hobbyDB Team Posts

Slot Car Track Evolved For High-Speed Racing

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

A few days ago I wrote about some Aurora Model Motoring slot car track pieces that were tied to the hobby’s roots in simulating driving instead of racing. By the late ‘60s, the preferred intent for slot cars was racing at higher and higher speeds on increasingly ridiculous courses. Wider cars, stickier wheels and magnetic traction assist combined to offset the rise more powerful engines, resulting in flat-out speed with less skill required.

As the Model Motoring era of slot cars subsided, several new brands of cars, track and accessories took over the hobby. Here are some track segments that signaled the new trends.

aurora banked hairpin

The Model Motoring Banked Hairpin Track Curve was one of the final hurrahs for the old brand. This single piece of track was a very tight 180 degree curve featuring built-in lane barriers. But even with the newer Aurora Tuff-Ones chassis, the cars still weren’t very fast or exciting.
lionell starting gateLionel, best known for their O-scale trains, dabbled in HO scale for a bit in both areas. This Racing Start Track piece was one of their innovations. The sharp transition angles suggest they didn’t quite understand some of the forces that slot cars might be subjected to. In recent years, Lionel Racing managed to remain a small player in the slot car game.

aurora afx hairpin squeezeAurora went back to the drawing board with their AFX (Aurora Factory eXperimental) line of equipment. The new cars featured modern racing amenities mentioned before, and their new track system featured easier to assemble and stronger track connections. (The bad news was this system was not compatible with the old track, making it obsolete.) Pieces like this Hairpin Squeeze Track were symbolic of the new ideal. The snap on red and white rumble strips are necessary for additional sliding clearance, and for added safetly, guardrails were a wise idea.

aurora afx flex track

tyco loop

One constant of track design has been curves that bend in combinations of 45 degree and 90 degree angles. In an attempt to free up the hobby even further, AFX introduced Flex Track, a strip of infinitely bendable and bankable track. It was cool in theory, but was very bumpy to drive on, and the springs that replaced the solid rails were uneven as well, so it never became that popular.

Many model railroad companies tried their hand at slot cars as a possible extension of the brand, but only a few thrived in both hobbies. Tyco became one of the dominant brands in both until their demise as a company… luckily Mattel bought them just in time to rebrand the slot cars for their Hot Wheels themed sets. The trains did not survive, however.

Tyco offered an innovative loop system in which 8 sections of track combined to make the full circuit. With some creative thinking, course designers could add extra segments to make the loop taller, or even have it climb walls.

tyco us-1 trucking airport

Lost somewhere in Tyco’s racing and railroad history was the US1 Trucking slot series. These were set up for slow moving, realistic “action” including backing up trailers into docks and side spurs such as this elaborate Airport Terminal set. Fun in theory, but kids decided racing slot semis was even more fun, this series only lasted a few years.

hot wheels tyco slot car loop

As for the Hot Wheels connection, someone figured out that coloring the track orange and adding loops would be a brilliant bit of marketing, so we got crazy set ups like this crazy double loop piece. A close look shows that each single lane loop also acts a as a lane changer. Mattel’s current sets usually come with minimal track for small, inexpensive layouts that serve as a nice introduction to the hobby.

micro machines slot car set

Speaking of crazy loops, Galoob entered the slot car market in the early ‘90s with their Micro Machines sets. The cars were larger than the standard Micro Machines, but significantly smaller than the “HO” offerings from most brands. Their layouts, such as this Cyclone City set, also came mostly pre-assembled in small cases, with only a few bits to set up to get running. For a variety of reasons, these never really caught on and were only available for a few years.

life like crash intersection

Remember the Four-Way Intersection piece with responsible pavement markings we saw last time? Life-Like figured out what kids want, so their version of this piece was called the “Crash Intersection” and was marked with a big ol’ explosion graphic. Give the kids what they want, right? Life-Like was one of the early companies that succeeded long-term in both hobbies and stayed relevant with such thinking. It remains one of the few brands you might see represented in both areas on modern toy or hobby shop shelves.

lifelike squiggle track

Another cool Life-Like track was the Skid Straight segment. The older versions of squiggle track featured both lanes swerving in parallel fashion, but this one has a much more random set of curves. Their first version was three inches wide like regular track. Later ones added a wider “shoulder” to give a bit more space. The most recent one isn’t even black pavement, but is decorated in a blue swirly water pattern that Van Gogh might approve of.

lifle-like tyco afx adaptersWhile every manufacturer’s cars are largely compatible with different track brands, the track itself from one brand to another is not. Life-Like figured out a way around that and created a set of short adapter tracks to solve that problem. One version connects their brand on one end to Tyco on the other, and another version goes from their brand to AFX. These are highly recommended bits to own, allowing the best of all worlds. Auto World now offers the same adapters. The course my family set up for Thanksgiving break this year includes track from all three brands thanks to these pieces.

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any adapters to go back to old Model Motoring track, so you’ll have to rely on vintage stock for that. But a recent trend in slot cars has been to offer the old ThunderJet chassis with new body designs, so at least you can see if slow and steady can indeed win the race on a new course.

Let us know if you have some favorite pieces of slot car, early or modern, that we didn’t cover here!

Early Slot Car Track was Designed for Driving, Not Racing

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

As I mentioned in yesterday’s column, Thanksgiving week is a time for setting up a slot car track in our household for some good family racing fun. While modern slot cars are capable of ridiculous speeds through wild courses, that wasn’t the case in the early days of the hobby. Slot cars were not originally designed for racing, but for simulating a real driving experience, much like the way model railroads did. These earliest slot car designs were mostly based on regular production cars, although some of them were sporty models. These cars moved at a much slower pace than modern slot racers, and the track reflected those conditions.

aurora bump track

Aurora Model Motoring was the dominant brand of HO scale slot cars in the U.S. in the 1960s. Their track was also made to emphasize skill over speed, with the Bump Roadways section being a perfect example. Heavily magnetized modern slot cars might be able to hug the pavement going over this hump at maximum throttle, but even at low speeds, the old ThunderJet cars could get airborne at the pinnacle.

aurora culvert track

They probably wouldn’t sail across the room at those velocities, but they’d likely get enough lift to lose their bearings and crash. This track segment came with warning signs, and later versions even had lovely culvert decoration.

aurora junction track

The Junction Turnout track gives you a good clue about the intention of these early sets. A knob on the side of this segment made it possible for the car to make a turn off the main track and onto some other adventure in civilized driving. It’s not clear how someone could hold the controller on one side of the layout while reaching across to turn the knob, so some teamwork was required.aurora y split track

The Y-Split track shows another feature that most modern slot enthusiasts don’t think about… Model Motoring was designed as a single lane experience. In fact, most layouts at the time were created not for side-by-side racing in one direction, but for each lane to run in opposite directions like a public road. So the Y-track was designed not to separate race cars, but to allow a median between single lanes going in opposite directions.

aurora squeeze track

The original Squeeze Track also takes on a different meaning when you think of city driving versus racing. On modern tracks, especially with the much wider car designs, a squeeze track usually moves both lanes inward, creating an opportunity to intimidate your opponent in a game of side-by-side chicken. Here, only one lane swerves, designed to test your reaction as a car suddenly veers towards your lane from the other direction.

aurora cobblestone track

Cobblestone track segments were designed to give a different look and theme to the track setup, but also required a perfect touch in order to not get bogged down between the bumps. The old cars didn’t have a lot of torque, so stopping here wasn’t a wise idea.

aurora spiral roadway

Here’s something that isn’t really a piece of track, but a useful (and now rare) accessory… The Spiral Roadway Support allowed the creation of 360 degree (or more) climbing turns. While that sounds like an exciting prospect, remember, without the benefit of magnets or banked curves, responsible driving was still the ideal. Play it safe, kids!

aurora slot car intersection

A turning point in the hobby may have come with the introduction of the Four-Way Intersection track piece… as you can see from the photo, the track was intended as a four-way stop, complete with markings on the pavement. Clip-on stop signs were available too. But it took kids about thirty seconds to figure out that it was way more fun to try to beat the other drivers through the crossing without stopping. …And then another three seconds to realize that crashing the cars was even more fun. And thus, the era of responsible miniature motoring ended in a series of horrific but amusing collisions.

aurora raliroad crossing

…Then Aurora really upped the ante by creating the Railroad Grade Crossing section. Hey, if smashing two cars together was a hoot, then beating an HO scale train across the road was buckets of fun, and causing a major derailment was a sheer delight!

aurora speed curve

Aurora also offered the Speed Curve set, which was a set of barriers designed to separate the two lanes of a curve. When different radius curves were nested together, and the cars were all set in one direction, this encouraged high-speed, four-wide racing action. Yep, the race was officially on.

aurora daredevil obstacles

The cat was completely out of the bag with the release of the Daredevil Obstacle Course Accessories set. These yellow pieces fit onto various straight or curved track segments to create jumps, teeter totters, and miniature bumps. They weren’t electrified, so speed was of the essence. Skill was still necessary, but safe, sensible driving was pretty much a lost cause at this point.

Around the mid 1960s, it was apparent that kids wanted to race their slot cars, even if they weren’t that fast yet. Body designs started to include some even sportier production cars as well as famous race cars such as Ferraris and Shelby Cobras. Upgraded chassis and motor designs added a bit more speed, but traction was still anemic, as they still rode on skinny tires. But by the end of the decade, the parameters for slot cars had shifted towards pure racing. Track design started to reflect this new emphasis as well. We’ll take a look at some more modern specialized slot car track soon.

Let us know in the comments if you have any favorite old school slot car track that we didn’t list!

Be Thankful For Slot Cars This Week

slot cars

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

There are no finer traditions for Thanksgiving than turkey with stuffing, binge watching football on TV all day, and trying to avoid politics around the dinner table. In our family, there’s one more important ritual: Setting up the slot car track in the basement. With our daughter Lillian out of school the entire week, and cold weather setting in (but optimal ski conditions still at least a month away), we need a good indoor activity for the whole family. And for the past several years, that means slot cars, which I’ll be writing about all week.

slot cars

The 2016 Thanksgiving slot car roller coaster.

slot cars

Full speed required here.

As you can see from the photos, we don’t take track design lightly. For 2016, we chose to design a layout on our air hockey table, which is about 6 by 3 feet. Gracefully crammed into that space is about 45 feet of track including multiple flyovers, lane changes, and a wicked multi-level loop-de-loop. “Dad, that’s not a race track,” said Lillian. “That’s a roller coaster!” In honor of that observation, she started making tiny passengers out of post-it note paper and sticking them to the cars to see if they could survive the ride. Results were mixed but pretty funny.

Our average time to design and set up the track is about five or six hours, plus a couple hours of fine tuning the layout before actual racing can take place. Sure, the layout might look finished, but upon testing, we usually discover dead spots, rough transitions, poorly banked curves, low clearances and other such technicalities that must be fixed. It’s a lot like civil engineering would be if they built the roads first and then drove different vehicles on them to see if they were safe. In this particular case, the course was initially set up to start in a clockwise direction, but after some test runs, it was determined that the cars could handle some of the curves, and especially the transitions in and out of the loop more effectively in the opposite direction.

slot cars

Lillian rigorously tests our 2016 course.

Our setup is consists of mostly Aurora AFX track, although there are some special bits from other brands, namely Tyco and Life-Like. The available cars are a mixture of vintage Aurora ThunderJets, Aurora AFX cars, Life-Like cars, and Tyco cars. Each brand has vastly different handling characteristics. The T-Jets are slow and not magnetized to stick to the track, so they’re best suited for flat, simple layouts. The Life-Like cars are our fastest overall. They can be adjusted to either run really fast but less sticky, or a bit slower but with more adhesion to the track (Unfortunately, all of our Life-Like cars wear NASCAR bodies, and the long overhangs front and back get caught in the transitions in the loop). The AFX cars are super sticky and don’t respond well to subtle speed adjustments.

slot cars

Various slot cars from Aurora, AFX, Life-Like and other companies await test runs.

slot cars

The winners this year are Hot Wheels racers from Mattel Racing.

While the other cars waited in the paddock, it turned out that the cars from Mattel Racing (based on Tyco chassis) were the best combination of performance factors for this year. Two in particular, designed after the Hot Wheels ’40 Ford Pickup dragster and the Twin Mill, work flawlessly.

slot cars

Our set up from 2008. Life was simpler then.

slot cars

Nigel waits for his prey to come around.

Above is a shot of our course from a few years ago. In years past, the track had been set up on the basement floor, which led to our dogs chasing the cars and damaging the track. With the hockey table now taking up some of that space, we decided to move to the higher altitude. As you can see, our cat is very curious about the very speedy mouse-sized projectiles whizzing around. He’s surprisingly gentle on the track itself, thankfully.

Below is a video of Lillian performing a successful lap with the blue Ford pickup. Most of the track is designed to handle best at moderate speeds. Our controllers are modified with a piece of foam under the trigger to keep from squeezing too hard unless necessary. If you watch closely, you will see that the loop, with its extra vertical straightaway requires a sudden burst of full throttle, quickly followed by a very light touch into the unbanked exit curve.

Six hours to engineer, ten seconds to circumnavigate, a lifetime of memories. So much to be thankful for.

 

hobbyDB Collectibles Database Zooms Past 200,000 Entries

The collection just keeps growing at hobbyDB! Our database of anything and everything collectible just blew past the 200,000 item mark this past week, with the addition of the Minichamps James Bond Mustang Mach 1. The milestone came and went so quickly we barely had time to stop and notice! It took 13 months to get the first 100,000 entries in the database and just five months to double that number. At that rate, we’ll reach the million mark in the next year or two! We couldn’t have done it without all of you!

James Bond Minichamps Mustang

That 200,000 figure breaks down to over 178,000 unique Items, and over 34,000 Subject listings. In our collectibles database, an “Item” is an individual collectible you can own, such as a single Hot Wheels car or a Captain America action figure. A “Subject” is a topic or person or thing that can be related to several items, such as Elvis Presley, or Disney. Together, they allow our information to be cross-referenced by users, so they can search for a particular brand of toy like Corgi, or for anything related to a particular subject, such as The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. (And yes, there is a Corgi version of that sub!)

So many of you helped us to get this far… There are now over 11,000 Users on hobbyDB,  adding entries, editing information, buying, and selling (which is how we keep the lights on). The number of registered users more than doubled over the last five months as well. Over 200 of you have signed on as Curators, volunteering to either help monitor specific pages such as the page for John Wayne or the New York Yankees or to check new items to make sure they are entered as correctly as possible.

hobbydb 200,000 items

Brand partnerships have been a big part of hobbyDB’s rapid growth… several companies have come on board to host their official archives with hobbyDB ranging from vinyl art toys (Kidrobot) to diecast model cars (Kess) to real cars (The Shelby American Collection). The beauty of these relationships is that we get complete, accurate information along with frequent updates and additions. (You even get to preview upcoming prototypes such as this upcoming Eagle Challenger Indy car from Automodello, straight from the horse’s mouth!) 

We’ve also arranged to include data from collector databases such as Hugada’s list of over 60,000 video games and South Texas Diecast’s giant list of Hot Wheels. By combining such archives in one place, we multiply the power of these lists. For example, we can cross reference items of interest to both groups, such as the Nintendo Mario World series of Hot Wheels cars. But even with these massive contributions, we still rely on individual users to fill in missing items and provide updates. It’s like an extension of Wikipedia with a serious concentration on collecting.

At the rate we’re growing, you should be hearing about our 300,000th catalog item in the hobbyDB database before too long. In fact, we’ve received so much information from museums, archives and individuals that we need help sorting it all! We’re looking for volunteers with good editorial skills to join the team and help us add data to the catalog. If you’re interested, let us know (You can hit the chat button in the lower right corner of the screen to reach us)!

New Variant Detail Display!

It’s a sea change at hobbyDB! We realized a while ago that the Show Variant Details pop-down thingumajig wasn’t quite as useful as we intended. So we’ve gotten rid of it!

With the new variant detail display, Curators can now write a short description of the differences between a variant and the others in its group. They can also add a title and description Take a look at what a difference this will make with items such as comic books –

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.54.42 AM

And PEZ dispensers –

PEZ Planes Dusty PEZ Dispenser

And model cars –

Screen Shot 2016-05-19 at 11.54.28 AM

As you can see, we’re working hard to make hobbyDB the best place on the net to catalog your favorite collectibles for posterity! But we need all the help we can get, so if you’re not a Curator already and you’re interested in getting involved, let us know by clicking on the chat icon at the bottom right side of your screen. Shoot us a message with which page your like to curate and we’ll be in touch shortly. 

As always let us know what you think about this new feature as well! We’re excited to hear what you think.