Realism and Crash Impacts
An important part of slot car drivability is scale and/or historical realism in the way the cars drive. Can you make your 1950s Maserati GP car or your modern-day Ferrari F1 car handle, as much as any slot car can, somewhat like its 1:1 scale counterpart does? (And do you want to? More on this later.) Back in the days when cars raced on narrow, hard tires and the general understanding of aerodynamics consisted of “streamlining” to reduce drag all race cars cornered in what is known as a four-wheel drift with all four tires sliding and the car in a sideways attitude. That was the fast way around. Starting in the 1960s the development of ever wider, stickier tires and the discovery and exploitation of aerodynamic downforce vastly multiplied cornering grip. That meant that cars cornered less and less sideways. If you got sideways you were scrubbing off speed and losing time. Today, race cars from F1 to Indy cars to sports cars to NASCAR corner more or less on rails and if you get very far sideways you are on your way into the barriers or at least headed for some unintended grass mowing.
Slot cars produce their counterpart to 1:1 scale aero downforce principally in one of two ways. One, which predominates in commercial-track racing, is with towering spoilers and side airdams on a wedge-shaped body bearing only the most incidental resemblance to an actual car. The other, almost universal in scale-oriented home and club racing, uses traction magnets. This is because scale cars develop no aero downforce to speak of since the properties of air do not scale up and down with the cars.
Another main component of cornering grip, the mechanical grip produced by the rear tires, is enhanced in commercial-track racing by the use of sponge tires and traction “glue”. In home and club racing most people don’t want the mess of glue, even on wood tracks. Furthermore, the use of glue and the solvents commonly used to clean it off when the track gets too sticky damages plastic track (and plastic cars) over time. Thus, aftermarket tires of rubber or silicone compounds perform the function of augmenting tire grip. (The rubber versus silicone tire debate, by the way is, perhaps, as big an issue as magnets, and I’ll talk about that another time.)
So, what do most racers think of as realistic or period-correct handling in a slot car? The first thing to note is that there is really no such thing as realistic scale speeds in slot car racing. Even without magnets slot cars can, and mostly do, achieve much higher straightline and cornering speeds in scale than life-sized race cars. To get actual scale speeds you have to turn the power way down and/or use motors with considerably less power than virtually all slot cars come with. In addition, you have to dial back the handling to the point where, in my decades of experience with all kinds of slot car racing, most racers think the cars are too slow to be fun and don’t handle well enough to get out of their own way. Certainly there are hobbyists who do really want scale speeds or something close to them. This is particularly true of those who model cars from the 1950s and earlier or who put immense amounts of time and effort into building models with a lot of fragile detail they don’t want to risk any more than necessary. It’s also true, to some extent, of people whose concept of how slot cars should perform is rooted in fond memories of their slot racing experiences from the fad era of the 1960s and early 70s when slot cars of all kinds had nowhere near the performance of comparable cars today.
The key concept here is that some cars, to be period-correct in their handling, should corner tail-out while others should have tons of grip and corner on rails, but that isn’t always what the hobbyist wants. What I believe most people want in the way of slot car performance is:
- Cars fast enough to be perceived as fun and exciting to race. The key word here is “perceived”. Every racer looks at this through a filter of subjective preference.
- A means of creating a variety of performance levels and driving challenges in which the relative, not absolute, performance levels and characteristics of various types and eras of cars correspond roughly as their full-scale counterparts do. Slot car models of a 1939 Mercedes GP car, a 1965 Cobra, a tube-frame era TransAm car, a contemporary Indy car, and (yeccchhhh) a Formula E car should all run and drive relative to each other about as the “real” cars do (or are thought to do) and it’s not an issue, for most, if their absolute speeds are higher than scale (in the case of the FE cars alot)
- Cars that are easy, and for most, inexpensive, to tune to suit their preferences.
- And, perhaps most important, cars that are not too difficult to learn to drive successfully and competitively, especially at two stages, the very first experience with slot cars, and the beginning experiences with organized racing.
Magnets can and do contribute to providing all of these. Certainly they provide an easy way to make cars faster and better handling. Along with tires, as mentioned above, they make tuning cars of all types and eras to desired relative performance easy and inexpensive. And magnets, properly applied, make a huge difference in the success and satisfaction of beginners. That’s probably the most important thing they do, because, as illustrated by the story of the hobby shop owner selling race sets, they make a vital difference in whether the beginner has fun and becomes a lifelong hobbyist or finds frustration and quickly abandons the hobby. Finally, magnets, far from detracting from realistic performance in the relative if not the absolute sense, make it easy for any hobbyist to create in his cars his own perception of realism, whatever that may be.
My thoughts on realism touched briefly on the subject of crash impacts and the survivability of cars and their various detail parts. There is no disputing that cars with bodies, chassis, and other vital parts made of ABS or styrene plastic are less resistant to crash damage than cars with spring steel chassis and Lexan bodies. And it’s true that the use of magnets generally raises overall speeds and, therefore crash impacts. In a sense, for the past 20 years or so the makers of “plastic” slot cars have been working at cross purposes with themselves. They have significantly increased both the performance and the fine detail of their models. Around the turn of the century this reached a point where the cars morphed from toys for children into scale models and serious race cars for adults. The performance increase, which magnets had a big part in delivering, meant that as the cars were incorporating more delicate detail such as mirrors, antennas, and, most problematically, wings, the cars were increasingly able to crash hard enough to break them off. Some manufacturers, who shall go nameless here, have gone way past the point of common sense, making cars that have so much fragile detail they are way too delicate to be practical race cars.
On the other hand, Scalextric, and to a lesser extent Ninco, recognized the need for cars with more durability to go with the higher speeds and brought out what Scalextric calls “super-resistant” cars, two of which are pictured above. These are cars with the performance levels of their full-featured cars but with simpler, more crashworthy bodies and, in some cases, a lower price point as well. Their high survivability serves an important purpose in their primary role as race set cars and cars for beginners and children, allowing newbie racers to master enough driving skill to cope with the performance levels of modern magnet-equipped cars before moving on to more detailed and less rugged cars. One nice thing about these cars is that even though they have one-piece bodies with windows simply painted onto the body shell they are attractive cars that look good on the track and are reasonably realistic looking though often in a simplified, sometimes generic way. Their combination of crashworthiness, beginner-friendly performance, and appearance goes a long way toward giving entry-level racers a good start in the hobby. For this reason I think they are the best thing to happen to the slot car hobby in the past 20 years.
In addition, some manufacturers have begun making the more delicate and vulnerable detail parts out of more resilient and durable materials. I’ve also heard that at least one manufacturer is working on developing a production process that may allow entire bodies to be made with the durability and lightness of Lexan or other materials much more crashworthy than ABS or styrene, yet with the fine detail of present-day injection-molded bodies. We could be seeing some exciting new advances in the near future.
Your experiences and opinions may differ from mine. As always, I invite your comments, requests, questions, and suggestions at the bottom of this post or at email@example.com and I look forward to responding.
In Part 3 we’ll conclude by examining the way in which magnets contribute to controlling the cost of slot cars, and we’ll consider how magnetic downforce can best be regulated.
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