Slot car racing has experienced an incredible transformation, beginning with the early prototypes that ran on model rail tracks and culminating in today’s dynamic racing machines that flawlessly navigate 360-degree loops.
Here’s a look back at how it all began, and the influential developments that has made slot car racing what it is today.
US company Lionel pioneered the first true racing set, featuring miniature drivers and a heavy tinplate design. The cars were powered by AC electric motors and users could control their speed on a modified model train track.
Slot car sales went gangbusters. Lionel discontinued their car sets after World War I, but during the following 40 years, American and European companies manufactured cars that ran on diesel, rubber bands and wind-up clockwork mechanisms.
German toy company Marklin issued a racing set with two heavy tinplate cars. Until then, slot cars had run on a raised rail, not a slot.
Slot car racing began to take off in Britain and the US. Scalextric made tinplate cars with a spring motor. Bertram ‘Fred’ Francis designed a car with a rotary guide on the front, which ran into a slot track made of molded rubber.
The first commercial slot car raceway opened in the US.
The Wall Street Journal estimated the value of the model car racing market was $100 million dollars. There were about 3,000 raceways across America and 200 in Europe.
The first pro-racing series was held in the US. Racers began to come up with aerodynamic designs for the car bodies with little resemblance to actual race cars; hence they were nicknamed ‘thingies’.
Sales began to decline sharply. Some blamed a blizzard that hindered people from attending the annual industry trade show in Chicago, while others believed fans were discouraged by the lack of competition regulation.
Most commercial raceways had closed.
Lionel reproduced its original car sets and people increasingly began to collect vintage slot cars.
Slot car racing continues today among a smaller group of dedicated enthusiasts. Retro racing using cars from the 1960s and early 70s with modern Chinese-made motors is particularly popular. The much-loved hobby has also attracted a new generation of drivers, with young children and teenagers embracing slot car racing.