Arts

Back on Track

Slot car enthusiasts keep on racing
encore-magazine-up-front-mini-cooper-race-march-2018
John Hansen places a 1:32 Mini Cooper on the starting line before a race at Goodspeed.

© 2018 Encore Publications/John Lacko

John Lacko owns dozens of race cars and they all fit in one box.

Lacko, a professional photographer in the Kalamazoo area, has been operating a slot car track for a decade as part of the West Michigan Scale Slot Car Racing Group (WMSSCRG). The group members meet twice a month to test out their 5- to 6-inch-long cars on a 96-foot-long track that takes up most of the space in a former office at the Gilmore Car Museum, in Hickory Corners.

The track, four lanes wide, curves back and forth over a wooden table set up in the middle of the room. The setup includes a bridge that crosses over the track at one point and a “garage” with 2-inch-tall models of people on its roof. These elements are the first stage of a long-term project to add buildings and decorations to every inch of the table that isn’t covered with track.

It’s a complex setup that has taken several months to build. Underneath the table is an electric box with dozens of wires attached to it. The wires connect to different spots on the table to make sure the cars are constantly fed the electricity needed for them to move. Each “driver” has a pistol-shaped handle connected to the track’s wiring that can be squeezed to adjust the vehicle’s speed, sending it blazing down a straight path or around a corner carefully enough to not flip over but fast enough to win.

“It’s the most affordable version of motor sports there is,” Lacko says. “The cars are small, but the egos are full-size.”

Inexpensive fun

The “slot” in slot car refers to the groove running down the center of each lane on a track. A small plastic tab on each car fits into the slot to keep the car in the correct lane. WMSSCRG members use “mag” cars, which have magnets on the bottom that help them hug the track and keep from “drifting,” or sliding, when they turn a corner.

Member Lonny Convis of Battle Creek says he likes racing his cars on the track about as much as he likes working on the cars. Online manufacturers sell hundreds of types of slot cars, but a car will rarely go directly from the packaging to the track, except for a test run. Most cars need some tweaking, whether it's replacing existing tires with new ones made of better-quality rubber, making sure a car is as aerodynamic and as smooth-turning as possible, filing down irregularities on an axle or wheel, or adjusting a magnet’s location.

Most cars cost between $30 and $60. A car comes assembled — slot car racing is about speed, not model-making — and with appropriate decorations if it's simulating a life-size race car. Most slot cars are shrunk-down replicas of real race cars and as authentic a representation of the actual vehicle as possible.

Convis has several Trans-Am racing-class sports cars, bought because he simply likes them, even in miniature form. Slot cars come in several sizes, but WMSSCRG uses the most common size, 1:32 scale, roughly twice the size of a toy Hot Wheels car.

A long history here

Kalamazoo has a long history with slot car racing. Historians of the hobby point to a July 1956 article in the British magazine Model Maker that shows a track built in Kalamazoo by racing fan Tom Cook and his friends that was the first indoor track in the U.S. They raced cars about the same size as the ones the modern-day group races, according to Robert Schleicher, publisher of the Colorado-based Model Car Racing magazine.

Schleicher says the early tracks, including Cook’s, used raised rails to provide electric power. A few years later, the reverse was true for most tracks — a tab extended down from the car into the slot in the track.

The hobby grew quickly in the 1960s and 1970s, but as participants aged and their interests changed, slot car racing lost popularity. But now those slot car fans who grew up in the 1960s are retirement age, and they are returning to their childhood hobby and getting their own children interested in racing too.

“We sell a lot of the starter sets for Christmas,” says Rex Simpson, president of Hobby-Sports.com, an online store that has a brick-and-mortar shop in Portage. The store’s most popular items are radio-controlled cars and airplanes, but the slot car market is “huge,” Simpson says, especially online, since few stores carry slot car materials on their shelves. At Hobby-Sports.com, shoppers can find entry-level slot car sets for about $80. The most expensive set, which has computer-operated tracks that allow for more than one car at a time and can simulate pit stops, is $600.

Simpson, who is treasurer of the National Retail Hobby Stores Association, says he isn’t sure if it’s because of the months of cold weather keeping people indoors or a regional interest in slot cars, but many of his online slot car sales are from customers in Michigan and Ohio.

New place to play

The original track used by WMSSCRG, dubbed the “Goodspeed Raceway,” operated in a downtown Kalamazoo building owned by a friend of Lacko’s. While they purchased part of it from a hobby store in Washington that was going out of business, Lacko estimates the track cost more than $12,000 to complete. The downtown building closed May 2017, prompting the group’s move to the Gilmore Car Museum, where Lacko is a volunteer on the museum’s education committee.

The original racetrack, including decorations like figurines and buildings, was on a table that measured 10 feet by 32 feet. There’s less space at the Gilmore Car Museum so the table is now 29 feet long and tapers from 9 feet to 6.5 feet.

What the group has given up in size, it will make up in attracting new members, says Lacko. He says adult visitors to the museum often remember playing with a slot car track as children or recognize a car as it zooms around the course. He also hopes younger car fans get interested in the hobby, not only for fun but to learn as well.

“I’m looking to get kids interested in the sciences,” Lacko says. “Engineering, physics — it’s all in automotive.”

Jay Follis, the Gilmore Car Museum’s marketing director, says the museum will utilize the track for public demonstrations and make it available to visitors. The slot car track complements groups already affiliated with the museum like the Thunderbirds radio-controlled flying club, which has an “airfield” for its diminutive helicopters and planes on museum grounds, and the Midwest Miniatures Museum features dollhouses, figurines and other tiny objects in a building just a few steps away from the new home of the slot car club.

The last few months of 2017 were spent dismantling Goodspeed Raceway and moving it to the museum, where it was redesigned and built in its new space over several weekends. While decorative buildings and trees are still planned for the future, the most important thing was to get the track running and to hook up a computer to keep track of race results, such as the leaders and cars' paces for a lap, which changes from week to week as racers test their cars.

Brian Casterline of Battle Creek says racing slot cars on a track is just as competitive as actually getting behind the wheel would be, though it’s much less expensive. There’s no money on any of the slot car races, just bragging rights, but that doesn’t make it any less of a challenge.

“You can crash these and it doesn’t cost $40,000,” he says. “Competition is competition — I just want to win.”

Category: 

Small track, big fun

"Competition is competition – I just want to win."
– Brian Casterline, slot car enthusiast and member of West Michigan Scale Slot Car Racing Group