Back in July, I made a comment about slot cars not being well known in America. ‘Well known’ may be a poor choice of words, let’s go with popular. Why are slot cars not popular in America like they seem to be in other parts of the world? Unfortunately, slot cars in America are not like opinions, not everybody has one. As much as I would like that to not be the case, it is what it is these days.
Like the 1964 ½ Ford Mustang, slot cars in America were all the rage of the mid to late ‘60’s. From what I have read and heard in discussion, there seemed to be slot car tracks all over the country at one time. Every hobby shop had a slot car track, and every city had at least one hobby shop, with larger cities having one on just about every street corner. Yes, if you wanted to learn about slot cars, it was very likely that your attention would be grabbed by these cars of the slot just by walking down Main Street and peering through the front window of your local toy or hobby shop. Not so today.
So here comes my opinion. Okay, maybe you’ll get more than one of my opinions but nevertheless, feel free to disagree, as long as we’re talking about slot cars, I don’t mind. But first, a little back story of my early experience with slot cars, which, for this blog, is key I think.
My first introduction to slot cars was a trip to my best friend’s house back in the mid 80’s (the 60’s was a little before my time). He had an HO set, Ideal TCR, with what I think was a couple Corvettes. He had it and as with all kids, I wanted it. So it wasn’t too much later and Santa Claus brought me my very own slot car race set. It was made by Ideal and was themed, ‘CHiPs’. Yep, that’s the show. Ponch and John chasing down the bad guys. It featured gray track to look like a highway, a CHIP motorbike and a ‘bad guy’ van, black with flames. That van was bad looking, and by bad, I mean awesome! I played with the set off and on, but it didn’t go together very well so it usually stayed under my bed in the box. I had that set up until about 10 years or so ago and only wish I still had it for sentimental reasons.
I was blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it with another HO set made by Ideal. This time, ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’. Same story as the ‘CHiPs’ set; the track connections were poor, and something I didn’t mention earlier, the cars were just too darn fast. As a kid, I wanted to go fast. Had I known then what I know now, I would have enjoyed the set much more. If I had learned to slow down, I’d had been much better off. In reality though, when you are pretending to be one of your T.V. heroes chasing bad guys or outrunning the law, the last thing you want to do is slow down.
I think that the demise of HO slot cars is a good comparison to the slot cars of the 60’s. For the true hobbyist, you knew the ins and outs of slot cars; how to drive them, tune them, and get the most enjoyment out of them. For home racers, well, let’s face it, mass market, those important things did not transition well from the local hobby track to the kids playing with a set on their bedroom floor. The corporations that wanted to cash in on the rage of slot cars missed that important step. In addition, home racing sets, the cars, the track, the controllers, were no comparison to the items found at the local raceway most of the time.
So jumping to present day, the hobby shops have all but been replaced by the internet. Unfortunately, the consumer doesn’t get the interaction from the internet that they would from a hobby shop. You can walk in a hobby shop and actually touch the cars, but more importantly you can talk to people who are into the hobby and garner information from them as to how you can really get the most out of the slot car and all of it’s working parts. Not only that, but the nuances of actually ‘racing’ the slot cars. Consumers today rarely get any of this when they buy a set from the internet and set it up on the floor. Sure, they get a printed sheet that tells them how to put their set together, how to adjust the braids on the car, and maybe lubrication points, but that’s about it.
Okay, now you’re saying, “But there are online slot car forums where consumers can get all this great information.” Guess what? You are right, but how do the consumers know that these forums exist? Obviously in this day and age some of those individuals will search the internet and hopefully find one of them, but far too many will get frustrated with the set and/or cars and give up. Where we, as hobbyists will be thrilled to find their purchases in a yard sale or local thrift shop. So how in the world can we expect the hobby to be popular here in the USA if consumers have no first point of contact helping them out? Do manufacturer’s and retailers really care? Are they just fine with the one time sale as they wait for the next one to happen?
So now I’m ruffling feathers at this point. Good! Now take that anger and hostility and put it to good use by helping grow the hobby! How? Share your hobby with as many people as you can and as often as you get the opportunity. Support the retailers that truly care about the hobby, the ones that will not only sell a set to a soccer mom, but will offer to help her with input on setting it up. Those that will offer to show the kids how to enjoy the hobby at speeds that don’t have to be full throttle all the time. There are actually retailers out there that care to this extent and don’t just see dollar signs.
What if shops and online retailers, in addition to giving the customer a receipt, offered up a ‘We’re here to help you” card. A card that says they, the consumer, can contact the retailer anytime for help because they care and WANT them to enjoy the hobby by getting the most out of it they can. Oh sure, there are those that say they are there to help, but offer more! Offer up some racing tips that are both kid and adult friendly. Remember, the folks that we need to enjoy this hobby are the ones that have never done it, not the guys that have been racing slot cars for decades.
Joining a forum or frequenting a hobby shop and talking to the guys that are already in the hobby isn’t growing the hobby. Sure, we buy new products when they come out, and buy aftermarket parts when we have a car we want to tune or build, but that isn’t growing the hobby. All that is is the same group of people supporting the same group of retailers, who in turn, support the same manufacturers. Essentially, that’s only supporting the hobby and trying to keep it alive. We’ve got to reach out to folks that know nothing about the hobby and get them interested, and keep them interested.
Okay, enough with the doom and gloom already, right? Let me give you a good example of what I am talking about. I’ll give the condensed version now and if you want the details, you can get in touch with me later. I went to a hobby shop in Memphis about 15 years or so ago. There was a group of guys racing slot car, and one of them saw my interest. He wasn’t the store owner, but just a guy that liked racing 1:32 scale slot cars. He came over and began talking to me about it. By the time I left, he had given me one of his very own cars to help get me started. THAT is what I’m talking about. No, I’m not saying give away your slot cars one at a time to get folks interested. I’m talking about taking the time to share your hobby with someone new. The thing I remember most about that day was that he didn’t force his hobby on me. He showed me the track, how the controllers worked, how a car was put together and operated and a few tips on racing.
Having that friendly conversation was much more pleasant than some of the conversations I’ve been a part of where folks try to force their ideas on how slot car racing should be. New people in the hobby don’t need to know about all the crazy 10 bazillion magnet downforce racing, 18V of nutzo power, beam me up controllers, and ‘have to have’ these go fast parts, to have fun. They just need a basic understanding of how their set and/or cars work and then they can build on that. They have to be interested enough in the beginning to stick around and keep coming back, not turned away because they don’t have the latest and greatest of everything. The hobby is about having fun with friends and family and enjoying it. If we as hobbyists, dealers, and manufacturers don’t offer that, nobody will want to do it and the hobby will again, repeat it’s demise of the 60’s. So share the hobby with someone new and enjoy some simple slot car racing with them.
Jeremy ‘bibbster’ Bibbee