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East, West and South meet in Memphis

June 20, 2009

Going to Memphis…

The saga of a proud survivor of the first East-West confrontation in slot
car history.

By Philippe de Lespinay

After the Rod & Custom racing series of 1966, the Champion slot car racing Company of Chamblee, a suburb of Atlanta in Georgia, organized their first ARCO-series race in Memphis, Tennessee. This was suggested and partly financed by the United Fruit Company president Bruce Paschal, a man dedicated to the success of professional slot car racing.

Most everybody with a name showed up, including the unlikely team of John Cukras and Mike Steube, driving their way from California in the Cukras car. Notable racers also included the already unbeatable East Coast star Howard Ursaner of Team Russkit East as well as his team mate Sandy Gross. Team Champion was also present with its usual line-up of team captain Jack Lane, Bill Thirlwell, Ray Gardner and strong man Bob Cozine. Altogether over 150 racers made the trip, the cream of the crop of the burgeoning pro-racing class of slot racers nationwide.

Memphis’s most famous resident, Elvis Presley, had an American Model Raceways “Blue King” track in a room in his vast mansion, and a visit was organized to the mansion by local racers.

When the serious racing began, it was obvious that the only teams able to beat the “locals” as well as the Team Champion stars were the pairs of Cukras and Steube or that of Ursaner and Gross.

Both made it to the main event, and Ursaner led until his motor died. Cukras and Steube then drove to a relatively easy win in their Steube powered, Cukras-built car. This was one of the most important race in the history of the hobby and the first national race to be run with open-wheel cars. Indeed within a short period of time, the pros realized the aerodynamic advantages of Can-Am-style sports cars and switched to such. There were only a total of 3 more national-level races ever run with open-wheel cars, after which, sports cars or coupes were used to this day.

Bruce Paschal as he often did, acquired the winning car from John Cukras after the race. The car was used little if any after that, and remained in Bruce’s “magic” box for the next 35 years. In 2004, Bruce donated the box and it’s contents to the LASCM museum. To this writer’s stupefaction, the very first car seen upon opening the box was immediately identified as the winner of the Memphis race. An authentic treasure, an important part of the history of the hobby and a piece of Americana for future mechanically inclined generations. Junk for others…

The period magazines had a 4-page report on that important race. It showed the winning entry in detail. Steube and Cukras drove steadily and stunned the unsuspecting Team Champion stars, who believed that they would easily win the race.

To add insult to injury, the car also took Concours honors…

The car as found was still in excellent condition, just as it finished the race. The original motor was unfortunately missing. It is suspected that Bill Steube Sr. wanted it back rather than surrendering its secrets to the Champion stars if it changed hands over there. Rather than making a new motor from parts, we picked a similar period Steube motor found in Bruce’s box to restore the car.

The chassis was shown in detail in the period report, making the identification quite easy.

No doubt that the car is the correct machine as one can literally read the solder jointslike a fingerprint.

We decided to restore the car in a sympathetic way so as to preserve its originality as much as possible. A simple but thorough clean up was performed so as to bring the car to its pre-race condition. Here the car is as found, quite dirty and with decal and body damage.

The chassis was showing some corrosion that needed to be treated. A non-original Riggen gear had been fitted and was discarded. It was decided that the original rear tires would be retained as well as the lead wires and braided contacts.

Once the body was removed, dis-assembly began. The motor that was used is shown here.

The chassis was also slightly bent from a few off-track excursions during the race and needed a bit of straightening, made easy by its brass wire construction.

This was accomplished once all the parts had been removed from the frame.

Steve Okeefe made this beautiful drawing of a very similar frame and we put it here so that you may see the general and detail architecture of said frame. Only minor details differ from the Memphis car.

Time to address the motor. From observation of the period pictures, it appears that the motor was a modified Mabuchi FT16FD with the usual Steube treatment. We selected this one for the task. The original motor was a Kemtron-marketed unit with gold colored zinc plated can. It was somewhat corroded and was polished using a stiff still-wire brush.

Once apart, the motor revealed its slotted magnets (of unknown origin, possibly Johnson), its long-stack arm rewound with # 29 wire, hi-temp aircraft epoxy around the comm and re-shaped brush springs to increase tension.

The armature is typical early-1967 Steube with static balancing, polished stack, Kirkwood commutator and two kinds of epoxies set over the wires. Some rust was present on the pinion side.

The armature received a thorough cleansing in solvent followed by polishing of the stack and reconditioning of the commutator segments. The shaft was treated for corrosion and polished.

The magnets show their tighter air gap and feel rather strong. Armature clearance is only 5/1000″, rather tight for the time.

The motor after clean up and assembly. It screams on the power pack at only 6 volts. Must have been quit fast…

The pinion is a Weldun 7-tooth.

The chassis has now received an anti-corrosion treatment as well as a good cleanup that retains much of its original patina.

Time for a slight machining of the original tires and wheels to bring them back to life. The wheel was placed on an axle in the lathe and the outer lip of the wheel machined to remove the impacts suffered in the race. The tire was then slightly sanded to remove the accumulated dirt.

The motor is now fitted to the chassis as well as a new Cox 29-tooth crown gear. The original lead wires have been cleaned and re-fitted

The guide now back in place with lead wires installed. The front wheels also received a corrosion-removing treatment.

A clear view of the rebuilt motor in the cleaned frame.

Now ready to accept the restored body.

Now it is time to address the body and the driver. First, a thorough wash in Mineral Spirits, then with dish-washing liquid soap and lukewarm water. After a good rinse, a bit of paint touch up and some decal repair to complete the job.

The body has now been fastened to the completed chassis with four straight pins. From this angle, the gold can appears to be gray, just like in the magazine pictures.

After decal repair, a touch of black paint over the helmet and some red paint around the rear-view mirrors complete the project.

And now, a few detailed pictures…

Instruments are painted over the dashboard, adding a nice touch. Fortunately there was no damage to the cockpit so only minor cleanup was needed.

The driver is seriously busy inside the cockpit, trying to lower the car’s CD…

The car is now safely put away until the opening of the museum sometime in 2011.


4 Responses to “East, West and South meet in Memphis”
  1. visitor says:

    Wow! amazing work, the restoration looks awesome.

  2. Mark Hattley says:

    Having grown up in Memphis I was quite surprised to see this article, thanks for posting, what an awesome write up!! I remember …though vaguely… as a child going to the slot car races with my Dad. Now, here some forty years later us rediscovering this great hobby.

  3. Bob Hackl says:

    This is the kind of project I just love. Nicely done.

    Bob H.
    (Bernie’s Hollywood, 1966)

  4. Jerry Oleson says:

    Looks beautifull, I raced in the 60’s and 70’s at Celebrity Sports Center, Glendale, Colorado. It was actually owned by Disney

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