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Slot car racing back on track

Published March 8, 2013
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Hobby enjoys resurgence as kids of all ages compete for fun and glory

By JOHN BASSETT/SPECIAL TO THE STAR

Growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s, I had a slot car track. But in my teen years, I lost interest.

I wasn’t the only one. In the final two decades of the 20th Century, partly due to the advent of video games and an ever-expanding TV universe, slot car racing almost died.

However, in the past decade, the hobby has made a comeback, and much has changed.

In its simplest form, slot car racing is a fun and economical way to pass the time with family or friends. Buy a track, set it up, and start racing.

But gone are the old cars with crude, inefficient motors and inaccurate bodies.

Today, several manufacturers offer tracks and cars in analogue or digital formats, in different scales, and with different driveline configurations. Extra parts such as higher rpm motors, different gears, stickier tires, lighter wheels, and stronger magnets, are available to make the cars faster.

The most common scale is 1:32, and the cars are very detailed and realistic. Prices range from $40 to $80 each, while complete sets begin at about $175. Two-lane digital sets, which can have six cars running at once, cost three times that.

In the Toronto area, the most-popular slot car retailers are Mini Grid and Race Haven. Both sell sets, cars and parts. Both also have in-store tracks set up for racing.

Mini Grid, on Mount Pleasant Road, is owned and operated by Canadian race driver Scott Maxwell, whose father originally built a track for their customers and friends back in the ’60s.

“Our business is forever changing but, right now, slot cars are on a high,” says Maxwell. “We’ve only been doing it for seven or eight years, and we were almost reluctant to get into it at first.”

That was a sage decision.

“It’s definitely replaced other aspects of the business that have gotten slower. The book industry is hurting, the die-cast model industry is hurting; so this has filled the void,” he adds.

“What I like about it is; it gets the customer involved more. Before, they would buy a model or book and they’d take it away and that’s it. Now, it’s got a second life to it.

“You see guys coming back and they’re enthused, and they want to be involved, and they want to know the latest thing, or they want to upgrade their car. It’s added a positive environment and a bit of a buzz.”

The slot car resurgence has been so strong that Mini Grid has opened a second location, and installed a six-lane track for racing, inside Grand Prix Kartways at Downsview Park. Racing takes place Tuesday nights, with competitions in two classes.

Race Haven in Brampton features a custom-built five-lane wood track. Owner Ron Viggiani attributes two things to the hobby’s resurgence.

“I attribute it mostly to the fact that we’re driving scale vehicles now, vehicles that look again like cars,” he says. “Kids are looking for a little bit more than a video game. I think they’re looking for a toy again, something they can put their hands on and play with and work on.”

While getting kids back into slot racing is good for the hobby, Viggiani notes kids of all ages are involved. “I have guys who come into the store and race who are 45 years old.”

Race Haven racing takes place on weekends in 1:32 and 1:24 scales.

Maxwell and Viggiani agree that racing the little cars is not a whole lot different from racing big ones.

“Almost to a tee, anybody here is heavily into cars or into racing, or both, but will never race a car,” says Maxwell. “This is another way to get that buzz and feel that you’re involved in the sport in some aspect.”

“The passion is the same,” said Viggiani. “It doesn’t matter if you’re racing a lawnmower, or you’re racing a slot car, racing is racing. When the green flag drops, it’s on.”

Although the multi-lane public tracks represent the top echelon of slot racing, it is private, home-built tracks where the hobby really gets special. Think model railroading meets slot cars.

Introduced to slot cars nine years ago by a friend, Art Tschinkel purchased a two-lane plastic track of his own. But it wasn’t enough.

“When I started poking around online, I realized there was a lot more to the hobby than just running a toy car around a plastic track.” So he built himself a wood track, complete with landscaping.

Tschinkel is now on track number four in his basement, and has built tracks for friends, which helped get his creative juices flowing.

“They led me to want to expand my horizons to accommodate a fully scenerized race track,” he says. “That was something I really enjoyed doing, working on both the track scenery and building the track — and also doing the racing, and working and tuning on the cars themselves. I enjoy scratch-building both the chassis and body for cars.”

Tschinkel has now expanded his passion into a business, as he has started his own online store, Dart Hobbies, selling parts and partially complete cars.

The ultimate slot car tracks, though, may be built by Slot Mods of Michigan, who last fall built and displayed a track inside a glass trailer for an Audi Canada promotion in downtown Toronto.

Their most recent track was commissioned by 1986 Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal, who asked them to recreate a 1960s version of his favourite race track, Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisc.

“We worked together to try to replicate that as best we could, and ended up having a pretty amazing slot car track,” said Rahal.

“Their level of detail is phenomenal, and I think that’s what really amazes people when they do see it, is they just can’t believe the detail.”

The track was built in Rahal’s car barn at the Autobahn Country Club private racing facility near Joliet, Ill. Although the facility can be rented out for charities, it is mainly there for use among family and friends.

Said Rahal: “It completes the purpose of the building, and it’s already done that. In fact my wife and a bunch of her friends went down to the drivers school at Autobahn and while they were there they did some slot car racing.

“So it’s already being used by my family, and that’s really what it’s all about. It’s not just for me, it’s for everybody else.”

Although the hobby may not reach the glory days it did in the ’60s, it is unlikely to wane again, thanks to the Internet.

Websites such as slotcarillustrated.com offer forums and links so hobbyists can swap stories, share racing secrets, and organize racing events around the world.

wheels@thestar.ca

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