Building racetracks on the living room floor and racing model cars on them has been a popular childhood activity for generations, but how did the enduring hobby of slot car racing get started in the first place?
“There were attempts to build a car racetrack as early as the late 1920s,” says Andreas A. Berse, editor-in-chief of Modell Fahrzeug, a model magazine in Germany.
This involved transferring the technology of model railroads to four wheels. “They didn’t always work properly,” Berse says.
Model car racing really took off in the 1960s. In the UK you could buy Scalextric tracks and cars, and in Germany the toy manufacturer Neuhierl launched the Carrera brand in 1963 with great success.
The heyday lasted until the 1970s when electronic toys such as radio-controlled cars and the first computer games elbowed out the little carpet racers.
However, in the early 1990s the model race track was rediscovered. In addition to Carrera and Scalextric, well-known brands today include Ninco, Fly, and Policar.
The term slot car racing comes from the technology. The cars are usually guided through a slot in the track by means of a pin. This pin is also how the car’s electric motor gets its power. The cars usually start the race on two tracks side by side and the throttle is operated by a hand controller.
“The great thing is you’re racing on a course and measuring your skills against each other — competition is the name of the game,” Berse says. The advantage is that “you can set up the car racetrack in your living room.”
In contrast, if you want to race remote-controlled cars you need a lot more space or else go to a special race track.
You don’t need to spend a lot to get started in slot car racing. Many manufacturers offer starter packs for children from the age of three for around €40/$40.
The cars are battery-powered and the focus is on bright colours, ergonomic controllers, and familiar characters from movies, TV, and video games.
“The tracks for younger children usually have smaller cars and permanently mounted magnets to make the cars easier to control in curves,” Berse says. For older kids, there are also inexpensive entry-level 1:43 scale tracks starting at around €60/$60.
Kurt Petri has been selling model race tracks as a specialist dealer for over 40 years. His tip: If you are wavering between two age levels when buying for a child, you can safely go for the higher one. “Then I can always expand the system without having to change again,” he says.
If kids show a real interest you can switch to a 1:32 scale track. This is also the scale that Berse recommends to adult buyers right at the start. The cars are faster and more powerful.
It’s also an extremely common scale for which many manufacturers build cars, tracks, and accessories. Starter sets start at around €100/$100 and digital tracks about twice that. As long as you have chosen an analogue system, cars from different manufacturers can all run on the same scale track.
To start off, there’s usually a basic pack with two cars and tracks that form an oval or a figure eight. But it doesn’t have to stop there. “That’s the beauty of it: just like with railroads, you can build it up as you go,” Berse says.
Digital tracks allow for lane changes and multiple cars in one lane. That can make races more exciting. Things like refuelling, tyre and brake wear can also be simulated.
“It’s like a middle ground between gaming and track driving,” Petri says. But be sure to get a track that’s long enough. “Trying to play with four or six people on a digital track with a lap length of eight metres is hardly fun. Then traffic jams are more likely than exciting races.” ©dpa