by Bob Ward
In this article we will show you the essentials of what slot cars and slot car race sets are, how they work, and what to expect when you or your child start out in the slot car hobby.
Thank you for choosing Victory Lap Hobbies as a place to shop for your first slot car race set. We want every new participant in the slot car hobby to have a fun, successful first experience with it. This is especially true for children, who need a careful introduction to slot car racing and some mentoring along the way to get the full measure of fun with the fewest problems. Adult beginners also can benefit from some advance information about what to expect.
If you aren’t familiar with slot cars from personal experience you may not know exactly what slot cars and race sets are. They are not the same as Hot Wheels or other forms of toy car racing you or your children may have played with, and we want you to know how slot cars are different and what it takes to get the most fun and satisfaction from them.
A slot car is a miniature car powered by an electric motor. The slot cars we sell at VLH are 1/32 scale (4 to 6 inches long) or 1/43 scale (3 to 4 inches long). The slot car’s motor drives the rear wheels or, in some cases, all four wheels. Every slot car has a pin or blade-shaped guide that extends below the bottom of the car near the front. The guide follows a slot in the track surface, steering the car around the track, hence the name slot car racing. To the left and right of the slot there is a metal strip that conducts electrical current from a power pack that plugs into a wall outlet. The power pack steps down voltage from 110 to 12-16 and converts it from alternating current (AC) to direct current (DC). This makes the voltage and amperage completely safe for all users, including children. Pieces of flat braided steel or copper wire on either side of the car’s guide pick up the current from the track’s metal strips to power the car’s motor and propel it around the track. The driver uses a hand-held controller with a trigger to vary the car’s speed. Slot cars are powered and controlled by the same electrical principles as model trains, with which you may have experience.
A slot car race set consists of assembled and ready-to-run (RTR) cars, a power supply, hand-held controllers, and a number of straight and curved plastic track sections that snap together to form a racing course. Most sets also include some accessories such as guard rails, overpass supports, and even, in some higher-end sets, a lap counter. All present-day race sets come with instructions for setup, operation, and maintenance that most people find easy to follow. All the components snap or plug together, with no tools required. With the exception of a few race sets that come without cars for people who want to choose and purchase their cars separately, your race set will have everything you need to begin racing, right there in the box.
Many kinds of car racing toys use an external device, like powered rollers, to propel an unpowered car around a track. That’s how Hot Wheels tracks work. Another common form of toy racing uses cars driven by internal batteries powering an electric motor. Neither requires any control inputs by by the user. You just put the car on the track and around the racing course it goes at its top speed, held onto the track by walls at the edges.
Unlike these toys, slot cars will come off the track if driven too fast around a curve. Your child has to drive his car by using the controller to vary its speed, slowing down on the curves. The basic premise of slot car racing, the thing that makes it fun, is that you can’t just watch the car blast around the course flat-out. The winner is the driver who can drive his or her car closest to its limits at every point on the track without exceeding them and making the car spin out, roll over, or plow straight off. If your child stays with the hobby very long he will discover the added element of modifying the cars to make them faster, but to start with the object will be to drive the cars as fast as possible just as they are.
The essential point is that the racer does have to drive his car and that requires a learning curve. Children and even adults just starting out often can’t keep the car on the track for very long without driving it out of the slot. This can be frustrating, especially for children who have never encountered anything like this before. Sometimes it leads to tears or even tantrums and may make the parent think that slot cars are no fun or that the cars and track just don’t work. That can be upsetting to a parent or even to an adult beginner who may conclude that the race set was not a good purchase. However, if the beginner sticks with it he or she usually figures it out with experience and soon is making lap after successful lap and having a lot of fun.
Most children age 6 or over have the coordination, attention span, and general level of awareness they need to acquire the necessary skills in a reasonable length of time. I’ve seen kids as young as 4 who can handle it and some older children who just don’t quite get it yet. If your child gets frustrated and clearly isn’t getting the hang of it, all it usually takes to retrieve the situation is a relatively brief break from the slot cars followed by some gentle coaching. Worst case, you may need to put the race set away for a while until the child develops a bit more maturity.
I might add that I’ve seen children and adults with some degree of developmental challenge who have picked up the skill of driving a slot car quite readily and have become good at it. I’ve also seen that it’s a competitive enterprise that can work well for individuals with some kinds and degrees of physical limitations. If a member of your family has issues of these kinds and you think he or she would benefit from and enjoy racing slot cars it may well be worth considering.
You should be aware that for children (and even some adults) crashing is often the greater part of the fun at first. If your child is crashing every lap and grinning, that’s all right as long as you have equipped your track with cars made to stand up to it. VLH has lots of crashworthy cars and sets that come with them to choose from. After a while, the beginner usually gets over the crashing phase and then moves on to racing and winning.
More than anything else your child needs an appropriate degree of adult supervision until you are satisfied that he or she has is able to play with the race set properly and has enough driving skill to enjoy it. The best way to supervise is to race with your children. You will have as much fun as they do, and the time spent together is beyond price.
Because slot cars and race sets are mass-produced products they will experience the occasional random component failure. If this is going to happen it’s almost always soon after you start using the race set. Victory Lap Hobbies provides expert technical support that will resolve any problems and get you and your family back to racing as quickly as possible. The VLH team can also help you with any problems you may have in setting up and using your race set. Tech help is just a phone call or e-mail away.
Slot cars and race sets, unlike most of your child’s toys, will need some routine maintenance to keep working properly. The track and the cars need to be kept clean. The cars’ axle and motor bushings need to be oiled (though very sparingly and not often). The pickup braids on the cars need regular cleaning, adjustment and eventual replacement. This is all easy to do and VLH has all the needed parts and supplies. You can help your child learn responsibility by teaching him or her to maintain a race set.
Most race sets do not have to be set up exactly the way they are shown on the box or on our web site. You can put the track sections together in different combinations to build a layout that fits the space you have to work with, and you don’t necessarily have to use all the track sections. You can change the layout as often as you or your child wants to create new driving challenges, to make the layout larger or smaller and change the degree of difficulty, or to make it into a model your favorite full-sized race track. The larger the set and the more track sections it includes the more layout options you will have. You can buy additional track sections to expand the layout to any size and design you can imagine. Also, there are many different cars from a number of different manufacturers you can buy to run on it.
One thing that makes today’s slot car sets and track systems really user-friendly is that a slot car layout made up of snap-together plastic track sections does not have to be set up permanently. With a little practice even grade school-age children can assemble and disassemble most plastic track layouts quickly and easily with no problems. Most track systems are designed and manufactured to be used this way and will stand up to repeated assembly and disassembly even by children who may not always handle the components with the greatest of care. This means that the kids can change the layout as often as they like, adding to fun and long-term interest. If you live where space is at a premium you can snap and plug everything together on the living room or bedroom floor, race for a day or evening, and then quickly disassemble and stow everything away until next time. The race set box serves as a storage case, and even larger layouts built from multiple sets plus added track sections do not require a great deal of storage space.
A carpeted floor (as opposed to a table) is actually the best place to set up the track when your kids are learning to drive and going through the crashing stage because it gives errant cars a soft landing and no dive to a hard floor. A bed sheet laid over the carpet before assembling the track keeps carpet fibers, cookie crumbs, pet hair, and similar common household debris out of the cars. Later on, if you and your family have the desire and the available space you can build a permanent detailed layout on a table or benchwork like a model train layout.
If you have spent much time researching various slot car web sites you may have seen articles and forum posts that don’t speak well of racing slot cars on plastic sectional track using traction magnets (rare-earth magnets placed on the bottom of the car) to increase cornering grip. The writers of these articles and posts hold the view that racing without magnets on a wood track you build yourself is the only way to go and better than any other kind of slot car racing. They have their arguments but the truth is that only 2 to 5 percent of all the slot car racers in the world race this way. This 2 to 5 percent, however, tend to dominate the popular slot car forums and they can easily give people the very mistaken idea that sooner or later they will have to go to the effort and expense of building a wood track. This is a project most people lack the time, skill, equipment, or motivation to tackle. It’s a form of slot racing you may want to try someday, but the vital thing to know is that the 95 to 98 percent who race on plastic tracks, with or without magnets as they may prefer, are having lots of fun. You can be confident that the race set you buy to start out with will serve you well for many years to come and provide you with a great deal of racing enjoyment.
Another mistaken impression you can easily get from the Internet is that mass-produced slot cars in general are nothing more than toys and that to make them really raceworthy you need to spend serious money, often more than the car’s original price, replacing many of its components with expensive aftermarket parts. I won’t go into a lot of detail on this other than to say that this is also very much a minority view within the slot car hobby. VLH carries a wide selection of aftermarket parts and if you really need them for the type and level of racing you are competing in they are well worth their prices, but the beginning slot car racer should understand that most hobbyists can achieve all the performance they are ever likely to need with no more than minimal car modifications, usually just magnets and tires. This is because unless you are going to race in high-level organized events your goal will be not to make every one of your cars as fast as you can but to make all of them as equal as possible with a performance level and driving characteristics that satisfy you. You don’t need to spend a lot of money on upgrades to do this. And even if you do get into anything-goes competition you probably will modify only one or a few of your cars to the required level, not all or even most of them. So, you can be assured that you can keep costs well in hand.
Slot cars and tracks can become a lifelong constructive hobby that grows and changes along with the hobbyist. A fun and successful first experience can lead to many years of enjoyment and satisfaction. We at VLH want to make that possible for all our customers.
If you have questions, as most first-time purchasers do, you can e-mail us at (insert e-mail address here) or call us at (insert phone number here). We’ll be glad to give you all the information and advice you need. And if you already have a race set and just need help sorting out problems with it or deciding where you want to go with the hobby we can help you with that, too. Good racing and have fun!
Copyright ©2014 Robert M. Ward. All rights reserved.