Pinewood Derby Car, Going Back to the Races in 2012, a long 40 year wait, with the same results

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Project by Mark A. DeCou posted 01-31-2012 09:28 PM 7016 views 2 times favorited 19 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Well, it’s been about a 40 year wait, but I finally went back to the Pinewood Derby Races.

Funny how things repeat themselves.

Back Down Memory Lane:
In 1972 or 1973, I had the best looking car in the lineup, just not the fastest. My dad had done most of the detail work, with my approvals and looking over his shoulder. My mom even helped by stitching up a leather seat cover for my car.

Then, the big race (‘72-’73).........and although my car looked the best, it wasn’t that fast. Somehow we didn’t know about the lead weights you can add, and my car’s axle nails pushed up (they were designed differently in those days) and the car sunk down on the rail of the track and slowed quite a bit. It was still a great car, just not the fastest that year, may have been the slowest, I just don’t remember that. I got switched over to 4-H after that, and never did get to another Pinewood Derby race. That was before books, and speed secrets, and youtube videos, and special tools you can buy, and special tires and lathed axles, etc., etc. Isn’t it great how the internet has helped so much? Still, the lessons from 1972-1973 (before Gore gave us the internet), are the same…..

Fast Forward 40 years to 2012, and I signed my own son up for cub scouts.

Joining Scouts in 2011
This was a decision I made after he quit wanting to do any of his Awana’s work. He has a hard time with memorizing things, and I can see how going to Scouts with his friends sounded like more fun than Awanas which is mostly girls (too young for that still). And Awana’s is mostly Scripture memory work and a game or two with candy for prizes. He liked the games and candy, just not the memorization work, which I can relate to also.

So, we switched gears this Fall and joined cub scouts just in time for running in the Pinewood Derby Races. I still think that Awana’s would be great for him to stick with, but the arguments about the home work were getting to be just too draining for all of us. Rachel is staying in Awana’s, she does well with memorization work….but she pines for the day she can race cars (she’s been bit by the “bug” now also).

We worked on our car for quite a long while, starting about 6 weeks early. Mind you, this is not normal for either of us, we are both procrastinators. But, I was really pushing to start on a new relationship as soon as possible, so we started early on the pinewood derby car. Funny how things go, even after starting that early, the afternoon of the races, I was scraping little tires and frantically polishing axle nails, and brushing in graphite powder, while Riley was in School.

You see, to say that his (our) car and it’s design, paint job, and speed tricks was all my son’s idea…...... is to be honest, a stretch. And could really be called an outright lie. So, I don’t want to lie, I did almost all of the work, but don’t give up on me yet, read on, I learned a thing or two about parenting in this project story. Which was really the purpose of the whole thing anyway, the car was just the excuse to learn something.

When I say we worked together on it…......that can be interpreted to mean that I had to talk him into doing what I wanted to do on the car. He drew out the car side view on our block of wood, and helped paint a little, and watched me do some of the work, and I pretty much did the rest.

Then, race night.
We learned a lot at the races.

First off, I learned not to do the kid’s car myself. I was pretty ashamed after looking at Riley’s (my) car in the table line up, at least compared to the cars where the kids did most of the work themselves. I guess I was hoping that more dads would do the work themselves. One kid just had a colored rectangular block of wood with drawings on it, and nobody accused him of not doing the work himself. He won most “Most Humorous” with that car. I decided to melt into the background behind my camera, the camera is always good for that, know what I mean?

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Ok, now that I’ve admitted that I built most of this race car lineup, I’ll share a little bit of the details that don’t show up at first glance at the photos.

What To Do With Those Tires?
The Speed Secret Book talked about polishing the tires with sandpaper, making them smooth. I also decided that they should be “round”, and all the same diameter. So, I started scratching my head on how to make that happen. I couldn’t turn my lathe down slow enough to keep from getting the plastic too hot for turning them, and so I started looking at a product that I make for hat makers called a rounding jack. It uses a utility knife blade that slides in a track. I took one of the blade holders and mounted it to another sliding track I made and added an axle hub rod. This made an easy to use, inexpensive and simple scraping method for the tires. I started by smoothing all four tires to the same diameter, and then used the edge of the blade to scrape down the tread further, to leave a high ridge line in the center of the tire. My thought was that this would reduce the amount of rolling friction, sort of like a dragster’s rail tires on the front. By modifying the blade a little bit with the grinder, I could also leave the outside section of the tread high and remove the center. I ran out of time for this race to do any more with the tires, but next time….....

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Metal Spoilers/Plates Cover the Weights:
One thing I was proud of was my method of weighting the cars. I used lead fishing sinkers like most everyone else, and I drilled three holes in the back of the car to fit the diameter of the weights, and covered the weights with a metal plate. All I had to do for adjusting the weight was to take out a screw and turn the plate, dump out the weights, and nibble a little lead off and re-weigh the car. With this method I had all three cars to read 5.000 ounces. One of the boy scouts helping with the administration of the race said that he’d never seen a 5.000 weight before. One my memories from ‘72-’73 was a dad, I think it was Mr. Dunmire, that was frantically digging out lead from the bottom of his son’s car with a pocket knife, muttering about the post office’s scales being inaccurate. I decided to use that memory and come up with an easier way to add and remove small bits of lead from the weight. It worked really well. I had one moment of panic when I thought I tossed one of the little screws holding the metal plate on into the trash can with the nibbled pieces of lead. I learned to take extra screws in my racing box next time along with my tools. I had enough tools in my box I think I could have built a car on site. Ha, what a mess I am.

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A Couple of Lessons:
I should have let Riley do more of it, or all of it. My competitive side just wouldn’t let me turn it loose like that. I learned that, and will do better next time.

I also learned that the Speed Secret’s book should have been purchased in week 1 of the build, not waiting until the day before the race to get it. I messed up on the weight distribution and aerodynamics too much for his (our) car to win. I won’t make that mistake again either. Next time we are going for speed more than appearance, that is if I can talk my son into doing it to his own car next time…..see how hard it is?

Here’s the good part though:
For the past 8 of my son’s 10 years, he’s been in trouble most of the time. Things went so well…...up to about his 2nd birthday. He’s a little ADHD kid like his dad. No matter where he goes, he doesn’t have the patience to stick it out, or do what is required. He’s got great intentions with little follow-through. He’s mouthy, rebellious, creative, artistic, humorous, ornery, and hugely spontaneous….(sounds strangely familiar as I type this). And, he’s also kind-hearted, sensitive, loving, quickly laughs (especially with anything having to do with stinkers or other bodily functions), loves animals and smaller kids, likes to make paper airplanes (no flat piece of paper is safe in our house, whether it’s tax paperwork, or customer thank you letters).....and lots of other good things a dad can work with. But, he’s in trouble more than any of us would like for him to be.

As parents, we’ve learned to pick our battles and relax more, but still there’s a lot of “trouble”, more than any of us would like. This has gone on to the point that he’ll come home from school and go straight in the house, while his sister will come first to the woodshop to talk with me.

A couple of years ago, he’d come see me first, play in the shop, make a big mess and glue scraps of wood together before he went in the house and left all of my tools out and the glue all over the bench. But, things have changed lately, and I watched him switch to going into the house after school. So, I started praying that God would help me figure out a better relationship plan with my son.

What I came up with was dropping all of the arguing about not doing his Awana’s work, and letting him join Scouts like he wanted to…..just in time for the pinewood derby races, which looking back on it was for my benefit also.

As we worked together on the pinewood derby car for the past 6 weeks…...ok, ok, while he watched me do most of it the past 6 weeks, we have found something in our relationship that has been missing. He started to come to the woodshop first after school, even running in before his sister so that she’d have to wait on his question/answer time with me first.

I really like this change, and could see that the Prayers were being answered. And that’s been pretty cool to witness the past 6 weeks. Sure, we didn’t win 1st place, but the car that did win was for sure the fastest, obviously made by the kid himself with a coping saw, and he was so sweet to the other kids, never did gloat or rub it in. I was sincerely happy for the winner…...a new feeling for me, no jealousy at all.

There is some disagreement in our family as to what place my Son (we) did get, some of us say 3rd, while others say 4th. Either way, there is no trophy for being anything behind the winner. Riley did win the “Most Dangerous” car certificate, which he thought was cool. If you are too sensitive to not appreciate machine guns on a Big Foot hunting car, than imagine that they are cameras, infrared and night vision.

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Ketchup Covered Moment of Truth:
After the races, the whole family went out for a hamburger, and I excitedly talked to my wife about all that I had done wrong with the car, and which speed details I would do better with next time, and who else’s dad had done all of the work, and which kid didn’t get any help, and yadda, yadda, and yadda. I went on like this talking fast and excitedly for about a half hour…..and finally in a pause for me to take a bite, my wife just looked at me and said, “Don’t you think you are a little too much involved in this?”

I paused, contemplated that accusation, and had to admit, I was a little too “involved.” Probably more like “way too involved.”

A Solid & Appreciated Historical Goal:
I was watching some old videos on youtube about the Pinewood Derby, and why it was started in the 1950’s. From the recorded interviews with the son of the founder, it was clear that what the originator’s goals had been for the Derby, were realized in our house. We are getting along better, and we had a nice long talk about the “attitude” of a loser. We like to win in our house, so while I’m talking, I’m listening also. Losing never comes easy, and for some it never gets easy.

Losing in Style:
Being a “good loser” is something that isn’t talked much about in today’s world. Teebow doesn’t get down and pray on camera after throwing an interception, or fumbling, or falling down 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The kneeled down show of prayer is only after an amazingly positive play, and quite a few of them are amazing by the way. But the real question; what about the rest of us, the non-superstars, what are we supposed to do when nobody else but God is watching us?

We are missing something in our society by not learning how to lose the right way. Our kid’s futures are at stake, if they have a future, after paying off all of the debts the past two generations have rung up…..that’s another story.

I don’t like losing, don’t get me wrong, and if the DeCou Racing Team can win next time I’ll be even more happy and I can lecture on “winning in style” then. But, in life, most of what I have learned the best lessons from…...were the loses I experienced. Those times I did my best, but still lost.

How many times did Edison try a different material for the filament in a light bulb before he found the one that worked? Most of us would have given up before the 700th and some try.

So, we had a nice talk (lecture) on the drive home from the races about that, and what we are to “act” like, and about following the rules, and doing our best and being happy with that, and learning and trying harder next time…..and how it’s important for the son to do his own car next time…....

Plans for the Future:
My son listened to that gentle lecture awhile, and said, “Dad, the regional races are in March, and I want to do another car and go to the races there, and also in the other region were Zachery (cousin) lives, and I want to do my own car this time.”

I thought that sounded like a good plan also. His next car, will be “his”. He likes the stupid (pardon me) looking “block of cheese” in the plans book, and even in my new “rules of life”, I’ll try to talk him into something else. We’ll see, it will be his car. Don’t laugh at me if I post “the cheese car” next time.

Furthering the Contemplation:
My son didn’t really like my idea of what the car should look like, so we made him (me) another car, the red one that looks like a NASCAR car that I wanted to build. My daughter wanted one also, so she picked out the NASCAR style with the raised rear wing, and did her own “paint” detailing (ugh). Want to really frustrate an overly competitive late 40’s guy in husky-sized pants? Just have his daughter decide to detail paint the car after he’s all finished making it sparkle with glitter and smoothing out the lacquer spray. Another lesson learned…....I know I know, don’t email me about it, I got the lesson, really I did.

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The Speed Secret Book talks about getting all of the weight you can to the rear of the car. The idea is that the longer the weight drops down the ramp, the more acceleration the car receives from the potential energy of the ramp. This made sense, I paid a lot of money for a mechanical engineering degree, why didn’t I think of that before I bought the Book? So, I took the NASCAR style cars back to the shop after reading the Book, and routered out as much of the weight as I could, making the cars basically hollow, except for the wood I left around the axle nails. I covered the hollow section with a really thin piece of wood, and painted it to match. This allowed me to move most of the weight behind the rear axle with the Lead weights, and covered them with the metal plate I mentioned above.

Another Trick I learned from the Book, was to drill small holes in the bottom of the car where CA glue could be dropped onto the Axles, far enough back from the tires that the glue would not interfere with the polishing effort of the axle nails. Memories from ‘72-’73 taught me to secure the axles, and so this tip from the Book was a good idea I thought.

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After the official races, we all had time to run the cars again and run our other cars we had built in an unofficial staging, just for “fun”. Funny thing about the NASCAR cars, both of them beat the winner of the Cub Scout’s races.

Small victory there I guess, very small, looking back on it…....some professional craft guy spending 6 weeks to build a silly wood car so that he can beat a 10 year old sweet-hearted kid? I didn’t make a big deal about winning for sure, but secretly it was an interesting data point in my research into what makes them go fast…....I’ll (we’ll) do better next time.

Sickness Makes the Heart Grow
OK, so after spending some of the weekend with the flu and bed time to think about it all, I am going to let my son do more work on a new car that he designs for the next race. And, I’m going to pour my energy into building our relationship together…

....and building my own car for the regional “Outlaw” division made just for overweight husky-sized pants adults in their late 40’s with engineering degrees. The other guys that fit that description all have youtube videos already, so I might as well join them…....fear the Outlaws!

thanks for reading along,
Mark DeCou

P.S. If after reading all of my dribble on Pinewood Derby cars you are still wanting more, you follow this link to read the newest update on the 2013 Races


This is a good bunch of kids, and they should grow up to be responsible men…....that’s what we are all working for.

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Here is a photo of the Kid’s car line up. I wasn’t the only dad that did most of the work…...
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Here is a video of one of the heat races, the one my son’s car (we) won:


This is a run off race, the winner was either 3rd or 4th place, we got confused as to which it was. Riley’s car won this heat also.


This video covers all of the cars in the table line up.


(Note, all text, story, and photos has been protected by copyright 2012, no unauthorized use of this material is allowed without expressed written consent by the Author, M.A. DeCou)

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

19 comments so far

View DrDirt's profile


4615 posts in 4987 days

#1 posted 01-31-2012 10:03 PM

For the outlaw racing – go CO2…
The race result is at the 30 second mark
Our pinewood derby was last sunday (1/22) but we don’t have a ‘parents outlaw class’
Our results mimic yours.

-- “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 5651 days

#2 posted 01-31-2012 10:06 PM

that co2 stuff looks dangerous, and so fast. I like that race height camera shot.

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View a1Jim's profile


118258 posts in 4822 days

#3 posted 01-31-2012 10:20 PM

These races are great for kids.


View ChrisK's profile


2059 posts in 4327 days

#4 posted 01-31-2012 10:37 PM

I entered ‘my’ sons car on the 28th. I thought I had it right, last place. I think I bent the right rear axle a little.

I am hoping that next year he has a little more desire to make his own car, so he can do better than dad.

He did at least cut a scrap piece on the band saw and watched as I cut his design from the block. He was nervous but he did well.

I feel it is the little steps that we make that make the lasting impressions.

-- Chris K

View HawkDriver's profile


447 posts in 3878 days

#5 posted 01-31-2012 10:38 PM

Thanks for sharing your story, it made me smile to think about the things that I will soon be getting into with my 4yr. old boy. You have a great attitude and there is nothing better than that.

-- Patrick, Helicopters don't fly. They beat the air into submission.

View DrDirt's profile


4615 posts in 4987 days

#6 posted 01-31-2012 10:39 PM

Big kids too!!

CO2 racing I did was actually in the hallway when i was in middle school –
the cars looked like top fuel dragsters, but there was a “screw eye” in the top of the car with a piece of fishing line threaded through, so you didn’t have to worry about the car losing a wheel and going into the crowd.

Seen examples of the same idea for outlaw Pinewood derby – including Estes Rocket motors – but they will put burn marks on the track ;-)

-- “The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why.” Mark Twain

View Heidi Neely's profile

Heidi Neely

550 posts in 4419 days

#7 posted 01-31-2012 10:47 PM

I enjoyed reading your description so much…and I can relate to alot of it!

I was a brownie and a girl scout, and remember well the good ol’ “powderpuff derby” days (as they called it for us girls) :) My parents almost always (who am I kidding…ALWAYS) took over on my cars, but they were always above and beyond creative, and super cool looking (even though I never came anywhere CLOSE to winning)! lol!

My 10 year old daughter has ADHD as well, so your description of a child who has been in trouble for 8 out of 10 years sounds supremely familiar! She wants to join Girl Scouts very much, so I’m going to look into it for her soon, and see if she enjoys it as much as I did as a kid :)

Though he didn’t win 1st place, being given the award for “Most Dangerous” is still pretty darn cool, and some valuable father son time to boot….sounds like a win-win to me!

Thanks so much for sharing your story…it definitely made me smile today =)

-- Heidi :) “The only source of knowledge is experience”

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 5544 days

#8 posted 02-01-2012 02:16 AM

Thanks Mark!

That brings back memories of when my two boys’ were in cub scouts about 1962, & 1963.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN.

View WhiskeyWaters's profile


213 posts in 5051 days

#9 posted 02-01-2012 02:38 AM


The CO2 cars are well in the safety wheelhouse and quite spectacular when they are set of. Just wear safety glasses and clear the floor!

And congrats on the time with your son.


-- make it safe & keep the rubber side down.

View TomFran's profile


2964 posts in 5239 days

#10 posted 02-01-2012 02:43 AM


Great story! Sounds like you had a lot of fun with your son and learned a lot of things in the process.

-- Tom, Surfside Beach, SC - Romans 8:28

View Roger's profile


21055 posts in 4049 days

#11 posted 02-01-2012 03:04 AM

very gr8 story. thnx for sharing

-- Roger from KY. Work/Play/Travel Safe. Keep your dust collector fed. [email protected]

View dmoney's profile


191 posts in 4324 days

#12 posted 02-01-2012 03:25 AM

good story. i think i still have mine somewhere in the basement…

-- Derek, Iowa

View danr's profile


154 posts in 4430 days

#13 posted 02-01-2012 05:23 AM

I have 3 boys that went through cub scouts (they are all in boy scouts now with my oldest working on eagle). I think I built about 30 cars in total with them during those cub scout years. We never won anything except a few times we got awards for looks. It was a lot of fun (enjoy your kids when there kids). Even with all of the fun and experience I am glad we have moved on to other things. I was kind of losing inspiration on that last set of cars. Good memories.

View HalDougherty's profile


1820 posts in 4482 days

#14 posted 02-01-2012 06:31 AM

I’ve still got the 3 pinewood derby cars my son built. They weren’t near as elaborate as yours. They were just simple wedges with led slugs (158g 38special lead bullets) to reach race weight. We also had some led and a set of accurate scales to get just under weight at race time.

-- Hal, Tennessee

View thiel's profile


410 posts in 4537 days

#15 posted 02-01-2012 06:42 AM

Just gearing up for the Pinewood here. Trying to resist the urge to model the cars in sketchup first, but my kids are pretty good with tools already so I expect they’ll do most of the work. To some extent, simply the access to tools they have in my shop is an unfair advantage (that’ll jinx it: we’ll come in last!)

-- --Thiel

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