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Use Science to Build the Fastest Pinewood Derby Car

SAFETY FIRST: Ask an adult to help with tools you haven't used before.

A former NASA engineer explains how you can use science to build a fast Pinewood Derby car.

For seven years, I worked at NASA on the Mars Curiosity rover. It is just like a Pinewood Derby car, except it has six wheels, it’s nuclear powered and it shoots lasers.

My Cub Scout son and I decided we would take the science principles I used while building stuff at NASA and apply them to making his Pinewood Derby car.

Take a look at some of those science principles in this video and check out my list of the most important steps for making fastest Pinewood Derby car possible.

Seven Steps for Making the Fastest Pinewood Derby Car

Step 1 for Making a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

1. Max out your Pinewood Derby car’s weight at 5 ounces and make sure the heaviest part is about 1 inch in front of the rear axle. This is the most important step. Science shows if you do this correctly, you will beat a Pinewood Derby car built exactly the same — except with the weight toward its front — by 4.6 car lengths. It works because the farther back the weight is, the more potential energy you have because your center of mass is higher up on the track. (Don’t put it too far back, or your Pinewood Derby car will become unstable and pop a wheelie.)

Step 2 for Making a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

2. Use lightweight wheels. This is illegal in some races, but if it’s not in yours, this is a must-do step that will give you a 2.1-car-length advantage at the finish line versus a car with normal wheels. It works because heavy wheels take away from the kinetic energy (the energy something has due to its motion), which makes the Pinewood Derby car slower.

Step 3 for Making a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

3. Use bent polished axles. Bending your Pinewood Derby car axles with a bending tool will make the wheels ride up against the nailhead, which creates less friction than if the wheel is bouncing around and rubbing against the wooden Pinewood Derby car body. See video above for details.

Step 4 for Making a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

4. Railride. Railriding means you steer your Pinewood Derby car into the center guide track just enough that you keep the car from bouncing around. This helps reduce friction and saves energy for speed. See video for details.

Step 5 for Making a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

5. Create a Pinewood Derby car that is reasonably aerodynamic, meaning its design cuts down on drag caused by air. No need to get crazy here, but simply having a wedge-shaped Pinewood Derby car instead of the standard block out of the box will equal a 1.4-car advantage at the finish line.

Step 6 for Making a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

6. Ride on three wheels by raising one wheel off the track. (Check your pack’s Pinewood Derby rules to make sure this is allowed in your race.) You will move faster if you have to get only three wheels rotating, giving you a 1.1-car advantage over an identical Pinewood Derby car riding on four wheels.

Step 7 for Making a Fast Pinewood Derby Car

7. Use lots of graphite. There isn’t a big difference in types of graphite, so buy the cheap stuff and use as much as possible. Be sure to get plenty around each wheel and on the axle.

It works! After my research, my son and I wanted to do one final test to prove that this is a good list. So we built a simple Pinewood Derby car using this list in 45 minutes, and we beat the fastest Pinewood Derby car in our local race by two car lengths. Turns out, science works!

roberMeet Mark Rober

Mark Rober worked as a mechanical engineer at NASA for nine years. During this time, he worked on Curiosity, a car-sized robot that left Earth in 2011, landed on Mars in 2012, and has been exploring, conducting experiments and sending back pictures ever since. Now Mark makes high-tech Halloween costumes.

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21 Comments on Use Science to Build the Fastest Pinewood Derby Car

  1. Connecticut Rivers Scouter // January 30, 2021 at 4:18 am // Reply

    Make sure you check your councils rules. Our council would disqualify for a few of these

  2. If riding on only three wheels, why not eliminate the fourth wheel altogether ?
    Should the car also be as low as possible to minimize the air flowing under it ?

    Thanks – Peter D.

    • That fourth wheel still must be in place to guide the car. It might not touch the floor of the track but it still is needed to follow the center guide rail.

  3. that one person // November 5, 2020 at 3:55 pm // Reply

    love it, thanks!

  4. thanks

  5. Or amazon it

  6. webelos1minecrafter // April 21, 2020 at 10:41 am // Reply

    who is subbed to this wizard?

  7. disqualified using polished axles….. said it right on the BOA pinewood derby sheet!

  8. Other than putting the weights in the back, does it matter if they sit on top of the car or should they be under the car? Does changing the center of mass affect the performance? I’m considering flipping the car upside down so the axles are on top, and then inserting the weights underneath (or recessing them). The idea is that the car will ride lower overall and will help to reduce drag.

  9. thank you <3

  10. Yeeter mc yeeterson // January 22, 2020 at 3:25 pm // Reply

    I love this the science is quick and easy and ours was a drag race car and my son loved it

  11. This is usful

  12. So Do we want 3 of the wheels bent or just the back 2?

  13. used these tips at a work pinewood derby race and came in 2nd out of about 60 cars. Seems to work well.

  14. This video was really good my son won second place

  15. johnny johnny yes papa // March 9, 2019 at 10:00 am // Reply

    ThIs Is ReAlLy GrEaT ThAnK YoU

  16. That is an awesome video thank you for all of the good pointers.

  17. Just entered a car in our work pine derby tournament that had 50 entries. I used the advice in this article to build my car and we won first place beating out all of the other 50 cars!

  18. Our first year in Cub Scouts (my grandson was a Tiger) and he designed and did a little of the work in each section (sanding, painting, etc) and his car won 3 trophies. It didn’t follow any of the suggestions in the video, other than the graphite. Others at the meet were experienced PWD parents, and we still beat them….there is some luck involved. I do like the science of the video.

  19. Super shelly // February 6, 2019 at 7:56 pm // Reply

    Some rules vary from pack to pack, maybe that’s why it says you can’t

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