Star-Bulletin Features

Tuesday, April 14, 1998

small cars -- BIG FUN

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Mike Thompson watches his 1/64-scale racers speed around
the track at Pocket Jet Raceway on Ward Avenue. The slots in
the fixed track power the cars and keep them on course.The
drivers' job is to apply just enough speed to win the race
without flying off the track.

Slot-car racers meet their
need for speed

By Burl Burlingame


FOR folks of a certain -- ahem! -- age bracket, the phrase "playing the slots" has a whole non-Vegas meaning. In the early 1960s, the toy of the moment, the hot gimme that had lads casting aside their GI Joes, was the slot car. The slot car ruled.

The problems of propelling slot cars aren't all that different from the full-sized items. You juggle weight, mass, velocity, power source, power supply, wheel base and wheel diameter and sprinkle in a healthy dose of operator-error, and then simply try not to crash. We go through this every day in the real world.

Just in case you're a Martian or a girl, the slot is a groove in a fixed track that both keeps a remote-control toy car on course and also provides electrical power to the toy engine. The operator drives with a rheostat that adds juice to the engine. Too much power in the curve and -- watch out! -- the slot car would leap off the track and go aero. If you do it right, you can knock down artfully arranged GI Joes like bowling pins.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Benjamin Ibarra holds a four-wheel-drive racer, the newest
thing in remote-car racing. Instead of using slots, this car is
battery-powered, with extra wheels that allow it to run
up the side walls of the lanes.

The first slot cars were tiny, model-railroad-sized items, and then grew, eventually settling on a standard size of 1/24 scale, about the size of a paperback book.

Slot cars never went away, it just seemed that way in Hawaii. On the mainland, said enthusiast Eric Alferes (who used to run Waipahu's "Raceway 500" slot-car clubhouse while still in high school), slot cars have remained a popular hobby for decades. The biggest change has been the creation of very large, permanent courses instead of snap-together lanes in the living room.

"The bodies are made of vacuum-formed Lexan (a high-impact plastic) and the chassis are a pan shape, made to flex," said Alferes, who estimated that slot cars can easily do 40 miles per hour, and we're not talking about scale speed.

Alferes now engages his passion at Automobilia Raceway, behind Eagle Cafe on Nimitz Highway. The shop's main room is dominated by a 120-foot slot-car course.

The high side of one embankment is littered with tiny dings. "Yep, that's where they fly off if they're going too fast," said Alferes. Some good things in life never change.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Terrence Iwamoto, president of Automobilia in Iwilei,
displays some older slot cars, including a Batmobile
(worth $1,150), a viper ($350) and Manta Ray ($550).

On another side of the room is a quarter-mile drag strip in 1/24 scale, which works out to ... 55 feet? The cars' tires are "glued" to the track with some kind of compound that, whatever it is, is the opposite of lubricant. The added traction is needed because the cars aren't heavy enough to push their mass against the sudden torque of the revving engine.

There is a traditional drag-strip "Christmas tree" countdown light. When it hits green, the racers mash down their throttles and their cars flash off down the track as if they were on a rail gun. A sensor at the other end lights up over the winning car. As for the cars, they generally smash through several cinder-block walls before exploding. Just kidding. The other end of the track has no power strip for the engines, plus there's extra-sticky compound coating the track. They stop in only a few feet.

Slot cars have been around long enough that there's a collector's market for old cars. Some are for sale at Automobilia. A classic 1960s "Batman" car will set you back $1,150.95. Most older cars average $395.95.

The newest wrinkle, however, is relatively inexpensive, averaging about $10 to get started. "Mini 4WD," or "Mini Yonku" as they're known in Japan, are even smaller, about 1/32 scale, and run at a constant speed on batteries.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
Bradley Nozoi runs four-wheel-drive
cars in their walled-off lanes.

The tracks have no slots. Instead, each lane is separated by a wall, like a rat maze. The 4WD cars have wheels on the sides as well as on the bottom, allowing the cars to roll along the walls as well as the lanes, achieving very high speeds indeed.

"The fastness is what I like," said William Magnaye, 14. "Just saw my friend racing 'em and I said, 'I gotta have that.' "

"You go, go, go until they broke!" said George Gabriel, 14.

The basic kit, made by Tamiya of Japan, is $10.90 at Automobilia. It can be snapped together in a few minutes. Where they get you is the accessories -- batteries, wheel size, gear ratios, tire materials, side-roller size -- it's the varying combinations of these parts that vary the car's speed, and keeps Tamiya solvent.

By Craig T. Kojima, Star-Bulletin
"Old style" slot car racers enjoy 1/24th scale racing
on a track at Automobilia in Iwilei.

A home-track for the 4WD cars will run you about $120.

The kids tinker on the sidelines, tweaking their cars, sound like they're debating at a science fair as they compare torque and gear-ratios.

"They're mixing and matching parts, changing things around, checking their time down to the fraction of a second. The challenge is to beat the other guys, and to beat their own time -- without going off the track," said Alferes. "Everything, everything is speed."


Playing the slots

Bullet Automobilia Raceway, Suite C-100, 1130 N. Nimitz Highway, 539-9377

Bullet Pocket Jet Raceway, Unit No. 114, 420 Ward Ave., 591-2233

Do It Electric!

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]
[Stylebook] [Feedback]

© 1998 Honolulu Star-Bulletin