Donington Slot Car Festival: size isn’t everything

By Andy & LJH

CalendarMonday, May 24th, 2010

 
 

On a busy weekend for racing, with Indy 500 qualifying reaching a climax and British racers taking to the track across Europe, Brits on Pole cast aside its grown-up responsibilities and headed north to relive the pastimes of its youth at the International Donington Slot Car Festival.

The real one's in storage, so where better for a replica?

The real one's in storage, so where better for a replica?

And from the hundreds of other people who made a similar trip, it was clear that the hobby is more than just a retro throw-back used by trendy marketers – it’s alive and well in the modern day.

Donington Park may not be able to host real-life track events yet, but for a few hours on a sunny Sunday the place was again buzzing with fierce racing, committed fans and entranced youngsters showing the first signs of a life-long obsession.

All that was different was that the cars were quite a bit smaller.

The way it used to be

“Every day after school, you’d go around there to play it, hoping to compete for some kind of championship. But it always took about 15 billion hours to set the track up. And even when you did, the thing never seemed to work.”

This frustrated feeling, immortalised by the band Half Man, Half Biscuit, was often exactly what slot car racing turned out to be like, at any rate when we were kids.

Bear in mind that when we were kids you were dealing exclusively with snap-together track sections whose metal tabs had a tendency to get bent and not line up properly, and with power that came via transformers whose wires plugged directly on to the underside of the rails. (After all, when we were kids, Space Invaders and digital watches were radical and exciting novelties.)

And, like children of any era, we were a bit short of patience for painstakingly troubleshooting dead track sections. We were rather heavy-handed when it came to the delicate cars and there were some embarrassing breakages almost directly out of the box.

As kids we tended to want instant results rather than the longer-term rewards of creating a layout and then getting to know its characteristics with different types of cars. In short, slot-car racing had flashes of brilliance that hinted at how much fun it could be. But it often ended in disappointment – and that’s if you were lucky enough to own your own Scalextric set.

If you were having to constantly beg friends, cousins or older siblings to give you a go, because your parents simply could not be brought to appreciate the importance of your personally and exclusively owning this desirable toy, then it was a dead loss as you were repeatedly outclassed by those with greater experience.

A pastime with many subtleties

All of which explains why slot car racing was frankly wasted on us as kids. We have long since learned that it’s a pastime with subtleties far better appreciated as an adult. Bending your brain with track design. Tuning up cars or repairing treasured classics. The sheer, naked, bloody competitiveness of racing.

Now we (usually) know how to scream round the track without breaking the cars on the first lap – so the living room doesn’t end up littered with bits of discarded plastic bumper and trim. If cars do break, we have learned how to fix them.

Sometimes it takes a week or more to get a track set-up right. But, you know what? That’s just fine.

The most recent Brits on Pole layout, occupying most of the living room floor as we speak, started life as Silverstone and then was converted to something closer to the Rockingham Motor Speedway after the complex proved a bit ambitious and we won an auction for rather a lot of banking on eBay.

It has highlighted another perennial issue – however much track you have, and whatever variety of pieces it contains, it is never enough. And this explains why this weekend’s Donington Park Slot Car Festival, with its hoped-for chances to hunt through crates packed with straights, curves and crossovers, was a must-attend for us.

And we were far from the only ones. The overall atmosphere at the circuit was a lot more low-key than you would get at a race event, or than at the recent fan rally, but once you reached the back-end of the museum galleries and the grassy areas behind them where the event was taking place it was far more intense.

Laying the groundwork for a lifelong obsession

There were plenty of children busily laying the groundwork for a lifelong obsession and a nice balance of boys and girls were getting involved. Highlights for them included figure painting,  a bicycle-powered Scalextric and plenty of layouts to try their hands at.

But also present in numbers were the serious collectors, racers and hobbyists browsing the stalls and attacking the various competition set-ups with the fervour of Indiana Jones seeking the all-important treasure of the Temple of Doom.

I'll have that one - and that one - oooh, and THAT one

I'll have that one - and that one - oooh, and THAT one

You want cars? Here were cars of every size, shape and description and selling for everything from a fiver to hundreds of pounds. Although by far the largest number were priced at a reasonable twenty quid or so.

But we have cars. Oh, do we have cars. And with so many tempting purchases on display it was hard to come up with any reason to buy any single car in comparison with the dozens of others we could so easily have chosen.

Also available in tantalising boxes shoved under stalls or stacked up round the back was a wealth of track, runoff, spare parts, cannibalised chassis – and, in the case of the NSCC stall, a slim volume called The Slot Car Handbook which justified our drive up the M1 on its own.

Its back-cover blurb reads thus: “Half the fun of the hobby is taking apart, tuning, upgrading and reassembling the cars, but until now this has been a black art.”

Much work now awaits us, starting with fixing the cars left over from 1970s childhood that now barely run.

Dragsters and miniature pitlanes

Clearly a description of the highlights will vary depending on who you talk to. But top of our list was the experience of standing at one end of an unfeasible length of completely straight track while two lovingly-created dragsters tore along it at close to the speed of sound before finding a soft landing in yards of cardboard and balled-up polythene.

Another fascinating spectacle was the equivalent of the pitlane for the hardcore racers on the Silver Arrows competition circuit, who use hand-made cars.

Rather than the garages, fuel hoses and air guns associated with conventional racing, the maintenance area consisted of tables piled high with meticulously-organised toolkits and spares ready to be pressed into use to tune each tiny masterpiece of machinery to perfection.

One of the most compelling sights was set off to one side of the festival area – a simple tent filled with chairs which nevertheless was seeing thousands of pounds change hands. Here was a fast-paced auction where the most serious buyers and collectors were bidding very large sums for the really special items that were under the hammer.

As well as the demonstrations, layouts, competitions and stalls, the price of entry to the festival included admission to Donington’s Grand Prix Exhibition – a labour of love created by the late Tom Wheatcroft in the service of his lifelong passion for motor racing.

The real thing, from the Donington Exhibition

The real thing, from the Donington Exhibition

Two of our most prized slot cars are replicas of the McLarens driven by Mika Hakkinen and David Coulthard in the late 90s and early 2000s – the ones that got round the problem of tobacco branding by using the driver’s name as a logo where necessary.

And what should we see in the McLaren Hall of the Grand Prix exhibition but the originals of those very cars? It was one of the best moments of the day.

Exhausted but thrilled

All this made for a very full day, as you might imagine – and as we were taking our leave, walking back through the Exhibition with bulging carrier bags and sheaves of leaflets, club magazines and flyers (and our maintenance handbook) we came across two tired but happy co-organisers – the gloriously-named Mark and Julie Scale of Scale Models.

After working long hours setting everything up, they were now facing an exhausting Monday striking down all the exhibits and the demonstration track lay-outs. Nevertheless they were thrilled by the turn-out, which included visitors from as far afield as Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany.

Julie said: “We want to promote slot car racing to a mass audience and it’s gone really, really well – the sunshine made it.”

For Mark, one of the most impressive parts was the Silver Arrows contest – competitors entered with stunningly detailed hand-tooled replicas of cars from the golden era of racing, and only half the points were awarded for on-track performance. The rest came from how each contestant’s rivals judged their car-building prowess.

And Julie was pleased to get the chance to show there was more to the hobby than Scalextric and its product line, which can overshadow its rivals to the point its name is often used as shorthand for the whole industry:  “It’s like when you clean your house – you say you’ve been Hoovering, even if you use a Dyson.”

While the big name in the field contributed much to the success of the day – she was especially happy it had staged the final of the Scalextric for Schools competition there – other companies like SCX and Ninco were also quick to get involved.

She said: “We’ve had excellent support from all the manufacturers, they’ve been brilliant.”

Next steps

Here are some links for anyone wanting to get more involved in the hobby or visit future events:

Photo gallery

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