Slot Cars Posts

Slot Mods Can Build The Slot Car Track of Your Dreams


Slot Mods Racing

Want this Laguna Seca layout for your basement? It’s available from Slot Mods Raceways.

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

Ron Ruelle hobbyDB

During Thanksgiving week, I wrote about slot cars, including family traditions, and the history of track design as the hobby evolved from driving simulation to racing action. And as much fun as I have with my slots, sometimes the hobby needs to be taken up a notch.

For most slot car enthusiasts, there are a couple of ways to get their cars on the track. Setting one up on the basement floor works great for temporary thrills, until dust, pets and other space requirements get in the way and you put it back in the box for awhile. Heck, maybe you even have a permanent course on a 4×8 plywood table. And as long as it’s permanent, you might add some hills and banked curves and some basic scenery if you have time.

Or you can join a slot car club. In this case you maintain your own cars and take them to meetings, usually at a hobby shop with impressive permanent track setups. (Sorry, no pinkslips!) It’s a lot of fun even if you’re stuck with their schedule.

Well, good news! The folks at Slot Mods Raceways have taken this concept to a whole new level. Their Custom Scenic Megatracks range from 6 feet by 20 feet to whopping layouts of 25 feet by 14 feet. Basically, whatever you have the space and budget for, they will build it.

Slot Mods Racing

Fully landscaped layouts feature breathtaking off-track detail.

As you can see in the photos, Slot Mods doesn’t mess around. The courses are complex, often based on real race tracks, and the scenery is exquisitely detailed. Designed for 1/32 scale cars, they are by nature huge. The budget? Let’s just say you’re easily looking at five figures for starters.

The process begins with a review of your space… in many cases you can send them photos and dimensions and they can start from there. Just to be safe, they might need to make a site visit in person. Better safe than sorry, right? Then they can start to sketch and doodle and of course, estimate costs.

Slot Mods Racing design

The design process starts with some very focused doodles.

Their layouts don’t use the modular track most of us are used to. The track forms are custom cut, with the grooves routed out and metal conductor strips inset by hand. Not only are the tracks super smooth and sturdy, but it also means you can have multiple lanes with variations between their spacing, and even lane changes. To add more realism, the slots often hug the apex of a curve meaning the outside of the turn goes largely unused, just like on a real track.

Slot Mods Racing

Road America at Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin is faithfully replicated in this course.

Speaking of real track, Slot Mods can make a layout of your favorite racing venue… or at least a selectively compressed layout that captures the feel of it anyway. Their layout of Road America from Elkhart Lake, for example, has the signature number of turns, the same hills, just with shorter scale distances. Details include pit areas, grandstands and the scenery and the architecture surround that track prefectly echo the Wisconsin countryside.

Slot Mods Racing

Ther Vernola Raceway fits a ton of track on a 9×13 foot layout.

In some cases, you can even purchase a pre-owned setup that was built for a previous event, such as this recreation of the Laguna Seca track made for the Los Angeles Auto Show. There’s fun and a bit unnerving sensation about hitting “Add to Cart” for something that big.

Many of us think about how we’d fill our dream garage if we won the lottery. After seeing their tracks, it seems a giant Slot Mods track would be a good use for one or two car spaces.

Slot Mods Racing Sunoco Mark Donohue

This track replicates the Penske Sunoco Camaro Trans Am series race cars from the late 1960s.

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 has 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.


Designer Notes: Professional Slot Car Racing

Lincoln Futura Philippe de Lespinay

NOTE: THIS IS THE FINAL INSTALLMENT IN THIS SERIES. We want to thank Mr. de Lespinay for sharing his archives with us and hope you enjoyed reading these posts! You can see an index of previous entries here.

Philippe de Lespinay started with Heller, the French model kit company in the 1960s as a designer and project engineer. He also also worked for Cox, who are now known for their remote control and gas powered vehicles, but also created many kits over the years. More recently, he was the curator of the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. And he’s on the hobbyDB Advisory Board, so yeah, he’s our kind of guy.

hobbyDB will be regularly sharing his insights on particular models he has worked on including production kits, never-produced projects, and his own custom builds. We hope you enjoy the journey through his career as well.

Read more about his history in the toy and model business here.

1970s slot car racing

Professional Slot Car Racing in the early 1970s

In 1970, I decided that it was time to leave Old Europe and go where opportunity appeared to smile to entrepreneurs. I packed my bags, took a one-way flight and landed in Maine. It was cold and damp, so I moved to California. After 6 months, I was right back racing slot cars, this time with the very heroes of the magazines…

I did OK, quickly thinking outside the envelope, designing my own stuff and eventually emerging on top by 1972, when I won the USRA Championship. By that time, my cars had become quite sophisticated and very fast, having set some world records in both speed and distance. Fortunately, I am a pack-rat so some examples survived, while I was able to find some that had gone away. Most have been now restored and are on display in an enthusiast museum in Los Angeles.

By 1972, pro-racing slot cars looked less and less like real cars and more like slot machines, strictly designed to go fast. But I always wanted my cars to look good too, as a form of respect for others as well as myself. So I had the bodies painted by expert earl Campbell, himself a world-record holder, and I painted the racing numbers and lettered them.

I am especially fond of this one, the 1972 car that won me my first of two “Western States Championships” that was restored with a replica body in 2006. The driver survived in another car and is now back in a replica of the original body painted by artist Jairus Watson in Oregon. The chassis and motor were restored, and new-old-stock parts were used throughout if missing.

1970s slot car racing

I built it in the spring of 1972 and used it in a couple of USRA warm-up races in the very competitive Southern California pro-racing scene, then apparently gave it to Team Mura’s Earl Campbell. I had already built him a sister car for the race set at “Speed & Sport” in Lynwood, California. He set fastest qualifying time and finished in second place in that race, the largest one that year in the United States. He used a very good motor built for him by Mura’s Bob Green, as well as one of the new M.A.C. Ferrari 612 bodies. With a nearly identical sister car fitted with a Team Checkpoint 24-1/2 single, I won that race and all the marbles by a mere lap. This is how I restored this grand old lady of a car, with the help of my friends Mike Steube, Bryan Warmack and Jairus Watson.

1970s slot car racing

1970s slot car racing

I had given a car to my friend Bryan Warmack in a trade, but it had the wrong bits, so I took it back from him and restored it as it originally was, the back-up car for the WS winning machine. The restored chassis is shown above. I made a nice little presentation display for Bryan from a Carrera slot car box and color copies of period documents.

Ron Granlee, then owner of the famed Speed & Sport raceway in Lynwood, CA, had used the car shown below in 1972. Ron was paralyzed and in a wheelchair, barely able to move one finger and slightly turn his head. Ron had asked me to build him a car for an important USRA race and I built two. Famed slot car artist Keiji Kanegawa painted the bodies, Bill Steube Sr. donated the motors, and I put the cars together. Ron qualified and did quite well, setting a new amateur record at 4.26″.

1970s slot car racing

Unfortunately the car was quite damaged during the attempt, so Ron raced the other car in the actual main event. I retained one of the cars, while Ron kept the other and eventually my friend Dennis Hill ended up with it. I asked another friend, Barry Obler to paint a replica of the body and he did a great job. I simply had to add some lettering and black body lines, and paint the rear view mirror and its shadow as per the Keiji original. The chassis needed a lot of repair work and was somewhat rusty but I managed to save most of it. Fortunately and thanks to the few who have donated material to our museum, we had a correct S25 Steube armature and I built a motor from a used Mura C-can, in the style of how Bill would have done it then.

1970s slot car racing

The car was then assembled, tested (it runs GREAT), and placed in a little showcase with a Photoshop compilation of a picture of the car taken in 1972, part of the very article Ron wrote for Miniature Auto Racing where he describes his qualifying, and a picture of Ron from “The Scale Competitor”, a rare one-issue newspaper published in 1973. We kept all this from Dennis Hill of course, so it was quite a surprise for him when I gave him the finished product, and he was crying like the proverbial water tap, which in fact was the intent. See, we LIKE to see Dennis being emotional because that is when he is at his best.