Every year since 1953, Cub Scouts across the country have participated in the Pinewood Derby. Things haven’t changed much in the past 65 years of the Derby. All cars still originate from a block or wedge of wood as they did in the 50s and the goal has always been to learn engineering secrets needed for building a fast Pinewood Derby car.
Pinewood Derby cars are not only an expression of a child’s creativity but also a celebration of the place where science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) merge together in a fun, hands on activity where kids learn real skills as they race aerodynamic cars down a track fueled by gravity.
As a mom of a Pinewood Derby veteran who participated in the race for years before moving on to Boy Scouts, Thomas has had plenty of wins. As a younger Scout, he won his share of heats. As years of participation led to more car building experience, there were even a couple of first place pack finishes and the chance to represent our troop among others in the area at the district-wide race.
But just like many things in life, winning isn’t everything. As proud as I was of Thomas and his cars that performed well on the track, there were also disappointments and the realization that lessons learned one year were helpful in building a fast Pinewood Derby car the following year.
Since Thomas has graduated from Cub Scouts, he thought it would be helpful to share lessons learned with other families participating in the Pinewood Derby. Whether you’re a new racer or an experienced veteran, here are some tips for getting started and Thomas’ tips for building a fast Pinewood Derby car.
5 Things to Do Before You Start Building Your Pinewood Derby Car
Look at the calendar— When is your Pinewood Derby race and what is your work style? Our pack’s race was always in early March which meant Thomas started thinking about his car in January and then would spend February working on his car. He preferred to work on his car over a long period of time but knew other Scouts who thrived under pressure and completed their car the weekend before. Knowing your child, knowing yourself, and knowing your family’s schedule can keep Pinewood Derby car building fun while minimizing time-related stress.
Get inspired— What is your child’s vision for their car? You can search on Google or Pinterest for inspiration but a less overwhelming gallery of images can be found on Boys’ Life where they showcase car photos submitted by Scouts for each year of the competition. The body design of a Pinewood Derby car impacts its performance on the track because some shapes are more aerodynamic than others. Derby Monkey Garage believes “a Pinewood Derby car should be designed to move as little air as possible as it speeds down the track” and compares two body shapes to give you the lowdown on which is more aerodynamic.
Learn about the physics of car design— The laws of physics can affect the speed of a Pinewood Derby car on the track since any friction can slow down your car. 5 Keys to Pinewood Derby Performance discusses how gravity is a constant force but how elements such as friction and momentum come into play when racing. Tip from Thomas: The most aerodynamic designs tend to be faster so make sure your car isn’t too tall.
Assemble materials— Most packs provide Pinewood Derby Kits but what other things does your child want to use to execute their vision? Now is a good time to talk about paint colors, raid the Lego bin, buy stickers, hit up the neighbors and former Cub Scout families, and see what you have around the house to use and if there are any must-haves you need to buy.
Know the rules— According to Boy Scouts of America, each local Pinewood Derby committee determines the rules for building and racing cars so be sure to know your Pack’s rules before you start building.
Construction Time: 6 Tips for Building a Fast Pinewood Derby Car
Now that your child has figured out their design, it’s time to build their dream car. here are some suggestions to help the building process go smoothly.
Come up with a construction plan— Based on your child’s idea, what do you need to do to make it come to life? Talk about what shape they want it to be and if it will need to be cut, how they might go about doing it. Assemble the tools you need. What tools do you need? Tip from Thomas: Make it look fast with a cool paint job.
Figure out who will do what— As you talk through the construction plan, talk about what parts of the construction they can do and what they might need help with. Start younger Lion and Tiger Scouts off by giving them the responsibility of hand sanding their block of wood and hammering in the axles while you assist with sawing. Lions and Tigers who are new to the process will probably need more hands-on help from parents while Webelos can draw upon previous Pinewood Derby experience.
Talk about safety— Younger Cub Scouts need guidance and but as they get older, you’ll want to be as hands off as possible if you can trust that your child will be safe. All Scouts need to know that safety comes first. At the bottom of the BSA’s Pinewood Derby Rules page is a Safety section with 10 helpful tips for families.
What about weights?— Some kids like to incorporate the weights into the car design while others prefer to keep them hidden. There are many different kinds of weights, like tungsten weights, sphere weights, tapered weights, adhesive weights that can be easily cut with scissors, moldable tungsten putty, and more that can be bought for Pinewood Derby cars but you can also get creative and add quarters or washers as weights. Just make sure some of your weights can be easily removed from the car in case it happens to be overweight on Derby Day check-in. Tip from Thomas: Put weight at the center and back of the car to make it faster.
Pay attention to details— Boy’s Life says a little extra time and effort with an adult’s help can result in the ultimate Pinewood Derby car and shares why you might want to extend the wheelbase, create glue holes, sand your car a bit more, and lubricate the wheels. Tips from Thomas: Polish the axles with sandpaper to make them smooth, use an old toothbrush to clean the wheels with toothpaste, and fine graphite powder applied the axles can make your car faster. Thomas recommends this graphite powder because it has a fine applicator!
Review the rules- I know I mentioned this before but you don’t want to be surprised by the rules when you check your car in on Derby Day.
3 Things to Know About Making Modifications at Check In
Even when you know the rules and build your car accordingly, you might still need to make modifications before Derby Day. I watched Thomas plan his car design, create it, and then tweak it and tweak it some more. Thomas learned certain modifications to your piece of wood can make the difference between a fast or slow car on race day but sometimes modifications need to be made at check in right before the race.
A Scout might be told their car is too heavy, too tall, or too wide in order to meet race requirements. As a Scout mom who has worked the check-in table before the race, sometimes the fixes are quick and other times it means modifying the car to the point of frustration and tears. Here’s how to minimize the heartbreak of being told your car is too heavy, too tall, or too wide.
Be realistic about the possibility you will need to modify your Pinewood Derby car if it’s too heavy — All cars are weighed upon check in. There is no right answer to the perfect weight for a car since there are multiple factors that contribute to speed but it can’t ever exceed the weight limit. Prepare your child for the fact that it could be overweight. Talk about what that means and have a game plan if this situation arises.
Decide how much you want to alter the design of the car — Depending on the design of the car, it can be tricky to remove weight. I’ve seen occasions where kids pull off all the weights, come re-weight their car, and it’s still overweight! One solution is to drill out the bottom of the Pinewood Derby car but be sure to discuss this with your child first. If they’re not comfortable drilling into their car, allow them to take some ownership by showing you where they want you to drill into their vehicle.
Car too light? It’s ok to just let it be! — There’s no reason why you have to push the weight limit to make your car the required weight. There’s something to be said about maintaining the design as your child planned it.
The main goal for Cub Scouts participating in the Pinewood Derby is to have fun and learn about car design through hands-on engineering. It’s great to want to win but there are lessons to be learned about building a fast Pinewood Derby car each year your Scout participates. Focus on the process and the lessons learned and have a great race!
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