Pinewood derby


Petty Superbird

Cubmaster Don Murphy organized the first pinewood derby, held on May 15, 1953 in Manhattan Beach, California by Pack 280c. Murphy’s son was too young to participate in the popular Soap Box Derby races, so he came up with the idea of racing miniature wood cars. The cars had the same gravity-powered concept as the full-size Soap Box Derby cars, but were much smaller and easier to build. After Don Murphy’s first race in 1953 the Los Angeles County Department of Recreation copied the pinewood derby with Murphy’s permission.

In the 1980s, the design of the block was changed from a cutout block, consistent with a 1940’s style front-engined Indy 500 car, to a solid block. The tires were also changed from narrow, hard plastic, to wider “slicks”.


A Cub Scout holds a winning pine car

The Scout is given a block of wood made of pine with two notches for wheels, four plastic wheels and four nails. The finished car must use all nine pieces, must not exceed a certain weight (usually five ounces), must not exceed a certain length and must fit on the track used by that particular scout pack.

Blocks can be whittled with a hand knife or a band saw or Dremel carving tool for major shaping. Decals can be bought at scout shops or hobby shops. It is also possible to use standard model decals to replicate actual racing cars such as Richard Petty’s 1970 Plymouth Superbird, shown at right. The original style is based on open wheel cars, however, fender or body kits are available, or wheels can simply be placed outboard of the body.

Other than the previous basic design rules, the Cub Scout is able to carve and decorate the car as he chooses. Many Cub Scouts also add weights to the final design to bring the car to the maximum allowable weight; coins, glue-in lead pieces, and melted lead are common ways to add weight. Cars typically vary from unfinished blocks to whimsical objects, to accurate replicas of actual cars. The fastest cars tend to resemble low doorstops, with weight at the rear. Graphite is usually the only lubricant allowed, and it often helps to polish the provided nails.

The idea behind the pinewood derby is for the parent, usually the father, but occasionally the mother or grandparent, to spend time helping the child design, carve, paint, add weights, and tune the final car. However, it is often the case that the parent takes over the construction of the car, an aspect of the event that was lampooned in the 2005 film Down and Derby, and also in a 2009 episode of South Park. The quest for a fast car supports a cottage industry that supplies modified wheels, axles, and blocks as well as videos and instruction books. While a pinewood derby car kit costs around $4, a set of modified wheels and axles can sell for more than ten times that amount. These aftermarket items are legal under some Pack rules since the parts originally came from an official BSA kit. Complete cars can be purchased on eBay and elsewhere for around $100 to $200. Although these cars violate the spirit of the event, if not the rules, enforcement can be difficult.

Pinewood Derby Donahue 1972 AMC Matador

Model manufacturer Revell was licensed by the BSA to produce pinewood derby kits with a release in December 2009.


The track usually has two to six lanes and slopes down to the ground, since the cars are powered by gravity. Tracks may be owned by the pack or rented. The race is run in heats, giving every car the chance to run on each lane. The racers can be grouped with others from the same rank (Tiger Cubs, Wolf Cubs, Bear Cubs, etc.), or can compete against the pack as a whole.

The first, second, and third place winners usually receive ribbons, medals or trophies. Some packs also award on the basis of car design. The first place race winners get to advance to the district level, then each of the district-wide race winners get to race each other from across the entire council.

Other races

Pinewood derby cars ready to race

As the popularity of the pinewood derby grew, other organizations adopted the concept. Pinewood derby is a registered registered trademark of the BSA, so most use different names. Each derby has slightly different rules for making and racing their cars.

Awana has the Awana Grand Prix.

Christian Service Brigade uses the name Shape N Race Derby.

Royal Ambassadors have RA Racers.

Royal Rangers use a different kit with screw axles and dowel rod axle supports.

Scouts Canada has the kub kar rally for Cub Scouts and beaver buggies for Beaver Scouts.

YMCA chule cars use the same kit as the Royal Rangers.

Valve cover racing is an event at some car shows using vehicles made from valve covers.

Car modifications

Stock wheels (left) and modified (one gram) wheels (right)

Car track

The forces propelling a pinewood derby car are gravity and inertia, the opposing forces are friction and air drag. Therefore, car modifications are aimed at maximizing the potential energy in the car design and minimizing the air drag and the friction that occurs when the wheel spins on the axle, contacts the axle head or car body, or contacts the track guide rail. Friction due to air drag is a minor, although not insignificant, factor. The wheel tread can be sanded or lathed and the inner surface of the hub can be coned to minimize the contact area between the hub and body. Polishing the wheel, especially the inner hub, with a plastic polish can also reduce friction. Often one front wheel is raised slightly so that it does not contact the track and add to the rolling resistance. Axles are filed or lathed to remove the burr and crimp marks and polished smooth. More extensive modifications involve tapering the axle head and cutting a notch to minimize the wheel-to-axle contact area. Note that packs can establish additional rules for what, if any, modifications are allowed. In some areas, no changes can be made to the axles or wheels.

A second consideration is the rotational energy stored in the wheels. The pinewood derby car converts gravitational potential energy into translational kinetic energy (speed) plus rotational energy. Heavier wheels have a greater moment of inertia and their spinning takes away energy that would otherwise contribute to the speed of the car. A standard wheel has a mass of 3.6 g, but this can be reduced to as little as 1 g by removing material from the inside of the wheel. A raised wheel can reduce the rotational energy up to one-quarter, but this advantage is less with a bumpy track.

A proper lubricant, typically graphite powder, is essential. Wheel alignment is important both to minimize wheel contact with the axle head and body as well as to limit the contact between the wheels and guide rail as the car travels down the track. The center of mass of a typical car is low and slightly ahead of the rear axle, which helps the car track straight as well as providing a slight advantage due to the additional gravitational potential energy.

See also

Woodcar Independent Racing League

Down and Derby – a 2005 film centering on a pinewood derby competition


^ “Best Mother-Son Finish”. Reader’s Digest. 2006. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 

^ “The Pinewood Derby”. National Scouting Museum. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 

^ “The History of Pinewood Derby Car Racing”. Pinewood Pro. Retrieved 2008-02-29. 

^ Bogert, John (July 9, 2008). “Scouts Honor  Memorial Set for Creator of the Pinewood Derby”. Daily Breeze (Los Angeles Newspaper group). Retrieved 2008-07-11. 

^ Pinewood Derby Car Construction
^ “The Dark Side: eBay Cars”. Pinewood Derby Times. Retrieved March 18, 2007. 

^ “Revell Pinewood Derby”. Retrieved 2009-12-16. 

^ “Search of Trademark Application and Registration Retrieval system”. U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Retrieved 2007-03-02. 

^ “Pinewood Derby Race Rules”. ShapeNRace. Retrieved 2008-11-23. 

^ Cowley, E. Roger (November 1989). “Pinewood Derby Physics”. The Physics Teacher (American Association of Physics Teachers) 27 (8): 610612. doi:10.1119/1.2342889. 

^ “Five Keys to Pine Derby Performance”. Maximum Velocity. Retrieved 2008-09-26. 

External links

Wikibooks has a book on the topic of

How To Build a Pinewood Derby Car

Wikimedia Commons has media related to: Pinewood derby

Pinewood Derby at the Open Directory Project

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