Information and Advice For First-time Race Set Buyers

by Bob Ward

In this article we will show you the essentials of what slot cars and slot car race sets are, how they work, and what to expect when you or your child start out in the slot car hobby.

Thank you for choosing Victory Lap Hobbies as a place to shop for your first slot car race set. We want every new participant in the slot car hobby to have a fun, successful first experience with it. This is especially true for children, who need a careful introduction to slot car racing and some mentoring along the way to get the full measure of fun with the fewest problems. Adult beginners also can benefit from some advance information about what to expect.

If you aren’t familiar with slot cars from personal experience you may not know exactly what slot cars and race sets are. They are not the same as Hot Wheels or other forms of toy car racing you or your children may have played with, and we want you to know how slot cars are different and what it takes to get the most fun and satisfaction from them.

slotcarsx3-800.jpg

A slot car is a miniature car powered by an electric motor. The slot cars we sell at VLH are 1/32 scale (4 to 6 inches long) or 1/43 scale (3 to 4 inches long). The slot car’s motor drives the rear wheels or, in some cases, all four wheels. Every slot car has a pin or blade-shaped guide that extends below the bottom of the car near the front. The guide follows a slot in the track surface, steering the car around the track, hence the name slot car racing. To the left and right of the slot there is a metal strip that conducts electrical current from a power pack that plugs into a wall outlet. The power pack steps down voltage from 110 to 12-16 and converts it from alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC). This makes the voltage and amperage completely safe for all users, including children.  Pieces of flat braided steel or copper wire on either side of the car’s guide pick up the current from the track’s metal strips to power the car’s motor and propel it around the track. The driver uses a hand-held controller with a trigger to vary the car’s speed.   Slot cars are powered and controlled by the same electrical principles as model trains, with which you may have experience.

chassisx2.jpg

A slot car race set consists of assembled and ready-to-run (RTR) cars, a power supply, controllers, and a number of straight and curved plastic track sections that snap together to form a racing course. Most sets also include some accessories such as guard rails, overpass supports, and even, in some higher-end sets, a lap counter. All present-day race sets come with instructions for setup, operation, and maintenance that most people find easy to follow. All the components snap or plug together, with no tools required. With the exception of a few race sets that come without cars for people who want to choose and purchase their cars separately, your race set will have everything you need to begin racing, right there in the box.

race-set-800.jpg

Many kinds of car racing toys use an external device, like powered rollers, to propel an unpowered car around a track. That’s how Hot Wheels tracks work.   Another common form of toy racing uses cars driven by internal batteries powering an electric motor. Neither requires any control inputs by by the user. You just put the car on the track and around the racing course it goes at its top speed, held onto the track by walls at the edges.

Unlike these toys, slot cars will come off the track if driven too fast around a curve.   Your child has to drive his car by using the controller to vary its speed, slowing down on the curves. The basic premise of slot car racing, the thing that makes it fun, is that you can’t just watch the car blast around the course flat-out. The winner is the driver who can drive his or her car closest to its limits at every point on the track without exceeding them and making the car spin out, roll over, or plow straight off. If your child stays with the hobby very long he will discover the added element of modifying the cars to make them faster, but to start with the object will be to drive the cars as fast as possible just as they are.

The essential point is that the racer does have to drive his car and that requires a learning curve. Children and even adults just starting out often can’t keep the car on the track for very long without driving it out of the slot. This can be frustrating, especially for children who have never encountered anything like this before. Sometimes it leads to tears or even tantrums and may make the parent think that slot cars are no fun or that the cars and track just don’t work. That can be upsetting to a parent or even to an adult beginner who may conclude that the race set was not a good purchase. However, if the beginner sticks with it he or she usually figures it out with experience and soon is making lap after successful lap and having a lot of fun.

Most children age 6 or over have the coordination, attention span, and general level of awareness they need to acquire the necessary skills in a reasonable length of time. I’ve seen kids as young as 4 who can handle it and some older children who just don’t quite get it yet. If your child gets frustrated and clearly isn’t getting the hang of it, all it usually takes to retrieve the situation is a relatively brief break from the slot cars followed by some gentle coaching. Worst case, you may need to put the race set away for a while until the child develops a bit more maturity.

I might add that I’ve seen children and adults with some degree of developmental challenge who have picked up the skill of driving a slot car quite readily and have become good at it. I’ve also seen that it’s a competitive enterprise that can work well for individuals with some kinds and degrees of physical limitations. If a member of your family has issues of these kinds and you think he or she would benefit from and enjoy racing slot cars it may well be worth considering.

You should be aware that for children (and even some adults) crashing is often the greater part of the fun at first. If your child is crashing every lap and grinning, that’s all right as long as you have equipped your track with cars made to stand up to it. VLH has lots of crashworthy cars and sets that come with them to choose from. After a while, the beginner usually gets over the crashing phase and then moves on to racing and winning.

More than anything else your child needs an appropriate degree of adult supervision until you are satisfied that he or she has is able to play with the race set properly and has enough driving skill to enjoy it. The best way to supervise is to race with your children. You will have as much fun as they do, and the time spent together is beyond price.

Because slot cars and race sets are mass-produced products they will experience the occasional random component failure. If this is going to happen it’s almost always soon after you start using the race set. Victory Lap Hobbies provides expert technical support that will resolve any problems and get you and your family back to racing as quickly as possible. The VLH team can also help you with any problems you may have in setting up and using your race set. Tech help is just a phone call or e-mail away.

Slot cars and race sets, unlike most of your child’s toys, will need some routine maintenance to keep working properly. The track and the cars need to be kept clean. The cars’ axle and motor bushings need to be oiled (though very sparingly and not often). The pickup braids on the cars need regular cleaning, adjustment and eventual replacement. This is all easy to do and VLH has all the needed parts and supplies. You can help your child learn responsibility by teaching him or her to maintain a race set.

Most race sets do not have to be set up exactly the way they are shown on the box or on our web site. You can put the track sections together in different combinations to build a layout that fits the space you have to work with, and you don’t necessarily have to use all the track sections. You can change the layout as often as you or your child wants to create new driving challenges, to make the layout larger or smaller and change the degree of difficulty, or to make it into a model of your favorite full-sized race track. The larger the set and the more track sections it includes the more layout options you will have.   You can buy additional track sections to expand the layout to any size and design you can imagine. Also, there are many different cars from a number of different manufacturers you can buy to run on it.

One thing that makes today’s slot car sets and track systems really user-friendly is that a slot car layout made up of snap-together plastic track sections does not have to be set up permanently. With a little practice even grade school-age children can assemble and disassemble most plastic track layouts quickly and easily with no problems. Most track systems are designed and manufactured to be used this way and will stand up to repeated assembly and disassembly even by children who may not always handle the components with the greatest of care. This means that the kids can change the layout as often as they like, adding to fun and long-term interest. If space is at a premium you can snap and plug everything together on the living room or bedroom floor, race for a day or evening, and then quickly disassemble and stow everything away until next time. The race set box serves as a storage case, and even larger layouts built from multiple sets plus added track sections do not require a great deal of storage space.

A carpeted floor (as opposed to a table) is actually the best place to set up the track when your kids are learning to drive and going through the crashing stage because it gives errant cars a soft landing and no dive to a hard floor. A bed sheet laid over the carpet before assembling the track keeps carpet fibers, cookie crumbs, pet hair, and similar common household debris out of the cars. Later on, if you and your family have the desire and the available space you can build a permanent detailed layout on a table or benchwork like a model train layout.

layout1-800.jpg

If you have spent much time researching various slot car web sites you may have seen articles and forum posts that don’t speak well of racing slot cars on plastic sectional track using traction magnets (rare-earth magnets placed on the bottom of the car) to increase cornering grip. These articles and posts express the view that racing without magnets on a wood track you build yourself is the only way to go and better than any other kind of slot car racing. They have their arguments but the truth is that only 2 to 5 percent of all the slot car racers in the world race this way. This 2 to 5 percent, however, tend to dominate the popular slot car forums and they can easily give people the very mistaken idea that sooner or later they will have to go to the effort and expense of building a wood track. This is a project most people lack the time, skill, equipment, or motivation to tackle. It’s a form of slot racing you may want to try someday, but the vital thing to know is that the 95 to 98 percent who race on plastic tracks, with or without magnets as they may prefer, are having lots of fun. You can be confident that the race set you buy to start out with will serve you well for many years to come and provide you with a great deal of racing enjoyment.

Another mistaken impression you can easily get from the Internet is that mass-produced slot cars in general are nothing more than toys and that to make them really raceworthy you need to spend serious money, often more than the car’s original price, replacing many of its components with expensive aftermarket parts. I won’t go into a lot of detail on this other than to say that this is also very much a minority view within the slot car hobby. VLH carries a wide selection of aftermarket parts and if you really need them for the type and level of racing you are competing in they are well worth their prices, but the beginning slot car racer should understand that most hobbyists can achieve all the performance they are ever likely to need with no more than minimal car modifications, usually just magnets and tires. This is because unless you are going to race in high-level organized events your goal will be not to make every one of your cars as fast as you can but to make all of them as equal as possible with a performance level and driving characteristics that satisfy you. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on upgrades to do this. And even if you do get into anything-goes competition you probably will modify only one or a few of your cars to the required level, not all or even most of them. So, you can be assured that you can keep costs well in hand.

Slot cars and tracks can become a lifelong constructive hobby that grows and changes along with the hobbyist. A fun and successful first experience can lead to many years of enjoyment and satisfaction. We at VLH want to make that possible for all our customers.

If you have questions, as most first-time purchasers do, you can e-mail us at customersupport@victorylaphobbies.com or call us at 253-604-4351. We’ll be glad to give you all the information and advice you need. And if you already have a race set and just need help sorting out problems with it or deciding where you want to go with the hobby we can help you with that, too. Good racing and have fun!

Copyright ©2014 Robert M. Ward. All rights reserved.

Pickup Braid Basics

by Bob Ward

 Good electrical contact with the track is vital to the performance of any slot car.  In this article you will learn how to make sure your cars’ pickup braid makes and maintains the best possible contact.

A common beginner’s question is, “How and when do I change the braid on my new race set cars?” New slot car hobbyists also ask if the braid and lead wires are glued into the guide. Also, because the guide, braid, and lead wires are often sold as a unit in some manufacturers’ spare parts selections some newcomers initially assume they have to be replaced that way. We’re pleased to assure everyone that the braid can be replaced quickly and easily on all the cars we sell and that in virtually all cases it’s a toolless process.

standardguide-1.jpg

Ninco, Fly, Slot It, NSR, and many other makers of 1:32 scale plastic-chassis RTR cars use the guide design shown above. The braids are inserted in vertical slots and small ferrule-type connectors on the ends of the lead wires press-fit into adjacent holes.   When the ferrule is pressed into its hole it jams the braid against the inside of the guide, firmly holding both lead wire and braid in place in the guide.

standardguide2.jpg

To replace the braid, first pull the guide down out of its socket so it hangs by the lead wires. Be careful not to pull the lead wires out.   Then, pull one lead wire and ferrule out of the top of the guide and pull the braid downward through the bottom of the guide. Slide the new braid downward through the top of the guide until about 1/16” of it remains above the top of the guide. Bend that 1/16”of braid back over the top of the guide and press the lead wire, with its ferrule connector, back into the top of the guide. Bend the braid back along the bottom of the guide and adjust it for proper contact with the track. It should be bent down far enough to make solid, positive contact but should not exert enough pressure to lift the front end of the car.  Repeat the procedure on the other side, snap the guide post back into its socket, and you’re back to racing. You should have only one lead wire disconnected at any time. This assures that you will always get each lead wire plugged into the same side of the guide and your car will always run in the same direction.

Older Scalextric cars and SCX cars use a “wireless” electrical system, in which no wires go into the guide. Instead, each of the two extra-long braids wraps around the top of the guide and metal shoes on the bottom of the chassis make contact with them.   Both Scalextric and SCX sell packages of guides already made up with braid on them. To change braid, just snap the guide down out of its socket in the chassis and snap a new one, with new braid, back in. This is about as user-friendly as you can get.  The Scalextric and SCX braid setup are shown below.

sca-scxbraid.jpg

You can modify your Scalextric cars’ braid to the SCX configuration for improved electrical contact.  Get a 1m length of copper braid. VLH carries several brands to choose from. Cut off two 1.25” (32mm) lengths of braid  Remove the steel braid from your Scalextric guide by sliding it out sideways. Then, just wrap the new braid over the guide and bend it as shown below and you have better braid with both ends touching the track for increased contact area and better conductivity.

More recent Scalextric cars use the “braid plate” guide design, in which the main portion of the guide remains in place on the car and a plastic disc holding both braids snaps into place. The procedure for changing braid on these cars is shown below. You just slide the braid plate forward, lift up the front edge of it, slide it back over the guide blade, and it’s off. Installing the new braid plate, with new braid on it, simply reverses the procedure.

braidplatechange-800.jpg

Over time the guide can wear where the braid plate slides in and out until the plate is no longer a tight fit in the guide. Then the braid plate will come loose and fall out in a crash. At that point the guide needs to be replaced.

Pioneer Models equips its cars with its own unique guide design. The guide has an extra-long post. This allows it to be pulled down below the chassis for braid changes without detaching it from the car.

pioguide1-800.jpg

The braid comes with a brass clip on the end that presses into the front of the guide in the same manner as the braid used in the venerable Jet Guide that has been universal in 1/24 scale commercial track racing for decades.

pioguide2-800.jpg

Changing braid is simply a matter of pulling the old braid out of the front of the guide and pressing the new ones in. Then push the guide back up into the running position and you’re ready to race. You never need to remove the lead wires from the guide while changing braid.

In addition to keeping fresh braid on your cars you also need to be sure the braid is kept clean and adjusted properly for positive contact with the track and proper alignment with the track’s contact strips. Slot car braid is made from flat braided wire, either steel or copper, which has a certain amount of “spring” to it. The spring action allows the braid to maintain positive contact with the metal strips in the track as the car moves. The object in adjusting the braid is to bend the braid downward from the bottom of the guide just enough to give it positive contact without putting so much tension on it that it tends to lever the front of the car upward, lifting the guide partially out of the slot and degrading the car’s handling.

carrerabraid1.jpg

In the drawing above, #1 shows the correct way to bend the braid, down just far enough to make good contact. #2 shows the braid bend down too far, and #3 shows the braid flat against the bottom of the guide, where it may not contact the track at all. To get just the right braid adjustment on any individual car may require a little trial and error, but with experience you will learn to get just the right tension on the braid quickly and easily every time. The same principle applies to braid on all types and makes of slot car whether they have single or double braids. With use, braid eventually loses its spring and will no longer maintain positive contact. When this happens you will need to replace it. braidadjust1a.jpg

In addition to being adjusted up and down for correct tension the braid also must have the proper alignment. #1 above shows proper side-to-side alignment of the braid. The braid is directly over the track strips and makes contact with their full width. #2 shows the braid splayed outward and not making good contact with the track strips.  It’s also important that the braid not be allowed to develop a twist that leaves it with only the inner or outer edge contacting the track strips. #3 shows the braid making even contact with the track strips across its entire width for maximum power and performance as well as consistent contact. #4 shows the braid twisted so that either the inner or outer edge is making contact with the track.

Along with proper adjustment you will need to keep the braid clean. As your cars run the braid accumulates dust, dirt, and other foreign substances from the track. To clean it you can use WD 40 or any of the common braid cleaning products. Be sure to check your braid for proper adjustment after each cleaning.

 If you have questions or comments about this article we invite you to e-mail e-mail them to bob@victorylaphobbies.com or call at (insert phone number here). We’ll be glad to give you all the information and advice you need.

 

Copyright ©2014 Robert M. Ward. All rights reserved.

There’s Oil In Them Thar Bushings – Lubricating Your Slot Cars

by Bob Ward

Your slot cars need lubrication in the right places to run properly.  Here are the basic facts you need to know.

Slot cars are like any other mechanical device; they need lubrication to run smoothly and quietly, avoid excessive wear, and delver maximum performance. If you ask ten slot car hobbyists what the best oil for slot cars is you will get at least eleven answers.   The truth is, however, that unless you are going to race at the highest levels of competition almost any lightweight plastic-compatible oil will work. So, before you buy the latest hot trick slot car lube (even from us here at VLH) look around the house to see if you already have something that will serve the purpose. Most people do, usually from another hobby like model trains or just for household use. Then, if you still need to buy oil check our selection under the Tools and Supplies category.

lubepoints-600.jpg

The photo above of a typical slot car chassis shows the places where your slot cars need to be oiled. These include the rear axle bushings, the front axle bushings (or, in many cases, just holes in the chassis for the front axle), and the motor shaft bushings. If your car has the motor up front and a drive shaft going back to the rear axle there will be a bushing just forward of the pinion gear that also needs lubrication. The plastic gears that come on most ready-to-run (RTR) slot cars do not really need lube even though some of the manufacturers apply a lightweight grease to them at the factory.

You don’t need more than a tiny drop of oil at any of the lubrication points. Excess oil will just gunk up the inside of the car or drip on the track. Too much oil also causes dirt, fibers, hair, and other tiny environmental debris to stick to moving parts. This is especially important when oiling the motor shaft bushings. If too much oil gets inside the motor it can reduce performance or even cause the motor to stop running. The two key words to remember about oiling your slot cars are sparingly and infrequently. Hobbyists are much more likely to over-oil their cars than to under-oil them.

cleaning-brush.jpg

Over time, some oil and dirt will accumulate inside your cars and it’s a good idea to clean it off regularly. I’ve found that the best tool for doing this is a small natural bristle trim paint brush. You can find them at any home improvement store for less than $1 each. You just brush the inside of the body and chassis and the bristles soak up fluids while sweeping up solids. They get into all the nooks and crannies better than any rag or cotton swab. In a few moments you can have your car’s insides looking as clean as new. When your brush has soaked up too much oil just discard it and use a new one.

Volts, Amps, and Ohms

A brief introduction to basic electrical concepts

 By Bob Ward

You may be one of the many new hobbyists getting involved in slot car racing who haven’t yet acquired an understanding of the basic electrical principles that determine how a slot car runs and responds to control inputs. So… here’s a little primer that should help with common questions.

The race set’s power system plugs into a wall outlet and takes in 110 to 120 volt alternating current (AC). It delivers to the contact rails on the track 12 to 18 volts (depending on the system) direct current (DC) on which the cars’ motors run. In most track power systems this conversion takes place entirely in the wall-mount power pack. On Scalextric’s, however, the “wallwart” contains only the transformer, which lowers the voltage, while the rectifier, which turns AC to DC, is in the terminal track section, most commonly called a connection straight or power base track.

Electric current is measured in both voltage and amperage. Voltage is sometimes compared to the pressure in a water main, while amperage is analogous to the volume of water passing through the pipe.

The more voltage you feed to a motor the faster its armature will turn until the motor overheats or the centrifugal force of the armature’s rotation exceeds its structural capabilities and some part of it flies off. Either way critical parts of the motor self-destruct. When that happens with the motors commonly used in home set slot cars, it’s time for a whole new motor.   Running a 12-volt motor at 14 or even 16 volts probably won’t shorten its life too much. Bumping the power to 24 volts will let the smoke out in rapid order.

Amperage affects performance differently. A motor will only draw as much amperage as it can use. If the power supply is not delivering enough amperage supplying more will increase motor performance but only until the motor’s needs are satisfied. After that, all the amperage in Grand Coulee Dam won’t make the motor run faster. It won’t harm it, either, but it will increase the probability of catastrophic damage to track and controller wiring in the event of a short circuit.

To drive a slot car you have to vary its speed using a hand-held controller. There are two kinds of controllers in common use, resistance controllers and solid-state electronic controllers. Race sets come with resistance controllers because they are less expensive to produce than electronic ones and keeping down the overall cost of the race set is essential

resistor.jpg

A resistance controller varies the cars speed by introducing resistance, measured in ohms, into the circuit. The controller acts like a valve in a water main, preventing a greater or lesser portion of the available current from reaching the car’s motor and thereby changing the car’s speed.   When the controller trigger is in the off position the circuit is broken completely and no current is flowing. When the trigger is pulled back just a little, the resistor holds back most of the current, converting it to heat, and the car moves slowly. As the trigger is pulled back, more of the current passes through and the car goes faster.     Finally, the wiper button on the trigger makes contact with the full power band on the resistor and all the power reaches the car’s motor, just as if it were hard-wired to the power supply.

The biggest single factor determining whether the driver’s experience will be fun or frustration is his ability to control the car effectively. To do that, the controller’s resistance must match the requirements of the car. If the resistance is too low the car will take off at high speed and reach full throttle before the controller trigger is pulled all the way back. If the resistance is too high the driver may have to pull the trigger as much as halfway back before the car even begins to move. In either case he will have only a portion of the trigger’s travel over which to vary the car’s speed and it will be much harder for him to drive the car competitively.   When controller and car are properly matched the car begins to move slowly as soon as the trigger is pulled even slightly. It continues to accelerate until it reaches top speed just as the wiper button reaches the full power band.

Most 1:32 scale race sets available today come with controllers that have too much resistance for the cars, typically around 60 to 70 ohms. Non-magnet cars do fine with such controllers, but virtually all race set cars now come with traction magnets and the magnet-equipped cars are happier with 45-ohm controllers. Modified cars with strong magnets and/or more powerful motors would be better off with 30-ohm controllers and more power pack amperage as well. Parma controllers, available pre-wired with plugs for the various manufacturers’ terminal tracks, are a popular and reasonably economical upgrade for many race set owners. In choosing resistance controllers there’s a big subjective factor at work. One driver may be most comfortable driving a particular car with a 60-ohm controller while another may prefer 40 ohms with the same car.   A controller can be adapted for different types of cars by changing the resistor to one of a different ohm rating.

A solid state electronic controller bypasses these issues because it uses electronic circuitry instead of a resistor to control the car’s speed. This means that one controller of this type can properly control cars with a much wider range of driving characteristics and also accommodate a wider range of driver preferences. This allows one set of electronic controllers on your track to work well with an assortment of cars that might require two or three sets of resistance controllers. Electronic controllers are also available with plugs for all the common track systems. Higher-end electronic controllers also offer adjustments such as variable braking and variable sensitivity that further increase their versatility.

circuitry.jpg

Most race set power packs don’t really deliver enough amperage to completely supply the needs of two cars. With the set’s own cars and others with similar current requirements this isn’t too much of a problem, but when the racer starts buying strong-magnet cars or puts powerful aftermarket magnets or motors on his race set cars, he finds his cars starved for amperage. Neither car achieves full performance when both are running and when one stops or deslots the other gets a blast of power that often sends it off the track.   A power system upgrade that feeds each lane separately with its own power supply will meet the requirements of virtually any kind of car a hobbyist is likely to run on his plastic home track and ensures that nothing one car does can affect the amount of current received by the others. This can sometimes be done using the manufacturers’ standard power packs.   Scalextric, unfortunately, has stopped making its C8217 and C8241 power bases that offer the option of powering the lanes separately but they can still be found on the Internet if you look for them.

The other alternative for providing adequate amperage is to buy an aftermarket power supply and adapt it for use on your track by grafting the appropriate plug onto the power supply-to-track wiring.

Power issues can be some of the most confusing ones confronting newcomers to the hobby, and determining the best combination of components for your specific needs may require some expert help, at least until you acquire some experience. We’ll be glad to help with advice and information. You can call us toll-free at (insert phone # here) or e-mail us at (insert address here).

Copyright © 2014 Robert M. Ward. All rights reserved.

Aftermarket Tires for Slot Cars

This article provides essential knowledge about tires for your slot cars.  This isn’t everything you will ever need to know but it will enable you to avoid being confused by the misinformation about tires that abounds and will help you make the best tire choices for your needs.

Most home slot car racers want to do one of two things with their 1/32, 1/43, or 1/24 scale cars. Either they want to make each one go as fast as it possibly can or they want all their cars to have the same level of performance so they can be raced with each other. Either way, installing a set of aftermarket rear tires is one of the best things they can do. Only a more powerful traction magnet gives a bigger performance boost for less time and effort.

Aftermarket slot car tires are those tires made by manufacturers other than the car makers themselves. As with life-sized cars the wide range of aftermarket tires is intended to provide increased performance over the original equipment (OEM) tires that come on the cars and, in some cases, to provide tires in different diameters to fit both OEM and aftermarket wheels so they can be used with a wider range of cars requiring different tire diameters. A choice of tire diameters also makes it easier to adjust the height of a car’s traction magnet above the track to achieve desired downforce figures. Some aftermarket tire product lines also include tires for vintage slot cars made as far back as the early 60s. Since spare parts for these cars, including tires, went out of production long ago the aftermarket tire industry is vital to hobbyists who want to keep these old cars running and even improve their performance.

There are two kinds of aftermarket tires, those made from silicone compounds and those made from any of a variety of high-traction rubber compounds. The two most prominent rubber categories are neoprene and urethane. The major functional difference between silicone and rubber tires is in the way they develop grip. Silicone tires do this by cleaning the track and rubber tires by “rubbering up” the track, that is, by depositing a layer of rubber on the track surface.      It’s not hard to see that the two kinds of tires work at cross purposes, the rubber tires constantly laying down more rubber while the silicones constantly clean it off. Contrary to what many people still believe, silicones DO NOT leave some kind of deposit on the track that causes rubber tires to lose grip. They simply reverse the rubbering-up process on which the rubber tires depend for their effectiveness. In most, though not all cases this difference in the way the tires work eventually leads to one kind of tire or the other becoming the only kind in use. This may occur naturally, with one or the other gaining a preponderance of users and the rest having to fall into line to be competitive. In many cases it occurs by decree, with the rules makers mandating the use of one or the other.

Popular lines of silicone tires include Indy Grips and Maxxtrac, manufactured by Professor Motor, Quick Slicks, and some tires produced by Slot It. Rubber tire product lines include Paul Gage Tires and Slot It’s rubber tires. Slot It’s tires fit many other wheels besides their own, though it is often a matter of test-fitting to see if they fit particular OEM plastic wheels.

Most aftermarket tires fit the cars’ original equipment wheels in exactly the same way as the original tires. Silicone tires used to be tricky to install and remove, which involves stretching the tire over the wheel’s center rib that holds the tire in place. This was because they were prone to tearing due to the stresses involved. The introduction of more robust silicone compounds has largely eliminated tearing problems, not only during installation but also due to racing impacts. If you have heard about such problems in the past you no longer need to be concerned about them. Still, some tires are quite a tight fit on some wheels. Slipping them on and getting the properly seated is easier if you put soapy water on the wheel. If you don’t have soapy water available your own saliva will usually serve the purpose. Keep this in mind particularly when a project calls for installing a pair of tires on wheels that are a little too big for them.

As mentioned above, silicones work best on a clean track. If you put a car with silicones on a dirty or rubbered-up track the tires will immediately begin to try to clean off the dirt and/or rubber. You will be cleaning them every lap or two until they clean off the racing line all the way around the course. You will repeat the process on every lane of the track you run on. If you are running on a track where everybody else is using rubber tires you will never get the track surface clean enough for your silicones to work, and you may as well switch to whatever tires everybody else is using. In the same way, your rubber tires will never lay down enough rubber to develop good grip on a track where everybody is using silicones; they will clean it up faster than you can lay it down.

It has always appeared to me, though I have no data to back it up, that if the number of racers using silicones and rubber tires is somewhere near equal the silicones are more than likely to prevail eventually. I believe that what happens is that the silicones clean the track faster than the rubber tires lay rubber down. But until that happens nobody will have optimum traction and the grip on any given lane may vary drastically depending on what kind of tires the driver who preceded you on the lane was using. For this reason almost every organized race program sooner or later ends up with some kind of specified (commonly referred to as “spec”) tire rule under which only one kind of tire or only one brand of one kind of tire is allowed. A rule like this takes tire choice partially or entirely out of the performance equation. This reduces cost and complexity, as drivers do not have to spend money, time, and effort experimenting with every different tire type and compound on the market. Perhaps more important, it creates more consistent track conditions which leads to closer and more competitive racing. You won’t see a situation where one driver smokes the field just because he happened to guess right about or tested for hours to determine what tire to use that day. If you want the maximum participation in your program or in any particular class within it you want to keep things as simple as possible. The best racing classes are the ones where there are clear limits on what you can do to the cars and the people running the program make sure everybody knows how to do all the allowable modifications. A spec tire rule is a big part of bringing this about.

It’s worth noting that the silicone/rubber issue is not absolute. I ran a low-key racing program on my Scalextric Sport track for a while. There were three classes. One was for box-stock cars with OEM rubber tires and the other two had a silicone spec tire rule. We always started each race night with a scrupulously clean track. The OEM rubber tires worked well enough and no one ever noticed that they had any negative effect on the performance of the silicone tires. Of course, this was magnet racing in which tire grip was less critical than in non-magnet racing, and because we always started with a clean track there was scant opportunity for any rubbering-up to occur.

This points to another issue, consistency of track conditions. The ONLY way to have truly consistent track conditions is to keep the track completely clean from both dust and laid-down rubber. If anything is allowed to accumulate over time on the track surface it introduces changes in grip level that cannot be completely predicted or controlled. This does not mean that you can’t use rubber tires and let the rubber build up over time. In most cases the change from one race day to the next will be gradual enough that regular competitors will be able to deal with it. It does mean, however, that an infrequent competitor may encounter significant changes since his last race, especially if there has been a change in the types and compounds of tires being used, and newcomers will go through a longer process of discovering the winning combination. It also means that over periods of months or years lap times can’t really be compared accurately because there is no way of quantifying changes in track conditions.

In my case maximum consistency of track conditions is exceptionally vital because my track is used far more for testing and development work than for actual racing, but in any racing situation consistent grip conditions do make it easier and less expensive for the greatest number of participants to become and remain competitive.

If your track hasn’t been used for a while it will have a film of dust on it. Clean the surface by wiping it down with a soft, damp cloth before running your cars. The damp cloth also works on your tires. Rolling the tires over the sticky side of a piece of masking tape is another good way to clean them. If you are using rubber tires that have been sitting on the car for some time without being used you may find that sanding the tread surface makes a significant difference in grip even if the tires are already true and concentric. This is because over time chemicals evaporate from the rubber on the surface of the tire leaving a thin layer of “dead” rubber that does not grip the track. A light sanding gets rid of this layer and leaves a fresh tread surface with full grip. This is true of both stock and aftermarket tires.

Equalizing the performance of two or more cars is often as simple as installing higher-grip aftermarket tires on the slower car to give it more traction. If that doesn’t do the trick you can also install stronger or milder magnets or just adjust magnet heights in the cars you are trying to equalize. You may be able to equalize two cars while making them both faster by putting silicones on one and a stronger magnet in the other. A little trial-and-error with tires, different-strength magnets, and different magnet positions will teach you how to fix many basic handling problems and level the playing field for all your cars, generating close, even competition and more racing fun at minimal cost. Remember that equalizing cars means not just getting all of them to do equal lap times but also giving all of them a set of driving characteristics you and the people you race with enjoy. This can mean either increasing or reducing grip, however generated, to get the feel you want.

So, to the bottom line, what tires do I recommend? The answer, of course, depends on where you want to go with your racing.

If you are making the rules and you want to keep things a simple and inexpensive as possible the best approach, in my experience, is a silicone spec-tire rule in all classes and a frequently cleaned track. With this combination your fellow racers will always know what to expect when they come to compete on your track. The best tire brand for this is Indy Grips/Maxxtrac. This is because these brands come with the stock number molded into the inner sidewall, so it become a very simple matter to make sure all cars are running the legal tire. This rule works best, of course, along with rules specifying maximum tire width and, if you are running magnets, a hard limit on magnetic downforce. Another thing to take into account is that some tire manufacturers make tires in more than one diameter for some cars and some wheel types.   Generally speaking, you probably don’t want to be running the stock diameter tire if the rules allow a smaller diameter, which lowers the center of gravity and also moves the magnet closer to the track surface, increasing downforce. A useful advantage to a choice of diameters, of course, is that you can use these tires in kitbashing or scratchbuilding projects in whichever of the available diameters is right for the car you are modeling. Indy Grips/Maxxtrac tires only come in the stock diameter for the cars they are made to fit, eliminating tire diameter from the performance equation. Slot It also makes both silicone tires and rubber tires in a variety of compounds and more than one diameter to fit its aluminum wheels and similar ones from other manufacturers. These tires will also fit the original plastic wheels of some cars, but you will need to test-fit to identify specific applications.

If you are going into an unfamiliar situation where silicones are required but no brand is specified you are, unfortunately, on your own. All the aftermarket tire manufacturers make performance claims, but without knowing a lot more than the information any of them gives there is simply no way of evaluating them as they may apply to any specific situation. You’re just going to have to try the available options or see if the people doing the winning where you are going to race will tell you what they are using. The same is true with rubber tires only more so. We know that where silicones are required there is always going to be a more or less clean track. With rubber tires there is simply no way of knowing ahead of time what track conditions will be and, therefore, what works on any given track at any specific time unless you can get some inside information.

A final thing it’s interesting to know is that tire choices don’t necessarily follow any consistent logic. It is far from unheard of for two groups of racers running on exactly the same type of track surface or brand of plastic track to come to different conclusions about optimum tire selection. If you race enough in enough different places, sooner or later you will encounter a situation that seems to turn logic on its head. That’s part of what makes the hobby so challenging and keeps you learning new things.

If you have questions about tires that I haven’t covered above, please feel free to send them to bob@victorylaphobbies.com. I’ll do the best I can to answer them.

Copyright © 2005, 2014, Robert M. Ward. All rights reserved.