Hooniverse Asks: How about some Pinewood Derby racer suggestions?

I was somewhat deprived as a child. For some reason I did not do many of the things that my kids are doing now. One of those things was building a Pinewood Derby racer. Last night my daughter came home from her Girl Scout meeting with a piece of wood, some nails, and four wheels. “Dad, we have to make a race car!” she said excitingly. 
“Cool! Yeah! Let’s do it, sweetie” I answered with a fake smile and equally fake excitment. I have no idea what I was in for but F*** it, I’ve made real™ “race cars”©, how hard could this be?
So, hoons and hoonetts, this is where you come in. I need design ideas, although I first asked my daughter for that, but I am sure she can persuaded into something Hoon-worthy. Then I need to know any kind of cheats that exist out there. I am in it to win it and winners never lose and losers never cheat (or something like that). So help me out!
But I, err…, I mean my daughter, might be more interested in something that looks cool. The really fast seem to look like a door wedge. I’m thinking that a Land Rover Defender or a Jeep Wrangler would be cool. 
Also, anyone who is into woodworking, and it really good at it, in Boston, northern New Jersey, or in between?  


  1. Haven’t done one myself, but I have had friends do them. Apparently the trick is in the wheels and axles. Make sure that they are straight, polish the axles, and use lots of graphite. Also, I think you are given a minimum weight. If you go below that, you are allowed to glue ballast (pennies) back in. Use ballast to tweak the weight balance.

    1. It’s a maximum (not minimum) weight, typically 5 ounces. Having weight higher and farther back helps with speed, but if the front end is too light it may have trouble going straight, which turns into friction as the car rubs the rail.

    2. No, the trick is for the axles to NOT be straight – the less contact from the wheels on the track, the faster. So if you angle those nails in, the wheels now have canter and a much smaller contact patch. Some guys even go so far as to “goof them up” so much that only 3 wheels are touching.

      1. I have read four comments so far, all expressing opposing wisdom confidently. This is mechanics 101 all over again, and you asked for it.

  2. Let your kid work on the car. It isn’t important whether it’s the fastest down the track. The time you spend working on it together is the real prize.
    In our pack, the appearance awards were given more prestige than the performance awards. And when I was judging, anything that was obviously not the fruits of the child’s labor was bypassed for consideration (I saw MANY that were products of CNC machining, and a mom once confessed to me that her husband paid $300 for just the paint job). Most of the prizes I awarded went to cars that were unevenly shaped and had fingerprints in the paint.
    A friend’s pack had a kid’s division, for cars the kids had actually touched before the derby, and an Outlaw division, for dads who needed to satisfy their competitive urges. It allowed more weight, aftermarket wheels/axles, and the understanding that a lot of prep hours went into each block of wood rolling down the track.
    Pink eraser is a pretty easy one.

    1. This.
      Have her ask the questions.
      Have her look up answers on the internet, if need be.
      Have her draw a plan for the car.
      Have her figure out how to do each step.
      Some of these will take more than one try.
      Your job is to ask her questions, and be encouraging step by step, to help her make her own decisions.

    2. Now I want to enter an outlaw division pinewood derby race. I’ve long wanted to have a “no holds barred” pinewood derby race, but reading that such a thing exists, has renewed my fervor.

      1. They have them sometimes as fundraisers. The organization signs you up for $30 or $50, gives you a set of rules and a kit worth $5, and then you show up on race day. Or even if you don’t show up, you’ve already made the charitable donation.

  3. Most of the “cheats”* are pretty well known by this point.
    Bent, polished axles
    Mount one front wheel slightly higher than the rest, so that while it has four wheels, it only rolls on three.
    Focus as much weight as far back as you can without lifting the front. You want the CG juuuust in front of the rear wheels. The best cars are so close in drag, you want that little bit of extra potential energy afforded by having the CG higher on the ramp.

    1. I’ve seen mixed results with the three wheels down approach. However, all the top performers from our large troop had well polished axles and hubs. Also, embed graphite on the portion of the body that the hubs may contact.

  4. Mark Rober did an excellent You Tube video on this about 3 years ago. I checked and it is still up.

  5. When my father and I built the gold car, below, in 1978, my goal was something Mercer Raceabout-ish within the limits of both my own woodworking skills and my father’s admittedly generous patience. It took first in appearance for the pack under a system very much like 0A5599 described above and first in the den for speed. I will warn you that if you later take it to a Lemons derby it’ll be up against cars with unorthodox mousetrap-based extensions and/or electric motors, although I really can’t fault any car that’s driven by friction against a tire…

    1. It’s good to build the car with the specific rules in mind. Our troop mandated that the long overhang always go to the front, LOA and wheelbase could not be modified.

  6. All the weight needs to be as far back as possible. Because the car sits nose down on the starting ramp, putting the mass in the rear gives the most potential energy. You can also decrease friction by angling a wheel up (3-wheeling), but the name of the game is potential energy.

  7. A lot of good suggestions are already here. I’ll add that my favorite method of polishing the axles is to put them in a Dremmel and spin them against some wet-sand paper.

  8. The last year my son was a Cub, his car won overall.
    My car won the “others” but was still beat by my son.
    I entered a car I made with my dad when I was a Cub… came in 3rd in the “others”. Not bad for a vintage car.
    I miss making a car. 🙁

  9. Let your daughter decide what she wants to do, then help her have fun doing it. If she considers winning a race fun, support that. If she considers winning the “Best Looking” ribbon fun, support that.
    Bottom line–it’s her gig, your job is to support her.
    My son and I worked together on 3 such cars. Then, we did a father-son project on a REAL ’68 Mustang over three years. He now drives it to school everyday…and takes girls out on dates in it!
    The relationship we developed while working on such projects together is priceless. That is the real goal here.

  10. I won state as a Cub Scout, my car was the fastest, beat them all. The trick is to be the first out of the gate. The nose of the car should rise from the front wheel so as the gate lowers the front rises over and gets you out first, think 60 foot times. Sand the wheels smooth, graphite the axle hole. I needed to add weight so drilled holes in bottom and filled with lead. These tricks will get you out of the hole first and fastest down the track.

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