Slot cars were an incredibly popular toy in the 1960s, and for good reason — they bore a striking likeness to the vehicles they were based on, and their size allowed any user to participate in racing. While their popularity began tapering off in the late '60s, they have by no means faded away. This sport has made a triumphant comeback in recent years as older generations return to the pastime and younger generations discover it for the first time.
In this guide, we'll take you through the history of slot car drag racing, including its origins, golden age, and the recent resurgence in popularity.
What Is Slot Car Racing?
Slot cars are miniature scaled automobiles powered by small electric motors. They're raced on a track that typically consists of snap-together plastic and features a groove for each car lane. The slot car comes with a tiny blade or pin that extends out from under the car and fits into the groove. The contact brushes pick up electricity from the rails on the track and send it to the motor, which powers the car. The guide pin keeps the slot car on the track.
The racer controls the vehicle with a hand-held controller equipped with a plunger. The further down you press the plunger, the faster the slot car will travel. While slot cars are confined to a track and their direction is not controllable, they do require a certain degree of driving skills, which largely comes down to using your instinct and getting a good feel of the track.
One of the main challenges of slot car racing is keeping the car from coming out of the slot. You can't drive a slot car at top speed along the entire track, as doing so will cause it to fly off when going around the corners. Drivers must therefore slow down around the corners and accelerate within the straight sections.
Slot car track types vary widely and can be as simple or elaborate as you desire. They range from tiny homemade tracks in basements to complex replicas of actual speedways that even include faux buildings, greenery and attendees.
The Early History of Slot Car Racing
Slot car history goes back to 1912 when the Lionel Train Company introduced the first models as an accessory for model train sets. Their model cars were similar to their trains in that they ran on a pair of elevated platforms with an electrified track in a little trench down the center.
The two models were 1:24 scale cars and measured roughly 8 inches in length. The bottoms of the cars featured conductors that conformed to the slot and powered the tiny motor, guiding the cars on their journey around the track.
While these models sold fairly quickly, World War I caused European sales to decline dramatically, at which point the Lionel Train Company decided to halt production and focus on selling its more popular train sets.
Over the following decades, several companies and amateur model builders throughout the United States and Europe made toy cars that ran on diesel, wind-up clockwork mechanisms and rubber bands. When did slot car racing become popular? It wasn't until the 1950s that electric cars become common — when racers in Britain brought electric slot cars into popularity, thanks to their noiseless and sustainable propulsion method.
Once again, slot cars served as an accessory to toy trains. This means they conformed to OO scale, or 1:76, which was the most popular size for toy trains. This made these new cars roughly 2 inches in length and, like the 1912 Lionel models, they ran in slots. Racers could also adjust the cars' speed using a push-button hand-held controller.
The Emergence of British Slot Cars
Near the end of the 1950s, the automobile movement Kustom Kulture was just taking off in the U.S., and many people were giving their old cars souped-up engines and new paint jobs.
In the U.K., the same was happening with British slot cars — owners could modify them with better tires and higher-performance motors. They could also replace the conductors for more control and implement magnets that helped the slot car better adhere to the track. Racers could even make a slot car from scratch, which included doing all the wiring and soldering.
It seemed that this British movement would have naturally been popular in the United States as well, where Kustom Kulture was all the rage — but it hadn't made its way across the pond yet.
However, in 1960, the British company Playcraft Model Motoring had a slot car exhibition at a toy show in London. Representatives from Aurora, an American company specializing in scale model kits, happened to be there and quickly got the U.S. marketing rights for Playcraft's slot cars. In just five years, Aurora sold a staggering 25 million slot cars to American children, making this slot car line the most successful in history.
The Golden Age
Due to Aurora capitalizing on the appeal of slot car racing, the years 1961 to 1966 are considered the golden age for slot cars. The Wall Street Journal estimated the worth of the slot car market in 1963 to be around $100 million. Across the U.S., there were approximately 3,000 commercial slot car tracks built in corner stores and hobby shops, with various slot car track types. There were also about 200 in Europe.
Children could visit a raceway in their area and, for about $2 an hour, race on tracks that featured fun turns, twists and up to eight lanes. The company American Model Car Raceways even made a business out of traveling around the country to construct tracks, with their longest track measuring 220 feet.
A Decline in Slot Car Racing
However, as is the case with any movement, there was an eventual decline in popularity. By 1968, only 250 or so commercial tracks remained in the United States. Just a year later, this number was down to 50. Some people attribute this decline to the hobby itself and its failure to regulate competitions properly.
As there were no racing classes, it was practically impossible for a beginner driver with a new car to compete against a seasoned driver with a custom-built car. This led to much dissatisfaction among racers, and the popular hobby rapidly lost fans and participants. Although regulatory leagues were established to address this problem — such as the United Slot Racers Association — it was already too late to reignite interest.
The Slot Car Racing Comeback
Despite reaching its peak popularity 60 years ago, model car racing has been making a triumphant return in the past five or so years. This is in part due to older racers — many of whom grew up during the craze — who are rediscovering a childhood passion and enjoying the nostalgia of that period. In addition to revisiting their own childhoods, many older racers are also introducing slot car racing history to their children or grandchildren.
Interest in slot car racing has significantly increased since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, as many have realized the activity is a great way to have fun while quarantines and social distancing measures are in effect. However, this movement was already regaining traction before the pandemic.
To many advocates, slot car racing is an activity that teaches racers tenacity, responsibility and confidence, especially for young drivers. It's also a fun experience that allows racers to bond with one another and provides a good alternative to spending time in front of a phone, TV or computer screen. Older racers returning to the activity for the first time since childhood can often bring more meticulous attention to the sport than they were likely capable of as children.
Slot car racing is also a great way to introduce young racers to a vehicle's components, as slot cars contain a chassis, guide, motor, gears, tires and a light plastic body. Younger drivers can easily take apart, modify and experiment with their slot cars.
The most popular collections sold today are HO scale, or 1:87, with cars between 2 and 3 inches long. While there are still almost 200 commercial tracks remaining in the U.S., this activity lives on mainly in the basements of enthusiasts. However, as track pieces sell separately, some racers have taken to making their own. Today's homemade tracks can be quite impressive, with some rivaling the ones made during the golden age of slot car racing.
For instance, James Harlan constructed the extraordinary White Lake Formula One inside his 1,000-square-foot basement. This is an elaborate 1:32 scale track that features a total of 20 straightaways and 19 turns.
Changes in Slot Car Technology
If you're interested in getting back into this hobby, you'll be glad to know not much has changed in the past four decades. The only significant technological change has been the introduction of digital controls.
Back when older analog sets controlled the slot cars, every car had to stay in its own lane so it could be maneuvered by one controller plugged directly into that lane's electrical supply. However, digital slot car racing sets include a computer chip within each car, which can be synced to one controller. This allows racers to have more than one car per lane.
This change has introduced an entirely new aspect to the sport — strategy. With the digital controllers, racers can press a button to make their car pass another at certain crossover portions of the track. A car can also have a limited amount of "gas," which means racers must account for pit stops during the race. Digital controls also provide plenty of information about the race, such as scale speed ratings and lap times.
However, if you prefer things the old way — which is just setting up the track and starting the controller — you can still get an analog set. Analog sets are still fairly popular and are preferred by some racers.
To attract new fans in recent years, many slot car companies have made collections based on popular movies or television shows. Many of these shows or movies feature an iconic automobile that lends itself easily to a slot car, which includes:
- "Dukes of Hazzard"
- "Speed Racer"
- "Knight Rider"
- "The A-Team"
- "Back to the Future"
- "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles"
Other franchises, such as "Sonic the Hedgehog," "Spider-Man," "X-Men" and "The Simpsons," are more of a stretch when associating them with slot cars. However, many of the cars from these franchises are quite creative. For example, some slot cars from "The Simpsons" feature Homer and Bart on skateboards.
Competitive Slot Car Racing Today
Is slot racing back in style? Competitive slot car racing is still alive and well today, which is perhaps most evident by the 180 public raceways still existing in the United States and Canada. Other things that reflect the continued popularity of racing and collecting slot cars include:
- Competitive organizations: Several organizations for competitive slot racing still exist today, including the International Slot Racing Association (ISRA) and the British Slot Car Racing Association (BSCRA).
- Publications: Many slot car-themed magazines are still available online and in hard copy. Notable examples include Model Car Racingand Speedway Illustrated.
- Kits: Numerous slot car kits are available for recreational use. Many feature pop culture references and beloved characters like the Mario Brothers, Lightning McQueen and the franchise characters detailed earlier.
- Improvements in building materials: A lot of time has passed since the golden age of slot car racing and slot cars of the '70s, meaning there have been many advancements in building materials. These modifications enable the tracks to join and stay together more easily. This makes for a more consistent racing experience.
However, the above things represent just a small part of today's slot racing culture. Most slot racing activities take place in homes, clubs and, of course, online.
1960s Slot Car Racing Legacy
While many slot car enthusiasts today use new cars and tracks, there is still an interest in '60s and '70s slot cars, which is evident in the following ways:
- Establishing museums: The slot car racing craze of the 1960s occupies a special place in history — there are several museums around the world dedicated to the 1960s boom. In the United States, the largest museum is the Los Angeles Slot Car Museum. Museums like this house some of the biggest and most popular tracks from the 1960s.
- Buying and selling rare items: Rare car models from this era can cost hundreds of dollars, and tracks are often worth several thousand. Buying and selling these unique pieces allows racers to relive the olden days.
- Testing old cars and tracks: There are several YouTube trends surrounding slot car racing and collecting. This includes testing cars to see if they’ll still run decades later.
Enjoy the Timeless Hobby of Slot Cars With Auto World Store
After reading about slot cars, you may be interested in taking up this fun and timeless hobby to revisit your childhood. Or, maybe you're set on discovering the joys of slot car collecting for the first time. Whatever your situation is, there's no better place to find high-quality materials than Auto World Store. Browse our wide selection of slot cars and tracks to get started. If you have any questions about our products, feel free to contact us!