Slot Car's Downfall and Revival
By 1973 most commercial raceways were gone and only a small number of raceways with dedicated owners and customers continued on. The slot car wave that had swept over the United States was no more and the hobby entered what was known as its dark ages. But even in the darkest of days racing still continued, United Slot Racers Association (USRA) - a group which had its start in 1968 held a yearly National Championship. Wing cars now dominated the top pro divisions. There have been several small revivals but nothing quite like the 60's will ever be seen again.
But the story does not end here, slot cars did not die they just went underground or more accurately back to living rooms, basements and club houses where it had all started. What interest that existed in slot cars by the general public was now concentrated on HO and to a lesser extent, at least in the United States, 1/32 scale cars. Jim Russell of Russkit fame had dissolved his company and gone on to work for Aurora where he spearheaded a team of racers that included John Cukras who introduced the G-Plus and Super G-Plus HO cars that revolutionized the smaller scale. In 1/32 scale, Scalextric continued to produce home racing sets and cars and the early 1990s saw the beginning of a revival, particularly in home set racing, thanks mainly to a new Spanish manufacturer, Ninco, who began producing cars and later sets of far superior quality than Scalextric’s offerings at the time, which had started to take on a ‘toy-ish’ feel.
By the mid 1990s another Spanish manufacturer, Fly Model Car, upped the game even further when they introduced cars with an exceptional level of detail. In 1998 Scalextric began outsourcing manufacture to China in 1998, reducing costs and improving their manufacturing flexibility. Today the hobby is currently experiencing good solid growth, with Scalextric again producing top quality and innovative products, along with Carrera, SCX and Ninco. In addition to those big four, smaller specialty firms such as Italy’s Slot.it, NSR and Spain's Scaleauto have actually led the way in performance if not overall quality of detail. There is also a dedicated group of collectors who purchase and build hand built resin cars form makes such as Spain's Slot Classic and Britain's George Turner Models. In many ways America now looks to Europe to lead the way.
So while commercial raceways may soon be a thing of the past with less than 200 in existence the internet which was thought to have contributed to the downfall of slot cars actually is allowing a small core of enthusiast to stay in contact through forums such as Slotblog, to continue to enjoy the hobby. In 2006 another amazing thing happened, this time at the Buena Park Raceway in Southern California when Paul Sterrett and Mike Steube shared a common vision to recreate the scratch building/racing days of 40 years ago. They wanted to capture the fun of creative scratch building and competitive racing with low cost 1/24 slot cars of a more scale appearance than what is seen on most commercial tracks today. By using spec motors they removed a large cost factor and by banning most stamped steel, EDM or laser-cut parts a D3 chassis can be made from easily available and inexpensive brass sheet and tubing. All that is needed is an ability to solder as the price of admission.
The proof in the genius of this idea is that they have managed to inspire the return of many famous racers of past including John Cukras, Bryan Warmack, John (Tore) Anderson, Lee Hines, Terry Schmid, Howie Ursaner, Philippe de Lespinay and Keith Tanaka. Unfortunately what makes D3 so appealing may actually be a barrier to others, the requirement to build your own chassis.
When a person can buy a flexi chassis, couple it with a souped up motor and non-scale body why go through the trouble of building a D3 car? The answer goes to the root of why slot cars will never be as popular as they once were. The youth of today is looking for instant gratification, which they can find in video games. The desire and/or skills in building a slot car or anything for that matter is dead or dying. It is also the reason why for others the return to the hobby of their youth is the next best thing to reuniting with their first girlfriend ... maybe even better.
After it's original concept D3 has evolved to a separate D3 Hardbody racing group and centered around the Buena Park Raceway and a SCRRA (SoCal) / IRRA organized Retro racing which allows for the use of semi-scale lexan bodies. Retro Pro which allows for anglewinders and a different motor might eventually come under their own organization or morph into a regional "Outlaw" category. Major annual Retro races include the Checkpoint Cup in Buena Park, The Sano in California and the R4 in New Jersey.
The brass chassis that form the basis of Retro have evolved far beyond the designs that were in existence during the period that Retro initial covered. The wide use of steel wire as a torsion element and chassis kits has seen to that. This according to several people involved in the establishment of Retro is ok as long as the idea of scratching building and soldering a chassis is maintained. The other linchpin of Retro is the use of inexpensive Chinese sealed motors. The addition of modern techniques do not alter the fact that this is a chassis builders class that should be accessible to anyone with a soldering iron and a hack saw or rotary tool.
While D3 and other forms of retro racing are focused on recreating the commercial track racing of the late 1960s and early 70s a growing segment of the hobby attempts to return to more realistic model cass that eschews the use of lexan in favor of moulded polystyrene or resin laminated with glass fibre, carbon fibre, or similar materials. These materials are required due to their ability to retain a high level detail mandated by the rules governing the appearance of the cars. Spearheaded in Germany this form of racing is gaining adherents in the UK as well as the United States.Major groups promoting this type of racing include ICAR, IMCA, OEPS and Scaleracing LLC through their sponsorship of the BRM Challenge Series and Scaleauto endurance racing in North America.
Scale racing may also serve as a bridge between the Scalextric 1/32 cars that can be raced at home and similar cars yet in the larger 1/24 scale appropriate for the commercial tracks still found in the United States. The chassis for these cars can either be plastic or metal with several small manufacturers providing quite sophisticated products. Some form of suspension is often added to the basically rigid chassis.
Slot cars continue to enjoy a respectable following that is refreshed every Christmas. It will never again reach the level of popularity it enjoyed in the mid-60's at least when it comes to commercial raceways but the 1/32 scale home and club market continue to enjoy new developments such as the advent of digital. In 2004 several slot car manufacturers introduced digital control systems, which enable multiple cars to run in the same lane and to change lanes at certain points on the course using lane changers built into special track sections. Digitally-coded signals sent along the power strips allow each car to respond only to its own controller. Each controller has a switch to activate the nearest lane changer as the car travels the course.
As digital slot car racing has matured there is now the ability to connect computers to slot car race management systems. Using a system like Carrera AppConnect, the racer will be able to link your smartphone or tablet directly to Carrera's Digital 124 and Digital 132 racing circuits. Simply connect the Bluetooth adapter to the control unit of the Carrera race track, download the Carrera Race App free from the App Store (iOS) or Google Play (Android). The Carrera Race App lets the racer determine whether they want to take on the role of race director and link up directly with the control unit or connect with race control as a driver.
In the race control 'Race Profile', the racer controls all the known features of the digital systems, such as fuel tank capacity, braking response and speed. In addition, the racer can specify the race mode and are able to monitor, via the display, all the relevant information concerning the progress of the race for all the drivers involved.
Sillage Racing / Slipstream Racing
The inventors of the BLST slot car system, Sillage Racing currently produce one of the most advanced digital systems available. BLST stands for Best Lane Slot Track and their track designs incorporate the racing line that would be taken on an actual circuit. Invented by David Caille of Étercy, France the system incorporates automatic switches that utilize a racing line and an escape lane. There is no need for the driver to manually switch lanes. This allows the driver to concentrate on driving his slot car and theoretically limits crashing that is common to other digital systems. The system uses Slot.it oXigen digital chips and controllers for car control.
An exciting new development in slot car manufacturing, one that could see manufacturing brought back on shore is the increased use of 3D printing. A number of individual designers as well as some mainline manufacturers are creating 3D printed parts such as motor pods and complete chassis that integrate with existing slot cars creating a pathway for improving performance at a reasonable price. The vast majority of the chassis being produced are compatible with Slot.it inline, anglewinder and sidewinder pods. Some slot car bodies in the smaller scales such as HO and 1/43 are also now being produced using 3D printing.
Perhaps one of the most interesting developments in 3d printing and slot cars is the work being done by Immense Miniatures, a husband and wife team of artisans. Immense Miniatures creates highly detailed figures, scenic items, and accessories for slot-racers and static modelers. Available in multiple scales, their products depict the thrills and romance of motor racing between 1930 and 1970.
Marc Tyler and his wife Heidi run their business out of their home near San Antonio, Texas where Heidi sculpts the driver's heads at about 1/3 actual size. These are then brought into their computer workstation using a 3D scanner. Additional detail such as hair and clothing are then added. Masters are created using a DLP 3D printer and silicone molds are made producing the final resin parts.
Slot Car racing would never be confused with an elitist hobby. In fact there is definitely a grease under the fingernails aspect to it. But one man by the name of David Beattie and his company, Slot Mods has turned that premise on its ear and has dedicated to creating the finest, handcrafted, slot car raceways and dioramas in the world with the only limit the size of the buyers wallet. That's not to say that the prices they charge are unreasonable, just that you should expect to pay artisan rates. In their own words the firm produces are "vintage to modern day circuits, for any type of vehicle (from racing cars to tractor trailers to snowmobiles and more) the Slot Mods team can make it happen. We’re artisan craftsmen, led by founder and owner David Beattie. We create bespoke, hand-crafted, 1:32 scale, fully functional wooden slot track raceways. Our work is enjoyed around the world in private homes, ultimate garages, museums, commercial trade shows and showrooms."
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