Commercial Raceways Explode upon the United States
The first indoor rail car raceway in the United States and operated as a club (Model Auto Racing Association) is credited to Tom Cook of Kalamazoo, Michigan. The cars race were 1/32 scale and patterned after the Southport track featured in a British Model Maker magazine from 1956. The battery-powered Kalamazoo track which has a lap distance of 40 feet with a long straight of 9 feet provides four rails for cars. The rail height is set at 3/16 inch and the cars use zonkers with pickups front and rear. The lap record for this course is 6 seconds. Four of the fastest club cars were sent to England to compete with proxy drivers in the International Southport Grand Prix, two of them grabbing 2nd and 4th places.
This was followed in 1961 by actual commercial slot car tracks, one on Sunset Blvd in Los Angeles built with the help of Autorama's Jack Tate and at Polk's Hobbies in New York City, where a racing track was installed on the fourth floor. Irwin Polk in the mid 1920s organized a model group called the Aero Club and wrote model aviation articles in the “Just For Boys” column of the Newark Evening News. Unfortunately, his club ran into a problem; there was nowhere nearby to get model supplies. Irwin took up the cause, convincing Bamberger’s department store to start a modeling section. They, in turn, convinced Irwin to run it.
His younger brother, Nathan left a job with Sears, Roebuck and Company to follow his brother’s example, continuing to grow the sport of model aeronautics both through the Bamberger club and by opening a store in Newark, New Jersey called Polk’s Model Craft Hobbies.
In order to grow his store, Nathan felt he had to grow the industry as a whole. He took to the road, selling his wares and promoting model aviation. Later Nathan moved on to work with his brother, who owned a hobby shop in New York City.
The Polks’ began combining wholesaling with representing manufacturers, and business grew so much that they were once again forced to move, right onto New York’s Fifth Avenue. They turned this store into a five-story showcase for anything and everything related to the hobby industry, reinvigorating Polk’s Model Craft Hobbies. Polk's was involved with Fred Francis in the development of his Scalextric cars which initially allowed them exclusive rights to sell the merchandise in the United States. Nate Polk, one of the owners of Polk Hobbies, recalled having sets flown over from England to meet demand. Polks Hobby was also involved in the initial distributorship of motors for Mabuchi of Japan.
American Model Car Raceways
In late 1962 or early 1963 American Model Car Raceways out of Burbank, California was formed and soon business was booming designing and manufacturing 8-lane commercial tracks that were sold to too eager raceways all over the globe. Each of their layout designs were assigned a particular color - Red, Yellow, Green, Black, Orange, Purple, and finally Blue and though they also had names such as Monarch, Sovereign and King the name and color became synonymous and anyone who raced regularly knew what the track was by naming either. For example, the "Orange" was called the "Monarch" and had 8 lanes of 100’ each. The Red was the "Imperial" and was 150’ per lane. The "Sovereign" was American’s "biggie" - a 220’ dream which ultimately became known as the "Purple Mile." Of all the tracks American made, the single most popular design produced was the final model they sold - the "Blue King" - and was nearly identical to the Red Imperial except for a few up-to-that-date changes to increase speed and general flow of the cars. In fact there were those pro racers that could almost drive the circuit blind-folded for it was on the King that the World record speeds were kept. AMCR was soon joined by Altech, Ascot, R & J Custom-Line and Stan Engleman.
Most of the early commercial tracks were coin-operated with an hour of track time costing anywhere from $1.50 to $2.50. By that time, even Kalamazoo had converted to slot and soon slot car racing exploded upon the American consciousness.
What had more or less been invented in England developed a very American flavor. Two other New York tracks, Buzz-a-Rama and Elmsford opened for business in 1965 and are still in business 50 years later. Gigantic tracks of 200 to 300 feet in length were built including one 408 foot behemoth at Motorama Raceways in Van Nuys, California and an even larger track in East Meadow, New York that was said to have measured in at 475 feet. Raceways with five tracks and a drag strip were not uncommon. Any many a school boy would travel by bike with their slot car box perched upon their handle bars as they made their way to the nearest slot car raceway. Commercial raceways were popping up all over the country and the public flocked to the new hobby/sport. By 1966 it's been estimated that there were 3,000 commercial raceways throughout the United States. Slot cars were on TV and a number of magazines catered to the hobby.
A number of organizations were established for the purpose of developing common rules for competition. The big three in the United States were MINRA, NAMRA, NASSRA while in England ECRA was paramount. NAMRA was heavily focused on the East Coast and promoted scale models while NASSRA centered in the Midwest and preferred 1/32 scale.
Unlike the other organizations MINRA's main sponsors were the commercial slot car industry so it was not much of a surprise when it was named the national coordinating organization by the Hobby Industries of America trade association.
Later these organizations were joined by USRA in the United States and IMCA in Europe.
It was said that John Lennon was mad for slot cars and according to Paul McCartney: "Two rooms in the attic were devoted entirely to John's model racing car track. A Scalextric electric model racing car set accompanied the Beatles on their 1964 British tour and was always set up backstage. John was so taken with the little model cars that he is reported to have bought twenty sets. This would be typical of John whose first reaction to wealth was not to purchase a Rolls Royce but to buy a huge quantity of Jaffa cakes which he ate until he was sick." Jaffa Cakes are biscuit-sized "cakes" that were introduced in the UK in 1927 and named after Jaffa oranges.
In 1964 Ken MacDowell opened Parma Model Raceway in Ohio. MacDowell had only been introduced to slot cars a year earlier through a Strombecker home set. From there MacDowell went basement racing at a local club. He was smitten by the fast growing hobby and decided to open up his own raceway. An amateur drag racer during his youth he built his business into Parma International, a manufacture and distributor of slot cars, parts and accessories. Some of his trademark products include the parma controller, Womp cars and starter sets, flexi steel chassis and the Parma 16D motor. The signature track at his raceway was the legendary Parma King which was his example of what was to become the most popular track designs of all time. After the boom MacDowell played host to the 1970 Ohio Grand Prix, the fourth race in NCC's National Drivers Championship. The race, which saw the greatest accumulation of top drivers of the period was won by Mike Steube followed by John Stephen who beat Terry Schmid by only two inches. It has been famously recounted that Steube won the race driving a one year old borrowed car, so much for progress. Parma International is credited by some as single handedly saving the hobby during the dark years of the 70's.
The stamped steel flexi chassis, that was introduced by Parma in the 1980s set the commercial slot car hobby in the United States on its ear. Here was a mass produced entry level slot car chassis that was competitive with many of the custom built brass chassis of the day. With it and some careful setup a slot car racer could win races that had become impossible the day before. Flexi based racing classes are still the most popular run today and may have saved the hobby in the U.S. It may also have doomed the hobby in the United States to racing semi-scale lexan bodied cars quite distinct from the realistic models that would soon be coming out of the UK, Spain and Italy.
Back in England the last of the major British clubs had converted from rail to slot with the Oaklands Parkclub being the last of the holdouts. MRRC brought out their "Wide Slide" track system 1960. These were wood sectional pieces sprayed with hot metallic zinc covered and again with paint save for a contact strip running along both sides of the groove. In 1964, Ecurie Spa, one of Britain's top clubs at the time staged a 24-hour race, which was won by the Northampton Model Car Club. A slot car race sponsored by Guards Cigarettes called the Guards Trophy for Model Cars was held in conjunction with the Racing Car Show. The entry list was limited to "amateur" model drives which at the show meant drivers of full size cars or members of firms exhibiting at the show. Graham Hill won the race two years running.
By 1966, there were some 3,000 commercial raceways in the United States and over 200 in Europe. They sold the latest cars, controllers and parts to hordes of enthusiasts, resulting in the slot racing industry generating annual sales in excess of $500 million for three years in a row. Slot car racing had entered its golden years.
While commercial tracks dominated the hobby in the US, or at least in the eyes of the general public in there were many clubs with tracks where the competition was just as intense. One such club was the Miniature Electric Scale Automobile Club (M.E.S.A.C.) in
Inglewood, California and their legendary 190-foot 6-lane track that could be altered into 8 different configurations through the use of a four-inch wide sliding board that had 12 lanes routed into it, 6 straight and 6 curved. The circuit had the look of an English club track in that it was completely detailed with the famous Martini & Rossi bridge a signature feature. There were even operating pits that the racer was required to use in longer races, by way of railroad type points. Race control was conducted in an elevated room offering a commanding view of the activities.
A few of the clubs members worked in the aerospace industry and at least one by the name of Jim Russell went on to make a name for himself manufacturing slot cars under the Russkit banner.
Besides the core group of members the club opened its doors to local hot shoes who were required to meet the clubs strict scale rules if they wished to race on the demanding course. Racing was held in at least five different classes and a championship trophy was awarded at the end of the year. Special events such as enduros were also held.
Besides road courses, slot car drag racing also had a strong following. Cars in 1963 were powered by the larger laminated open-frame motors such as the Pittman DC-85A and Ram 850. Most were sidewinders with swinging arm pickups and chassis built using magnesium ladder type frames. The chassis required a clear Krylon spray coat to prevent tarnishing. Drag strips were powered up to 36 volts for top eliminator cars. The Miniature International Racing Association (MINRA) held its first International Drag Championships in October of 1963. The following year Car Model magazine sponsored their own 1st International All-Scale Drag Meet. For timing a Swiss-made Heuer Electronic Timer, accurate to 1/10,000 of a second was used.
Rod & Custom magazine would also sponsor races with Southern California as the hot bed for drag racing.
Top drag racers of the period included Bob Braverman, author of "Here is Your Hobby Slot Car Racing" and a drag cyclist. Braverman actually paid his way through college by racing motorcycles. In the late 1950s, in Chicago, his first job was that of a toy designer, where his enthusiasm made him an early pioneer in slot-car racing.
Gene Husting who also raced full size cars, introduced the first rear-engined dragster to Don Garlits who then later perfected the arrangement after a near fatal crash. Husting also set a sub-one second time in a slot car drag racing meet that was said to have lasted 28 years.
Interestingly after having always been considered a niche within a niche hobby, drag racing is growing with the popularity of bracket racing, it is currently considered one of commercial slot car racing's potential growth areas.
National rules are provided by the Scale Drag Racing Association. The Bracket 500 website contains a wealth of useful information regarding slot car drag racing.
Recently the slot car website Slotblog has reproduced the web content of another prominent drag racer, the late Frank M. Eubel, who proudly used the nickname "Unca Frank". Unca Frank created a website to share his deep knowledge of the slot car drag racing hobby and titled it "Where Slot Car Drag Racing takes a brief Reality Break"
The story to be continued ... In writing The history of slot cars and slot car racing. there is a lot of misinformation on the web and often different individuals were creating racing systems oblivious to what was happening elsewhere. The period between the wars is especially murky. If you have comments about this article or just wish to provide additional insight please do not hesitate to contact me: Dennis David