Top Stories from the Features pages of the International Herald Tribune,
Friday, December 27, 1996
Racing for Laps, and We Don't Mean Santa's: The Slot-Car Revival
By Brad Spurgeon International Herald Tribune
CHEVILLY-LARUE, France - It was an embarrassing moment: I rolled the car three times before completing a single lap of the circuit. I did it under the watchful eyes of a Formula One driver and a 12-year-old boy who, when I finally did complete a few laps, was turning times five seconds faster than mine with a car his mom had bought him.
I had my excuses, not least of which that I'd never driven a race car 320 kilometers an hour (200 mph) down the straightaway of a track before. Fortunately this track was only 52 meters long, the car was a 1/24th size model ‹ and I was clearly not inside it. Still, like kids of all ages, I was thoroughly enjoying the 1990s revival of a 1960s fad: slot-car racing.
The concept of a miniature car racing down a track with a guide flag under the chassis sticking in a slot ‹ and powered by the electrical contact made by wire braids against the track ‹ was reputedly born in the mid-'50s after the British magazine Model Maker published an article about someone's similar earlier invention.
During its heyday, the slot-car racing industry was a $500-million-a-year business. In 1960, one company, Aurora, sold 2 million kits and 12 million cars in the United States alone. In 1963, England created a federation of racers, and the decade that followed was to see a worldwide expansion, with 3,000 public raceways in the United States and 200 in Europe. At the Palais Berlitz in Paris in 1966, one race attracted 10,240 drivers vying for the grand prize of a real car.
By the early 1970s, however, the fad was being killed by its own success and poor organization. Professional slot-car racers went to commercial venues and won all the races, leaving amateurs little opportunity to taste the thrill of winning. So the amateurs began to stick to their small home slot-car tracks.
While the sale of those children's toys never ceased, it is only in the last few years that the commercial track has been reborn.
Anyone Can Do It
The track where I had my initiation, the FLF1 Competition Center in Chevilly-Larue, east of Paris, was founded by a French Formula One driver, Franck Lagorce, after he rediscovered his boyhood toy track in his parents' attic. His aim is to open up slot-car racing to everyone.
The 12-year-old who outpaced me, Franck Clerc, has been going to the track with his friends after school almost every day since it opened in September. He has set fastest-lap records twice.
One of the advantages to slot-car racing is that anyone can do it, and without risk of injury.
''The clients can be 70 years old,'' said Lagorce. ''And women win races here too. This is not a macho activity or one where women do not have their place. There are lots of children, but I won't hide the fact that the average age is 30. Generally the first time they come, parents bring their children; then they return without the children so they can play themselves.''
As he spoke, a client was running his car alone, trying to set a lap record against the timer ‹ which is good to the thousandth of a second. Nicolas Legendre, 29, a computer technician by profession, takes part in races, but also works out alone with his 1/24 prototype racers, which go faster than the more popular model, the 1/32.
Does it make him feel like a race car driver?
''A little,'' he said. ''The cars react a little like a real car and you can set them up like a real one too. I've been going to real races since I was 14 years old and I've played with these things since I was really small too, at home. But this is nothing like that. It's something else. The cars, the control handles, the brakes. Once you've tasted this, you come back.''
Lagorce says his is the biggest commercial track in Europe, with the fastest lap turning at a record 13.84 seconds. It's a six-lane track that can be divided into two smaller ones. The center runs races almost daily, from sprints to six-hour, 12-hour, and is even planning a 24-hour race.
What draws adults as well as kids to this Lilliputian game?
''I've met people here who have said, 'I had nothing to do, and I'm a little too fat to play tennis, so this is great for me,''' says Lagorce. ''Today they have several cars, and they come almost every day. They come for the spirit of competition.''
They also return because it is relatively inexpensive. Track time is bought by the hour, with a computer chip card that costs 100 francs ($19). It may be used minute-by-minute, or for an hour straight. Ready-to-race cars may be rented, or bought for as little as 150 francs.
THE fad has caught on again around the world. In some countries where there are no commercial sites, such as Finland, there are private clubs. Kimmo Rautama, Finnish representative to the International Slot Racers Association, notes on the ''SlotSide'' Internet Web site that all the 20 or so tracks used for organized racing in Finland ''are owned by the community, church or motor racing club, so it costs virtually nothing to be a member.''
SlotSide (www.interlog.com/~abell/slotside) also provides a list of addresses for commercial sites in 20 countries. Japan, for example, has several centers; the largest, Slot Racing Park, in Tokyo, boasts an 8-lane track, a Formula One style track and a Daytona style banking track.
Lagorce designed the shape of his track himself. It is an ideal layout for him ‹ but only for slot car racing. In real life Formula One racing, he admits, ''it wouldn't pass the safety tests.''
As I watched my car roll over again at the hairpin, I agreed.
Back to Samples Index