History of Slot Car Racing..by John Ford

The Short Story - by johnford@2fords.net
Scale Auto Racing News Magazine - http://www.scaleautoracing.com
Reference credits to: Rocky Russo, the late Jose Rodriguez, Phillippe de Lespinay, Dieter Bollinger.
Photo credits to: Heidi Gravius, Jeff Davies, Mark Gussin, John Ford.

The question is "Where did slot car racing come from"? I'll try and answer that with this short article.

Slot car racing was so popular in the 1960s that special racing events were televised live nationally on shows hosted by Mike Douglas, Steve Allen and Johnny Carson.

Even Ed Sullivan hosted a Nationally televised high-stakes race with slot cars which featured the top racing drivers of the day, including Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart, and Dan Gurney. It was a very amusing race. As with most novice slot car racers, the cars
spent as much time off the track as on and the flights the little cars
went on when barreling too fast through a corner were very impressive. 

 

 

 

 

 

The King... Elvis Presley had a room at Graceland totally devoted to slot cars. Rumors abounded that it was a King track, but further investigation revealed that it was a custom built design made to fit the room and built by famed Texas track builder Stan Engleman. 

According to an independent survey taken for AMF in 1968, there were more slot racing facilities than bowling alleys. AMF proceeded to buy the American Model Raceways company. They re-named the tracks AMF but never promoted slot racing in the U.S. and eventually closed the doors on an American legend. Before closing, they shipped all remaining tracks to Europe where several are still in operation today. Conversly, here in the U.S. there is not one AMF track left to prove they ever existed. It has been a long held theory that AMF closed slot racing manufacturing down in order to place more emphasis on their "new" sport of Bowling. As well as opening hundreds of AMF bowling centers, AMF became involved in the manufacture of the balls, shoes, and even shirts to promote the new American sport of bowling. The company American slot car tracks were gone but not forgotten. In 1980 I resurrected a modern day version of that company with the New American Slot Car Tracks, a company that built over 600 slot tracks between 1980 and 1997. New American tracks were the first to build tracks with medium density fiberboard (MDF), the first to use 4.5 inch lane spacing, the first to use "elliptical" lane spacing, the first to market tracks with magnetic braid, the first to use a "bottomless" design with narrow sides that "swoop" up and around to follow the surface, the first to market the triangle pattern legs, and in short, the first to develop the "look" of the modern day slot track. The first New American track was built by famed Swedish builder Hasse Nilsson and the now familiar triangle legs used by virtually all track builders today was designed by Csaba Szekelyhidi (Chubba) of Chicago. The decision to sell the company to it's shop foreman was made because of health problems of both Hasse Nelson and John Ford. Large commercial tracks as well as smaller home versions are being built by Ed and Carol Tunkel. Steve Ogilvie builds tracks in Canada and Hasse Nilsson is again building tracks in Europe. Other builders should contact me and I will put their information here as well.

It has been written that "Like much of pop culture from the late 60s and early 70s, the hobby wore thin, dwindled to hard-core enthusiasts and eventually died. BUT... like the "Hoola Hoop", "T-Shirts" and "CB Radios", no really good fad ever dies.


Slot car racing facilities continue to pop up today in strip malls and storefronts all over America. Their success is dependent on whether the owner is a good businessman rather than the popularity of Model Car Racing in the area. Racing "Scale" Auto's is just a popular as racing "Real" Auto's, and many more people can enjoy Scale Auto Racing than the real thing.
So, where did it come from. How did the idea to put a slot in a piece of wood or plastic come about?

It started in England, and was brought to America and other countries in the world by returning servicemen. In 1948, the war was over and leisure time was in abundance. Modeling became the perfect "at home" past time and a great many modelers wanted a system where model cars would motor around layouts in conjunction with trains and boats to produce a complete model layout. An article by Geoffrey Denson in the English magazine "Model Cars" is credited with starting the movement in Great Britain. His article was about a model car track system that used a raised "railroad" like rail to control the vehicle.

These were called Rail Cars and this system became the most popular in Great Britain up through the mid 50's. Alban Adams was a popular track builder in England and is credited with building the first recessed slot track. Reportedly because he was tired of his car "tripping" over the rail in the turns. Still, rail racing would be the track of choice in England well into the '60's.

It wasn't until the Americans became involved in the mid 50's that someone decided to put the cars in serious competition. Not that a few Englishmen didn't do it first (just ask any one of them today.) but it wasn't until America came up with the idea for the large commercial hobby shops with multiple lane raceways did the "need for speed" really become born. The first commercial raceway in the United States is credited to Tom Cook of Kalamazoo, Michigan. It was Tom, and a couple of friends, Harry Hedges and Bill Wilson that are reported to design the first slot track in the U.S. It was 1/40th scale and was installed in Tom's raceway in Kalamazoo.

In the early years, racing was not the foremost concern. Finding the right combination that would work reliably without going up in smoke was where the big effort was placed. It wasn't until the Americans became involved in the mid 50's that someone decided to put the cars in serious competition. Not that a few Englishmen didn't do it first (just ask any one of them) but it wasn't until the idea for commercial hobby shops with large 8 lane raceways did the "need for speed" really become born. The first American Magazine to report on this new hobby was "American Modeler". Their story on "Table Top Racing" in 1956 brought 300 replies for more information. More than any other article they had ever published.


The slot car of 1962 generally looked like this: The motor used an iron lump for a magnet and was of railroad train origin. The frame was a very simple connection between the motor and the axles. The guide just sat there in the slot, commonly it was just a pin with brushes dangling on either side. The rubber tires were derived from some other source, such as static car kits or model aircraft or Toys.

Bodies were either of model origin (Plastic), carved from balsa (sometimes covered in nylon), or made from fiberglass. Scale was usually 1/32 scale or 1/30.



In the middle '60's the typical car changed. Cars without steering got a drop arm. Tracks were rough, the drop arm was supposed to follow the vagaries of the track surface. We struggled with this turkey idea for years and never did get it right. In any case, the first Vac-u-formed bodies came out, most notably from American Russkit.

They were very accurate looking, and in 1/24 scale due to the large commercial racing centers becoming more common.


In 1966 slot racing became the American Hobby. There were clubs everywhere in 1/32, and more than enough 1/24 commercial centers to be noticed and running gear was similar to that of 1963.

The 1/24 motor of choice was the Pittman, the chassis usually a Tube "space frame" of 4 rails in a box configuration holding everything together.

 

 

 

Dynamic Aluminum frames were competitive with the scratch built and gave a real boost to commercial track racing. Most would-be racers were not car builders. Lionel, Varney, Eldon and Aurora weighed into the big car classes lending credibility to the hobby. The next big change in chassis was underway in the Midwest. It became known as the pan chassis.

 

Until the pan, all chassis were essentially designed to just tie things together. The pan/plate was the first chassis idea developed whose intent was to make the car faster in the corner. Later, the position of the motor was taken into account. In line allowed the use of wider tires. Full side winder gave the best traction at the rear, and in about 1967, the "angle winder" became the choice.

It placed the motor in the chassis at an angle allowing the use of smaller gears and still giving the traction advantages of side winder set ups.

Also at this time, the first "real" Mabuchi motors became available. Revell and Russkit started improving the Mabuchi 16D, the literal ancestor to the motor in every slot car today; and they started importing the 36D. This was the same motor but much larger. The 16D motor was 16 millimeters high; the 36D was 24 millimeters high. I have no idea where the 36D part came from.The 36D was the weapon of choice on the commercial tracks for the next couple years. It was much cheaper, made similar power, and displaced the railroad motors on the commercial tracks. The smaller 16D was the motor of choice for the 1/24 racers building skinny Formula 1 racers of the period.

The adaption of the Mabuchi 16D was the second big step in getting to the modern slot car. Around 1966, slot car design started breaking up. The usual commercial track was 150 feet long with 30+ foot straights. The conditions were so different that winning required radically different things from the cars. In the 1/32 clubs, cars got heavier and heavier in an attempt at better cornering. In 1/24, the cars mostly got lighter and lighter.The motors were not that strong, and "Rewinding" was the big fad, producing a lot of blown motors as the enthusiasts experimented with what would deliver the most horsepower with the most reliability. Much like NASCAR today. Some motors produce big horsepower, some produce big "Smoke". The model railroad derived motors just disappeared.

Charles Pittman, the best of the railroad motor guys tried producing his own can-style motor. The quality was astounding, the speed was not. Cheap Japanese motors that were being rewound by everyone in sight drove the expensive Pittman out. Factory rewinds from companies like Dyna-Rewind and Champion became available. And Mabuchi came out with a new size motor, the 26D that was an attempt to compromise between the torque of the 36D and the speed of the 16D. But so many builders were working on 16D's, that the 26D proved to be a dead end. Many years later, Bob Green of Mura motors started producing a can that was smaller but used the same 16D sized armature. It was called the "Green Can".

Champion came out with their version called the "C-Can". This size is still used today in many of the medium racing brackets. As is the case with everything, today, the unlimited Group 7 type motors have a "home made" look with just a small strap of metal wrapped around high strength magnets and an unmeltable endbell. Smaller, but with the same concept of the once popular Pittman type motors of old.

 

 


Prior to the "Golden Years", the foundation of our hobby was already in place. Car Model magazine did a survey of slot racing in 1964. Their results showed that there were some 15 manufacturers that reportedly did 100 million in sales in 1963. At that time, hobby shops rated trains as their number one seller. After that time, they reported that trains were second behind slot car sales. 1966 through 1968 were the "golden" years. There were reportedly some 20,000 commercial tracks in operation involving almost every town in America. Tracks such as AMF's American and

Stan Engleman's Hi-Speed and Altech were in great abundance. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, Slot Car Racing was EVERYWHERE, even on prime time TV!


It may seem like a small thing, but one of the real changes that affected racing was the invention of the Dynamic guide. This is the father of every guide in use today. Until this guide, there was no standard. Braid was cut from strips and screw mounted to the guide. With the new Dynamic guide, braid came with clips that plugged into the front of the guide. The guide itself was secured to the drop-arm by collets or nuts. The modern flag is just a modification of this original idea.

 

I have mentioned the type of guidance systems, the frames, and the motors, but as yet I haven't discussed the bodies. Up to this point, all the bodies were pure scale models. Most serious tracks required the tires to fit UNDER the body. The superlight in-line Formula one/Indy car had all the fast lap times in the commercial centers because they did not have to struggle with these problems.

Air control began to make an appearance in the late 60's. Up to this point, all bodies were scale.

People started lowering and flaring the fenders on sports cars out to the (at the time) 3" limit. And adding wings! Not the big, non-scale air dams of today, but scale sized wings with end plates. The reason was that real full-size cars were also sprouting wings. Power was so much better that the Midwest style 1/32 pan became common on all the cars, any scale or type.

 


The typical California style pro-car was a brass or steel wire chassis with outrigger pan mounts and a drop arm. In the east the same car usually had a full pan so loosely mounted that it rattled. Everyone used the 16D motor with an unbalanced armature was probably about 65 turns of #30 wire. The motor usually had a stronger set aftermarket set of magnets. Essentially the equivalent of the current Group 10 flexi-type motor. Also, some people were tinkering with no drop arms. A radical idea at the time. How fast were these cars compared to today? On the blue king, there were 2 banked turns, the main bank and 10 degrees in the finger. The fast lap of a pro car was 6.2 seconds. The car was usually four main rails of brass, with a 26D and a #29 single wind but things were changing almost weekly.

 

In late 1967, Dynamic introduced the 'handling' body. All other bodies at the time were scale so racers, the serious guys, started selecting the widest body they could find and chopping it down as low as possible. A lot of tracks banned these and required factory available bodies. Dynamic complied by marketing a line of sports car bodies uniformly 3 1/8ths inch wide (the width maximum of the time) and flat as they could get.


In early 1969, Dynamic, long the standard in Formula III/Group 12 racing came out with a new car. The chassis was stamped out of brass and it was an ANGLE WINDER. This was the car that made "Group Racing" practical. It handled nearly as well as the scratchbuilt. It came with a 16D motor, good magnets, and #30 single wind armature very much like the one found today in the modern day ready to run slot car.


At the same time the manufacturers got together and agreed to limited class racing. The Classes? Group 12, Group 15, Group 20, Group 7 (open). For the first time, a racer could buy an off the shelf car, travel anywhere and be legal.

The classifications were set up like this. A group 12 ready to run car would cost no more than 12 dollars, a group 15 would cost no more than 15 dollars, a group 20 would sell for no more than 20 dollars, and the group 7 was named after the popular

Can-Am Group 7 class in 1 to 1 scale sports car racing. Just like its namesake, it was an "Open" class, meaning that as long as the size restraints were adhered to, there was no restrictions.


This article is not intended to determine what caused the golden age of slot car racing to end. Life is just that way. Things which grow too big too fast come back down to earth just as fast. Fads are like fashion however, and if you wait long enough... They'll come back.

 

 

 

Actually, slot car racing never left completely but with the demise of the last slot car orientated magazine in late 1975, the ability for slot racers around the world to communicate was ended. Most commercial raceways were gone by 1972 and only a few die hard raceways with dedicated owners and customers hung on.


I had big aspirations back in 1979 when I started publishing Scale Auto Racing News. The Slot Car Magazine for the new era of slot racing. I had dreams of selling thousands of magazines and single handedly bringing the sport of slot racing back to the prominent place it deserved. I was still young, and didn't realize that it would take so long.
When I began my research for the publishing of a magazine (Scale Auto Racing News) back in 1978, I could only find 38 raceways to send the first copies to.

 

It was printed on newsprint, and sold for 25. I printed one thousand, and it took several years for that issue to sell out.

 

Today, it is printed on glossy paper with full color on half the pages. Over 5000 copies are printed and distribution is world wide.

My dream of seeing slot car racing regain it's popularity is now a reality but it wasn't just me that did it. It was a struggle of more than 25 years and the efforts of many diehards like myself to bring the hobby / sport of slot car racing back to the public. Every manufacturer of modern day slot cars and parts, the availability of new slot car tracks from at least four different builders, every other magazine, failed and successful, every former racer that loved the hobby and has come back, and every slot car raceway owner who bucks the odds by opening a business that no one thinks will work.

It is a combination of all these things which has brought us to where we are today.

There are more than 300 commercial raceways in business now in America, with over 600 in my database including clubs and part time operations. Almost twice that number exist world wide and every country has someone who knows about our little hobby that started out in Europe as an idea to make a complete scale replica of a town, with scale trains, scale boats on a lake, and scale autos moving along roads through the countryside.

Today, major competitions exist on large tracks in commercial raceways all over the United States. At left is just such a race, the Slot Car Nationals held on a modern day King track, designed after the original American King track of the 60's.

There is more to this story, but it must be written like you eat an elephant. One bite at a time. I have much more in my archives. Pictures of the past and stories of great interest. I have started a pictorial history page HERE. So instead of saying "The End", I'll say, the story of Scale Auto Racing will continue.... jf

An exhaustive effort to keep a modern day list of slot car raceways around the world is the task of many people who have the time. One of them is on the internet at: http://www.scaleautoracing.com/rcwys