Scalextric's recent adoption of Bluetooth technology in its slot racing systems showed that the home sport still has some technological chops. It also proved that slot racing, which hit its popular peak under family Christmas trees more than a half-century ago, is alive and well.
We present photos depicting the history of slot racing and the gradual technical evolution of its products. From the clunky hobby cars of the early 1900s to the smartphone-enabled toys of today, we offer a brief look at the ultimate basement sport.
Click on the slot cars below to start the slideshow.
A slot car racing system from Scalextric pits a scale model of a 1995 Jaguar XJ220 against a Ferrari F40. (Source: Scalextric)
I remember those days. I used to rewind my red bomb motor a LOT. I could not afford a Pitman motor. Funny thing is, all these years later, a project I just worked on had a Pitman motor in it! Made me smile. We used to soak the cheap tires in a liquid to give more 'sticky'. I am sure it was bad for us. :) But it was fun. Intersting that my memory of the 60's is of slot cars and antique radio repair.
And I am not sure I ever have gotten out of my first childhood. The jury is still out on that one...
Great article - a stroll down memory lane. For kids in the car-crazy '60s, slot cars were what model trains were to their parents. Today kids are far less enamored of cars, and tend go to on-line gaming and other virtual activities.
I don't worry about the second childhood phenomenon - remember, you have to grow old, but you can always stay immature! :)
Chuck, this is a great walk down memory lane. We had a larger scale track in the town I grew up in. I think it was an old bowling alley. It was fun to go and race on a big track.
We had our own HO scale cars and track. We always "hopped up" our slot cars with better tires (there were lots of options in size and composition), motors and pick-ups. Then when we got real cars we felt compelled to do the same thing.
I'd nearly forgotten about these! I wasn't the enthusiast some of the others who commented were (and still are--maybe it's a guy thing? ;)) but this certainly jogs the memory and takes me back. Cool slideshow!
Slot car racing is alive and well in the southeastern Michigan area. There are several active commercial raceways such as Lightning Speedway (Livonia), TSS (Monroe), Downriver Raceway (Lincoln Park), Slot Car Mania (Westland), and Cloverleaf Raceway (Milford). A 24 hour event was held at a private track in Fenton, where the 1/32 scale hardbody world record was broken by a team from New Jersey and Quebec. The winning car traveled approximately 270 actual miles. The race was run with 5 hours of darkness, so the cars had to be lighted. This is an annual event held every March.
I loved slot car racing too and these pictures put a smile on my face. I remember going to a hobby shop with a slot track where several raced at the same time. The speed these small toys reached was amazing.
Ah, that was good to see. This will be shared this with a couple fellow gearheads at work today.
I remember the HO set I had, and I had A LOT of track! I used to ride my skateboard home after school to set up the new layout I designed during one of the more boring parts of my school day.
I had both Aurora and Tyco cars (and Aurora and Tyco track...and the adapter so I could use both!), and they each had their own strengths and weaknesses. Funny, as small as they were, they were so easy to take apart and put back together, it's like they ENCOURAGED you to experiment with them.
As a child I had a set, I think by Tyco, called "Total Control Racing" (TCR). There were no slots and three conductive rails on a flat track for each of the two lanes. This system allowed you to change lanes on the straightaways.
It had walls on the edge of the track to keep the cars from flinging themselves off. On the corners the cars would move to the outside lane due to centrifugal force.
I too had a TCR set and it was pretty cool. Actually, after my last trip to clean out stuff from my dad's house, I found some of the track and at least one of the cars. The set that I had, featured a "jam" car which had the wheels steered to the side to keep it in one lane. You had to pass that car or be stuck behind it.
Each lane had three rails, with no slot. I think that one of the outside rails was common to both cars, with the different cars having either a center pickup or the other outside edge pickup. I think that the jam car had both pickups installed. To change lanes, I think that the switch on the controller reversed the polarity of the DC that was going to the cars, and there was a gear assembly which, depending upon the direction of the motor, would drive either the left wheel of the right wheel. Which side wheel was being driven resulted in the car being pushed towards one side of the track.
It was certainly exciting racing these cars and being able to pass. You always had to have enough speed so that you didn't get stuck between the lanes. Of course the biggest problems were like other slot car tracks: dirty contacts and weak plastic connectors which crack when you disassemble and reassemble the track too many times.
My then six year old son got a cheap, battery powered slot car track for Christmas last year and we enjoyed playing with it, but it was rather junky, of low chinese quality and many pieces broke after just a few days of play.
By the way, I found my TCR cars last night. I was digging through the basement, looking for my old matchbox cars to give to my son. When I opened the matchbox car carrying case that I located, I found the TCR cars (they appears to be glow in the dark) and one slot car (which I had repainted black and gold like any good young Steeler fan). When I pulled them out of the case, the tires disintegrated into hard chunks, but I have the cars.
Oh yeah! My TCR set rocked! At least, it did once my parents found a newer set at a garage sale that added 45-deg elbows, and a ton of extra pieces and parts, and my dad let me wire-up both power supplies together so the speed didn't drop-off using the 'pace' cars...loved it!
My slot-friends were suitably amazed at the six-wires electric wonder track with no slots in it - and speed! wow
With 45-deg pieces and sections to get away from the 'oval' setup, you could really mess with your toggle-switch timing to switch lanes fast and stay on the inside track, letting you actually take advantage of the ability to change lanes and pass the other player. Freedom from the slot!
Of course...it was constant cleaning and de-fuzzing and replacing the little metal pads on the bottom, and worn tires, and wiping slick-stuff on the bottom of the car and sides so it wouldn't drag, and all the stuff that makes you feel like you "did something" to help your car win :)
While researching this article, I asked a couple of people about a company called Strombecker that I remember from my childhood. They built really good slot racing systems with 1:32 (if I recall correctly) scale cars and I think they were located in Chicago. No one seemed to remember them, though. Do any readers recall the Strombecker brand?
My friend up the street and his dad bought a big 1/32 Strombecker layout and set it up on a ping pong table. To improve reliability of the track they soldered all the track's electrical connections! We spent hours racing, then started modifying and building cars. I found that I could buy a 1/32 scale model by Aurora and adapt it to the chassis. I think this is what led to later buying a '65 TR 4 from a wrecking yard and fixing it up to drive off to college. The speed and simplicity of electric slot cars made me think even then that I should be able to make an electric street machine. Here we are today, finally, with such cars available, and the torque and acceleration is similar in some of the more extreme electric cars.
The slideshow doesn't even mention the most advanced slot car set of the 60's, which was AMT's turnpike set. The cars had steerable front wheels. The contacts were mounted on a swingarm that allowed the cars to steer all over the track. Each car was also fitted with a diode for the motor, which allowed both cars to run in the same slot. They could move into the opposite slot at one of the crossover sections, so both cars could be racing one behind the other (known as drafting, in NASCAR terms). They were 1/25th scale, so any AMT model car kit could be used on the chassis. The only downside was the price of the set - $50, quite high at the time, and that only included a simple oval track, and ONE car+controller. Not too many of us could spring for a full set.
Well this article just barely covers the technology of slot cars. One of the best sets came from Revel, much higher quality cars, track and controlers. Also the Cox company had very high quality slot car kits; very high accuracy scale models, cast magnesium chassis and wheels with very powerful motors. Aurora was the pioneer in HO scale tracks, Their first models had ac motors consisting of a coil and reed as i vibrated the end of the reed would push-down on splined drum on the rear axle. One of the most innovative sets was from Heathkit : cars using twin electric motors on a multi wire conductive track each controller drove differential frequencies to their assigned car. One was able to steer and accelerate a car on the slotless track , anywhere on the track and around other cars without losing power. Stromberg and Carrera sets were primitive playthings compared to the other American sets.
Now I know what to get the grandkids next Christmas!
We had a slot car hall about a mile from us when I was a kid. We use to ride our bikes up there with our cars in our pockets. I never did any sanctioned racing there but we would challenge each other all the time. And all the regulars had 'racing' nick-names. Good times,
We also had a 1/24th track on the pool table in the basement at home. I think it was Revel Emilio... Gray track and very solid. We added more track whenever we could. We even traded that well used pool table for more track and at one point we had the most track and more cars than anybody we knew, outside of the pro-track houses of course.
Plus you reminded me that I stumbled on this place north of Philly last year (while attending a 3D printing demonstration near by btw).
We ran slot cars on our ping-pong table, Ralphy Boy. I should probably also mention the slot car track where I took the photo in image #7. They've been in business for about 25 years. I took my son and his friends there when they were young. Here's the link.
I have seen the sport rise in the 60's when my brother and I built an aluminum frame out of a piece of sheet metal all cut out to lighten it. I still have it and the original corvette body. About 20 years ago some tracks started sprouting up in Orlando and I purchased some equipment to race. When I moved two years ago to just north of Orlando I discovered a track not far away but it recently closed.
I am still amazed at the pro models that fly around the track and accelerate at unbelievable speeds. I would love to see someone analyze the car forces using the newest software and tell me how it stays on the track! Are the aero forces really strong enough to keep the car from jumping out of the slot? Or is the drifting car and light weight all that is required! I can't imagine the complexity of changing lanes, etc that would add to the skill required. I could never master the driving but enjoyed building the cars and looking for that technical edge. Thanks for the update and history.
Slot Car racing never left! It just got less popular. Any resurgance is due to people like the commenters on this article remembering their youth. The good news is you can still do it, and not only re-live the "Good Times" but pass them on to your children and grand children. Slot car racing is alive and well at at SpeedZoneNJ.com. They do weekly racing, host regional events, and national events, like the USRA Div II nationals coming in April 2015.
It's a great lession in reallity as there is no re-set button! You come off you gotta put your car back on the track. Kids of all ages need to get out of the basement and get involved in real life activities. Slot car racing is a lot of fun and has plenty of life lessions that can be learned. Pass it on.
@Murray: Yes even though technology has come a long way there is no other best solution than this computer systems solution which we have right now. Maybe in the future there will be but not right now.
A2, Yes computer systems are more developed and more feasible, life has become more easy thanks to computers and the technology. But will it give the same feeling of the traditional games? Will it do the basics of a team game?
I first discovered slot racing at Tom Thumb hobbies in 1966, I was 6 y/o and my dad was a grad student at Northwestern. My favorite car was the Batmobile, (yes, I still have it!), and a roll of quarters was the best gift for a slot racer. As an adult, (20 years later), I purchased, restored and updated an antique American Raceways Red Imperial 8-lane 1/24 scale Superspeedway, and opened my own slot car raceway business in Mchenry, IL. My dad donated his electronic expertise, creating lap counting and timing systems, our designs pioneered systems still in use today. I also built a 1/24 scale Dragaway, with LED/LSD timing system run by proprietary, wirewound 8-bit card installed in a Tandy 1000SX PC, (also from Dad), rivaling precision of any full scale dragstrip of the time. My fastest run was 108.23 MPH in 55ft. I hosted local, regional, and national races. My racers and I created a stock car racing class which morphed into a national racing class in the late 90's. My passion was for specialty cars, Rat Fink, Beer Wagon, Lil' Red Wagon, and Wheelie cars. Still have them, too!
I have kept the track in storage for 20 years, intending to re-open it as my retirement hobby/business. It's all wood layout size is 48' x 17' featuring 40' straightaway, high-bank 190 degree curve, flat & graded curves, (1-90, 2-160, 2-180), a bridge and D-shaped donut curve. The original lap counter is a re-purposed shuffle-bowling machine score display, an electro-mechanical wonder of it's day, with (8) lighted rotary 2" double-digit displays. The original lane timer/swtich panels sound like egg timers, dinging when the lane time runs out. It can be run from 12V batteries, or any DC source. Incorporating lane-change, pit stop and bluetooth would be the next-gen father-n-son project for the 21st century!
I'm glad my dad forwarded me this article, the track was our best father-n-son project ever, and we had some great ones! Last summer I was diagnosed with head/neck cancer, and I have decided I must sell the track, (depicted in my profile photo), in order for another to enjoy the thrill of victory, with his son(s).
Thanks for the recollections, manikmekanik. It's amazing to hear about engineers who improved on the already-great sport of slot racing. Only an engineer could have found a way to use a bowling machine scoreboard as a lap counter! Hang in there.
The slot car or slot racing hobby today is largely divided into home/club and commercial sections.
Club/home racing is primarily in the 1/32 and HO scales, while commercial slot racing is overwhelmingly 1/24 scale.
While the number of 1/24 scale commercial raceways is a fraction of what it was in the heyday of the '60s, they still exist, though almost exclusively in the US.
The newest genre of 1/24 slot cars is Retro racing, where cars and chassis are being scratchbuilt from kits and raw materials as was commonly done in the late '60s and the '70s, and where, unlike much of the 1/24 segment, a significant scale appearance is mandated. The explosion of interest in Retro slot racing has generate a resurgence in the craftsmanship aspect, something largely lacking in the 1/32 and HO scale arenas.
One excellent resource for information on the overall slot car hobby, but especially for the almost ten year old Retro segment, is the forum slotblog.net.
Being from North Carolina, the birthplace of NASCAR, we did slot cars a little differently. Each model was a replica (Ford, Chevrolet, Plymouth) and painted to look like a real NASCAR race car. If memory serves me correctly, they were 1/24 scale.
The track had 16 lanes and shaped like Daytona Motor Speedway. Don't remember the scale but lengthwise it filled a room about 40' long and 20' wide. Passing could be done anywhere on the track, except the long backstretch where the groves were placed close together.
We had scheduled race times, usually every Saturday night, with each race being several hundred laps. Just like the 'big boys' we held qualifying time trials. Of course we could not 'take the green flag' in the typical two row style, but the fastest qualifier chose which of the 16 lanes which he/she wanted to use....and so on until the slowest qualifier had to take whatever was left!
Most slot car tracks were powered with a battery connected to a battery charger, so each car would get maximum voltage and current. Not ours. It used the charger only. Some cars were 'amp hogs' so our goal was to make our car go fast on less voltage and less amps.
When a wreck happened, the 'race promoter' would flip a switch that disconnected all power from the track, which allowed the cars, not involved in the wreck to coast to a stop and that would be their re-start position. Obviously, we did everything we could to reduce 'coasting' friction.
I was about 24 at that time. It's now 50 years later...but if the opportunity presented itself, I would do it again!
Earlier this year paralyzed IndyCar drive Sam Schmidt did the seemingly impossible -- opening the qualifying rounds at Indy by driving a modified Corvette C7 Stingray around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
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