Slots of Fun: Time to Jump Back Into Slot Cars?

Whether you grew up with scratch-built cars in the ’60s or pocket-sized AFX racers in the ’70s, you probably still have a soft spot for slot cars. Well, they’re back—and better than ever.

Today’s 1/32-scale slot cars feature the intricate details found on static die-cast models along with trouble-free running gear. Track sections quickly snap together and come apart just as easily, meaning nearly any empty space can be filled with a small-scale version of Le Mans, Daytona or something of your own design.

I have been doing this since 1962, and these are the good old days,” explains Bob Ward, a consultant to several slot car suppliers. “There are literally thousands—and I mean thousands—of 1/32 slot cars that you can buy.”

Detailed and Desirable

Today’s slot cars are recreations of machines that many of us admire. The generic race car models of yesterday have been replaced with authentic replications.

How authentic? How about Paddy Hopkirk’s Monte Carlo Rally-winning Mini Cooper S or the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR that Juan Manuel Fangio drove to second place at the 1955 Mille Miglia? Are you a Porsche fan? You can own a miniature version of the Porsche 917K that Tony Adamowicz ran for David Piper in 1971. Slot car manufacturers are taking the time to correctly emulate the shapes, colors and nuances. The result is an uncanny level of detail, even when it comes to helmet colors, tire treads and decal placement. But it’s not all about looks—these cars run well, too.

“There is no comparison to the [slot] cars of the ’60s, either in performance, tuning, adaptability and, most importantly, the exact licensed copy of the real car,” explains Bob Lewen, marketing director for Model Rectifier Corporation, Ninco’s U.S. distributor. “The only similarity is they both have four wheels, a motor and a hand controller.”

The cost to get involved? Not too much. Complete sets—track, cars and controllers—start around $100. Individual cars usually fall between $40 and $80. “I always say that it’s the least expensive hobby that’s related to motorsports,” explains Greg Walker, owner of The Race Place, one of the oldest slot car tracks in the country.

Remind Me Again, What Is a Slot Car?

Slot cars have been around in one form or another for over half a century, and the basics haven’t changed that much over time. Electric-powered scale cars still race around a track. A slot keeps each car in its lane.

The trick, as it has been for decades, is to keep your car’s guide flag inside that slot as it speeds around the track. Go too quickly, and the car will fly off of its lane—and usually off the track altogether. Speed is simply modulated by a hand controller, and most home tracks feature two lanes.

“Just open the box, remove the car and race,” explains Robert Schleicher, publisher of Model Car Racing magazine. “The tracks are snap-together plastic pieces that you can assemble on a living room or den floor in about a half-hour. Plug in the power supply, plug in two controllers, set two cars on the track, and go for it.”

What's New?

Today's cars are ready to race, right out of the box.

The echoes from the slot car boom of the ’60s might have calmed down years ago, but technology and a new outlook have given the scene a resurgence. Credit has to go to the new hardware, specifically today’s realistic 1/32-scale machines. Where the old cars required nearly constant tuning and upkeep—and in many cases construction from scratch—the new cars come from the factory ready to run. There’s nothing to solder, nothing to paint. Even the graphics are applied. (Of course, if you want to tinker, hop-up parts are readily available.)

Today’s tracks are also easy to handle. Sections simply snap together, and their plastic material has a bit of flex to it. The consistency is similar to that of a durable Tupperware container, meaning the broken tabs that plagued so many AFX sets are finally a memory. The multiple curve radii available in sectional track systems allow up to eight lanes, though most home tracks have two or four. Track sections aren’t just limited to straights and simple curves, either. They’re available in a huge range of radii and lengths to give the builder nearly unlimited options, while snap-on borders provide some realism and a bit of extra track width to allow the cars to drift.

Want to get crazy and set a complete scene? You can do that, too. Plastic shrubbery, miniature buildings and scale spectators are at your command.

What to Do Now?

There are a couple things you can do with today’s slot cars: Race them or collect them. Despite their realism, though, don’t be afraid of hurting them. These things can take a lot of abuse.

While the occasional mirror or bumper may be knocked loose in a crash, the cars are tough to kill. And many have tried.

The revamped cars and tracks have given those involved in the hobby a new place to hang out. Where slot car racing was once the domain of the local hobby shop, the convenience of today’s sets has allowed the action to move back home. A basement, garage or bonus room can easily swallow a nice-sized setup.

Robert Schleicher notes that a great track can be built on a ping-pong table. In fact, he features track plans specifically designed to work on a 5x9-foot ping-pong table in every issue of his magazine as well as on his website. “There’s jillions of used ping-pong tables for sale,” he says. “It’s an albatross.”

If you want a little more real estate, tack on a 3x4-foot shelf or two. There’s also a lot of sideways compatibility in today’s 1/32-scale scene, meaning one brand’s cars can be run on another brand’s track. If there’s a car that catches your eye, odds are very strong that it can run on any home set. It’s usually a matter of trimming the car’s flag to fit the track’s slot or, with digital tracks, fitting a corresponding chip.

There’s also no reason to enjoy this hobby alone. Slot car clubs, both official and informal, have sprung up across the country. Even when it’s too hot to work in the garage, you don’t have to stop playing with cars. It’s just time to substitute the full-sized ones for their smaller counterparts.

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sir_mike New Reader
12/26/19 1:28 p.m.

Takes me back to 1964 when a slot car track opened nearby.I was 12 and went there a lot and eventally worked there.Big 8 lane track.We raced 1/24 scale cars,mostly hand built.Held 100 lap races and sometimes a 2 team 500 lap race switching off every 100 laps....great fun.We  also had a 1/32 and HO track.Then a drag strip eith 12,24 or 36 volt settings.Sadley the owner removed the tracks in July.1968.Still have two of my slot cars.Over the years other people tried to open tracks but never worked out.Wish it would make a comeback here.Miss the fun....

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