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How to Win Pine Wood Derby

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Published on Jan 2, 2011

How to win a Pine Wood Derby... these aren't "cheats" or "hacks," but mostly allowable ways to reduce friction and weight distribution to create a faster car. Check your own Cub Scout or Boy Scout pack rules because they vary.

Thanks to my cousin Jim who provided this advice, and his children have won packs and gone to state finals. The basic idea is less about weight (which is usually capped at 5 ounces so nobody creates a super heavy car that gravity favors). It's also less about aerodynamics, although that plays some part. The secret key to winning a Pine Wood Derby is to REDUCE FRICTION. The lower the friction, the faster the car. If a wheel is rubbing against wood or a nail is bumpy, the car will slow down. A well-lubricated, smooth wheel and axle will win every time.

1. Axles (nails): File down the nail (especially the protrusions near the head), then sand them nice and smooth. This is the most important point of friction.
2. Axle Head: File the inside of the head at an angle away from the center, b/c then less of the head will rub against the plastic wheel, thereby reducing friction. I put the nail into a drill to make it faster and more even.
3. Wheel Bottoms: if your rules permit, sand the wheel so the flat tread becomes rounded in a way that very little of the tread touches the road surface, which reduces friction. You want the least amount of wheel touching the track, but most rules forbid making razor sharp wheels.
4. Wheel Friction: watch that inside wheel nub that rubs against the car: file this at an angle so less of it will rub against the car, thereby reducing friction. Some rules forbid this.
5. Weight: this is so important that there's the 5-ounce rule. A lighter car is not an advantage. Make sure your car weighs exactly that maximum weight to get some help from gravity. Be sure to bring attachable magnets or lead so you can remove it if your home scale (or post office scale) is different. It's frustrating to have a car you thought weighed exactly 5 ounces, and suddenly you're panicking to reduce it.
6. Weight Distribution: If possible, design a car that's fatter in the back, and put extra weight over the back wheels. The more weight at the rear, the faster the car goes. Add weights by drilling holes and sticking in fishing weights, or superglue weights, coins, lead, etc. on the top of the back of the car.
7. Wheel Trick: Try to position one of the front axles so the car is only riding on the two back wheels and one front wheel. Why? 3 wheels on the surface instead of 4 = ¼ less friction.
8. Axle Positions: The front of car should be where the axle slot is farther away from the end of the block of wood, because you want to keep those back wheels as close to the back of the car as possible.
9. Axel Tightening: When your car is done, squirt a little superglue between the axle and the slot in which it is wedged. This keeps the axle from falling out after some racing (and it happens). But, be very careful not to let the superglue get near the outside of the axle or touch the wheel in any way. That will slow down the spinning of your wheels.
10. Shape is less important than some think, but every little bit helps in a close race. The skinnier and flatter the car, the faster.
11. Lubrication. Most rules forbid liquid lubricants. But graphite is important, and neurotic parents bring loads of it for last-minute touch ups. Concentrate powder graphite in the wheel tube where the axle goes. Rub graphite on the side of the car and anywhere else where parts are rubbing against each other - makes the parts slicker, reducing friction. Do this repeatedly, including right before you leave for your arrive. Smear your graphitey fingers on the kid you like the least.
12. Creativity. There's usually a "ringer" in every pack (the dad is OCD and keeps his child far away as possible from screwing up the car). So it's sometimes better to focus on making a unique and interesting car. Almost all of the derby racing cars will look like racing cars (yawn), but occasionally you see something memorable and funny. It doesn't have to be a car at all... a stick of butter, a toy or an animal (search Google images for inspiration). It's also fun to see a toy rider if it is a car. Add something selfless (charity) or local flair to win the hearts of the judges.

Parents take note: your child is the Cub Scout or Boy Scout, not you. My cousin's child had a blast painting the standard-issued chunk of wood gold by himself, and racing HIS "Gold Brick." Contrast that with the OCD parent whose super-flat wedge won by speed because his dad basically made it. As one dad said: "Your son gets to make HIS car when HE has a son." That's funny because it kinda defeats the whole goal of the event. The collaboration can be fun, but you almost want to see a single-day event where kids are working with help but without parents taking over.

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