Slot car racing gives hobbyists feel of drag racing

( Gretchen Phillips / Maryland Independent ) - David Gates Jr., 13, tries to get to the slot car races at Fas Trax of MD each Saturday.

Calvin Starcher fell in love when he was in eighth grade, and the feeling never faded.

That was when a friend from Matthew Henson Middle School took Starcher to the racetrack for the first time. When he was 17, he began racing his 1967 Chevrolet Chevelle SS.

“I’ve been drag racing all my life” at Maryland International Raceway, said Starcher, 52, who has run Fas Trax of MD slot car racing in Hughesville for six years. “I wanted to do some kind of slot car racing.”

Slot car racing had the same effect on him as drag racing did all those years ago.

Slot car racing is a hobby that is competitive — pitting powered model cars against each other. The cars follow grooves or slots in the track on which they run.

“I fell in love with it,” he said of finding a track in Virginia — Fas Trax of Richmond — that was for sale. “I moved it here.”

Fas Trax is the only slot car racing track in Southern Maryland. The Track in Gaithersburg also holds slot car races, as well as remote control races, Starcher said.

Tracks are dotted around the United States, he said.

Model cars with engines, slot cars often are small replicas of actual automobiles.

“Your wildest dreams” are the only limitation on cars used for slot car racing, Starcher said. “It’s pretty much however you want it.”

Some racers replicate their dream cars; others build autos they’ve had in the past or wish they owned.

“If you like Hemi Darts, you can have several of them,” Starcher said, at a fraction of the cost of the real thing — a classic muscle car.

A slot car’s controller fires up the electric motor, with drivers controlling the triggers.

The experience of the “driver” might play a part, but age doesn’t necessarily guarantee a win.

Nico Absher, 15, beats his father, Billy, and grandfather, B.J. Richardson, in races.

“It’s whoever is faster on the trigger,” said Nico, who not only gets bragging rights but earns cash prizes for winning races. A lot of his winnings and cash earned from good grades on report cards are funneled back into the hobby.

“I beat my dad, his dad, the best of the best, I beat ’em,” Nico said. “It all depends on how the car’s running. If it’s running good, you’ll win. You have to be smart.”

Housed in the Bargain Barn, a collection of antique and speciality shops in Hughesville, Fas Trax routinely attracts racers from as far as Bel Air, from 7 to 75, novice to expert. On an average Saturday, there will be about 20 to 30 people at the races and about 12 to 18 come to the Wednesday night races, Starcher said.

He said he knew there was interest in racing; he didn’t know if that would translate to slot cars.

“It was my ‘Field of Dreams’ moment,” he said. “That ‘if you build it, they will come.’ I got my answer.”

Curt Hildebrandt of St. Leonard is new to slot cars. A lifelong mechanic, Hildebrandt raced remote control cars, often traveling 130 miles and paying for a hotel to participate in events.

Unlike slot cars, which must be raced on a specialized track, remote control cars can pretty much race anywhere.

About a month ago, he and his wife were killing time by looking around the Bargain Barn when he came across Fas Trax.

“I thought, ‘I can do this. It doesn’t look that difficult,’” Hildebrandt laughed. “Yes, it is.”

A month in and he already has two cars and is waiting on the body of another one to come in the mail so he can start on building its chassis, a vehicle base frame.

Hildebrandt enjoys the camaraderie at Fas Trax, too.

“The guys here are great to hang out with and no one will refuse to help anyone,” he said. “You can run [cars] here [until] you’re stupid.”

Carl Machen of Essex and professional race car photographer Chop Reese of Bel Air make the trip to Fas Trax on weekends in large part because of the people.

“This is the best place,” Machen said simply.

Races are staged on Wednesdays and Saturdays, with Fridays and Sundays reserved for testing and tuning. The next races will be held Saturday.

David Gates Jr., 13, of Mechanicsville usually gets dropped off at the track on Saturday morning and is picked up later in the day. He spends the day doting on his slot cars, and sometimes his older sister, Nicole, 18, a professional all-terrain vehicle rider, will come along. She has a couple of cars ready to race, too, Starcher said.

The hobby isn’t an expensive one to start when compared with others, Starcher said. A car and controller can be bought for about $200 and, as racers get more invested in the hobby, they might add to their collection, and Fas Trax has all of the supplies on hand to help them.

“This is real racing on a smaller scale,” Starcher said. “If someone has a model car and they would like to see it run, this is the place to come.”

 
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