How To Win A Pinewood Derby: 6 Science-Backed Tips For Cub Scouts

The Pinewood Derby is one of the best parts of being a Cub Scout. Packs will typically hold the annual event in January or February and allow every Scout, from Wolf to Webelos, to take part. In this article, I’ll be giving you my best science-backed secrets for winning your next Pinewood Derby! Before we dive into it though, let’s answer the question…

What is a Pinewood Derby? A Pinewood Derby is a racing event for Cub Scouts where participants create miniature wood cars from a base kit and race them on a track. Powered solely by gravity, these cars compete in heats. Cubs aim to be the fastest, but design and style awards are also given.

P.S. This article is a guest post collaboration between AOL and Eagle Scout, Michael M and Cole 🙂

The Pinewood Derby was a blast when I did it, so all Cubs and their parents should definitely try to participate! Every Scout creates their own Pinewood Derby car from the same base kit and uses the same basic rules, which means everyone is equal, but no two cars will be the same.

What Is a Pinewood Derby?

The original Pinewood Derby was created in 1953 when a pack leader, Don Murphy, wanted to create a smaller and easier-to-build version of the Soap Box Derby cars. Powered only by gravity, the miniature wood cars became incredibly popular. Within a year, packs nationwide were running their own events! 

A Pinewood Derby track can have two lanes up to a maximum of eight. Scouts compete in heats, with everyone getting a chance to have a race or two, depending on the size of your pack! The winning Scouts will receive either a medal or a trophy, and some packs will also give out awards for “Best Style” or “Best Design.” 😀

Pinewood Derby Rules and Regulations

Like any competition, the Pinewood Derby has a set of rules. These regulations may seem strict, but there are still thousands of possible car designs you can use! For more details about scoring methods, refer to this helpful website. Here are the rules to remember:

  1. Width shall not exceed 2-3/4 inches.
  2. Length shall not exceed 7 inches.
  3. Weight shall not exceed 5 ounces.
  4. Axles, wheels, and body shall be from the materials provided in the kit. Additional wheels can be purchased separately.
  5. Wheel bearings, washers, and bushings are prohibited.
  6. No lubricating oil may be used. Axles may be lubricated with powdered graphite or silicone.
  7. The car shall not ride on any kind of spring.
  8. The car must be free-wheeling, with no starting devices.
  9. No loose materials of any kind are allowed in the car.

A basic Pinewood Derby car will weigh 3.5 ounces (3.2 for the wood and .3 for the wheels and axles), allowing up to 1.5 ounces of extra weight — but as I’ll explain, there are different things you can do to get more weight onto your car (which is honestly the secret to winning 😉 )! 

How a Pinewood Derby Car Works

Pinewood Derby cars are powered by gravity, which means no one can push them, and everyone is on equal footing. The track is slanted, so when the starting gates open, every car will roll downhill. In order to win, your Pinewood Derby car needs to maximize the gravitational pull, reduce friction, and let air flow around it with the least resistance possible. 

The physics of how this happens is simple: the Pinewood Derby car turns potential energy into kinetic energy. Everything you can do to make sure your car is the first one down the track has to be done before you show up for the event. Follow these tips, and your car will have maximum energy and speed! 

Six Tips To Help You Win the Pinewood Derby

1. Make Your Car Aerodynamic

The biggest difference between first and last in a Pinewood Derby is aerodynamics. This refers to how air moves around your car, which can create friction that slows down your car. A block design isn’t aerodynamic, but a wedge car shape is! This video (5:16) shows how important aerodynamics are.

The very first thing you should do to make sure your Pinewood Derby car is aerodynamic is sand the wood block from your kit. Use sandpaper until the block feels smooth to the touch, with no rough edges of any kind. That way, the air between the ramp and finish line will slow you down less than your competition — helping you win!

2. Maximize Weight

The second most important factor is making sure your Pinewood Derby has enough weight in the right places. According to the official rules, a Pinewood car can only weigh up to 5 ounces, which is why placement is important!

Put the weights 1 inch in front of the rear axle to maximize the impact gravity will have on your car. The weights should go under the car, as low to the ramp as possible, and not higher up. You wouldn’t want them to interfere with the aerodynamics you worked so hard to maximize!

3. Make Sure the Axles are Assembled and Installed Properly

The most important parts of any car are the wheels, and the axles are how wheels are attached to the body of your Pinewood derby car. Before assembling your Pinewood Derby car, make sure the axles are sanded to reduce any bumps or points of friction. 

When installing the axles, bend them slightly: a 1.5-degree angle for the front and a 2.5-degree angle for the rear should be sufficient. Remember, the goal is to reduce friction and make the spin as smooth as possible! You can learn more about how exactly to do this in the FAQ section below. 🙂

4. Lubricate the Axles and Wheels

Oil-based lubrication is not allowed in a Pinewood Derby, but graphite lubrication is, and you should certainly make use of it! Lubricate the axles and wheel wells, paying attention to where the axle meets the wheel. It’s easy to do cheaply, and the difference in speed will be immediately noticeable on the track. This is one of the easiest tips for getting an edge!

5. Ensure That the Wheels are Aligned

If your Pinewood Derby car isn’t going straight, it will slow down by bumping against the track. Test your wheel alignment by taking a long board of wood, marking a line going down the middle, and letting your car go down it at a slight incline. Watch and see if your car goes off the line. If it does shift over, adjust the alignment and try again!

6. Make Sure Your Car Looks Cool! 😀

Once your Pinewood Derby car is aerodynamic with weights in the right places, it’s time to add decorations! You can apply stickers, a cool-looking paint job, and even LED lights to your car. However, you need to make sure your decorations don’t cost you the win.

My very first Pinewood Derby car had a small windshield, which looked cool, but wasn’t aerodynamic and slowed it down. I learned my lesson, and my second Pinewood Derby car was smoother, with a wedge-shaped nose and a spoiler on the back! 🙂

Pinewood Derby Frequently Asked Questions

Now that you know the basic tricks to win a Pinewood Derby, it’s time to dive into some frequently asked questions that’ll give you a better idea of the do’s and don’ts of competing. You’ll also find some extra tips that’ll help you to get an even bigger edge, so make sure to check out this section before getting started. 🙂

What is the most important thing to make a Pinewood Derby car faster?

As you’ll see in the video below (5:16), aerodynamics is the single most important thing to keep in mind while making a Pinewood Derby car. Allowing air to flow smoothly around the car will reduce drag and increase speed. From car shape to the type of paint, every design decision should be made with aerodynamics in mind!

Should I bake my Pinewood Derby block?

The very first thing you should do is bake your Pinewood Derby wood block in the oven at 250 degrees for 2 hours. Doing this will remove moisture from the wood, which reduces the weight, allowing you to put more weight on your car! 

Where is the best place to put weight on a Pinewood Derby car?

One inch in front of the rear axle is the best location for additional weight. By increasing the center mass of your Pinewood Derby car, you are maximizing the gravitational pull!

Should weights go on the top or the bottom of a Pinewood Derby car?

Weights on the bottom of the car will increase the impact of gravity, and if they are beneath the axle line, you will be achieving maximum impact. Flat, smooth weights that will not drag against the raised guideline of the track are the best choice. The video below (15:59) demonstrates this well!

What should I do to the Pinewood Derby car axles?

Everyone uses the same axles that came with each Pinewood Derby kit, but there are small things you can do to give your car an advantage. For starters, sand the axles using a drill press to 2000 grit. Smoothing the body of the axle gets rid of the small dips and grooves, allowing for a tighter fit to the body of the car!

The head of the axles should be smoothed to ensure a better fit with the wheels. You can test the fit once the axles are attached by spinning the wheels and counting how long they spin without stopping. You want them to spin for 45 seconds. 

How should I attach the axles?

Drill small holes in the sides of the Pinewood Derby car that will snugly fit the axles. Secure the axles to the car using glue, but be careful not to get any glue on the wheels. Here’s a short, helpful video guide (0:40) on installing the axles.

Should I bend the axles?

This is optional, but if you want the best chance of winning your Pinewood Derby, you should! Front axles should have a slight bend of 1.5 degrees, and rear axles should be bent at 2.5 degrees. The bent axles will reduce friction from the wheels and make it easier to keep your car aligned.

To help with bending and setting the axles, here’s a handy link to an axle bender tool and a puller tool. The axle bender tool is shown below, but just wanted to warn you that it’s a little pricey!

Does the shape of a Pinewood Derby car matter?

Yes. You need to keep aerodynamics in mind when shaping your Pinewood Derby car. The standard brick shape of your wood block is not aerodynamic, but a wedge-shaped car is. Think about the shape of a racecar — it’s not a block! Check out this resource on five standard shapes of a Pinewood Derby car.

Can you use lubrication, like WD40, on a Pinewood Derby car?

According to the official rules, no Pinewood Derby car can use an oil-based lubricant, which rules out WD40. Instead, use graphite and apply it everywhere you can: on the wheels, on the axles, around the axle slots, everywhere!

Can you use parts not in the Pinewood Derby kit?

Yes you can! One of my own Pinewood Derby cars had a windshield. I didn’t win a single race because that’s not aerodynamic, but it definitely looked cool! 😂 You can put on different stickers, or even under-mounted LED lights if you want to. Just be sure to check with your pack to make sure that doing so won’t violate any rules!

This video (0:28) has some awesome examples of Pinewood Derby car decoration. You can also buy Pinewood Derby car accessories at the Scout Shop!

Does the type of paint matter?

The color does not make a difference so long as you apply the paint smoothly and evenly. I’ve had Pinewood Derby cars that were bright yellow and straight white, while other Scouts had black cars or blue ones. It’s up to you and your imagination — try to create a car that you’re proud of and feel represents you!

However, the type of paint does matter. I recommend using an enamel paint. The high-gloss colors will give your Pinewood Derby car a great look, and it is less “bumpy” compared to acrylic paint. Less bumpy means more aerodynamic! This video (0:59) shows you how to seal and paint your car.

Conclusion: What To Do After You Win the Pinewood Derby!

Follow the simple tips in this article, and you’ll win a few races — and, hopefully, the entire Pinewood Derby! Once you do, be a gracious winner. Competing against your fellow Cub Scouts is fun, but all of you are in the same pack and should be supporting each other to succeed! 🙂

Make sure to congratulate your fellow Cubs on a great event. Even if someone came in last place, you can find a genuine compliment to give them. Maybe their Pinewood Derby car looks really cool or shows their creativity. Also, make sure to thank the parents and volunteers who made the event possible!

Thanks so much for dropping by, and best of luck on your upcoming Pinewood Derby! If you enjoyed reading this, I’d highly recommend also checking out any of the following articles:

I hope your Pinewood Derby is a ton of fun! The next time you’re looking for help with Cub Scouting, be sure to come back to ScoutSmarts. Until then, I’m wishing you some amazing adventures ahead! 😀


I'm constantly writing new content because I believe in Scouts like you! Thanks so much for reading, and for making our world a better place. Until next time, I'm wishing you all the best on your journey to Eagle and beyond!

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