June 6, 2005
ORANGE PEELED A LOOK AT LIFE INSIDE THE COUNTY
Tiny Cars Provide a Huge Adrenaline Rush
Interest in slot cars has declined. But fans at the Buena Park Raceway
couldn't care less.
Behind the black-tinted windows of a Buena Park
storefront, electric-powered slot cars whiz around a grooved, wooden track,
crossing the finish line in the blink of an eye — and giving boys in their
40s and 50s the biggest rush of their week.
Never mind the fast-paced video games favored by their children; this cadre
of aging slot-car enthusiasts clings to a hobby that, for the most part, hit
the skids about three decades ago.
And so they come here, to the Buena Park Raceway, one of the few remaining
commercial slot-car tracks in Southern California. Amateurs and slot-car
record breakers alike turn out six days a week to tinker with their
souped-up racing toys and compete for cash prizes.
"I'm going to race till I can't get around the track," said Rick Elting, 54,
of Lake Forest, who started racing in 1966.
There are relative youngsters, too — like Mike Hawk, 23, of Huntington
Beach, who recently discovered the track. "It's a fun adrenaline rush," he
said. "It's like when you get your first car and you're racing your friend
for the first time and you're like 'Ha-ha, I'm beating you.' "
Larger than a Matchbox car, a slot car zips down a grooved track, guided by
its undercarriage pin and its speed governed by a hand-held controller. But
it's more than just the trigger pull of an index finger that leads a racer
With honed hand-eye coordination, skilled racers tickle the speed controls
just right so their aerodynamically designed cars don't fly off the track.
"You really have to concentrate. If you're tired, your reflexes might not be
as good," said 35-year-old Mickey Johnston, a salesman who, in 20 years of
racing, has won three national championships.
"You can look at it as a hobby or you can look at it as a sport. I do it to
Johnston, of Placentia, was one of a handful of racers on a recent weeknight
revving up for an upcoming annual competition — testing finely tuned motors,
purchasing parts and working to break records. The three-day Western States
Championships, which kick off Friday at the raceway, is expected to draw
more than 100 serious racers from California, Nevada and Arizona.
The raceway is a paradise for enthusiasts who enjoy the
camaraderie, the competition and good, old-fashioned fun that triggers
memories of their youth.
"I remember I tried it in the '60s for the first time, and it was like
I couldn't sleep; I couldn't believe how fast these cars could go,"
said Bob Johnson, 49, a Tuesday night regular at the raceway for nearly nine
years. "Now, it's just a hobby. It's something to do — I'm married, so I can
only go out once a week," the Huntington Beach resident said.
New faces check in, and familiar faces fade away, but the regulars remain a
tightknit group, celebrating one another's children's school graduations and
having barbecues in the raceway's parking lot.
Female racers are rare, but wives and girlfriends frequently cheer along the
side of the tracks.
"I like watching the drivers' faces more than the cars," said Mickey
Johnston's wife, Erin, 28, who usually goes to the big races. "Some people
rock, some people make the whizzing noises. It's funny to watch."
This night, fluorescent-green and hot-pink wing cars — some of the fastest
of the slots — circled along one of the raceway's 155-foot-long tracks, as
co-owner Lenore Gallegos, 62, announced finish times over a public address
Up to eight cars can race on the twisting courses, competing in three- to
five-minute heats. And depending on its style and class, a car can complete
a lap in less than three seconds. Wooden workstations are close to the
tracks so racers can rush over quickly should a tire peel apart or an engine
Gallegos' husband, Chris, 63, works from behind the merchandise counter —
renting out cars, chatting up customers and selling parts. For enthusiasts
with their own equipment, 15 minutes of racing costs about the same as a
gallon of gas for the real cars outside. Those who rent cars and controls
pay $4 for a quarter-hour.
The business offers three racetracks, but its most popular is the
55-foot-long, two-lane drag strip. The tracks dominate a large room
illuminated by floodlights that during busy hours takes on the smell of
burning rubber and smoky electric motors. Grease boards hang on walls,
showing top scores from the latest races. .
Part of the fun for these enthusiasts is toiling for hours at workstations,
replacing tires the size of dimes, soldering parts and painting orange,
yellow and red flames on the sides of doors on the cars.
And just like those of real cars, parts can be costly. An
electric motor can run from $14 to $45, and a complete car can exceed $400. The
average slot car is 5 to 7 inches; drag-racing cars are about 10 inches.
This hobby takes "some mechanical skill — or at least a large pocketbook," said
Jim Swofford, 51, of Buena Park.
He said he became addicted to racing seven years ago, after buying starter kits
for his two young sons for Christmas.
"I kept wrecking their cars, and they wouldn't let me race them anymore, so I
went up to the counter and bought a car."
Within that first week, Swofford spent $1,000 on motors, controllers and cars
and would show up at the raceway three hours before it opened. Today, he holds
15 world slot-car records — and owns more than 50 cars.
Slot-car racing originated in England in the late 1940s and gained a foothold
here in the 1960s, with thousands of racetracks spreading across the United
States. Elvis Presley built one at Graceland. By the early 1970s, the slot-car
boom was giving way to radio-controlled cars that wheeled freely around
driveways and yards.
Those who remained loyal to slot cars saw them evolve with the use of new
plastics, faster motors and car bodies that resemble Ferraris and cars familiar
on the NASCAR circuit. Today's fans exchange information, tips and rules on the
The Gallegoses can't explain why enthusiasts cling to the hobby. "We've been
asked that so many times, and we still don't have an answer," Lenore Gallegos
Tired of the lumberyard business, the couple opened the raceway in 1992 as a
combination vintage-comic-book store and slot-car track. Soon the racetrack
dominated the business, prompting the Gallegoses to move twice, settling in on
Lincoln Avenue. In August, the raceway will play host to the
annual United Slot Racers Assn. national championships for the third time in
Customers compliment the couple for their laid-back service and not interfering
in disputes among racers.
"I'd rather ring the cash register," Chris said.