My son competed in his second Pinewood Derby a couple of weeks ago.
Last year he finished dead last. This year he finished 3rd from dead
last. I would like to ask for some diagnostic help from more
experienced Pinewood Derby racers. Last year and this year I read a
good bit of the material available on the Web and I thought we paid
attention to all of the important factors. Based on the behavior of
his car on the track in both years, I suspect that we had a weight
Last year his car would begin down the track with the other cars in a
tight group or even a bit ahead. As the car hit the straight away it
would slow down significantly as the other cars shot away. Each Scout
runs 4 races (1 on each track) and every race was the same. The
outcome was the same this year, except that 2 other cars happened to be
a bit slower.
Does this sound like an issue of weight placement? Is this what the
car would do if there was too much weight towards the back of the car?
The material on the Web seems to be contradictory. The average advice
seems to be to place as much of the weight as possible towards the
back. One web site qualified this by saying that you should not put
the additional weight any further back than the rear axle. The Pack
information recommended weight centered around 1/2" to 1 " towards the
rear from the midpoint between the axles. Another web site recommended
the weight be centered 1/2 to 2/3 back towards the rear axle.
Last year I had read some old advice that was apparently applicable to
the old S tracks and we had placed a lot of weight in the back. This
year we tried to avoid that. We used a 2 oz bar weight countersunk
between the axles. We also drilled holes on each side about 1/2 inch
forward of the rear axle to add more weight. Since we were still
short, we drilled 3 holes in the back and added more weight there. We
ended up weighing in at 141.74 grams. I am afraid that the extra
weight in the back tipped the center of gravity too far back, but I
just do not know for sure.
We would appreciate any help or advice.
My advice on the entire "Pinewood Derby" issue:
Buy the cars in bulk, factory made and shipped to the scout hut under armed
guard so no parent could figure out how to get an edge; let each cub pick
out his racer, blindfolded ...then go straight to the starting line.
Thrill in victory, and participation, no agony in defeat ... and a good time
was had by all.
Amen. I remember in the early 60s when The Derby was big... really
big. And SUPPOSED to be a an event between scouts. Sure, a little
help from Dad, but just guidance. We all built our cars and had a
great time looking at each other's work... you remember... the left
over decals from models stuck on the sides, chunks knocked out of the
wood bodies from using your boy scout knife too aggressively, paint
where it shouldn't be...
Then the Dads took over. The cars looked great, no more airplane
decals on your car - just car decals, there were paint >schemes<, not
just painted cars, and the nails that were the axles were replaced with
piano wire. A glued on washer or fishing weight was replaced by a
precise hole filled with molten lead. Eventually it It got so bad that
even the Dads thought it was ridiculous, so instead of backing off....
THEY FORMED THEIR OWN COMPETITION!
And those sorry asses (mine included) ran their competitions on the
same night at the same meeting as ours. They had their own categories
inside the event (best design, best paint, most original) and they even
had a huge trophy for the race winner. Eventually there was so much to
the Dad's portion of the derby that all but a couple of us quit making
cars and let them have it.
I know there were a lot of guys that have similar experiences as I have
been in many, many houses over the years that proudly display "their
son's" *wink*wink* car right next to their Dad's. When I have seen
only one car in the display case, I know of no 10 - 12 year old that
could have done the things I have seen.
I know many feel your kids would be scarred forever for losing, so you
feel like you have to participate to make the cars as good as you can.
But I don't really think it has been about the kids for a few decades.
This is not a jab at Locutus, but reading his post, what did his son do
to participate? What was his part? He isn't even mentioned in the
whole process (except to select paint) again until the end where
ownership of the car makes him the winner.
So I like Swingman's idea a lot. Give them a box of stickers to
personalize the cars and let 'em have at it. I think the kiddos are a
lot more resilient than they get credit for. If they had 30 minutes to
customize a car before running the race and that represented the prep
part of the competition, I think all would be fine, win or lose. And
then they could enjoy the racing with their friends, admiring each
other's cars, and eating hot dogs and pizza.
On 22 Jan 2007 15:16:38 -0800, firstname.lastname@example.org wrote:
It's a funny thing, but there was a time in the US when kids were
allowed to lose, all on their own. Those losers won two world wars,
put a man on the Moon, invented the atomic bomb, and did numerous
other things including creating an economy so powerful that the rest
of the world looked on in awe and terror as its products dominated
Since then, what have the "winners" done? Near as I can tell they
mostly quit the first time things didn't go their way.
On 22 Jan 2007 15:16:38 -0800, email@example.com wrote:
Agreed, and I'll add this- it deviates from the pinewood derby a
little, but not as much as a guy might think.
We have to stop insulating people from failure. Too many people never
learn because they're sheltered until they're too old, and then the
first time it happens when they hit the real world, they crack like an
egg. I know a whole lot of people who are unwilling to risk
*anything* because they might fail- I would hope that the scouts would
have an interest in helping those kids involved learn to "Be Prepared"
for the inevitable disappointments they're bound to encounter from
time to time, and it would seem that a wooden car race would be a fine
way to do that in a controlled setting. It's not the Special
Olympics, after all. Let those kids make their own pineywood
jalopies- if they win, they might want to keep at the woodworking. If
they lose, it's a good opportunity to pick themselves up and dust off-
they can try again next year.
I am puzzled also about weight placement. I have 2 sons who were in
the derby race yesterday. This year we put the cg about 1 inch forward
of rear axle. Last year 1 inch aft of front axle. No difference in
number of races won or speed noticable between years. This year we
polished the axles on one and not the other and treated the wheels the
same yet on the heat where they raced against each other they tied,
twice since the first time they could not tell a winner but on the
second race the third car won. One car won 4 out of 9 and the other
(with polished axles I might add) won 1 out of 9 races. I tend to
think it is pure luck but there are 3 families whose kids always place
in the top 5 or 6 out of 35 or so every year. They claim they do not
do anything excessive except make sure the car runs straight. We are
friends so I believe them.
There is some luck, no doubt. Your friends are right. Making the car
run straight is critical. I'm not one of the big experts, but we've
finished in the top 3 (different kids)
4 out of 7 times.. Of course, we've also failed to get out of the first
round in other years, as our pack is very competitive.
I have story about last years pinewood derby.....
My 8 year old son bought the kit, and I totally forgot about. He wakes me up
at 8am on a saturday morning, saying "Dad, the derby is today, we forgot to
make my car"... great, we have to be there at 11am.
Most of my tools are over at a house I am rehabbing, about 30 minutes away.
Just going over there would take up at least an hour. So I see what I have
on hand. I have a cordless drill, a hammer, some nuts, washers and bolts, a
jig saw and a dremel tool, and some old red door paint and some brown spray
paint in the shed.
My son says Yugioh uses red and brown colors, and he has some yugioh
stickers. Ok, that solves that. I go ahead and draw a rough futuristic car
shape on the block of wood and cut it out with the jig saw, sand it down and
shape it further with the dremel tool and a sanding wheel.
Of course I have no scale at the house capable of measuring the weight of
the car in oz, so I have to devise someway to easily change the weight, so I
drill in hole in the "back window" and screw in a bolt with about 10 washers
I paint the car red with the door paint, and then do a faded two tone with
the brown spray paint. Boy was it ugly, but my kid thought it was pretty
cool. I had my son stand there with a hair dryer on it until it was dry
(enough) and he added his stickers, then I attached the wheels.
We get there just in time, I proceed to weight in the car, it's weigh
overweight, easy enough, brought a wrench with me and removed some washers.
After getting the weight just right, I used some graphite on the wheels.
There were about 70 cars competing, my son won 1st place. I don't think I
have ever seen him so happy. I was the hero for at least one day. :)
Luck has very little to do with it when there are several well-tuned
cars in the race. Several times I've seen tounaments that lasted all
day, with one car that crossed the finish line first every single time
it ran. You can't attribute that sort of success to luck.
Having said that . . .every year Fate chooses to smile on some kid who
had little or no help. He takes the nails out of the box and pounds
them in with a hammer. The heavenly bodies all line up in the proper
orientation, and his car does very well, but it still doesn't beat the
ones with polished axles and turned wheels. The rest of those kids
usually suffer a different fate. I've seen several cars that stopped
before they got to the finish line.
I've held work days in my shop with my tools and assistance to try to
help some of these boys be more competitive. But they aren't the ones
who show up. None of the single mothers or non-technical dads bring
their kids. It's the young dads who are sure they know how to build a
fast car, they just need the tools to do it.
In the end, somebody has to be last in every competition. I didn't
contribute the genes or the tutoring to allow my boy to be good at
football, baseball, basketball or soccer. He certainly knows the agony
of being last in those areas. But I can show him how to build a fast
"We should be careful to get out of an experience only the wisdom
that is in it - and stop there; lest we be like the cat that sits down
on a hot stove-lid. She will never sit down on a hot stove-lid
again---and that is well; but also she will never sit down on a cold
one anymore." - Mark Twain
We race on a forty foot Piantedosi wood track, with a starting pin
height of about 45", and the slope runs out flat at about 12' on a
level line from the pins. The pin to finish line distance is about
35' measured on the track.
We use tungsten weights that come in 3/8" d. cylinders and we drill
the car body out, starting on the centerline of the car and running
parallel to the centerline for one row on either side of it. The
drilled holes have about 1/8" between each and they are drilled to
depth with a forstner bit on the drill press.
We insert the weights into the center line of holes and attempt to get
the car to five ounces, with one ounce riding on the front axles. We
set the weights to be flush with the bottom of the car.
We straighten the axles in a press and hammer the nail head into the
press so that it is square to the shaft, and then file off the webbing
below the nail head. Then we lightly file the underside of the nail
head into a coned shape.
Then we insert the axle into the drill press and polish it with
wet-or-dry abrasive, starting at 600 grit and moving through the grits
to a finish with 1 micron polishing cloth. We wipe them down with
alcohol and put them in a baggie with a powdered graphite/moly
lubricant. We treat the underside of the nail head the same as we do
We use a jig on the drill press to bring the wheels into round and
then treat the tread with the same regimen of abrasives. We cone the
bore of the wheels and we polish with the same set of abrasives. We
use the same abrasives on the area of the wheel that contacts the
underside of the axle. We polish the inside edge of the wheels with
the same abrasives and then we take a rag and push graphite/moly into
the surfaces of the coned hub, flat face, treads, etc. We use a piece
of drill rod and some liquid abrasive to polish the interior of the
bore. Then we clean out the wheels with compressed air, then swab
with denatured. Then we put the wheels in a baggie that has some
graphite/moly in it and shake them up, then let them sit overnight -
they come out a cool looking graphite gray and - we hope - the
graphite gets into some of the crans and nookies.
We drill holes in the body at the bottoms of the axle slots, so that
the axles will go in straight. We load the wheel hubs up with
graphite/moly and push the axles through, trying to keep as much
lubricant in the bore as we can. We push the axles into the body
until the wheel bores are 1/32" away from the body. Then we spin the
wheels for a bit using the air compressor to direct a stream of air
over the wheel to make it spin.
Then we set the car on a piece of plywood that is eight feet long and
set to a five degree slope, being level side to side. We put a dot on
the twelve o clock position of the axle head and we turn each axle a
quarter turn at a time until the car can run a straight line over
We then run the air compressor over each wheel until we think the lube
is gone and test the car for straight again. A little more tweaking
to make it straight. Then we pack it with lube and we're ready to
The boy ran third out of fifty his first year and second last year.
Then he went to the Districts and ran third out of 150.
To answer your question - I think that you have a friction problem, or
an alignment problem, rather than a weight problem.
I'd pay a lot of attention to the alignment.
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email)
To me, it is the transmission of the concept of craftsmanship.
The same mentality that makes you create a piston fit drawer, a
hermetic dovetail joint, a perfect deep gloss lacquer finish - these
are all created by the repetition of simple processes, and the truth
of success in any of them is - Character.
Going the extra mile. Being unreasoning in your pursuit of
excellence. Doing what needs to be done to make it as good as you
I don't have my boy stand in front of the drill press for an hour to
win this race - I want him to understand what it takes to win his
race, whatever that may turn out to be.
I have been somewhat facile about winning the Derby - I am much less
so about the lessons that the process teaches.
The goal with my son is never actually to beat anyone else but
Kipling had a great poem about it. I've had my boy memorize it.
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email)
Pat - If you don't mind me turning this discussion over to my betters:
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you
But make allowance for their doubting too,
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don't deal in lies,
Or being hated, don't give way to hating,
And yet don't look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream--and not make dreams your master,
If you can think--and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you've spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build 'em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it all on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breath a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: "Hold on!"
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with kings--nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you;
If all men count with you, but none too much,
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds' worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that's in it,
And--which is more--you'll be a Man, my son!
tjwatson1ATcomcastDOTnet (real email)
Thanks Tom, I hadn't encountered that one before.
Makes me think maybe I should revisit Kipling- I had kind of missed
him as a kid, and figured it wasn't much use going back to revisit the
same fella who wrote the Jungle Book at this point.
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