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Pinewood derby to CO2 dragsters a natural step

At a glance:

  • Pinewood derby is a popular Boy Scout activity involving building a car and racing it down a ramp.
  • Many TSA Dragster Design participants started out doing pinewood derby.
  • Both competitions teach important science and engineering concepts.>

One thing is apparent when talking to participants in the national TSA Dragster Design competition – a lot of them started with pinewood derby.

Pinewood derby is a popular activity in Boy Scouts where the scouts build a car that is powered by gravity as it descends a long ramp. Many Boy Scout troops have an open division in which scout siblings or even parents can compete. Plus, Girl Scouts and churches are taking it up.

This year’s national middle school champ, Megan Kelly, did pinewood derby as a church activity. David Meador, Pitsco curriculum specialist and Boy Scout leader, said he has noticed that some pinewood derby participants move on to CO2 dragsters – and that they often have more success than the average participant.

“I had the ability to see the same boys, especially at the district level, who competed in our pinewood derby and went on to compete in CO2 at TSA at the school where I was teaching,” he said. “When they hit the tech ed classes in school, the first year out they were qualified for state with their cars. There was no learning curve for them. And no one else qualified their first year.

“They were the ones that tended to be the most successful at the TSA competition with CO2 cars because they had so much design experience with pinewood derby. They would come in and be successful immediately whereas other kids, it would take them a year or two to get things figured out.”

But pinewood derby utilizes gravity power while dragsters are propelled by the force of a punctured CO2 cartridge – so how are these similar?

To figure this out, we discussed the issue with Meador and another curriculum specialist who is also a former teacher and derby parent and participant, Buzz Palmer. Both are also familiar with the dragster activity.

“It’s just a solid activity,” Palmer said of pinewood derby. “It teaches kids a little bit about aerodynamics but more about the experience of learning how to build something and then compete with it, learning how to make something that they conceive in their minds, then build it, and make it come together. If you start with that, it’s easy to carry those skills into the CO2 dragsters.”

Meador confirmed that learning the building process is key to both competitions.

“You walk them through the design process, you teach them to build, and you teach them to use the tools that they use for building, which are the same for pinewood derby and CO2 cars,” Meador said. “A lot of times, testing the car is exactly the same because the same things hang them both up. You want to make sure the wheels and the axles are done the right way. Even though they are different wheels and axles, the principles are the same about how to get them to work: you want to reduce that friction.”

Both agreed that the testing process is similar, as you often test CO2 dragsters without CO2 pressure, opting for a roll test ramp to assess friction. The same is true for pinewood derby cars.

The duo also pointed out that both competitions teach students how to work within constraints because both cars have a set of specifications that must be met when being built to qualify for the races.

“Even though the rules are different, it’s still a set of constraints that they have to follow,” Meador said. “A lot of the rules and the competition is the same kind of design between the two events.

They added that both styles explore key engineering and science concepts.


  • Designing
  • Building
  • Using tools
  • Testing
  • Understanding trade-offs


  • Basic aerodynamics
  • Speed calculations
  • Friction
  • Force and mass

The two events also have a strong emphasis on weight, though in different ways. In pinewood derby, you try to get as close to the maximum weight as possible. In CO2 dragsters, it can vary by design but usually competitors try to get their car as close to the minimum weight allowed. This comes back to the different forces working on each vehicle: gravity versus propulsion.

“The pinewood derby car is really just the CO2 car light,” Meador added. “You’re just not putting the CO2 cartridge in it. You have to make the same kinds of decisions.”

By PJ Graham, Web Content Specialist