starting line. When Red Racer was placed in the starting gate I saw my son at the other end of the room. We waited for the start to see how it would go. The gate dropped and all the cars started down the track. At the base of the curve Red Racer looked good then he seemed to accelerate down the track! He won the race by several car lengths and set a track record for his age group! Happiness and joy overwhelmed both my son and me. I saw him cheering and celebrating with tears in his eyes and I was a little misty-eyed at the moment too. In all of the age-group heats, Red Racer was the fastest car. It was getting faster and faster as the day went on. It never lost a Wolf Group race. When it was time for the fastest in the pack it had the number five best average time and the number three fastest time. Red Racer held its own during the finals but ended up with just one trophy – fastest Wolf. It finished fourth overall.

I am so glad that I had the second kit and I am so glad that I spent the extra time on learning how to improve the cars performance.

Kevin Bryant


Does it matter what type of weights you use to get to five ounces? I have used fishing weights which are pretty big, and was wondering if this negatively affects performance?

The type of weight only affects the cars performance in the following ways:

  • Ability to achieve the desired balance point – If the type of weight is not dense enough to allow you to reach the desired balanced point, then the type of weight will affect performance.
  • Aerodynamics – If the type of weight is forcing you to build a car that has a larger cross-section than desirable, then the type of weight will affect performance. However, all things considered, aerodynamics is a relatively small factor.

Our question is the trade-off point between the diameter of the axle and it’s smoothness. Is it more important to leave as much material as possible (diameter) on the axle at the expense of it’s smoothness, or the other way around?

I think the answer is both; the goal is to have a smooth axle with the maximum diameter. That may mean getting extra axles and finding the ones that will clean up with minimal loss of diameter.

I saw on an Internet site that some people reduce the axle diameter so that the wheel bore does not touch as much of the axle, and therefore lowers friction. Does this work?

I don’t recommend reducing the diameter of the axle, unless the bore reduced as well (not easily done!). If the axle is reduced and the bore is intact, the axle will have a sloppy fit with the wheels. This can create many issues, and doesn’t actually reduce friction. Friction is calculated as mass times the coefficient of friction. So since the mass doesn’t change, the frictional force is just focused on a smaller area.

If the bore is reduced along with the axles (such as with our needle axle wheels), then there is a reduction in the amount of surface area contacted per wheel revolution.

Want Answers?
Do you have a pinewood derby-related question? If so, e-mail us your question.We answer all questions by e-mail, but not every question will appear in the Q&A section of the newsletter.

Back Issues
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Newsletter Contributions
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