Slot Car Racing In the Not-So-Great Outdoors

Life is full of new experiences, like racing slot cars in an oven, a dust bowl, and a hurricane.  We got all three at our most recent public event. But we still had fun and so did a lot of other people.

We took our new 4-lane event track to the Washington State Scouting Jamboree August 26 and 27 at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, just south of Tacoma, Washington.  It was our first outdoor event with our track. The Boy Scouts and the Girl Scouts hold this event every four years and it brings together several thousand Scouts and their families for two days of fun, challenge and adventure.  We were one of the adventures.  Some of the others were hatchet throwing, zombie survival training, climbing walls,  model rocketry, and various kinds of obstacle courses, just to name a few.

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When we arrived to set up the day before the event we found that the site was a big, open, treeless area usually used for infantry training.  It was over 90 degrees in the shade, but we had to make our own shade.  We had just bought a 23×16-foot tent to shelter the track, the racers, and us from the sun.  Guzzling bottled water constantly as we worked, we began setting up.  One of the first things we discovered was that if the army ever needs to supplement its budget it could turn the site into a gravel mine.  Wherever we tried to drive a stake to anchor the tent we’d hit a rock about an inch below the surface.  If we happened to hit a space between two rocks we would hit another one two inches below the surface…you get the picture.

We did finally get the tent set up and went to work assembling the Scalextric Sport 4-lane track.  We had also bought four 8-foot tables that fold in the middle, making them a convenient size to carry in our van.  Another new addition was a set of bright red table covers with our company name in white on each one.  The tables and covers made an attractive platform to set up the track layout on – after we shimmed most of the table legs to make the tables sit level on the rough ground.  A pair of fans kept the air moving through the tent.

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On the first day of the event we had Scouts lining up to race before the start of the day’s activities and from then on our tent was constantly mobbed with kids.  Most of them had never seen anything like our track and didn’t even know that slot car racing existed.  A lot of parents and adult leaders went through the line and raced, too.  Many of them mentioned that they had slot cars (in most cases HO scale) when they were kids but hadn’t seen or heard of slot cars since.

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It’s commonly thought that kids these days don’t care about any kind of game that doesn’t involve pixels on a screen, but I was amazed at how many of them told me how cool slot cars are and that they just had to get a track and cars of their own.  I gave out a lot of literature to parents who were being lobbied by their kids for a race set as a birthday or Christmas gift.  Of course, Scouting by its very nature attracts people who value hands-on, real world experiences, as opposed to purely electronic ones.  I think that makes Scout events a good place to promote the hobby. Another thing I think makes  Scouting fertile ground for slot car racing is that almost every Cub Scout pack in the country runs pinewood derby races.  The step up from pinewood to slot cars is a logical one, since both involve miniature race cars on a miniature track.

That evening, expecting another scorching day, we packed up our biggest ice chest with bottled water, leaving lots of room for ice to go in the next morning.  But the day dawned cloudy and windy.  A weather front had moved in overnight.  On the freeway our van kept getting blown sideways by gusts of wind.  Not a good sign.

Sure enough, we found our tent barely clinging to the earth and that only because someone had come by in the night and augmented the tent’s rather anemic stakes with some bigger ones made from bent rebar.  Gusts of wind threatened to pull it loose completely and send it on a flight across the open field into a wooded area marked “DO NOT ENTER!  UNEXPLODED ORDNANCE!   But even the rebar stakes wouldn’t go more than a few inches into the gravel, and it was only with the help of several Scouts who stood and held the tent poles while we tried to restake them that we finally got things more or less under control.

Then we found out what racing slot cars in a dust bowl was like.  At first we stopped every half-hour to wipe the wind-blown dust off the track.  But then we noticed that even as the wind did its worst to turn the track surface into an offroad racing course the cars still seemed to run okay and grip the track.  So, we just kept on running races so as many people as possible had a chance to participate.  Despite the windy, grimy conditions the line never got any shorter and everybody was having a good time.

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Then, in the early afternoon, the wind kicked up again big time and we just couldn’t keep the tent attached to the ground.  We  finally pulled out all the stakes, moved the tent out from over the track, took it down, and kept on running races.  Then the dust really got bad. Finally the track got so filthy that it started to affect electrical continuity between sections and we gave up and called it a weekend.  No, it wasn’t really a hurricane, but in 1/32 scale it certainly was.

Two things stand out from all this.  One is that today’s slot cars will continue to function under amazingly adverse conditions.  As I’m writing this I still haven’t had time to take the cars apart and clean them.  I have no doubt that when I do they’ll be by far the dirtiest slot cars I’ve ever seen, yet they kept on running and gripping the track under conditions far more foul than I would ever have imagined they could.

The other is that America is full of people who don’t know slot car racing exists, but when they discover it they fall in love with it.  Slot cars seem to be the best-kept secret in the world of hobbies.  I’ve known this for a long time, but what I saw and heard at the Scout Jamboree is more confirmation that I’m right.  It’s an unfortunate truth that the slot car industry as a whole is not doing nearly what’s needed to grow the hobby to where it should be in a country with America’s population and economy.  That’s despite what some individual companies may be doing in the way of promotion. I’ll get into that more deeply in a coming blog post, but the untapped potential is enormous.

Meanwhile, through everything that happened we still had a successful event and a lot of Scouts had a lot of fun racing slot cars at the Jamboree.

Bob

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