This story first appeared in print back in 2016, but now that the weather has turned cold, it's still relevant today.
Big Kid Fun In A Little Kid World
When the weather turns cold, most race cars get safely tucked away with their owners set upon the rebuilding process. That does little for your competitive juices though. Fortunately, some are turning to a diversion that’s been around for a long time: slot car drag racing.
Named obviously for the “slot” the cars follow as they transverse the track, who doesn’t remember the joy of opening Christmas presents to find that slot car set you so anxiously asked Santa for? While most were run on a round track; and who can ever forget how many times you had to retrieve your car after it flew off the track because you took a turn too fast; but somewhere along the line someone figured they could “straighten out” the track and hold drag races. A popular manufacturer of the day, Eldon, offered a drag strip.
“I seem to remember the one I had when I was a kid, the Eldon track, came with two dragsters,” says NHRA Division 3 Director Jay Hullinger. “It even had some sort of a swing arm that allowed the cars to do a wheelie and still stay connected to the slot and the power strip.”
Today, there are untold amounts of scale model drag strips in use all over the country. A number of them reside in hobby shops but you’ll even find some in the garages of racers who are just looking to do something during the colder times of the year.
“I purchased my own track several years ago just so that I could get a better handle on my own small cars,” says multi-time NHRA national champion Gary Stinnett. “It’s really an extension of the model car building we all did as kids. We all wanted to build Jungle Jim Funny Cars, Grumpy Jenkins Pro Stocks and the like. Today, most of the slot car drag cars are painted up to resemble either the owner’s real cars or even cars of friends.”
The entire “sport” is based on 1/24 scale models including the track. A quarter-mile track is actually just 55-feet long, but there are also races run on the eighth-mile (27-feet) and 1,000-foot (42-feet), depending on the size of the “garage.” Elapsed times vary with the type of car but when it’s said that a car ran a 6.70 or 5.60, what it really amounts to is a movement of the decimal point to actually a .670- or .560-seconds.
If you think this is just kid’s play, think again. Ask around and you’ll find that there are a lot of “real racers” (if we can call them that) who own several cars and run on a regular basis.
“I got hooked on this about ten years ago,” says Matt Dadas, “because it was fun and something to do in the off-season. I travel to a lot of the big slot car drag races and no matter where I go in the country, I’m bound to find sometimes three, four or more big car racers that I know.”
“We run my track on a Saturday night,” Stinnett said. “Guys start showing up around 5:00 with their ‘stacker trailers’, specialty boxes that hold as many as eight to ten cars. I charge $5 to race and you can enter up to four cars. We run time trials for a couple of hours and then place everyone’s entry into a hat and pull out names to build a ladder for the first round.
“Depending on how many entries we have, we come up with a purse to pay the winner, runner-up and some round money,” Stinnett added. “One class and it’s just bracket racing. You tell us your dial-in and we program it into the computer and Christmas tree just like real racing.”
In central Pennsylvania sits Rolling Green Park, a “facility” owned by Bob Dunkelberger, a “real racer” who just happened to come upon slot car drag racing by almost accident, found a track for sale and erected in his garage behind his house. “It’s all just for fun and something to do on Saturday nights in the winter.
“Most nights we just run a bracket class,” Dunkelberger added, “but we’ve also run an 8.90 [.890] and 9.90 [.990] class on a pro tree. We’ve also run a Comp Eliminator class, where each guy makes one qualifying run and we put them on a ladder where they dial-in .001 faster than their qualifying time. That becomes their index which they run on all night long.
“At our track we allow racers to enter up to eight cars each. We take whatever entry money we get and pay it all back,” he says. “We also allow buybacks but we limit that in some way so that we’re not racing until all hours of the night.”
Costs for these cars? Like anything, you spend a little… or a lot.
Cars range anywhere from $100 on up depending on paint options and such. However, one of the more important facets of the sport are the controllers.
“You can spend $10 on a controller on up to $400,” says Dunkelberger. “All the tracks run on voltage, which in my case is a 16v power pack.”
Controllers are also available with a “throttle stop” feature that can shut the car down for a specified period of time along with “delay boxes” just like the “big boys.”
“When you initially squeeze the trigger on the controller,” Dadas said, “the voltage takes a short while to get up to 16-volts. The use of controllers with a nine-volt battery allow the voltage to get up to 16-volts quicker and therefore makes the cars faster. Nitrous if you will.”
One of the tricks in the sport is knowing how to “glue” your tires to the track, enabling them to leave the starting line without spinning. Prior to running, racers will spend time cleaning the track with a solution and then perform several “burnouts” by just wheeling their car by hand to lay down the glue to their requirements.
“There is now a ‘soft-launch’ controller available which limits the power when you leave the line to avoid spinning,” says Dunkleburger. We’re guessing that’s not a $10 controller.
In essence it’s just bracket racing with consistency being the name of the game. “There is quite a bit to the set-up on the cars,” says Dadas, “and there are a lot of ideas which we can transfer over from big car racing. Moving weight, lowering the cars to improve the center of gravity and other things all lead to a car that’s ‘set-up’ properly. One that will repeat over and over again.”
How big is this “hobby?” Earlier this year, “big car racer” Stephen “Champ” McCrory held an event in Georgia where over 700 cars entered from all over the country.
In any event, it’s an activity that has been around for a long time and gives those looking keep their competitive juices flowing a place to race.