Racer Boy: Slot Car Racing, or How to Race Door to Door Without Worrying about Your Doors
“Slot car racing?” you ask. Yup. I’m not talking about that weak ass Tyco set that ran on six C batteries that you found under the Christmas tree when you were a kid. I’m talking about blistering fast slot cars on technical 8 lane tracks with race position telemetry and lap times as you race head to head against other racing fanatics. What makes slot car racing really fun is the fact that you are actually racing. This is door to door passing, full contact competition. Driving one of these bad ass fast slot cars around a track is fun, but going into turn 1 with eight other guys is what gets your blood pumping and your competitive juices cranking. And the best news is you can own these racing emotions for less than you paid for that billet aluminum, glow in the dark, skull shaped shift knob you installed. You know the one that has the hidden nitrous button that you have hooked up to… well nothing. THE COST Slot car racing is absolutely the cheapest motorsport I have found to date. A race on Wednesday night at the local Hobbytown is a whopping 5 bucks, that’s less than two Coronas. A good car will cost you around 45 bones. With spec classes there is no need to go all Penske and spend a ton of money on slot car performance parts. Where the cost can get a little out of control is on controllers, which is a single one-time purchase. You can get one for about $30, but the guys who do it all the time own super adjustable controllers with brakes and external resistors which range from $150 to $300. Slot car guys love to mess around with controllers, so my suggestion would be to get one of those fancy $300 contraptions used for about $80. The cars hold up pretty good to a beating and they do take a heck of a beating. After a number of slaps to the wall you will need to start replacing parts. New motors are about $16 and bodies are about $10. A set of tires are about $6. Yes I said $6. Remember that an autocross Hoosier tire for the rear of a Z06 is currently around $403 per tire. Like I said, slot car racing is very inexpensive. SANCTIONING BODY The United Slot Racing Association (U.S.R.A.) runs the National Championships (www.portjeffraceway.com/usra/). Due to the fact they have the championships many regional clubs use similar rules dealing with 1/24 scale cars. The Northern California Slot Car Racing Association (N.C.S.C.R.A.) runs a cool statewide series which includes classes for cars with LeMans prototype bodies and/or NASCAR and NASTRUCK bodies (www.norcalscra.com). The great group of guys who race each Wednesday night at a HobbyTown USA right around the corner from my house put together a cool website with a solid links page which will tell you everything you ever wanted to know, and some things you probably never thought about, in regards to slot car racing (www.pitstopslotcarracing.com). Besides sprint races, clubs do endurance races with partner drivers and the nuts in Europe even run a grueling 24 hour race. Yes, because it’s Europe, they smoke while doing it. THE HIGH The moment you are waiting for in slot car racing is to go into a corner neck and neck with the guy in the lane next to you. The key here is to be on the inside lane. In the middle of the corner squeeze the trigger and gas the car, which will kick the ass end of the car to the outside and knock your competitor out of his slot. He goes crashing into the wall and usually ends up blocking another slot/lane where another car will come along and smash into him. Carnage ensues while you keep going, making laps and putting a big lead on the guy you just walled. But beware, because revenge is a bitch. These tracks snake around the room so the guy who is on your outside in one corner, will be the guy on your inside for the next. The point is not to be next to him, because I guarantee he’s coming for ya. The track has eight lanes which means, based on simple geometry, some lanes are overall shorter or longer in length. To make the racing track length even for each car, meaning no one will have a lane advantage; each driver will run every lane once, three minutes per lane. With eight lanes, the green flag race length is 24 minutes. The power to the track is shut off after three minutes of racing, each driver moves to the next lane, the power is turned back on and three more minutes of racing goes on. It is a lot of fun running each lane and challenging at the same time as each lane has its own idiosyncrasies as the turn radiuses are different. CAR WEAR Your street car, drag car, autocross car, hillclimb car, rallycross car or whatever you got is going to sit this one out, so car wear is excellent. Your $45 slot car can hold up well barring how many times you run off of the back straight, fly through the air, drill the wall at the hobby store and then hit the ground. But even if you do crash a lot, and sometimes it isn’t always your fault (just like in real car racing) the car can be repaired in most cases for a few hundred pennies. I ran my stock spec car every Wednesday night for about three months and never did a thing to it. Later the racer in me couldn’t help myself and I started messing with the car’s tires, body, lighter wires, gears, motors, you name it. The end result, I burnt my fingers about ten times with a solder gun and only went slower. I finally got smart and bought another spec car, un-modified by yours truly. YOUR DAY You show up at the hobby store and start bench racing. Literally, you will set your car on a bench prior to racing. You pay your entry fee and your car needs to be teched. For each class they check that the motor, gearing, tire compound, body and ride height is all legit. Keep things on the up and up as these guys will spot any Smokey-type shenanigans immediately. They will put your name into the computer program which runs the race and announce which lane you will begin on. Each lane is colored and you need to bring some lane stickers which are affixed to the front of your car (this will set you back 25 cents). This way, when your car falls out of the slot (and it will) the guys working the corners can put your car back into the appropriate slot, like the one attached to your controller for that heat. You hook up your controller with three color coded alligator clips to the power on the track for your current lane. The power will not come on until the race starts. You will hear a beep and you will have your controller floored for the start. Once the power comes on the race is underway. Three minutes of craziness and oftentimes demolition madness per heat. Three minutes later, the power is killed and your car coasts to a stop. Think of this as a quick pit stop. You move to the next colored lane, hooking your controller up, and then change the lane sticker (new lane = new color) on the front of your car. You can make minor changes to the car, like bend it straight again, pop the body back into shape or lubricate your gears. You also want to check the live scoring, usually on a television, to see how many laps you have completed and what place you’re in. This pit stop has to be done quickly because when the computer beeps the power to the track is turned on and the race is back in action. You do this for eight lanes and at the end, hopefully you’ve completed more laps than anyone else. Even if you didn’t win I’ll guarantee you had fun. Just like autocross, after racing you have to work the track. The next race needs corner marshals to pick up errant cars which have fallen out of the slot (somebody did if for your race, now it is time to return the favor). To me this is stressful. The cars are coming at you at light speed and you are trying to put a crashed car back into the slot only to have your hand nailed by a passing car. That driver doesn’t appreciate being knocked of the track by the very guys who are supposed to help you stay on the track. It isn’t fun, but it keeps the cost down and you can learn by watching other driver’s mistakes or heroic moves. THE PEOPLE These are probably some of the nicest people in motorsports (these cars have motors, this is a sport). They are very welcoming to newcomers. They will let you borrow controllers, cars, lane stickers, anything to help you out. They will help fix your car and they can solder in a motor mid-race faster than you ever thought possible. These folks are easy going –until the race starts. Then they’ll put you in the wall or yell at you when you are a corner marshal to put their car back on the track faster. Hey, it’s racing, man. Your competitors will be a melting pot of motorsports enthusiasts. You will be racing against eight year old kids (who will knock you off every corner), teenagers (who are very fast slot car drivers) dads who brought the slot car demolition derby eight year olds, and the largest group: the “serious slot car old farts.” The best slot car guys are actually the old timers. This is a sport from the sixties. These guys grew up building their own slot tracks in their garages as kids. Forty years later, they are still at it. These old farts are the guys who will help you the most and they are the ones who keep the clubs and track running (something your selfish ass is too busy to do, I know because I’m the same way). GLORY You grind out a 24 minute race, narrowly missing all the heinous crashes while enjoying the thrill of putting your competitors into the wall and you somehow come out on top. Great! You’ve won. How about a high five? Yup, that’s about all you’re gonna get. Some clubs pool the entry fee money and give it back to the first through third finishers. Some of the bigger races have trophies and dash plaques. But when it comes to true motorsports glory, I can guarantee I haven’t seen any trophy girls or champagne being sprayed at the slot track. Come to think of it, I actually haven’t seen any girls at the slot track. However, the hobby store does have its fair share of Dungeons and Dragons crew if that’s what you’re into. OH, YOU WANT TO WIN, DO YA? Two words: Make Laps. You get there with these four other words: Stay in the slot. You can’t win the race if your car is upside down sliding along the track being knocked around like a ping pong ball. You have got to stay out of trouble, stay in the slot and keep the car going around the track. It is very similar to automotive endurance racing, you have to keep the car on the track and stay out of the pits for repairs if you want to win. Trouble will find you in slot car racing. A guy three lanes to your inside can go in too hot, fall out of the slot and take you out. You need to be able to see just a few seconds into the future and know when to give it up in a corner and let others crash, without crashing you. Also, build and paint your car with speed in mind. Having that kickass Audi RT 10 replica with the scaled plastic helmet painstakingly airbrushed just like Tom Kristensen’s looks good on the shelf, but it doesn’t go good around the track (too heavy, won’t handle). My car is painted nothing but orange so I can recognize it (as the orange blur) as it speeds around the track. RACER BOY GAUGE Let’s review the Racer Boy gauge cluster here: FUEL (Cost): The fuel gauge is nearly at full because you still have money. A PS3 and the video game Gran Turismo costs more than the set up and an entire season of slot car racing. RPMs (Adrenaline): The tachometer is at 2,200 RPMs which is just above idle. You’re not going to feel torque going through your spine while slot car racing. But it can get your blood pumping as you’re racing head to head. MPH (Danger): The Speedometer is around 5 mph because this is very, very, very safe racing. You will not be killed hitting a wall at 200 mph here. Worst case scenario a car falls of the track and hits you in the face when you’re working as a corner marshal. Maybe there is a slight chance the plastic body could give you a slight paper cut while working on the car. VOLTS (Time): The volts gauge is at a quarter because not much time is needed to prepare for slot car racing. As you progress and move up to the national level, obviously you can get crazy and spend a lot of time shaving your slot car tires to the perfect gear ratio, but it isn’t necessary for some Wednesday night fun. MILEAGE (Car Wear): The mileage is at around 10 miles because that’s about how many miles it will take to drive from your house to the hobby store for a race (if you’re lucky enough to live near a track). The worst thing that will happen to your real car is a door ding in the HobbyTown USA parking lot. In this economy, for some of us, racing has had to take a back seat. If you don’t have the cabbage to tow the racecar to Kansas for the S.C.C.A. Solo National Championships, but you still want to race, find a local slot track and give it a try. I’m telling you, there is some serious racing going on. And it is on the super cheap. Go get ‘em Speed!