Probe the inner caverns of hobby shops or tunnel through the back doors of used car lots and one of the foodstuffs in the overweight stomach that is counterculture will mystically appear. Crouching along the "main chute" or concentrating on the danger that looms within "Dead Man Turn" are the human odds and ends of society. No they're not playing Dungeons & Dragons or watching Deep Space Nine, they're racing slot cars.
Slot cars, typically 4" Nascars, are small, motorized vehicles with fiberglass bodies that race around a track, powered by the nimble hand of the owner's remote control. Though you may have left such frivolity behind at about the same age you stopped bathing with your siblings, real breathing adults still take slot car racing seriously. And so, undaunted by the unkempt personalities of hobby store junkies, MELVIN Operatives went undercover to find out what all the hoopla is about.
Our first stop was a hobby store called "Slot and Wing Hobby." The friendly store owner, excited to finally see slot car racing get its just desserts in the mass media, ushered us to the track where two young gents were just packing up their cars into an empty box of "Gourmet's Choice Quik Taters" after enjoying an afternoon of slot car excitement. From their tongues they drooled milky pearls of slot car wisdom. For example, when asked what separates a good slot car track from a bad one, the one lad replied "how dirty it is."
Yet these were mere slot car novices, so we left in search of a more definitive source of information. On the way out the door, one chortling lumberjack of a slot car aficionado exclaimed, "the one thing about slot car racing is you won't get rich but you might get infamous!" We had no idea what this goober meant, but we laughed anyway. After a close brush with pathos, we headed off to meet the Wizard of Oz of slot car racing, Eldon Wright, owner of the midwestern jewel "Slot Cars the wRight- Way."
Lover of cars big and small, Eldon "I've raced with them all" Wright may provide the small town of Danville, Illinois, with quality, human-size automobiles by day, but by night, the gentle hum of a 4" bad ass is his auto of choice. As owner of a back- room slot car parlor, Wright is the grand conductor of his own slot car orchestra.
On his track, watchful racers vie for position, their faces transformed into the austere, brooding visages of serious-minded gods. Hawkeyed "turn marshals" flank the knotty bends of the track, poised to catch wayward autos as they zoom and weave around the treacherous bends of Wright's track, imitating a cacophony of electric shavers. Lording over his track while eight pro drivers kept time behind us, Wright seemed energized by our interest, especially MELVIN Operative Allison's interest, as she was probably the first person of the female persuasion not to walk away bored to tears at his enthusiastic slot car rhapsodies. So much did he glow, in fact, that he almost even instilled in us a sense of the vitality and energy that slot car racing can hold for open-minded onlookers. Then he wondered aloud why more college kids didn't come to race. We didn't tell him.
Eldon was an old-time sage of racing and knew far more about it than the paltry novices at Slot-N-Wing. In fact, he couldn't believe that people actually raced on those tracks over there. In spite as his apparent disdain for Slot-N-Wing, we found a tender side to the seasoned Eldon when we asked him how big a track needs to be before it's considered legitimate in his mind, and he replied that the "track only needs to be as big as your heart." We didn't know what that meant either, but we were starting to understand one of the tacit rules of decorum of the slot car world: always phrase things that don't make sense in the form of a cliché. Eldon went on to explain what it takes to be a great slot car racer like Brian Lowe and Gary Beedle: practice your hand techniques by running heat after heat and keep a well-oiled machine. It's truly a sport for the common man because any girthy 6 to 65 year old with one working hand and fifty bucks is fit to compete.
In a race, every car runs on each of the eight tracks for a two minute interval. After two minutes on a specific track, a "switch" is called during which the racer has a frenzied minute and a half for quick pit stops. The car is then placed on the next track and competition continues. Despite the obvious thrill and luster of the sport, the race season only runs September through April, due to the alluring call of summer baseball, badminton, and lawn jarts.
Like any nerd club, slot car racing is chocked-full of intentionally over- complicated jargon and regulations designed to discourage a large portion of the casually interested. However, even though you may only be a novice slot car enthusiast, there's no reason to look like one with this handy MELVIN "Taste of Slot Car" Guide to Proper Vernacular:
Whether it's Slot Car Digest or Scale Auto Racing News, slot car fans can have just as many fanzines as your favorite rock n' roll band. Look to them for such riveting articles as "Now That You Thought It Was Safe to Buy a Steel-Wire Chassis" and "Kinsey, Masters and Bontrager Master the 'Orange' at Hobby Haven."
"last dance gentlemen": Like all true competitive sports, the final heat can make or break a slot car race. The quiet sensitivity of this phrase provokes many slot car racers to reflect on the capriciousness of life, the importance of never giving up, and the camaraderie slot car racing can produce among the common man. Live each moment to the fullest. Long live useless pasttimes.