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10 tips for planning the best Pinewood Derby ever

The Internet is full of resources for Cub Scouts wanting to make a better, faster Pinewood Derby car.  (Not surprisingly, the best source for this is Boys’ Life.)

But what about parents and Scouters wanting to plan a better Pinewood Derby?

I’ve got you covered with these 10 Pinewood Derby planning tips.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-11. Encourage Scouts to actually build their own cars

Building a Pinewood Derby car is a life-changing bonding experience for parent and son.

The Cub Scout isn’t — and shouldn’t be — expected to do it all himself. But what about when mom or dad (usually dad) takes on a little too much of the work?

That happened in Scouter Ken D.’s pack when he “actually had a Scout who couldn’t tell me which car was his to take home after the derby!” Not good.

Damon E. came up with a breakdown you can try in your pack: “Tigers do about 20 percent of the work, 40 percent for Wolves, 60 percent Bears, 80 percent Webelos,” he says. “By the time they’re a fifth-grade Webelos, the Scout is doing almost 100 percent of the work with just a safe guiding hand of a parent or adult.”

Pinewood-Derby-tips-22. Plan a Pinewood Derby workshop

How do you ensure the Scouts have a hand in making their car? Bring them all under your roof.

Host a designated car-making workshop where parents and sons build the cars together and parents bring tools to share. It’s fun, and it’s a great way for the less mechanically inclined to learn a thing or two.

Some of the best Pinewood Derby workshops use the assembly line approach. Parents and sons go from station to station working on their car. When they’re done, they have a near-finished product ready for painting.

For more tips on planning one of these workshops, check out our article in Scouting magazine.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-33. Hold side races for parents

Try as you might to encourage Scout-built cars, there are still some ultra-competitive dads and moms out there.

Harness that competitiveness into a race just for parents (and/or siblings). Some packs call these “outlaw” races. In other packs, the “outlaw” moniker is reserved for Scout-built cars that don’t meet the regular race requirements.

In some packs, these parents-only races are used as pack fundraisers. The entry fee — maybe $5 a car — goes into a pot, where the winners get a nice prize and the pack gets the rest to help offset pack expenses. In other words: Everyone wins.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-44. Schedule smarter

Create a tournament bracket that gives each Scout several races, even if he loses them all.

How? Start with this Scouting magazine story, which has plenty of ideas for double-elimination, lane-rotation and other formats that you can try.

Scheduling is a decision for you and other Cub Scouters, but you have several options at your disposal.

Elimination-style races, where the first across the finish line wins, are the most exciting for live viewers. But they favor those assigned to “fast lanes” — flaws in some tracks where one lane is faster than others.

Round-robin formats, where every car races in every lane, are great for those with high-tech timing equipment to determine first through fourth. But it’s hard to tell who’s winning that way.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-55. Stagger arrival times

If you know the Webelos race won’t start until 5 p.m., do the Webelos Scouts and their parents really need to show up at 3:30 with everyone else?

Give parents specific, staggered arrival times to minimize waiting around.

You could even hold several awards ceremonies — one after each division is finished — so that families can leave when their son’s racing category has concluded.

Ask yourself: Is it really necessary for every family to be there for the entire event? Remember to leave them wanting more.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-66. Giving siblings plenty to do

Set out a big container of Legos for the sisters and brothers of racers to enjoy during the Derby.

Distribute racing-themed coloring pages and colored pencils.

Invite someone to run a face-painting station or make balloon animals.

Whatever you do, be sure to offer something to keep those nonracers occupied.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-77. Make an event out of it

A maximum of four boys will be racing at any one time. So what will Scouts and parents do between races?

They can cheer on their fellow Scouts with some of these songs and yells.

They can purchase food at the concession stand — operated by a local Boy Scout troop or Venturing crew, perhaps.

Then can race their cars on a designated secondary track for practice and fun.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-88. Check the rule book

Does your local council or district have special Pinewood Derby rules and regulations?

If so, you should adopt those same rules for your pack’s Pinewood Derby.

In the Northern Star Council, for example, only official BSA wheels are allowed. And Scouts (or dads) can’t add springs, glass, hubcaps or a number of other enhancements to their cars.

Following the council’s rule book makes your winners eligible for district- and council-level Derbies. And they ensure a level race field for all Scouts.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-99. Pick teams

Great Pinewood Derbies require great volunteers. I like this site’s breakdown for how to assign the necessary teams for Derby day:

  • Track Team that sets up the track, tests it and runs the race.
  • A Food Team that keeps Cub Scouts and parents happy and well-fed.
  • A Pit Team that checks in the families and weighs and inspects the cars.
  • An Activities Team that handles anything not related the race — pictures, face-painting, skits and songs, and anything else to keep Scouts entertained.

Pinewood-Derby-tips-1010. Make memories, take pictures

A Pinewood Derby will be over in a couple of hours, but the memories will last forever. That’s especially true if you take official race day photos of Scouts and their families.

First, create a fun backdrop. It should include your pack flag, some racing imagery and the current year.

Next, assign a volunteer to take the photos of the Cub Scout with his car and his parents. You could even do close-ups of each Scout’s car.

You can make the photos available on a photo site like Flickr for parents to download and post to Facebook for all the world to see.


Photos: 1 and 2: BSA; 3: Nerdage; 4: Dave Wheeler; 5 and 6: iStock; 7: Flickr; 8: Northern Star Council; 9: Flickr; 10: Flickr

16 Comments on 10 tips for planning the best Pinewood Derby ever

  1. H. David Pendleton // December 15, 2015 at 8:25 am // Reply

    Great article. These are the same 10 items (plus more) that I discuss at our District’s Cub Scout Round Table when the program topic for the month is The Pinewood Derby. I never really liked the Derby in our Pack because the same Scout won every year and one year he could not tell me which car was his when they were picking them up at the end of the event. My son never made it out the preliminaries until his Webelos 2 year and then he finished 8th (we had an 8-lane track), but at least he knew which car was his each year.

  2. You will never be able to stop the parents that make the car for their kids, but I still think that is still worthwhile to stress that the boy makes the car; do this when you hand out the kits. Power tools not necessary; break out the coping saw. The boys will likely have lasting memories about designing/making the car, and not remember where they placed in the race. Use the cars again after the derby; we do “Derby after the Derby”, where we push the cars around the gym floor and have contests for distance and accuracy, then do a demolition derby for the boys who are interested.

  3. Unfortunately, overzealous parents (and Scouts) will find a way to cheat, regardless of the rules. Like sanding the tires down so they ride on one edge instead of flat across the whole surface of the tire. People who want to win at all costs will find a way, even at the cost of disregarding the Scout Oath and Law!

    • Love the article. True, its hard to stop parents from taking over. I was upset when my son placed second. He worked hard on his car, almost quitted twice but we pushed him into doing it on his own (the sanding with paper took forever) he was so happy when he placed second. I was mad because it was obvious the little tiger didnt build nor painted his car. Thankfully my son was bigger than me. He was happy and surprised to gotten so far, because his car was not as “cool” as the others, but next year he would work harder.

  4. Did ya ever watch the movie “Down and Derby”? It’s an entertaining and possibly true-to-life story of Pinewood competition gone too far. It used to be a Supply Service item, but you can still find it here and there.

  5. Several years ago I found this site has a great program for scheduling races that even prints out the race sheets and score sheets. Just type in the number of racers, the number of tracks,and the number of rounds you want, then boom! – the charts are generated saving you time and effort. I’ve made up charts for a bunch of different scenarios and then printed them onto transparencies for display with an overhead projector. The site is: http://stanpope.net/ppngen.html

  6. Great article!

    Pinewood Derby was one of my favorite scout activities with my son. I remember asking him one year what he wanted his car to look like and he gave e a very detailed description “I want it to be blue with clouds on it, which a door on the front that opens to show a lightning bolt!” It turns out he had just read “The Lightning Thief”, but I was surprised he had given this so much thought. It may not have been the fastest car he built, but it is the one I remember.

  7. Our pinewood derby is our biggest pack night of the year! Many Cubs even bring their extended family. They get their kits in November for our January race so they have plenty of time to work on them over their school breaks. We offer a workshop for those who need help. We really emphasize the process of creation, not winning. We did try one year to have dads make their own, but there was little interest in our group. We have check in a few days before the event and we keep the cars until race day. That has cut down on lag time before the race begins and I can work with them individually to make sure their car is not too heavy, but also not too light. It also allows for awards to be prepared in advance. We have a fun concession stand with a variety of carnival-type food (cotton candy, popcorn, cupcakes that look like hamburgers, etc.). My husband made a miniature derby track where those not racing derby cars can race three match box cars, and we also bring some other car themed toys. When it is over, we have open track time and allow anyone to race for fun. It is definitely the favorite pack night of the year!

  8. I also remember my sister-in-law’s first experience with Pinewood Derby. Her son brought home his car from a meeting and of course the box has a photo of a nicely painted and formed car. A day or two before the race she opened the box, thinking all they had to do was paint it, and was taken aback when she found it was just a rectangular block of wood!

  9. I have been doing Pinewood Derbies since I was a Cubmaster in the 1990s. I now own my own track and do between 15-20 Pinewoods every year. The Article has some good ideas to make the Pinewood a success.

    I would urge Packs to consider purchasing a computer based time and race management system and abandon the old elimination style races. As a Cubmaster I wittnessed many races that the boys only got to race only twice before being eliminated. I think this prevented many boys from participating fully if a very fun competition experience. Elimination races can also be very long and drawn out affairs if the pack is large. A computer timing and management system allows all boys to compete in the entire competition.

    Additionally, one can run all classes (cubs, sibs, parents, etc) together and then sort them out post race for awards. This results in some races for the parent and boy competing, augmenting full family participation.An aditional bonus that a races timed by computer eliminate many distracting parent arguments over who crossed the finish line first. I have seen finishes in heats as close as 1/000 of a second. Try to call that by eye. A time base race also makes the race period shorter and more intense making for a better experience and less competion fatigue. I would like to tout the system I have used for 20 some years, Supertimer. It is a great system and the customer service is great. They also offer a track.

    Pinewood Derby is a great way to get parents involved in the Pack and possibly be induced to volunteer for other activities or positions in the Pack.

    By the way I no longer have boys in Scouting, they are in their 30s. I am still in Scouting as a Unit Commissioner and adult trainer.

  10. I believe the way our pack ran their races was to have every scout race 4 times. There were four lanes on the track and a scout raced on each lane once, That helped to equalize things if one lane ran slightly faster. They received a number 1 through 4, depending on their place in a race, as a score. After 4 races, the scores were totaled and the four cars with the lowest scores (which would be the cars that consistently placed 1 or 2 regardless of opponents or lanes) would have one last championship race to determine the final places.

    We had our weigh-in the day before the race. The cars were then put in a display case at school to show them off and to advertise for the pack. This also let the race organizer know how many cars there were. Each car got a number, and she generated a spreadsheet to organize what cars ran in each heat. This all helped the races move along, while letting each scout race at least 4 times.

  11. G. John Marmet // December 16, 2015 at 11:39 am // Reply

    For many years our Pack made their own PWD trophies, providing one for each participant. Half of these were actual prize winners in many different categories, the other half simply “Participant”, The added benefit was that it provided something for the dads to do other than building their own son’s car. We called the trophy builders the “Order of the Pine,” and each member wore a cut out pine tree on a green ribbon on PWD Day.

  12. Everything mentioned previously is very good. From my experience, I would add:

    1) Enlist your Boy Scout Troop to organize and officiate at the race. This takes the onus off the Pack Leadership, and makes it easier for the Cubs to have their fun! Some local Troops even have a nice “pro” track that they “rent” for local Packs. Nice promotion for Scout Troops. 2) Talk about and post the rules early and often. The Officials do the measuring and checking. I once had to disqualify a car (much to the dad’s annoyance) because it obviously did not have BSA wheels and axles. Point to the rule book…. 3) Organize into Classes for the races: Tiger, Wolf, Bear, Webelos, “Unlimited” (for the adults) and “Outlaw” for siblings and others…. 4) Under no circumstances use single elimination (one loss and out), but use points to determine the winner of each class. Arrange race “heats” such that each car will run on every track at least once, to eliminate the “fast lane” problem.. Award appropriate points for each car, add them up : Four tracks, 4 points for the winner of the heat, 3 for second, 2 for third, none for fourth. If you don’t want to keep track of this on paper or black board (old school) there is software that one can purchase to do it very successfully and then project it on the “Big Screen”.
    5) The size of the Pack and number of folks participating will determine how “officious” you need to get. 6) Do not forget the “other” awards for cars that can’t seem to win a race: Best Scout theme, most Historic, most Original idea, most colorful, best use of LEGOS, whatever…. often these will have to be made up and “created” to fit the cars available and in need. This is not to say the Webelos with the pro shine on his car has to win, but the Tiger who obviously did it himself DOES need to be recognized when his car falls off the track every time!

    Play fair! KiS MiF!

  13. As an adult leader, and a pinewood derby enthusiast I think all of the tips were helpful. We learned alot our first year holding a pack derby. After all the late nights and weekends spent building our own track in my garage. Having a “Celebrity Judge” calling the races by eye at the finish line, and selecting best of show, most creative, etc. Stressing good sportsmanship, and expecting the adults/scouts to be honest, and let the scouts do as much work on the cars as they could safely do. We realized we had to make some changes before the next years derby. We knew we dodged a bullet by not having an electronic timing system in place, taking the potential for human error out of the equation. When we ordered our new 4 lane aluminum track, we made sure to equip it with a timer and race program. It wasn’t cheap but we voted on using popcorn money to fund it, and it’s also opened up the opportunity for our pack to hold derby’s for other packs in the area, that otherwise might not get to have a derby.
    We have always had an open division for parents, siblings, and after we crossed our first webelos over, Boy Scouts also. Top 3 positions from each division get an invitation to the district derby, and top 3 positions from each division excluding “open” (no open division at council) at district get an invitation to compete at the council derby.
    After 2 disappointing years at the council derby for a few of our consistent top 3 finishers, the 3rd year was an eye opener! I’m not big on speaking negatively about scouting in a public forum for any reason. I think it does a disservice to everything we as adult volunteers work so hard to achieve. But if it helps a pack decide whether to compete at their council level or not, it may be justified?
    At the 3rd council derby our boys competed in, it became evident that they weren’t just competing against other scouts. I stood behind a dad who’s sons car had won the overall trophy 3 years in a row, including that year. He was talking most of the time with a race official/friend who was behind the ropes, (in full uniform) about what he did to bend the rules on his car, what loopholes he found in the wording of the rules, etc. The official/friend obviously had a son “competing” also because towards the end of the division’s heats he remarked to the dad standing in front of me, “I think you’ve got me again this year”!!! One of our parents recognized the boy who won from the check in line where you turn your cars over for inspection, and register to race. He remembers distinctly how excited the boy was as he pulled his car out of his box to hand to one of the judges and did a happy dance at the “cool” paint job on HIS car! It was obvious to this parent that the boy was seeing the finished car for the first time!
    Needless to say myself, a couple of other parents, and several of our boys left a 3rd year in a row disappointed at the results. It took a ton of restraint on my part not to say something to the overzealous dad in front of us, and or the official HE was competing against. But as mad as I was by the end of the day, listening to his arrogant bragging about all the things he did to improve HIS cars speed, I’m afraid he would’ve said something smart, and I would’ve been “that parent” that we see more and more in society that ruin youth activities with their arguing, cussing, and violence. One of our parents did calmly complain to the official in charge, and informed him of what we’d witnessed, and received the usual “we’ll look into it” response from him.
    We decided that year that we would politely inform our boys that qualify to compete at the council level, and their parents, that it’s an entirely different atmosphere than they’re used to from the pack and district derby’s. We go into a little more detail with the parents, but try not to divulge too much of the negativity to the scouts.
    I did end up having a brainstorm on the way home from that 3rd and final council derby, that would completely level the playing field, and all but guarantee that it would be scouts building their own cars, and competing against other scouts that built their own cars. Make the derby an all day event. If you qualify at district, you show up for registration, you’re given a derby car kit, and onsite will be numerous adult volunteers on hand to keep the boys safe, offer ASSISTANCE, and answer any technical questions the boys may have. There would be a fabrication area set up with any tools that might be needed to cut, drill, weigh, sand, etc. A separate painting area set up with fast drying paint obviously, or any number of other finishing options. Or they could be raced as is with only a race number for ID purposes. Then after a pre-determined amount of time has elapsed, the cars will be inspected, and raced……………FAIRLY! That would be an awesome day for all involved I think.

  14. T. Scarborough // December 18, 2015 at 11:26 pm // Reply

    I have to disagree with #5. I have a decent sized pack (30-ish boys) and we have everybody come at the same time. It’s one of the few events they do all together. They do so much as dens I want to build as much “pack brotherhood” as possible. We’ve got a new aluminum track with electronic timer and software that “round robins” everybody across all the tracks. The racing goes pretty fast. In fact, one year the racing lasted such a short amount of time, we ran it all again. And I can’t imagine trying to eyeball the finish line. We have actually seen a TIE with the electronic gateway — a gateway that times it to THREE decimal places!

    As for things for the siblings and non-racers to do, my son has a huge Hotwheels collection and he’s set up tracks and cars for the Scouts to play with in a corner of the race hall. Sometimes I think it’s more of a hit than the derby.

  15. Scouting in MI // December 21, 2015 at 1:19 pm // Reply

    Bryan,

    FYI, Boy’s Life offers many speed tips that would be illegal in most District races, and many Pack races as well. The best advice above is Rule #8, because it would be a shame for a Cub’s car to be disqualified at registration on race day because of some illegal tip he learned on the internet!

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