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Slot Car Racing in the Heartland

February 7, 2011
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Local slot car series helps racers rekindle childhood pastime

Slot Car RacingHere’s a great article about some “old timers” getting back into slot car racing! We love these kinds of stories!

Their reaction times may not be as quick, but the drivers still have their 2-inch vehicles zooming around the electric track with respectable whirrs and soothing purrs.

Their courses may not have the electronic panache that accompanies the hottest new video game system, but the races still elicit an equal number of “oohs” and “ahhs.”

And though their pastime is several decades removed from being en vogue, that hasn’t stopped a local group of slot car enthusiasts from dusting off their throttle fingers and having just as much fun huddled around the track as they did when they were youngsters.

Members of the HO Scale Electric Racing Series have been rediscovering their childhood passion through a six-month circuit that tests their technical skill and the mettle of their miniature marvels. Much of the local interest can be drawn back to the success of multiple Rapid Citians who gained national notoriety by winning the Ford-Aurora Grand National Model Motoring Championships in the 1960s.

A latent love for slot car racing is partly what brought Fred Goetze, the 1966 state champion, back to the track more than four decades later and into the group, which runs its annual schedule from October through March.

The spotlight event is an invitational put on by series founder and organizer Warren Pfenning that occurs in the holiday bubble around New Year’s Day. Goetze ventured into the invite a couple of years back and cautiously took in the sights.

What he found both put him at ease and reignited the flame.

“My main reason for doing this again was that I came to the invitational, and I wanted to check out who was here,” said Goetze, who now is a series regular. “I decided, ‘OK, this is a pretty good group of guys.’ So I decided to go ahead.

“But I’m still shaking off the rust.”

Pfenning said the series has been relatively organized for the past eight years, and the group has been racing together for about a decade. This year’s circuit encompasses three mini-seasons, each of which centers on a different class of vehicle.

The cars may look the same to the untrained eye, but underneath the plastic bodies lies a conglomeration of parts that affect its speed and handling. In fact, there are enough pieces to the car that a decent-performing vehicle can cost $60 or more, Pfenning said.

“The different classes move from really stock slot cars to a progressively higher performance car,” fellow competitor Karl Satterlee said. “As you have more add-ons, more precision parts, each class gets better and better that way.

“… The stock cars you can buy out of the case, put the little silicone tires on it and race it. The next class, well, you’re going to throw in some extra pieces and parts. The next class, you’re really going to put the time and effort into it to make sure you have a decent car.”

Drivers also have specialized controllers that manage anything from the amount of resistance a car has on the track to whether the car automatically has the power to coast around corners.

The group gets together each Sunday in-season — the only open dates are around Christmas and on the day of NASCAR’s Daytona 500 — and a driver’s overall performance slots him or her on a points scale that determines a season-long champion, just like in professional racing series.

Most races are of the round-robin variety, in which cars spend an equal amount of time on each of the track’s four or six lanes as drivers try and amass the greatest number of laps. A racer’s progress is electronically timed and scored.

The complexity of the series may seem a bit overwhelming, and to be fair, the competition isn’t taken lightly. Some of the more-accomplished racers have car collections numbering in the several hundreds.

At the same time, laughter and good-natured ribbing accompany almost every weekend, and each crash is met with energetic hoopla.

“What makes it fun? You’re looking at it,” Pfenning said during one of the group’s recent racing weekends. “It’s competition and a good group of guys. It doesn’t get any better than this. It’s a great thing you can do on a Sunday afternoon.”

To continue the circuit feel, racers are rotating among six unique tracks this winter that are housed in garages and workshops across town. New to the fold within the past month is the old Aurora tub track that was housed at the Toy Hobby Center on St. Joseph Street during the height of the slot-car fad.

Pfenning is keeping the track, which is on loan from its owner, Frank Birkholt Jr., of Hot Springs, within the upstairs workshop of a local electric constructor company. The group spent the better part of four months refurbishing the track and getting it ready for use at the start of 2011.

“We just cleaned it off, waxed it, buffed it out,” Pfenning said. “Most of the track had years of soda pop spilled on it. So we unscrewed it and pried it all up out of there. It was just so full of pop and gunk.”

Goetze didn’t bother toning down his enjoyment when describing racing once more on Rapid City’s “home track.”

“It’s just really nice to have the tub track back and be racing on it after 45 years,” he said. “It’s the exact same track.”

Pfenning hopes the group will be able to purchase the track outright someday. The Aurora track, like many of the tracks in the series, can handle almost any variety of slot car.

That doesn’t mean, however, that all cars work equally well on each track. In the same way that each racer adapts to his or her own driving style, Pfenning said success is all about finding the most comfortable match of car and course.

And possessing razor-sharp hand-eye coordination doesn’t guarantee success, either.

“It’s not as easy as you think,” Goetze said.

But just about every driver would agree that both speeding down the straightaway and spinning out of control are equal parts of an ageless fun.

Source: Rapid City Journal

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