A Brief History Of Model Car Racing

There are numerous stories connected to the actual "birth" of model car racing and most have been embellished through the years.  To the best recollection that anyone has been able to put forth (and this is my personal version), model car racing actually started in England in the 1940’s and was actually "rail" racing rather than "slot."  The early model slot cars were somewhat similar to electric trains in that they got the electrical power from "rails" which were raised above the track surface.

By the early 1950’s, a change was made from "rails" to "slots" so the cars behaved more similar to actual race cars - "drifting" around corners. Shortly thereafter, small "kits" with small, 1/32nd scale cars were making their way across the Atlantic and into the homes of the affluent to be played with next to the elaborate electric train set. We are unsure if the first importer was the Strombecker Company, but quickly the market was inundated with inexpensive sets of cars, controllers, and one-foot pieces of black, two-lane plastic track which snapped together much like train rails.

Power was supplied to the two strips of aluminum pickups on either side of the slots on each track section with the same type of transformers used for model trains.  People all over the country were setting up their "slot car tracks" on recreational room floors or on top of plywood ping pong tables. Club groups quickly formed and each week a different layout was put together for racing. Some enthusiasts went to the expense of building custom tables so they could make even larger layouts. Occasionally the "sections" were permanently fastened to the table top - screwed down securely to keep the pieces together for smoother operation.

Americans have never been content for very long to leave things the way they came originally, and the "tinkerers" had a field day. More and more enthusiasts with carpenter skills and experience began to experiment with more elaborate and longer layouts. Some were unhappy with just two lanes, so tracks began to grow in length, width, and available lanes. Track layouts went from three to four, then five, six, eight and some even to ten or twelve lanes.

Today’s commercial tracks almost always a maximum of eight lanes to make replacing de slotted cars easier for the turn workers/marshals. All different types of material were used to construct slot car tracks and we’ve seen everything from Formica to plaster-of-paris to plywood to particle board to masonite to even - would you believe? - concrete?!!  Today’s tracks - smoother and faster by a factor of 1000% over what we had in the early 1960s - are manufactured using MDF - Medium Density Fiberboard - the same material used for speaker as well as kitchen and bathroom cabinets. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up a bit…

In 1962, former engineers and employees of AMF (American Machine and Foundry - makers of bowling alley pin-setting equipment) formed a company in California named "American Model Raceways and Racing Congress."  With their years of skill and experience, they designed and manufactured 8-lane commercial tracks that were sold to raceways all over the globe. The tracks were quite unique, well ahead of their time, yet quite expensive.

But they went far beyond just building slot tracks. They formulated a complete business plan and produced thick manuals on all phases of the operation. The track layouts were named using English "royalty" and distinctive in that the thick, Formica-covered side walls were all in different colors - Red, Yellow, Green, Black, Orange, Purple, and finally Blue.  The color and the name became synonymous and anyone who raced regularly knew what the track was by naming either. For example, the "Orange" was called the "Monarch" and had 8 lanes of 100’ each. The Red was the "Imperial" and was 150’ per lane. The "Sovereign" was American’s "biggie" - a 220’ dream which ultimately became known as the "Purple Mile."

Of all the tracks American made, the single most popular design produced was the final model they sold - the "Blue King" - and was nearly identical to the Red Imperial except for a few up-to-that-date changes. Several early American tracks had "humps" (what some of us called "whoop-dee-doos") which would "launch" your slot car into the next county if you didn’t watch what you were doing.

Such was the case with the 150’ Red which had two bumps going down the main straightaway. The Red Imperial also had a shallower banked turn, flatter turns everywhere else, and the "over-and-under" (or "donut" as it was to later be called) had a short straight right in the middle.

When the "King" came out, they "stretched" the overall layout by five feet - putting in a wider, higher bank; increased the banking in other areas that were flat on the Red; and made a completely "round" donut. About the same time as American Model Raceways were being set up just about everywhere, two other companies - Altech and Stan Engleman - were also producing top-of-the-line tracks using much of the same pioneering techniques used by American.

By the mid-1960s there were literally thousands of commercial and club tracks operating just in the United States. There were also as many "mom and pop" operations with home-made layouts as there were raceways with the large American, Altech and Engleman layouts. It was slot racing heaven and seemed like there was a raceway on every other corner in most every city. It didn’t take long before every racer knew the slang terminology for specific sections on the tracks…the "high bank;" the "short chute;" the "deadman’s;" "the finger;" "the ninety;" "the donut;" "the lead-on" and the "main straightaway."