Synopsis of Toy
For the boys too young to drive, and for the grown-up boys who didn’t own fire retardant jumpsuits and their very own Indy cars, the toy gods gave us slot racers. So finely crafted were some of these vehicles, with details so clever and realistic you couldn’t help but show them off, that when you delicately placed them on the track, you were transported to the Grand Prix, or the drag races, or the open highway where Smokey chased The Bandit.
In the early 1900’s, American toy company Ives produced a small-scale circular toy car track, on which a windup car could be operated on rails—the same way that model trains had for years. Not too long after, a German manufactured offered something similar, but this time, the cars were electrically powered. Then in 1912, the first true racing car set came out, courtesy of the model train titans at the Lionel company. Its cars scooted along on a single rail and could race each other by using adjustable transformers. A British engineer named Charles Woodland replaced the rail with a slot, which meant that cars could drift or even spin across the track. Years later, his functioning slot racers began to use toy train motors and components.
But now, let us take a break from history to talk about the cars themselves. A slot car is a small-scale replica of a full-size car or racer, powered by direct current and/or storage batteries. The most popular sizes, in toy-to-real-car proportions, are 1/24th, 1/32nd and HO (which is the very famous 1/64th size, that of Hot Wheels). The cars glide over a groove, or slot, “driven” by a hand control. When the trigger of the control is pulled, current passes to the car and it speeds up. Taking your finger off the trigger allows the car to brake. If a slot racer corners too quickly, it “de-slots” and comes out of its groove—and with cars and tracks that allow for speeds of over 100 mph, your car might jump off and rocket right through a window. On the other hand, even though a Sunday driver will certainly stay on track, all his competitors will leave him in their dust. There are vacuum-molded plastic cars, and there are die-hard racers who build cars from static car kits and then attach them to slot chasses and soup them up for their brand new mobility. There are Formula One cars, NASCAR cars, Supertrucks—whatever’s out there on real tracks, you can bet there are small-scale knock-offs racing somewhere too.
In the 1940’s, tabletop motorways with miniature buildings and greenery appeared. Those years also saw the start of twelve-volt motors inside the cars, as well as wiring in the tracks that allowed for multiple lane crossovers, triggered by tabs in the back of the cars. By the 1950’s, slot racing systems appeared throughout the U.K. and America, thanks to an article in Model Maker magazine, and now as a hobby, slot racing was off and running. Commercial raceways popped up everywhere during the 1960’s, where a racer could rent some time on the track to practice or participate in competitions. Some of the fancier American tracks had humps (“whoop-dee-doo’s,” if you want to get technical), multi-levels, donuts, dead man’s curves, and super-sharp turns that would toss your car right off the track if you weren’t manning the controls with care.
By the end of the 60’s in the U.S., the once-affordable hobby became a bit pricey, accessible mostly to racers with deep pockets (in Europe, slot racing was still going strong—especially in England and Spain). But there were still plenty of less fancy options for those who just wanted to play racecars for a few hours. Themed sets featured everything from cops-and-robbers to the latest car-themed TV shows: Starsky and Hutch, Knight Rider, and so on. Higher-tech sets boasted features like working drawbridges, glow-in-the-dark cars and tracks, and gravity-defying “Cliffhangers.”
Junior-grade slot racer sets still line toy store shelves, and though there aren’t as many raceways as there used to be, it’s still quite a hobby for the purists. There are leagues and tournaments for the formal club racers, but plenty of equipment for home racers to build impressive tracks in their basements and back yards. You can drag race, track race, or just pay a few dollars and watch as your car hypnotically circles round and round, while you pretend you’re just a few laps away from winning the giant gold trophy and getting your photo taken with a bevy of scantily clad women. Racecar driving, whatever the scale, is the stuff daydreams are made of.
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