Dragster competitions: Making it to the starting gate

by perducoeducation

“The ultimate victory in competition is derived from the inner satisfaction of knowing that you have done your best and that you have gotten the most out of what you had to give.” – Howard Cosell

Fun. Exhilaration. Adrenaline. Victory. Defeat. These are a few words that describe competition. Whether you’re aware of it or not, competition is happening around you every day, and it’s human nature to want to compete in some form or fashion – not only in sports, music, and work, but in everyday life.

Many people know that now is the time of year for college basketball teams to compete to be the highest-ranking team in the country. How many students have dreams of competing at the college level or higher? Also, what musician wouldn’t love to receive an award for best album of the year? And then think about competitive pricing; whether you’re beating out a competitor with a one-cent-lower gas price or you found the best sale on an amazing thingamajig, the feeling that you’ve won is powerful. On the flip side, competition teaches us how to learn by failing and how to commit and not give up. There is tremendous value in competition.


An organization that Pitsco has supported since 1978 and that promotes competition to enhance personal development, leadership, and career opportunities in STEM through hands-on learning is the Technology Student Association (TSA). The relationship began with the CO2 dragster competition which begins on the state level and finishes on a national level with around 200 students from all over the country competing for a championship spotMore recently, Pitsco started supporting the Junior Solar Sprint (JSS) competition through kits and designing the race system specifically for use at the national convention.

Competing with dragsters is a valuable learning experience. You could start a program for your students to compete locally against classmates or join an existing competition on a state or national level such as with TSA. To help with your planning, here are three important aspects of dragster competitions: the dragster (of course!), the track, and the launcher. Make sure to check the rules if you and your students join an established competition.


Dragsters: The Heart of the Competition

What’s a dragster competition without a dragster? It’s as important as the football is to a football game. But to compete in a race, the players, or rather students, have to build their vehicle. There are many blanks available, and you can choose from various shapes and types of wood or use Styrofoam for prototyping. Here are a few options:

  • Pine Racer Dragsters come in basic shapes that get things rolling quickly and use gravity to power them along. These are popular with Scouts who have been racing in Pinewood Derbies for 50+ years. 
  • Popular balsa wood bodies are triangular and leave plenty of room to create unique, streamlined designs. Balsa wood seems like a great idea for young students because it’s soft and easy to cut, but for the same reason, it can be challenging to use for those with poor motor skills. Balsa wood isn’t recommended for a student’s first attempt at building a dragster if they’re going to do a lot of cutting. 
  • The rectangular balsa Custom Cruiser Kit has a plethora of design options and could even be carved into a truck, van, or other unique racer for CO2 competitions.
  • The Metric Dragster Kit is an option with more than just a blank. This kit comes in balsa and basswood. Basswood isn’t as soft as balsa, but it’s more durable. The kit comes with everything you need to build a dragster, including the wood blank, axles, wheels, and CO2 cartridge. And it teaches the metric system and the design process with an illustrated, self-directed student workbook with step-by-step instructions.

As you can tell, it’s important to understand the nature of the wood you choose to make sure your students have a great experience. While balsa and basswood aren’t the only options, they’re very popular. Check out Dragster Blanks 101 for some good advice comparing the two.

Pick Your Track

What does everyone use for a track? Some use the floor for a racing surface, but it can sometimes be unpredictable with unevenness or unseen bumps. CO2 cars can travel close to 70 mph, so you might want to consider a more controlled situation, such as using a manufactured track for reliability and consistency.

  • The EZ Track Raceway allows for a quick setup and easy storage, and it’s compatible with many launchers. It includes 20 one-meter high-strength PVC sections that easily slide together. This system is only slightly elevated off the ground and can be one or two lanes.
  • The FasTrak Elevated Racetrack is made of strong and durable aluminum and simulates to scale a quarter-mile racetrack. The height improves viewing for spectators. Note that this is the track used for TSA’s national dragster competition.

These tracks can be used for more than only CO2 racing, as they can be shared with classes building mousetrap vehicles, bottle racers, solar cars, and more.


Start Your Cartridge!

Without a launching mechanism, the vehicles won’t get very far down the track, at least not CO2 dragsters! Let’s say your students have designed dragsters using one of our dragster kits and inserted a CO2 cartridge in the back end. The launching mechanism is what pokes a hole in the cartridge to propel the dragster forward at an incredible rate of speed. The design determines just how fast the vehicle moves.

Used for more than just launching, the Impulse G3 Race System uses state-of-the-art electronics and times the dragsters as they cross the finish line. It also has two modes. Auto mode launches the cars simultaneously with a single button, and manual mode launches them using two thumb triggers. The reaction time adds another element to the race and is accurately displayed to the nearest 0.001 second. Students love this part of the race!!

Check out how one school got its appeal for an Impulse G3 answered.

By the way, if you’re going for a non-CO2 competition, take a look at the EZ Start Raceway. It’s easy on the budget and uses a monofilament line to keep air-powered vehicles on the track.

Crossing the Finish Line

Whatever you choose to use for your dragsters, track, and launcher, this type of fun hands-on, minds-on activity allows students to learn through failure while also learning STEM concepts such as mass, acceleration, friction, drag, and engineering design. 

The beauty of dragster competitions is that you can start one right in your classroom or you can race to the finish through a national organization such as TSA. At the end of the day, it’s about developing 21st-century learners through their successes and failures. The thrill in students’ eyes when they see how fast their dragster has flown down the track is an extra bonus.

Comment and share your dragster experiences, successes and failures, to help others getting started with competitions, or you can post questions to get feedback for help starting out.

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