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20th December 2014 Comments (0) Views: 731 Reports

My First Year as a Slot-Club Racer > report

…a Brit abroad, in Germany!

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a driver – so, like many of you, my interest in scale racing began at an early age. Some of the best memories from my single-figure years are those shared with my younger brother, duelling with slot cars. We started out with a small set (Matchbox Powertrack, if memory serves) and had a lot of fun with that before graduating to what our Dad referred to as a proper slot track system; Scalextric. This began with a Le Mans Porsche and Jaguar set that grew a little each birthday and Christmas, or whenever our pocket money afforded – it didn’t take long before there was extra track, a chicane, banking and a bridge section to create more challenging circuits, plus an impressive selection of extra cars to do battle with. Ah, the smell of warm Scaley hand-controllers… reminds me of childhood! The Scalextric was something of a family tradition passed down to us by our father – he built and raced his own slot cars during the late sixties and was very keen not only to let us experience the fun of racing, but also to pass on the knowledge required to keep cars and track running as they should.

We’ve always been a motorsport-loving family and, when my brother and I hit double-figures, we were fortunate enough to be involved in another family tradition, competing in 1:1 Karting series’ just like our Dad, and his Dad, too – escalating costs eventually resulted in our bowing out into retirement after a few years at the ripe old ages of 15 and 12. But… before, during and after the Karting, my brother and I never stopped enjoying those slot cars. Admittedly, we’ve dabbled in other hobbies since (mainly scale R/C cars and our own 1:1 cars…), but we always remained loyal slotters – nothing else we found compared to the combination of competitiveness and smiles per pound we got from that simple yet versatile system of interlocking plastic track pieces and scale model cars! Decades later, my brother still has many of those old Scalextric cars, and they’re still providing us with some close and entertaining racing up in his converted loft. The only things that have changed in all those years is that the track is now digital, and the alcohol content of our racing refreshments has increased somewhat!

Now settled in Germany and looking to recreate the rug-racing excitement from years gone by, but after having resigned myself to the fact that I won’t have the time, space or cash for the kind of home circuit I’d want any time soon, I decided to give club racing a go – and, after all, what better way for an expatriate such as myself to mingle with the locals than with a little healthy competition… right?

…back in 2013.

Through a local Carrera stockist, I got the contact info for a nearby club. Looking back, it seems that trusting Google to translate my first email to them wasn’t my best move; sure, it served to break the ice, but it has also provided the locals with more than a little material for regular bi-lingual ribbings since then! Ordinarily, it can be daunting meeting new groups of people, but having a common interest certainly made things easier. I’d arrived on an open night, and the guys and girls at Slot Racing Mülheim (SRMH) were most welcoming – luckily, a couple of them spoke pretty decent English and made a patient effort to deal with this new Ausländer stammering away in broken German.

…the ‘Hingbergring’, 38m of six-lane Carrera-bahn at what’s now my home club, Slot Racing Mülheim

First surprise… these tracks are vast! Although a couple of the circuits my brother and I created as kids had comparably long main straights – particularly, one of our more daring examples that ventured over the borders normally defined by our parents’ conservatory and sped bravely into sacred new slot-territory offered by the lounge – it still took me a while to get my head around the sheer scale of a six-lane club track, but I was immediately told to stop looking and get driving. A controller was thrust into my hand, and I began my first few tentative test-laps with one of the club NASCARs, receiving pointers on how to tackle the various different curves as I lapped. Once I’d proven that I wasn’t a total maniac at the trigger, a couple of the regulars began showing me different, and increasingly impressive, classes of car and controllers and invited me to try a few out.

I was shocked at how quiet, stable and fast these things were when unleashed on such a large circuit – brutish American muscle cars, beautiful Le Mans classics and, wait… a fantastic Gp.C Porsche 956, just like the one my brother and I used to play with as kids. The owner showed me under the shell of his particular model, pointing out lots of clever never-before-seen features like the separate motorpod, aluminium wheels and sticky tyres, his careful tuning, weighting and so on – this was obviously no mere toy… and I wanted one, right now.

…bug bitten.

Immediately, I got to work on building my own collection, starting with a Slot.it Gulf GT40 – in my opinion, one of the most beautiful liveries ever on one of the most beautiful cars ever. This allowed me to muddle through the last few rounds of the 2013 Slot.it Championship, experimenting with car setup and ballast while getting to know the circuit. A Porsche 956 and McLaren F1 GTR, also in Gulf colours, would later follow to complete that particular little collection… I like having things in ‘sets’!

Towards the end of the year, I visited the club to catch the action at one of the last regional rounds of the NSR GT3 series… so you can guess what cars were next on my shopping list. It took me a while to track down all the ones I wanted, but I eventually put together what I lovingly referred to as my NSR ‘Patriot’ Fleet – one model of each GT3 Test Car, with the flagship Aston in silver flanked by the red, white and blue of the Audi, Porsche and Corvette – did I mention that I like having things in sets? 😉

…NSR ‘Patriot’ Fleet in formation on the left; and, later in the year, my Aston in formation with the rest of the GT3 grid at Kleve

…into the fray!

2014 got off to a pretty good start as, over the winter, I’d spent a lot of time practising up at the club, and my lap-times were finally becoming quite respectable. It was during this time that I began to get the gist regarding how certain dynamics of club-going work around here. Nobody, least of all me, really enjoys watching that minority who arrive and immediately schmooze up to the top guys, in an effort to have them set up their cars; members here have a lot more time for (and tolerance of!) those who ask questions and try to learn to do things for themselves. Personally, I love tinkering and experimenting with my cars and get a huge amount of satisfaction from working out what gets results. Members who noticed this started offering tips and “hey, have you tried…” type advice; something I like to refer to as ‘member mentoring’. I guess it’s a fine balance to achieve – visitors who aren’t immediately doing well get disheartened and stop attending, so members want to be helpful and encourage everyone to be faster so that the races are more competitive. After all, we all want close, entertaining competition… members here seem to have struck a great balance by metering out the tips and advice incrementally, rather than all in one go.

My Ickx GT40 was the one model I owned that allowed me to compete in more than one class; the Classic Le Mans series and the new (unfortunately, now freshly amalgamated) Slot.it Challenge series… so, I’d been concentrating on tweaking that as best I could while the now slightly redundant 956 and F1 GTR remained in their boxes. Some decent finishes came my way and I really began to enjoy that familiar racing buzz again… and, after a few rounds in the series, I discovered that I was nearly as quick as some of the ‘old guard’ standing next to me… just not yet as consistent. It’s a very addictive thing, competition – and the realisation that I now had specific competitors as performance benchmarks to aim for made me determined to not only drive faster, but to also drive better! To help me improve in this particular area, I received some rather unorthodox training from some of the members here. On open nights, six of us would hit the track to better our times – use no marshals, spare no quarter, but… first off buys the Jägermeister! This kind of financial incentive pays off well – by shifting the focus away from the car setup and onto the technique behind driving it!

March was an exciting month, too – it marked my first entry in an inter-club series of any scale in over twenty years. Our NSR GT3 series involves three or four clubs from each neighbouring region competing for just four places in one final race this January, which should see as many as 30 of the top finishers from all those regional rounds competing to be the national NSR GT3 Champion. I thought the white handout tyres looked strange at first, but they were amazing – way grippier than the standard ones, but they totally changed the dynamics of the car and took a bit of getting used to. At this stage, my aims were simple… keep it in the slot, don’t come last! I managed to bring my Aston home in 15th place out of a 19-strong grid, so while I didn’t exactly set the track alight, I didn’t disappoint myself, either.

After my race, marshaling for the seeded ‘quick boys’ was a revelation – seeing these more experienced drivers lap my home circuit, in essentially the exact same car, but a full second a lap faster than I could, was a humbling but captivating experience. Chatting to those drivers after the race was fantastic, too… there were no fevered egos or pitlane rockstars here, just lots of down-to-earth types with helpful tips and encouraging banter to share. Now I was really starting to feel like I’d been welcomed into the fold, part of the community – and, this being an inter-club event, I’d met a lot of new faces in one evening… plus, for the first time in a long time, I was actually older than some of them!

Abort / Retry / Fail?

And, thinking about age… I like to think of myself as being young enough to be part of the ‘PlayStation generation’ – I still enjoy a good bit of gaming on occasion – but, as good as Gran Turismo is, I’m actually glad I didn’t grow up with it from too young an age. Why? Well, part of my increasing involvement in helping out at SRMH is helping host the occasional kids’ party, which lead to an interesting observation. More often than you might imagine, you get to witness a look of genuine confusion on the little faces of some of these youngsters as, having kept their throttle pinned going into a corner and de-slotting in spectacular style, they pause and gaze down at their controller to realise that there’s no reset button… and that’s closely followed by a look of sheer horror as they watch each of their friends cruise effortlessly past their stricken car… hey, kids – analogue or digital, slot racing is still hands-on! It doesn’t take too long before the little learners opt to slow down and drive, rather than crash and burn. Show me a computer game that can teach the lessons and skills that a hobby like this does, while being so much fun for as long as it has and for as many years as it will!

By the summer, I found myself racing regularly not only at SRMH, but also at two other clubs – and, I’d discovered that there were many more. I wondered… how had I not noticed how popular this hobby is over here, prior to actively seeking it out? Although many seem to be operating ‘under the radar’, there are slot clubs everywhere! This got me thinking that there might be other people out there in a similar position to the one I was in, back in October 2013… looking for something to bring back all those exciting and happy slot car memories from their younger years, but unaware of just how established and accessible the hobby is. As a club, we spend a lot of time trying to get young kids through our doors for those aforementioned race-parties… but it’s rare that any return with any regularity. The only kids that seem to attend often are those whose parents are members. For next year, I’m wondering if more effort in promoting our club to ‘bigger kids’ might prove more successful – maybe they’ll start their own family slot-tradition, just like our Dad did.

Back to this year and, by October, I’d managed to work my way up to a potential rostrum finish in our club Slot.it Challenge series – unfortunately, my trusty GT40 was often getting outperformed by an increasing number of lower, wider modern Le Mans cars as the season progressed… with their increased-offset motor pods, wider, taller rims and tyres plus longer gearing, I needed to work out a solution if I wanted to remain competitive – and to stay within our rules, my solution was “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em!”. I put together my Green Meanie R8C and campaigned it for all the remaining rounds in the season except the very final one, lastnight. For that, it only seemed right to finish the season the same way I’d started, behind the controls of my GT40… and although, unfortunately, against a smaller turnout than expected, we still had a good race – Ickx and I managed to take the win and, in doing so, secured 2nd-place in the series.

…just some of the classes I got to enjoy in 2014; Gp.5, GT3, Gp.C, Classic and Modern Le Mans – even some good old Touring Cars!

So, after a year as a club racer…

…my favourite slot car is still my first, that trusty Slot.it GT40, but my twelve months club racing has changed many other things. The priority behind my slot purchases and collecting choices is now wildly different, my knowledge of slot car maintenance and tuning is now much improved, and my circle of friends is now considerably larger, too – many thanks, club-racing… I’m very grateful for all of it!

After many exciting races in a number of varied 1:32 classes, including an ‘interesting’ 24hr Endurance debut and that satisfying club series finish, the highlight of 2014 for me was definitely my 7th-place finish in the regional NSR GT3 series. Nowhere near enough to qualify for the national final, of course – but, not a bad result for a rookie season. I’m chuffed that it was my efforts at improving consistency that got the result; although I never once actually finished higher than fifth place, I’d always prepared a solid, reliable car and competed in all but the first round. I’ve already volunteered to marshal at the final so I can get closer to the ‘quick boys’ in action… and maybe next year I’ll do a little better behind the trigger so I can get IN on the action!

Vielen Dank to all the guys at Slot Racing Mülheim – particularly ‘one-man welcoming committee’ Pete, ‘Mentors’ Martin and Mischa, and ‘Böhse Onkel’ Holger. 😉

Nods also to everyone who I’ve burnt rubber and traded decals with this past year, from club members on open night track blasts and training nights to the contenders in the regional championship… it’s been an awful lot of fun and I’ve learnt a huge amount from you all.

…group shot at SRC-Kleve, following their hugely exhausting but equally entertaining 24hr NSR GT3 race

And, of course, I can’t not say thanks to everyone at SlotForum.com for the entertaining reads, insightful advice and bargain buys… being an active club member has been great, but it’s still a closed environment at the end of the day – SlotForum mods and members have opened my eyes to many facets of this hobby that, 18 months ago, I didn’t even know existed. Collectors, scratch-builders, tuners, racers and experts in many other aspects of the hobby are so well represented there – and they’ve inspired, influenced and rounded out my hobby in ways I hadn’t considered before.

Would I be getting this much out of slot racing if I had found the time, space and cash for that home circuit I wanted, instead of going club-racing? Maybe, maybe not – but, until it does happen, we’ll never know. Regardless, in the meantime, I’m very happy to continue as I am; a member of two international communities within a larger global one… plus, with more writing, reviews and at least one UK visit planned for next year, I look forward to venturing over more borders and speeding bravely into new slot-territories, just like my brother and I did as kids.

Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year, everyone – 2014 has been brilliant fun…
…can’t wait to get started on 2015!!

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