How Pinewood Derbies Work


The Pinewood Derby is an event that kids and parents have been able to enjoy together since 1953. See ­more pictures of classic toys.
-iStockphoto.com/Lynn Seeden

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It was May 15, 1953, when Don Murphy, a Cub Scout leader for Pack number 280 based out of Manhattan Beach, Calif., held the first Pinewood Derby. His young scouts wanted to race in the annual Soap Box Derby -- an event that was already big enough to draw celebrities like Roy Rogers -- but they were too young. That's when Murphy hatched his derby idea. "It was originally done for the kids to have some fun and give them the chance to build something with their parents," said Gary McAulay, a derby historian, now a board member of Cub Scout Pack number 713, which incorporated number 280.

The original derby ideal caught on locally, and then came an article in Boy's Life Magazine, the official Boy Scouts of America publication, in 1954. That one article about Don Murphy and his Pinewood Derby started a nationwide -- then worldwide -- sensation. McAulay estimates that to date, more than 90 million parents and scouts have raced in derbies.

In a Pinewood Derby, racing physics sets the rules for the car creators, but it's the functional design and almost fanatical passion that's made the sport one of the most popular forms of gravity competition in the country. What started as a Cub Scout alternative to Boy Scouting's popular Soap Box Derby has sprung into a phenomenon reaching every state in the United States, church groups and youth organizations, corporate training rooms across Canada and Europe.

­The derbies are simple. Each racer crafts a car from a block of wood, generally pine or balsa, using a standard kit with four wheels and four small axles. The cars are then raced down a sloped wood or aluminum track -- no motors, just gravity -- achieving a top speed of about 15 or 20 miles per hour (24.1 or 32.2 kilometers per hour) during the seconds-long run.

While simple in plan and execution, any racer will say the reality is slightly different. Especially when you ask the derby speed shop owners that sell all the products needed to squeeze every last bit of oomph out of a car that has no motor and can be held in the palm of one hand.

Often the races are noisy scrums, but ­the winning cars are usually the quietest. They whisper down the slope tracking a dead-straight path, delicately balancing the forces of gravity, angular momentum and friction to flash across the finish line -- sometimes less than 1/1000th of a second ahead of the nearest competitor. The losing cars (for winning and losing is a venerable derby tradition) tend to pulse, chatter and vibrate their way to the end sending their creators back to the pits for a between-heat tune-up and perhaps an attitude cooldown, too.

Win or lose the races are about physics, technology and the elusive human factor that adds passion and fun into the mix. In this article, we'll take a more in-depth look at how derby cars are made, what rules they race under, and find out exactly who's racing them. Here's a hint: It's no longer just for the kids -- that is, if it ever was.

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Pinewood Derby Car Designs

Seven-year-old Carter Pompola watches cars race by him during the annual Cub Scout Pack 136 Pinewood Derby Race at Indian Paintbrush Elementary School in Laramie, Wyo., March 29, 2008.
Seven-year-old Carter Pompola watches cars race by him during the annual Cub Scout Pack 136 Pinewood Derby Race at Indian Paintbrush Elementary School in Laramie, Wyo., March 29, 2008.
AP Photo/Ben Woloszyn

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Don Murphy started his race with some basic design considerations still adhered to within the competition -- all Pinewood Derby cars must meet the same weight, size and configuration standards:

  • No car must weigh more than 5 ounces (141.7 grams)
  • Cars must be no longer than 7 inches (17.78 centimeters) from front to rear bumpers
  • Cars cannot be more than 2 3/4 inch (6.99 centimeters) wide
  • The clearance between the car and the track must be no more than 3/8 of an inch (0.95 centimeters)
  • The cars must be freewheeling and have no starting devices

Other than these rules, how a car is made is open to the builder's interpretation. While artistic inspiration strikes more than a few Scouts and parents -- some have made moving replicas of the Iwo Jima Memorial as well as exact replicas of classic muscle cars and NASCAR favorites -- the more traditional races draw in more traditional materials. The body is often crafted of pine or balsa, both materials are easy to work and rather forgiving, with an egalitarian acceptance of an unsteady 10-year-old hand. These woods are also light and if necessary, weight can be added to bring them up to race standard. More importantly, the weight can be distributed where it is deemed to be the most effective -- but more on this later.

Bodies are shaped using a variety of methods ranging from the Scout classic of whittling with a pocketknife to more advanced techniques involving sanding, wood files and rasps and high-speed wood-shaping equipment like a Dremel tool. Some racers opt for a simple block as aerodynamics don't really play a role. Others go for the ever-popular "wedge-on-wheels" look.

With the body shaped, next come wheels and axles. The Boy Scouts of America (BSA) offers standard kits providing wood blocks, simple axles and plastic wheels. Most racers advocate buffing the axles with an emery cloth to shave off any burrs that could slow the cars. They also recommend "truing" the wheels, or making sure they're perfectly round and spin cleanly on the axle.

While the basics will provide a serviceable racer, today's Scouts, as well as the other groups involved in the sport, have learned a few high-tech tips and tricks that would make a NASCAR pit crew chief envious.

Pinewood Derby Supplies

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Modified nail axles and wobbly wood a­nd plastic wheels have become a delightful anachronism in today's world of derby racing. For the racer of the 21st century the name of the game is technology. This shift from plastic to polymer, from grease to nano lubricants, has spurred on a small-but-growing cottage industry in making derby cars go faster. Leading the way is Illinois-based Derby Worx.

The company was started in 2002 by Bill Launius Jr., when his son Trey was a Cub Scout. Launius developed a couple of jigs to better align the wheels on his son's car. The jigs came to the attention of Randy Davis of the derby speed shop Maximum Velocity and the rest was racing history. Launius offered an original run of body tools, hub tools and even an axle press. Within a short time Maximum Velocity had sold more than 4,000 units. "People wanted the speed," Launius said. "It was absolutely insane."

Today, Launius has nine online distributors, two large hobby warehouses and the BSA is selling his tools and specialty products. He's also partnered with members of the famed NASCAR Hendrick Motorsports team to lathe super-thin and true wheels, and MAC tools -- one of the largest auto tool suppliers -- stocks and sells his jigs.

Launius said in addition to better materials racers look for directions on how to build to a level of precision early racers only dreamed about. "It's about taking it to the next level," he said. "Instead of the usual 3.3-gram wheels, we sell one-gram 'onion-skin' wheels. They're perfectly round and roll so smooth."

Launius also pushes his patented tracking jigs to give the cars a straight and true ride. "More than anything a car has to be correctly aligned," he said. "That will make it a winner almost more than anything else."

Despite his over-the-top enthusiasm for top-notch tech, Launius said the sport was still about parents and kids coming together. "There is not one thing we sell that can't be used by a father with a son or a mother with a son because that's what the derby is all about," he said.

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Pinewood Derby Tracks

Wooden tracks, like this one, generally provide a slightly slower race than events run on metal tracks.
Wooden tracks, like this one, generally provide a slightly slower race than events run on metal tracks.
©­iStockphoto.com/Loretta Hostettler

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Pinewood Derby tracks, even officially sanctioned Pinewood Derby models, come in a bewildering array of designs and styles but most adhere to a few basic parameters:

  • The starting gate is at the top of a 4-foot (1.2-meter) high slope. Sometimes the slope is higher, but four feet (1.2 meters) is a good height for a Cub Scout or other young racer.
  • The tracks range from 32 to 45 feet (9.8 to 13.7 meters) in length.
  • The number of lanes range from 2 to 6, though there are rare cases of even more lanes with a semi-legendary 12-lane model.
  • The cars ride along a center rail rather than within a lane -- this is often referred to as "rail riding" and is also why alignment is so critical.

Tracks are generally made from wood or aluminum, and break down into smaller sections for easy storage and transport. Aluminum tracks are typically longer than wood tracks and offer a faster race. A wood-surfaced track can be faced with Formica or Masonite, or even sheathed in aluminum. The curve usually constitutes about a third of the total length with a straight, flat section of track and a braking area beyond the finish line making up the rest of the distance.

Like the cars, the tracks have taken on the trappings of modern technology. Stuart Ferguson formed Micro Wizard in 1991 to supply Pinewood Derby racers with microelectronic finish line timers. His son was a scout and he said he found races were often too close for human perception, or mechanical tools, to call. "About every 40 races you see a win separated by about 1/1000th of a second," Ferguson said. "That's a tight race, and you sometimes heard stories about fights breaking out [between parents]. It really is humanly impossible to judge a race that close objectively."

His small timer company grew from a basement endeavor to separate facilities with three fulltime employees, including his son, and expanded into track manufacturing. He estimated an aluminum track and timer set-up could run about $2,000. His tracks, built using a thicker aluminum, use weights to create the curve in the run.

With an insight into building and racing, Ferguson said there were a few common tactics to give an edge to a race. "No one wants to break the rules," he said, "but people do bend them." Those tactics include adding weight to the cars -- the weight is ideally placed at the rear of the car to give it a longer running distance and more momentum on the down slope by pushing rather than pulling the car -- or slightly canting the car, so only three wheels actually touch the track at one time. This reduces the overall rolling resistance or friction.

Pinewood Derby Competitions

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When Don Murphy and three other Scout parents hatched the idea for a Pinewood Derby they had little, if any, idea they would be starting a sport that would last more than 50 years and counting. Part of the charm of derby racing is the creation of the cars and the parent-child interaction. Many of the kids grow up and continue to race into their adult years, spawning the many offshoots and keeping the sport, and Murphy's legacy, intact.

In 2003, Steve and Jennifer Jacobs launched the Woodcar Independent Racing League (WIRL). Like many people involved with derbies they got started when their son was a scout. They just never left it behind. They saw the need to continue something for the parents and started a race-by-proxy league with six entrants -- a few of those were Steve's own cars. Now, they race about 60 cars in the monthly events and have more than a few hundred regular members. Each member sends a car in to the WIRL Georgia headquarters before the monthly race and the heat races are broadcast live via webcast. The track is located in the basement of the couple's home.

"There are a few small prizes, but mostly it's about the bragging rights," Jennifer Jacobs said. "It's pure competition, just like any race," said Steve Jacobs. "These guys get more excited than the kids." Part of that excitement is the open division racing where performance products come into play. That same sense of open competition has spurred several other open Pinewood-esque racing series including a Pinewood Derby Drag Racing league.

While WIRL has set the stage for adult races, as well as taking the competition up a notch, the Pinewood Derby is still rooted in youth movements like the Canadian Royal Rangers, the YMCA and Awana, a Christian youth social group.

The Future of the Pinewood Derby

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Pinewood Derby, and all its variations, will continue to remain in the memories of kids and parents for years to come. Jim McCarthy, Program Director for the Los Angeles Area Council of Boy Scouts of America, the council area that once hosted Don Murphy, said he believed it was basic human nature to be creative, to have fun and to bond with others who have the same interests. This was, and is, the essence of the Pinewood Derby and scouting. "From our side of things, it was maybe a good thing the derby became universal, there was a desire for it," he said. "It's gone everywhere. It has a life of its own and we can share that."

Others feel the same way. Gary McAulay mentioned the tears in Don Murphy's eyes when he brought the elder statesman of the sport to one of his derbies a few years before Murphy passed away. "I could swear there were tears in his eyes when he saw what was happening," McAulay said.

Steve and Jennifer Jacobs and Stuart Ferguson see the passion that drives people to race tiny cars down a tiny track every day. "This is racing, and racers push the limit," Steve Jacobs said. "It's about being the best and fastest. When one guy comes up with something new, the next month everyone else has it. It's just human nature."

And Bill Launius knows that human nature all too well. "Kids love racing and we're all kids at heart," he said. "It's just something we're drawn to and we'll keep racing. Period."

For more information about Pinewood Derby cars and other related topics, roll on over to the next page and follow the links.

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Sources

  • Ferguson, Stuart. Owner of Micro Wizard. Personal interview. Jan. 31, 2009.
  • Jacobs, Steve and Jennifer. Owners of Woodcar Independent Racing League. Personal interview. Feb. 1, 2009.
  • Launius, William, Jr. Owner of Derby Worx, Inc. Personal interview. Feb. 3, 2009.
  • McAulay, Gary. Historian. Personal interview. Feb. 1, 2009.
  • McCarthy, James. Program Director, Los Angeles area Council BSA. Personal interview. Feb. 2, 2009.