From browsing the Internet, I've learned a lot of basic stuff about the hobby in a fairly short period of time. This article regurgitates some of that, while presenting it from this newbie's perspective. First though, let me give you some links to a few of those helpful slot car websites; these have news, reviews, tips, and discussion forums:
WHY SLOT CARS? Sometime last year, on a whim, I checked eBay for a slot car I'd treasured as a kid: The Cox Chaparral 2E with "Iso-Fulcrum Chassis" in 1/24th scale. Wow. People were actually selling them, and people were actually buying them... for BIG BUCKS! Way more than I'd be willing to spend to satisfy my nostalgic yearnings. Mainly though, I was surprised to see that there was still some interest in this old-timey hobby. Slot cars are quaintly retro, considering that we now have cheap radio controlled cars available in different scales, in addition to the lure of virtual racing video games. I have fond memories of the hobby as a kid: I used to take my cars and controller to a commercial track, buy magazines and dreamed of someday building a brass anglewinder. Anyway, the eBay experience predisposed me to finally notice the slot car sets at the local hobby shop. On impulse, I bought a big 1/24 set like the one Mom got me as a kid, and only during the drive home did I begin to consider the practical matter of where to put this behemoth. Clearly, our living room was not going to work as a permanent setup, and I couldn't accept having spent the money for something that would be only occasionally hauled out of storage. The storage shed seemed to be the only practical place for an extended-temporary/semi-permanent setup. With this problem solved, the work began, the web browsing commenced, I found a 1/32 Scalextric Chaparral 2E/G on eBay, and the second-childhood obsession kicked into high gear.
Slot car racing isn't a huge fad in the USA. It's similar in magnitude to GI Joe collecting, and from the Internet, one can get a distorted impression of its popularity by the dedication of its devoted fans. Also from the Internet, I learned that the only local commercial track had closed just last year-- apparently, it's a difficult business to make money at (for that matter, local hobby shops seem to be disappearing as well). I'm not obsessed enough to drive an hour to visit one, so for me, it's strictly home racing. I didn't have any illusions that I'd find anyone to race with either. I knew I could get my wife to humor me occasionally, but for the most part, it would be just me and my race track. Fortunately, slot car racing can be a fun solitary activity, where one competes against the clock for better lap times. And while radio controlled cars might seem to make slot cars obsolete, the limitation of a fixed, pre-programmed race lane can be an advantage since it enables solitary competition against pace cars.
I quickly learned that most of the action is in 1/32 scale, not 1/24 scale. There are only a few manufacturers of the Ready-To-Run 1/24 cars, versus a long list of 1/32 manufacturers with long lists of car models. By getting the wide Carrera 1/24 scale track I could run either scale, and the smaller 1/32 cars would look better and less crowded on the track. 1/32 cars don't have the mass and weight of 1/24 cars, so they handle less realistically, but they behave far more realistically than tiny HO scale cars which rocket down the track at a scale 400 MPH.
The 1/32 cars are very cool, and are certainly more detailed nowadays than they were back in the day... and more expensive, too. Some of them are packaged as limited-edition collectibles in fancy boxes, as though intended for shelf display duty only. However, everything's fodder for those who want to tinker with, hop-up, and race some cool-looking miniature replicas of some awesome autos. The cars are probably the main draw and appeal to different types, from the car/racing/history buff to the social/competitive sports type to the tweaker/tinkerer mechanics/electronics type. From an economic perspective, it's a pretty neat deal since manufacturers and retailers can sell a continuous supply of new models, and parts to repair or hop up those cars. For the consumer, the supply of novelty is as deep as the pockets, and as thick as the wallet. So beware... as I've learned, it can easily become an expensive obsession.
Then there's the track layout itself. While most hobbyists are probably content with sectional plastic track ("store-bought"), some build elaborate routed wooden track layouts, complete with model railroading-like scenery. Both require thought and planning to accommodate the fixed parameters, like how much space is available, and its configuration. Naturally, thought should be given to the features of the layout-- Should it be a fast track with long straightaways for speed racing or a curvy and varied track with plenty of cornering challenges and elevation differences? Is it too easy/boring or too difficult/frustrating? Will it be fun to drive repeatedly? You should consider whether it is a "safe" track as well-- Some design features may encourage cars to go flying off the track, but the design dictates whether the cars fly off the table and hit a hard floor or simply plow into something more forgiving. Although I don't agonize over scuffing expensive toys, I'd rather not be shattering plastic if I can avoid it.
MY LAYOUT Clearly, plastic sectional track makes the hobby accessible, and it's usually after playing around with that the truly hard core try their hand at wooden track making (which is actually cheaper) and layout landscaping. As much as I love looking at scenic modeled wooden track layouts, I felt that I'd be satisfied with a bare-bones sectional track layout that I could painlessly reconfigure or pack up. My experience with model railroading has fullfilled my need to experience the full-blown scenic modeling route. Of course, you never know... it's easy to ignore the logical arguments when the bug bites. But for right now, I'm okay with functional, but ugly.
Design parameters of my layout:
The design took about a month to coalesce, with testing and adding extensions, and it's still evolving with minor tweaks. The track fits into a 19' x 4' space, measures 59' 4" per lane, according to the free Carrera track layout program. The chicane section and series of sharp curves focus most of the obvious deslotting locations within arm's reach of the driver's station. Banked curves at the far ends of the track help to minimize the number of speed-related accidents there, so deslotting there is less frequent. However, in order to pack more track on the table, I've had to add a loopback with a sharp turn, where deslotting accidents do occur. Unfortunately, overpasses create blind spots, which I've addressed by layering the track, with sufficient clearance for a Chaparral's high wing-- the top layer's highest elevation is about 7" (not including the banked curves). The overpass layering is intended to give the more crucial curves the better view, so that curves can be navigated with good feedback. At the straightaway, the driver can floor it with a briefly interrupted view, as long as he remembers to slow down before the curve at the end. The curves preceding the right banked curve should have shoulders for the inside lane; unfortunately, shoulders aggravate the blind spot problem where track is layered. That lane is normally used by a pace car, which doesn't fishtail even at scale speeds of 200+ MPH (thanks to the magic of magnets). The human operator driving non-magnet cars in that lane learns very quickly not to accelerate there. Overall, this is a decent mix of straights and curves for pace car competition. The long straightaway and banked curves favor the human operator, but the pace car has the advantage in all the tight, flat curves.
POWER PACKS I was fortunate to have a few DC transformer options, including the 18 volt and 14 volt powerpacks from Carrera sets, but also an adjustable voltage electroplating transformer. I decided to use the 18 volt transformer for one lane since it was more robust and not designed as a wall-wart. Although 18 volts is hard on the electricals of 1/32 scale stuff, rarely would the controller send a full 18 volts for any length of time, since the car would fly off the track and embed in a wall. The adjustable transformer is used for the other lane since it makes the the lane more flexible-- the lane's speed could be dialed down for a less-experienced driver (to avoid splintering damage), to run a pace car at a particular speed, or to balance the racing.
To overcome resistance losses from the length of the track, jumpers were connected at intervals around the track. This really does make a difference, especially for a pace car.
LANE REVERSING SWITCH Although Carrera cars include a direction reversing switch, polarity is really an attribute of the lane (I can't think of any situations where you'd want two cars running in opposite directions in a lane, and cars do jump lanes!). Therefore, it makes sense to install DPDT lane reversing switches at the controller station, one for each lane (just copy the switch wiring in a Carrera car). These are a simple improvement, and driving a layout in the opposite direction is an entirely different experience.
COMPUTER LAP TIMER One of the big challenges was figuring out how to set up an old, unused computer as a lap timer. (Besides, having a computer in the storage shed would also let me play CDs, too). The advantage of a computer lap timer is the large display; also, a program can collect data as you run so that you can examine it later. Concentrating on setting speed records doesn't go very well with being distracted by a lap timer.
From everything I'd read, interfacing the computer with track sensors seemed to be fairly simple and cheap. In fact, there's a great freeware program called Laptimer 2000 that does most everything you could want it to do. In addition, the program contains major clues for constructing your hardware interface, telling you the vital pin numbers for your parallel port connector. Gregory Braun's site sells the pre-fabricated interface cables for a very reasonable price. Basically, a fully Do-It-Yerself interface requires only a pair of IR detectors & emitters (from Radio Shack) for each lane, a parallel port connector and cable (you only use 5 pins for a two-lane track, so a 36 conductor cable is overkill) and a power supply for the emitters circuit. Surprisingly, the detector circuit requires no additional active components-- you can just run the detector's leads (observing proper polarity) to the correct parallel port pinouts and you can test it within the Laptimer 2000 program (after you've configured it). An incandescent light shaded/unshaded should trigger detection and increment the lap count. The trickiest part is getting the IR LED emitters to work since you can't see when they're on. They require a very low voltage (1.3 volts), which you can get straight from a AA battery. They seem to draw a surprising amount of power however. For an AC adapter wallwart, the easiest way to get the proper voltage is to get it from the voltage drop across two diodes (.7 volts each) in series. You'll need some resistors in series to drop the rest of the voltage. These should be of fairly low resistance (less than 1k) to supply adequate current, and pretty beefy wattage (I used 1/2 watt) handle the heat. I'm no circuit designer, but I was able to bluff my way through resistor value selection for a 12 volt wall wart, and even included a normal LED tapped off of one of the resistors to verify that the power was on. Naturally, all components should be tested at each step to make sure things are working and to help you diagnose and isolate problems to fix. The actual installation in the track isn't terribly critical. I eyeballed installation of the emitter/detector pairs in slots I'd cut through the sides of the track's slot, and hot glued them in place. They worked fine for a while, until I jostled the wires and I had some trouble adjusting one lane's emitter back into proper alignment: The invisible light does make it hard to see what's going on, so I reinstalled the emitter/detector pair (again, by eyeball). I later had trouble with some false triggers from one lane to another until I figured out that I hadn't replaced the light shielding tape under the track-- one lane's emitter was sporadically triggering both detectors. Once I taped over the emitter/detector pairs, everything worked fine. It was time to start timing cars.
You can order a computer interface at Carlson's Slot Cars, either fully installed in a track section, or in kit form.
PAINTING THE TRACK In real life, blacktop isn't really black, or at least, not for long. So realism might be one reason to paint track gray; it also makes black cars easier to see. However, there's another compelling reason to paint track: traction. Rustoleum makes a pewter "texture paint" in spray form, and it really works! I had magneted cars that would slide heavily on the unpainted track (when I was just figuring out that tires could be cleaned). After painting the track, those cars stuck to the track like glue. So much so that I had to remove their magnets just to make racing them challenging... but that's another story.
The paint is extremely durable, but after thousands of laps, shows some slight wear in an area of the banked curve where the pace car's chassis scrapes at the front.
THE CARS The cars are the blades of the razor & blade marketing analogy: You only need one track but the thirst for novelty means that you can't buy just one car. Awaiting new releases and the search for out-of-production releases keeps interest in the hobby strong. Hobbyists may favor one style of car, or a particular manufacturer, but there's so much variety available that there's always something out there to satisfy deeply-ingrained consumer spending patterns. I've only scratched the surface (after spending a ton of money), but have formed some opinions, and settled into particular favorites.
Carrera (Germany) You get a pair of cars when you buy one of their race sets, and as an outside purchase they're a great value. These are some of the highest production quality slot cars out there, with plenty of adjustable chassis parts, the interior is packed with "stuff" (like a reversing switch, and sometimes lights), and they're topped with intricately detailed bodies. Unfortunately, they're a little bit over-engineered and therefore heavier than cars produced by other manufacturers. In a world where accurate scale performance (rather than appearance) was more important, these would be winners. Their weight helps approximate real-world handling in accelleration and braking. The easily adjustable magnet system lets you tune the traction effects on the fly, without opening up the car. However, compared to other manufacturers cars, they sometimes feel heavy and sluggish. Carrera has a broad line with a lot of variety that includes American muscle cars, not manufactured by anyone else.
Slot.It (Italy) These are the ultimate performance cars, with attractive, top-of-the-line detailed bodies. Slot.It makes quality aftermarket hop-up parts for other manufacturers' cars, so it's no surprise that their own cars would focus so sharply on performance. By performance, I mean blazingly fast and light cars with amazing accelleration and braking. Their cars usually perform flawlessly out-of-the box, no tweaking required. They're a relatively new company so their product line isn't very extensive, but it's growing.
Scalextric (UK) These guys have been around since the beginning, so they've produced a lot of different cars. I've only bought a couple of their recent releases, and was immediately impressed with how well they ran out-of-the-box. They're fast, quiet, stay glued to the track... and the body details are on par with the other manufacturers I've mentioned. Mechanically, they're inbetween Carrera's over-engineered design and Slot.It's spartan performance-oriented design. The Ferrari 330 P4 and Ford GT40 have an overly complicated chassis removal procedure, but it's a marvel of well-designed, tightly-fitted complexity.
Fly (Spain) They pretty much led the '90s rebirth of 1:32 slot car racing with their previously unheard-of die-cast quality detailing. These days, almost everyone does that. Fly cars are quirky. The "Classic" line cars generally do not run well out-of-the-box, are noisy, and have some basic manufacturing issues that should be fixed before adopted for racing. Yet, these have turned out to be my favorite cars! That's in part because they have produced so much variety through the years, including the famous '70 Le Mans Porsches, Ferraris and Lolas. Also, the quirkyness gives their cars character-- each one seems to run differently after the basic required tweaking. With magnet removed, these cars can be nimble or lumbering, sometimes noisy performers-- it's a fun challenge to get them right, but when they're tuned, they run very well. Perhaps it's the level of TLC that they require that makes them interesting and the other better-performing cars seem somewhat sterile and boring?
These are some reputable vendors I've patronized, along with impressions from my limited experience (03/2006):
SPEED, MAGNETS, AND TWEAKING This seems to be the biggest controversy at the heart of slot car racing, and bears some similarity to a totally unrelated but equally important issue-- breast implants (nyuk, nyuk). You'd think that slot car racing would be all about speed. Speed means faster lap times and winning races, so it's the only thing, and more should be better, right? In the old days, things were simple: It was the sole yardstick. It continues to be, especially for competitive racing at commercial tracks with non-magnetic track, but things have gotten more complicated on magnet-friendly track. In the late 60s/early 70s someone introduced a brilliantly simple idea to the hobby: traction magnets to increase downforce. These turned a lot of traditional notions upside-down, and since then, the subject has been a source of controversy. There are folks who love 'em and folks who hate 'em. Magnets are one of several ways to keep a fast car's tires firmly on the track, where they can turn the motor's speed into fast forward motion. The traditional ways to do this are through tire conditioning (trueing/sanding tires for greater track contact patch), tire selection (tires made of special soft/"sticky" compounds), tire surface additives and cleaners (to make the tire surface softer/cleaner/"stickier"), adding weights (to increase downforce), and track conditioning (cleaning/painting the track surface with texture to give it more "grip"). There are other tools in the tweaker's arsenal, such as creating a lower center of gravity; all serve to make the cars handle better in accelleration and driving through curves at the highest possible speed. Traditional tweaking is something of an art form, and no amount of it could ever produce too much traction..
Traditional traction tweaks do improve performance and increase a car's speed, but not to the same extent that magnets are capable of. Strong magnets can make a car stick to track in a way that no traditional tweak can, and can overshadow the contribution of the other tweaks, or mask flaws which would be apparent in magnetless performance. While tire conditioning tweaks last for a limited number of laps before fading, strong magnetic traction continues unchanged, even with the dirtiest of tires. Magnets can supply more than 10 times the car's actual weight in downforce, with an insignificant addition of real weight. Real weight is subject to the forces of gravity and intertia, which is what makes cars fishtail or dump at curves, once the tires' traction have been broken. Real weight makes a car's center-of-gravity a factor to be considered.
It's an interesting paradox. On one hand, the sole purpose of tweaking is to improve speed and make slot cars easier to drive fast. On the other hand, you don't want it too easy, or there's no challenge, no fun. Before the use of magnets, this wasn't an issue. But magnets aren't going away, and they do have a place. Magnets are great for cheaply and easily making slotcars easier to drive so that they don't readily slip and slide upon accelleration, or deslot at curves. This is a wonderful thing for kids and for folks who want the thrill of speed without suffering the frustration of frequently deslotted cars. However, recognition must be given to the fact that magnetless cars require more skill to tweak and to drive. Generally speaking, cars with strong magnets can't help but turn faster laptimes than they can without them, regardless of how well tweaked those cars are and how experienced the drivers are. Therefore, speed in its role as a universal yardstick is compromised without consideration of this issue. For competition and comparison purposes, the two should not be mixed unless entries are subjected to an equalization screening.
TWEAKING WITH MAGNETS The use of magnets is often derided because in the most radical cases, it lessens the contribution of skill from the sport. It's a shame because, used in moderation, magnets are just another tweaking tool that can be used to make an unruly car handle acceptably. Sure, strong magnets will overshadow the other tweaking tools if a car is tuned that way. However, magnets can play a subtle role, leaving other factors like the weight, tire, and track surface to play a dominant role.
The Magnet Marshal is a specialized scale that measures the magnetic downforce of a slotcar, and is a useful tool to help you make subtle modifications (you can build your own if you own a decent scale). Guided by measurement and road tests, magnets can be placed at different positions (front, middle, rear), at different heights (through placing spacers, or "shims" between the magnets and the track surface), in different configurations and sizes (bar, button), and with different strengths (Magnetic strength can be decreased by heating the magnet briefly over a stove top burner). Magnetic tweaking done this way can add small amounts of additional downforce (like 30% of the slotcar's weight, for example), which may make a noticible, but not drastic difference in the handling of the car. This method of tweaking might be preferable in a light, long-tailed car like the Porsche 917 LH where adding weight improves traction, but may not do much about fish-tailing (you can have too much of a good thing). Magnets may also solve problems where there's no room to add weight at the optimal spot.
Just for grins, here's some sample data I've collected (rounded):
|Slot.It - Sauber Mercedes (supermag pace car)|
|Fly - Thelma & Louise Corvette (stock mag)|
|Carrera - Porsche Carrera GT1 (no rear mag, front adjusted close)|
|Carrera - Porsche Carrera GT1 (no rear mag, front adjusted far)|
|Fly - Porsche Carrera 6 (mag shimmed)|
|Fly - Porsche Carrera 6 (no mag)|
|Fly - Lola T70 MK3B (no mag)|
Best MPH is the best average lap speed, human-driven (varies, depending
on concentration, mood, fatigue, experience, etc.)
Constant MPH is the best average lap speed at a constant voltage (as a pace car).
GOING MAGNETLESS This is a personal decision, based on the cars you own, your track, and the level of challenge you seek. Initially, I couldn't imagine going magnetless since I had enough trouble keeping heavily magneted cars on my track. I even bought a bunch of supermagnets to add to cars that already had fairly impressive magnets. Then I learned about cleaning tires with tape, and the traction improved. Then I learned about treating the tires with 3-in-1 oil, and the traction improved. Then I painted my track with texture paint, and the traction improved... so much so that the cars would no longer fishtail--even the ones with dirty tires. All cars now flew down the track at ungodly speeds. This posed some problems for the pace car, which was already flying down the track at the limits of its ungodly speeds. Now I could easily beat it with many of my slot cars. I began removing/backing off magnets since it was the only way I could create some semblance of a challenge. A car navigating a series of curves at scale speeds in excess of 200 MPH is a fascinating thing to watch, but it's not very natural-looking... and can get boring.
The action of magnetless cars is far from boring, even competing against a soulless and relentless pace car. Although it's a morbid truth, one of the most fascinating things about racing are the crashes, and fishtailing cars routinely produce some very entertaining crashes. These typically aren't the airborne, plastic-splintering kinds of crashes that extreme high speeds can produce, but may scuff paint or occasionally knock off a flimsy mirror. Naturally, accidently knocking a pace car off the track is gratifying. But you quickly learn to be cautious leading into a curve where you might fishtail into that lane: If you don't maintain speed, that car will scoop your car up and deposit it somewhere, after some skittering. Having cars deslot along a straight line upon sudden accelleration can be really interesting too: Accellerating at the wrong place when leaving a banked curve may send the car travelling on the table parallel to the straightaway at high speed, perhaps knocking out an elevated section support... kewl! These aren't things that you set about to do (since the idea is to be fast and gracefully survive without damage), but they do happen and hopefully, the payoff is some level of entertainment (to offset the pain).
I usually try new acquisitions out in near-stock form before opening them up for the standard basic tweaking. Lately, I've noticed that most initially feel slightly sluggish. While the basic tweaking does help, after the magnet is removed, the cars seem to be noticibly more responsive, with quicker bursts of acceleration. This is logical since a motor has to overcome the magnetic attraction and the car's natural intertia in order to move the car. A magnetless car just feels more nimble. The downside is that it's also possible to have too much of this good thing, since quick accelleration can get you in trouble if you do it in the wrong places.
Since I've gone magnetless with most of my cars, I've noticed that there's another factor which plays very strongly behind the scenes: driving skill. Whether you're conscious of it or not, you do learn to drive better. You learn the braking points of cars so that you can take curves without deslotting. You learn where you can safely accellerate, and where it will do the most good. Your speed with magnetless cars gradually improves beyond what you thought was possible, and you may wonder whether you've forgotten to pull the magnets out of new acquisitions since they appear to handle so well.
Of course, driving skill may vary depending on your mood: I've had spells where cars seemed to repeatedly glide out of slots on curves. My first instinct was to check the guide and the track, and think about replacing the guide with a taller aftermarket part. However, I realized that it was mainly a case of driver error. Applying throttle abruptly in a curve will make the car lighter in the front, and likely to continue straight along the line of accelleration. When I'm better connected to the car's performance ("in the groove"-- nyuk, nyuk), this doesn't happen... and that's the way it should be. While you can look for solutions in equipment (perhaps a deeper guide would make this less likely to happen? Or I could slap a supermagnet in there...), it's perhaps more fun and gratifying to master what you're given.
If you decide to try out magnetless cars, know that they do require shoulders at the curves, and even along some sections of the straightaways following a curve. That's because magnetless cars fishtail when you push them hard, and they need the extra lane width to recover.
PACE CARS If there's one area where I think supermagnets are put to good use, it's in a pace car, a.k.a. ghost car, chase car, robocar. With a variable power supply, its speed can be adjusted to match or surpass any less magneted/magnetless cars, to provide plenty of challenges. Pace cars may not know about speeding up for banked curves and straightaways, but they don't make cornering mistakes and are relentless. I found my ultimate pace car in Slot.It's Sauber Mercedes Presentation car, replacing the stock magnet with Slot.It's stepped "racing" supermagnet. There's something about its dimensions, weight, motor, and center of gravity which lets it blast through sharp curves at a high speed without a hint of fishtailing. Even with stock magnets, some cars (Like Fly's Porsche 908) can provide a real challenge for human-driven magnetless cars, while others (Like Fly's Porsche 911 Evo 3 '98) just don't cut it, even with heavy magnets.
Initially, I had to use masking tape on its lane to interrupt power and slow the car down before some sharp curves. This made the lane pretty unusable for human-operated cars though. However, once I painted the track, the traction improved remarkably so I've been able to remove the tape. The additional traction has let me use other magneted, but less stuck-down cars as pace cars. They can provide a good challenge for most of the magnetless cars and can be raced against the Sauber Mercedes for some insanely high-speed action.
THE CHALLENGE Lastly, an observation... Real auto racing is an interesting sport, in part because of the risk. In some respects, it's gladitorial: Drivers risk everything in competition, while owners risk a valuable chunk of property. There is a monetary payoff of course, but while the race is underway, drivers aren't thinking about that: They're focused on staying alive and winning the race. While slot car racing doesn't incur that level of risk (unless you play by very, very strict rules), some degree of risk can heighten the challenge, and make the activity more meaningful. Everytime you slap a new slot car on the track, you have to accept that it may be damaged or scuffed in one way or another. If it's an expensive or rare car, or one that you really like, or one that's attractive and unblemished, the level of risk is increased. So why risk it? Risk is a vital element in the psychology of real racing. Risk involves fear, which influences behavior and decision-making. It tests you. If the risk is real and meaningful, fear of loss has to be tamed and managed, or it will cripple your performance. It forces you to take the matter seriously and pay attention.
On the other hand, it's a lot of fun to pop a Bud, stick an old junker on the track and burn rubber without worrying about anything.