A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Pinewood Derby

Our workshop became Pinewood Derby Central during the book project.

By Bob Duncan & Mindy Kinsey

It sounded like an easy project: we were asked to turn our Pinewood Derby magazine into a book featuring “fast and furious” speed secrets. With a few cosmetic changes, some new cars, and an update on the tools, we thought we could get it out the door and move on to other projects. But, of course, it wasn’t that easy.

We started with the car designs. We asked a bunch of people to make us some cool cars. They all said yes. Then half of them said no. Then a bunch of other people said yes, but they couldn’t provide actual cars. So we went looking for people to cut the cars. That wasn’t a problem, but the cutters weren’t painters. Fortunately, our editorial assistant, Kristen, went to art school, so we set her up with a dozen bottles of paint and told her to have fun–but not too much, because 8-year-olds need to be able to duplicate her designs.

Once the cars were painted, we photographed them and moved on to updating the text. As we were checking the information about car weight and balance, we realized that some of our cars were too thin or were shaped poorly for the weights they needed to hold. We brought in a kitchen scale, weighed every car, added tungsten weights, and figured out optimal placement. And then went back to the drawing board, literally, to redesign some of the cars so they not only looked great but passed our weight and balance tests. We cut and painted and photographed the cars again.

By then, our combination workshop-conference room was Pinewood Derby Central. Most flat surfaces were covered in cars in various stages of completion, car-building tools from several manufacturers, weights in assorted shapes, plastic wheels in five colors, paint, wood scraps, and other project detritus. We tried out new tools, experimented with finishes, and swapped out weights and wheels. We placed the completed cars carefully, but one rolled off the table and broke; luckily it had already been photographed.

Back at our desks, we crosschecked our instructions with reputable Pinewood Derby resources. We researched rules for dozens of districts across the country. We chatted with the Boy Scouts of America. We formatted pages, updated illustrations, reworked instructions, referenced authorities, consulted current parents, considered a few trademark issues, and boiled down the basics.

Weeks of work later, we hope we have created a useful book that will help families cut a car and understand the physics of making it fast, as well as guide you through the process of tuning it for speed. We tried to note the critical steps, explain the logic, and give you options depending on the amount of time and money you want to spend. Making the book turned into a big project for us, but we had a blast and learned a lot–and that’s exactly our wish for you: regardless of whether you win, have fun working on it together!


Here are a few quick and easy tips to keep your kiddo’s car away from the back of the pack.

  • Get the car as close to 5oz as possible. A properly weighted car will win over a lighter car every time. Position one-third of the weight behind the back axle and two-thirds just in front of the back axle.
  • Remove the burrs from the axle shafts and heads. Those bits of metal sticking out on the axle rub against the wheels and really slow the car. Use a file or automotive sandpaper and carefully rub off the metal burrs.
  • Add graphite to the axles. Even if you don’t polish the axles, adding powdered graphite to them will speed the car up. Gently spin the wheels with a finger to “pre-race” the car and break-in the graphite. (Graphite is available from Scout and craft stores.)
  • Make the car roll relatively straight. A car that rolls straight will win over one that bounces around on the track. Push the car across a table and watch it roll, then twist the axles with needle nose pliers to correct any drift.


Pinewood Derby Fast and Furious Speed Secrets is available now. Look for it at your local retailer or order online from Fox Chapel Publishing.

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