Life » Culture

Fiz 2.8.2006

Down in the basement

Gentlemen of a certain age find themselves in the basements of their homes. Some noodle around with tools building furniture of questionable utility and unique design; others build model railroad train layouts whose complexity rival an Amtrak timetable; and then there are those who re-create the Indianapolis 500 with electricity and plastic. For those of the latter stripe, the scale of our dreams has only grown cooler since we were youths. The whining, whizzing speed demon that beats in the heart of every full-scale driver can find outlet in 1/32nd scale on a pair of plywood sheets.

The English first started building tracks for model cars, though the tracks did not have slots and the vehicles had remote steering. The main goal at the time was to successfully complete one whole lap with your miniature auto. Americans brought the hobby home after World War II and added a few innovations: a groove in the track that kept the cars in a single lane, and racing. Throughout the '50s, more and more people got into model cars despite a tendency for the cars to burst into flames (most were still home assembled out of available materials like old model train engines, balsa wood, and glue).

Throughout the 1960's, the hobby grew like an alligator on a sheep farm. Various companies began producing finished cars and tracks for home play. Chains of commercial raceways appeared in the growing suburbs. And, much like Putt Putt on ESPN today, tournaments were broadcast on national television, hosted by the likes of Johnny Carson and featuring prominent racers like Jackie Stewart. For a brief, tire-burning moment, slot cars were more popular than model trains or bowling.

Then the moment passed like a tiny Aston Martin shooting off the track on a reverse-banked turn. AMF (the bowling chain) started buying up the public racetracks and closing them. Public interest turned in other directions --- the magazines and manufacturers that served the hobby followed all those home tracks into the national attic.

Today, public raceways crop up and disappear as mostly hobbyists try to expand their circle. Scale Auto Racing ( keeps an eye on the current state of, well, scale auto racing, including film of national tournaments. Non-US companies like Carrera (, Ninco (, and Scalextric ( still produce race sets. Ridge Road Station (16131 West Ridge Road, Holley) has a nice selection along with an elaborate model train setup. Once you start working in scale, it seems hard to stop.

--- Craig Brownlie