MACLEAN’S LEISURE LIVING

Big boom in the basement: model slot car racing

H. R. W. Morrison January 22 1966
MACLEAN’S LEISURE LIVING

Big boom in the basement: model slot car racing

H. R. W. Morrison January 22 1966

Big boom in the basement: model slot car racing

It’s driving thousands of men underground (to forgotten recreation rooms), driving forgotten wives crazy, and turning miniature-car racing into a $2-million bonanza

H. R. W. Morrison

A new hobby that could

rescue thousands of basement recreation rooms from disuse has whirred onto the Canadian scene: slot-car racing. Five years ago the term didn’t even exist here; in 1966 manufacturers and importers expect to sell two million dollars’ worth of slot-car equipment.

In addition to home layouts, dozens of slot-car clubs have been formed across Canada, and a number of enterprising promoters are even setting up play-as-you-race parlors in vacant stores.

The track on which slot cars race is a tabletop affair, somewhat similar to the familiar modelrailway layout. (But devotees scorn the comparison. “You can’t race model trains,” one of them pointed out. “It’s the competitive aspect that makes slot cars so popular.”)

Indeed, the true aficionados of this rapidly

growing hobby-sport approach their racing with almost the same single-minded dedication displayed by leading racing drivers on the Grand Prix circuit. They spend countless hours building and testing their tiny, scale-model racers and untold additional hours constructing the elaborate tracks on which their competitions are held. A great deal of practice is required to perfect the judgment and reflexes necessary for topgrade competition. It all adds up to a big, big expenditure of time and money, and more than one wife has been heard to complain of her role as a “slot-car widow.”

During a competition, car drivers are located at “stations” along the outside of the track from where they control their cars by hand-operated electric controls. Men called marshals are lo-

cated at S-turns

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SLOT CARS

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and corners to put cars back on the track after a crash or a spin-off. Another official, a timekeeper, keeps his eye on the lap counter and clock. (Inches often decide the winner.)

The cars are usually scale models of such famous racers as World Champion Jim Clark’s Lotus. They can be purchased ready-to-go for five to twentyfive dollars at hobby shops. But those raced by real enthusiasts are more likely to have been souped up or custombuilt by devoted owners. These experts think nothing of spending hundreds of hours bringing their scale models up to maximum mechanical performance and testing them for more hours in their workshops. The cars are propelled by twelve-volt electric motors which can deliver up to forty-eight thousand revolutions per minute. Power to turn the motors comes through metal brushes attached to the underside of the car as they ride along electrically charged metal strips imbedded in the track. A guide OH the car fits into a slot in the track between the metal strips, giving the sport its name.

Drivers use hand-operated controls to control their cars, regulating the speed by pressing a button with their thumbs. The more pressure they apply the faster the cars accelerate. Through practice, drivers develop considerable skill in easing their tiny models around the curves at maximum speed without spinning out, and then zipping them along full speed on the stretches. Younger drivers generally display faster reflexes and respond faster to different racing problems than older competitors, but older racers usually nullify this advantage by spending more effort perfecting and testing their cars. It is this opportunity to demonstrate both model-building and racing skills that fascinates so many participants.

Every Wednesday night, in Toronto’s suburban Etobicoke, members of the Maxport Slot Car Racing Club race their cars around a four-lane, seventy-six-foot track designed and built by themselves. Two teachers, a doctor, a civil servant, a taxi driver, an insurance adjuster, a public accountant and a metal worker are among the members. They arrive at George Maxwell’s basement with their racers carefully packed in special protective carrying boxes. They warm up for an hour, then settle down to an evening of racing.

They compete in two ways: in qualifying races and in elimination finals.

On a typical evening there might be twenty competitors. Each one qualifies his car by racing it around the track as many times as he can in two minutes in each lane. After all competitors have qualified they are classified according to their record and the number of racers that can compete at any one time. Leading competitors may be given a bye into the finals. Since the track has four slots, remaining competitors are divided into classes of four each. The four competitors then race a fixed number of laps around the track. The winner of each race then competes with three other racers until only four competitors are left. As the race progresses, the number of laps for each race may be increased from fifteen to as many as one hundred and fifty laps, until a victor emerges.

Another type of race is an endurance test in which a team of racers using only one car race against other teams, nonstop for a set length of time — anywhere from two to eight hours. Some dedicated teams have been known to go at it for twenty-four hours nonstop, members substituting for each other throughout the night and day.

As if this were not enough, there is a new refinement called a Twilight Grand Prix. In it, the cars are equipped with lights and race part-time in neardarkness, to simulate conditions at the classic twenty-four-hour races for fullsized sports cars.

Members of the Maxport Club built their track by organizing four five-member teams, each of which worked one night a week for three months. The track has model trees, buildings, people, pits, and even scale-model outhouses that occasionally get knocked over by racers spinning out of control.

The head (called Chief Marshal) of the Maxport Club is Warren Sanderson, an executive of Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation. He is also the reigning slot-car racing champion of Canada. Sanderson, who used to make boats and model airplanes, says he became a slot-car enthusiast “because you can do something with them after you have built them.” After a day at the office, he finds he enjoys tinkering with his car or showing competitors he has the fastest thumb in town.

Maxport Club members take their sport very seriously and are extremely choosy about who joins their club. Prospects are scrutinized by a three-man committee, which passes judgment on them after they have attended six meetings. Maxport Club members are considered to rank among the top dogs of the sport and are often asked to lecture on slot-car racing. They also test cars for manufacturers.

Slot-car racing was developed by hobbyists in England after World War II. During the late 1950s tracks and equipment began to be produced commercially. The sport spread to the United States where it quickly caught on. Sales that formed a negligible part of total U.S. hobby industry in 1960 grew to $150 million in 1965.

Slot-car racing has one potential problem — women. The sport was developed by men for men only. Maxport, for example, has few women to its meetings — and only as spectators. Yet a Toronto racer competing in Detroit recently was horrified to see a woman take the controls and defeat her husband, two sons, and other men. if