Before there were iPads and PlayStations, before there were smartphones, and before there was Pac-Man or even Pong, there was slot car racing. In the 60s and 70s, slot sets were at the top of every kid’s Christmas list, ahead of even BB guns and baseball gloves. And, while most people today under 40 have never heard of the hobby, slot car racing is alive and well in the 21st century. You just have to know where to look.
The Early Days: from Tracks to Slots
Lionel introduced the first slot sets in 1912. They used model train rails sunk into the surrounding layout to hold the tiny cars in place. Commercial sales were limited due to the iffy product quality, and slot car competition was relatively unknown until the mid-1950s.
Then along came British-American engineer and racing fan Derek Brand, whose name is still whispered in awe among slot car enthusiasts. He designed the electric motors that enabled manufacturers to build cars in 1:32 and 1:24 scale versions. This, in turn, allowed for smaller track sizes, including sets that could fit in an average-sized living room.
Slot car racing kits appeared on store shelves in the US in 1960. They were instant hits with the public, and by 1963 companies like Aurora had sold over 1.5 million units. By the mid-60s Brand and his partners had built stronger, more reliable motors that pushed the hobby’s popularity even higher. For the next 15 years or so every kid in America, along with millions of adults, waited with breathless anticipation as the industry released new models. Tracks got longer and companies added features like roundabouts and upside-down loops.
The public craze began to level off in the mid-70s, about the same time that retailers like Sears started selling the first consumer video game systems. Unbeknownst to many, however, the hobby never died; it simply became more specialized. Sites like electricdreams.com sell new sets ranging in price from under $100 to larger layouts costing hundreds or even thousands of dollars.
The biggest advance in slot car technology since the glory days, though, was the recent introduction of multi-lane racing. In vintage sets, the number of cars on the track was determined by how many slots were built into it. Control of the vehicle was limited to slowing down at curves and speeding up on straightaways. Take a curve too fast and your machine would “de-slot” and go flying across the house, to mom’s dismay and dad’s consternation.
Nowadays, however, operators can move their vehicles in and out of lanes at will, thanks to modern electronics. This has already reinvigorated interest in the hobby and is creating a rising generation of fans, making it possible that slot car racing’s best days are yet ahead.
Image Credit: Slotcarracing.org, Slotcarillustrated.com, 132slotcar.us