A history of slot cars race to oblivion and back.
“Speed kills” is true in many contexts, even in the fun zone that is slot car racing. to understand this, and keep things fun, let’s go to history and physics. I said fun, right?
Electrically powered model cars were used in the 1890s. Early versions were free-running like R/C cars today, but real fun began when the cars did not carry their own power or wander about, but instead could race on tracks for as long as the fun lasted. So, by 1908 we had model cars racing on the “Brickyard” model racing track by the American Ives Manufacturing Company. But these were clockwork powered and never more than a prototype, so we can’t quite credit an American first. The Germans, after claiming to invent the first bicycle and first motor car, electrified the track, advertised and sold them in 1909, so they can claim the first electric model racing track too.
Back in America, Lionel-Cowan, already bored with their train sets in 1912, built 1/24 scale Stutz Bearcat cars that ran independently side by side. Being train men, it seems that giving the cars independent control so that so that the public could do more than admire their handiwork moving in circles, did not occur to them.
Not much progress was made during WW1 or the 1918 Covid. After all that dying, things roared through the 20’s with little interests in toy cars as the rich played with their big toys. By the 1930’s the masses had no money to buy small toys, but necessity being a mother, inventors were hard at her producing a variety of promising forms. In England, where social clubs thrived especially in proximity to pubs, model car racing was a hit, but somehow rails were still favored over slots.
Another distraction intervened with WW2, followed by explosions of innovation. Model airplanes were grounded during the war as they could panic the locals who might mistake them for full-sized enemy, so their engines were placed in cars. Noisy engines and smoke being in fashion, there was a flowering of internal combustion powered model cars run on converted Velodromes and special tracks with rails.
Watching things run in circles never goes out of fashion and those who used to fly their model planes like a locomotive kite a on a string invented the tether car. Attaching a wire to a post and standing outside the circle was less dizzying and made a dandy excuse to hold a stopwatch. Since driving these toys was left to small rubber legless men, competition to build faster cars to impress the stopwatch man was on. Speeds went up and soon standing around a smoky circle watching 12 pound missiles held by a thin wire fly by at close range started making people nervous. You can see them now in actual books and physical museums, so they are forgotten.
Speed was up on the full sized tracks too and the arms race that had been on the battlefield moved to automotive engineering. The Germans were dominating racing again even without Louis Hamilton. Mercedes took a break from racing in 1955 after one of their cars scythed through the crowded stands at Lemans and burst into magnesium flames killing something more than 83 of those with the best view. The 1957 Memorial day weekend saw the irony of “Fireball” Roberts barbequed in a stadium full of NASCAR fans, Pat O’Connor becoming the 27th driver to die at the Brickyard, and Erwin Bauer killed in a Ferrari Testa Rosa the Nürburgring. Under pressure from congress, US auto manufacturers dropped support of racing in 1958, but when Ford returned to racing at Indianapolis in 1964 to push their Mustang, 1964, Eddie Sachs and Dave McDonald were incinerated in front of their VIP box. By the late 1960’s 30% of Formula One drivers died racing. So, speed was taking its toll.
In the safer arena of post-war model racing cars, slotted tracks finally displaced rails. Interesting engineering flourished as men turned their attention away from killing to making things to sell so they could buy things they could not yet afford. None yet cracked the code for commercial success. Victory Industries Products turned their war-time engineering and manufacturing to toy cars with some success but were defeated by the superior marketing firepower of Scalextric. In fact, Scalextric became a synonym for slot cars in most of the English-speaking world. Carrera prevailed among the Germans and the Spanish borrowed the Scalextric name as a generic for their several slot car companies except in trademark litigant countries.
Finally, slot cars were mass produced and as the 1960’s dawned. The growing industry not only attracted manufacturers, but soon large commercial track franchises were opening displacing bowling allies and pool halls nationwide. By 1968, there were about 5,000 commercial raceways in the US and more Americans were lining up in them to drive their slot cars than were participating in bowling, tennis and soccer combined! By the end of the 1960’s The US had won the race to the moon, with a big push from x-Nazi German, Verner von Braun.
Full size racing was also getting interesting in the 1960s. Ford was chasing Ferrari at Lemans, Indy cars were varied a with engines in front, behind, in the middle and even borrowed from helicopters. Gran Prix teams in national colors gave way to corporate sponsorship opening the triangular trade floodgates of marketing, broadcasting, and consumers. Sports car racing was a hierarchy of engine, weight, and horsepower limiting rules until the creation of the CanAm series. That series opened a Pandora’s box of commercial sponsorship prize money and few rules at all, thereby attracting innovative engineers, talented drivers, passionate racing fans and savvy marketers. Combined, these produced the richest and most exciting racing in history until it didn’t.
Fortunately, apart from Bruce Mclaren’s fatal accident, driver death was not the cause of CanAm’s demise. The root cause was the very unrestricted nature of the rules that made it interesting in the first place. As exciting as the cars, their variety and development were, races were rarely close. The team with a technological edge ran away from the others deciding many races before they started. When Porsche came in and massively upped the speeds with the 917 series cars (those Germans again) all the other teams gave up. So, the unrestricted pursuit of speed killed the series.
Of course it is important to manage racing so that one driver or team does not dominate and discourage others, as F1 is learning thanks to the unending victory laps of Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes from you-know-where. But even with slot cars, raceway owners found that unless they established a strong beginners program they had less than 2 years of paying the rent before their best customers got real fast and chased away all others. Several attempts at a national governing body failed and since people still believed in doing things in person, a national conference to settle the matter once and for all in Chicago was set, then lost to the Blizzard of 1967.
As the commercial slot car industry grew, dozens of manufacturers got in the game and thousands of track owners bought inventory. As faster cars and parts were introduced, the obsolete stock choked manufacturers, distributors as retailers alike. Big box stores and mailorder houses stole market from retailers paying rent on the huge floorspace the tracks required. Smaller, HO scale cars happy on smaller tracks caused many racers to stay home and out of the raceways.
By 1968 as the boom in the slot racing craze matured, cars got faster, but speed came by compromising the realistic appearance of the cars. Lightweight vacuum-formed bodies were flattened for a low center of gravity and improved aerodynamics. Tiny wheels improved handling. Front wheels atrophied or even disappeared. High speed collisions discouraged efforts at detail and finish quality, in fact, cars became difficult to even see in action. When slot “cars” no longer resemble any real car, the connection of real motorsports is lost. Those who appreciate the “modeling” aspect of the hobby, were driven from commercial tracks as “thingies” and wing cars sped by and the hobby lost a big segment of its enthusiasts.
Meanwhile the arms race for speed domination lead to higher car cost, The answer to “how fast can it go” became how much do you want to spend? Kids and the budget-minded were driven out.
So both scale and full size racing had reached commercial and popular success only to be killed by speed.