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What is a Pinewood Derby Race?

By J. Beam
Updated May 23, 2024
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A Pinewood Derby race is an event in which small, wooden cars are raced down a specially designed track using only the force of gravity for power. These events typically are for Cub Scouts and are sanctioned by the Boy Scouts of America, but many other people also enjoy building and racing Pinewood Derby cars and might hold their own events. Adults often help boys design and build cars such as the one seen in the photo below. A car used in a sanctioned Pinewood Derby race must meet certain specifications for length, width, height and weight. Non-sanctioned races might have different specifications or, in some cases, virtually no restrictions at all.

History

The first Pinewood Derby race, which was held in 1953 in the California city of Manhattan Beach, was the brainchild of a Cub Scout leader named Don Murphy. A year later, the program was adopted by the national council of the Boy Scouts of America, and the Pinewood Derby race soon became a Cub Scout tradition. Any boy who is part of a Cub Scout pack usually is able to participate in a Pinewood Derby race.

Preparation

Long before the race, each boy is given a Pinewood Derby kit to take home. Inside this kit is a block of soft pinewood, four nails for axles and four plastic wheels. With the help of an adult, each boy designs and cuts or carves the wood into a car based on the official specifications for length, width and height. The car can be painted and detailed, and attachments can be added as long as the final weight of the car does not exceed the limit, which usually is 5 ounces (141.75 g). Before an official Pinewood Derby race, the cars are inspected and weighed by registered leaders to assure that the requirements have been met.

The Track

A Pinewood Derby racetrack typically has two to eight lanes, each of which has a guide strip in the center to keep the car in its lane. A three-lane Pinewood Derby track is shown in the photo below. The track usually is about 30 to 50 feet (about 9.14 to 15.24 m) long, with one end elevated about 4 to 5 feet (about 1.2 to 1.5 m) off the ground. Most tracks are made of metal or wood.

Racing

The cars are held in place at the elevated end of the track by a lever. After the lever has been released, the cars begin to roll down the sloping track, fueled only by gravity. After sloping downward for a certain distance, most tracks level off and have a long stretch of flat track before the finish line. An example of a Cub Scout pack's Pinewood Derby race can be seen in the following video.

Some tracks are equipped with sensors that can determine the cars' order of finish or even electronic timers. In the video below, each car's time is measured to the ten-thousandth of a second, along with car's equivalent speed if it was scaled to a standard-sized racecar. When the track does not have this type of technology, one or more judges typically are used to determine the cars' order of finish.

Pinewood Derby competitions typically are run in heats, with the results of each heat recorded and tallied. Cars usually will rotate between lanes for each heat, so that each car uses a different lane each time, to account for imprecise tracks that might have lanes that are "faster" or "slower." Depending on how many cars are competing, the fastest cars in the various heats might advance to more races until an overall winner is determined.

Strategy

Over the years, many Cub Scouts and their adult partners have toiled over how to build the fastest cars to achieve victory. Tricks and tips have been studied and tested to discover what works best. Some competitors use aerodynamic designs and add a precise amount of weight in just the right locations, sometimes drilling holes into the wood and inserting small lead weights. A dry, powdered lubricant such as graphite can help reduce the friction on the wheels; other types of lubrication, such as oils, typically are not allowed. The following video includes several common tips for building Pinewood Derby cars.

Other car builders are more interested in the looks of their cars and will try to have the coolest designs and paint jobs. Some might try to make their Pinewood Derby cars look like specific makes and models of actual cars, but others will create their own designs. Cub Scout packs often hand out awards for the best-looking cars in addition to those that win the races.

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