In the groove with slot car racers

Just because we're not Jeremy Clarkson doesn't mean we can't experience the thrills of fast driving. Steven Russell visits the Ipswich Slot Car Club to exercise his trigger finger and get in the groove .

Just because we're not Jeremy Clarkson doesn't mean we can't experience the thrills of fast driving. Steven Russell visits the Ipswich Slot Car Club to exercise his trigger finger and get in the groove . . . ish . . .

NOW I know what it's like to be a Formula 1 slowcoach like Tonio Liuzzi. Having clung desperately to the ragged edge and posted the fastest time you could, you watch Kimi Räikkönen and Lewis Hamilton flash by - barely breaking sweat and making your best effort looked decidedly second-rate.

So it is tonight at the Ipswich Slot Car Club. It's the first time I've picked up a controller in anger - that's the hand-held device with the switch on - so am pretty pleased with laps consistently around the 7.776 seconds mark . . . precisely.

Then the skilled folk take to the track and are instantly banging in laps of just over six seconds. Pop goes a pleasant daydream.

Experienced trigger fingers jiggle back and forth on the controllers. They're slowing fractionally for the tighter bends, but to the novice's eye it's imperceptible. The cars, very light and with a low centre of gravity, rocket around the circuit - relying on the little T-shaped bar at the front, nestled in the slot, to keep them on the track.

If I were more mathematically minded, I could work out a miles-per-hour figure for a six-second 35-metre lap. But I'm not, so I can't.

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Fortunately, the traumatic stress of dented ego is salved by club member Tom Garnham thrusting a consolatory cup of tea into one hand and into the other a deliciously dense chocolate brownie baked by his good lady.

He joined the club in 1984. Over the years his three sons have all come along, too.

He likes the blend of competition and sociability.

“There are some anoraks in other places who live and breathe it and are not much interested in anything other than slot car racing, but we're all normal people!” he laughs.

Tom enjoyed Scalextric as a boy. Racing like this is similar, but the cars are different. Not many people race both.

“Surprisingly, there's no crossover - well, maybe a handful of people,” says Richard Mack. “They like the detail, we like the speed.”

“Scalextric cars now are a work of art,” agrees Tom. “They're so detailed.”

Richard started racing in 1968, when he was about 11, and is what you'd call experienced and committed. He makes a round trip of 130-odd miles from the Wickford/Billericay area for the weekly races in Suffolk. There are other clubs - in north London and Kent, for instance - but Wickham Market is easiest to get to, when traffic flow and road congestion are factored in.

He's competed far and wide. Last year's world championships were in Slovakia, and the year before that Italy. When he was young, he used to race in Holland.

Pushed to drop his natural modesty for a moment, Richard reckons he “probably just scrapes” into the top 10 slot car drivers in England. (A look at the honours board shows he was British Division 1 Saloon champion in 2005.)

Racers are almost at one with their vehicle when it's whizzing smoothly around the track, he says - feeling, somehow, almost physically part of the car.

“It's hard to explain, but - and I know this sounds stupid, because you're not driving them - you can feel what the car is doing. It's fractions of seconds. Going into a corner, you think 'Whoops' and you ease off. I don't know how to explain it.

“It's all about rhythm. Once you get dialled into the track, you get into a rhythm. An American I know, who was champion last year, said any top slot racer would make a good drummer, because it's also all about rhythm.”

Unlike Scalextric models, these cars can't be bought complete from a hobby shop. People buy the parts and build their vehicles from the bits, adding axles, wheels and a motor. As a rough guide, a car might cost about £45 and a controller £75.

The bodywork is a surprisingly flimsy plastic shell, painted on the inside and secured to the spartan chassis with four pins. The complete car probably weighs about 75g and, according to reports, the faster types are capable of 60mph bursts on the straights.

Richard, a jeweller by profession, designs and sells alloy chassis - used by many successful exponents. The first ones he cut by hand; now they're done by laser.

He gets out an uncut chassis, to explain. A flat slice of carbon steel, it looks like an Airfix kit, with the various components joined on. When the car is built, they're cut off and soldered to the main chassis floor.

The motors are quite specialised, ranging from a model made in China and costing about £7 - and, in another guise, most likely used to power a toothbrush! - to one costing £150 and turning at about 250,000 revs a minute.

There are no minimum or maximum weight limits, but many racers shift little bits of ballast around the chassis to improve handling and gain those elusive microseconds here and there. Some also experiment with the sponginess of the tyres, and add oily gloop to increase grip.

Female racers are thin on the ground, though Richard remembers an Australian woman at the world championships.

“She had a little child, one-and-a-half or two, with her when she was racing. Her language was like nothing I've ever heard! She had the baby under one arm, control in the other, and she's fast! - probably top 20 in the world - and she's effing and blinding. The baby had a book and was chucking it on the track . . .,” he laughs.

Similarly, it's generally hard to attract the Nintendo Wii generation.

When Richard started, most enthusiasts were aged between about 11 and 20, “but it's nowhere near as popular as it was. It dropped off when radio-controlled cars came in. To use these” - the slots - “you have to go to a specific track, but with radio-controlled cars you could go to a car park; and so people drifted away.

“Then, also, schools did more metalwork and kids built things by hand. Nowadays, they just sit next to computers; there aren't any hand skills. And it's a throwaway society. If these break, we have to fix them, but a kid would say 'I'll go and buy a new one.' It's just the way it is.”

Chat over, it's time for some racing. The members are tonight competing against each other in pairs, in two-minute heats, with the aggregate laps totted up at the end of the evening to decide the winner.

The noise, when the cars race in earnest, is like a clutch of those wailing firework squibs going off together.

Cars draw their energy through copper pick-ups, which rub along the current-carrying braiding on the four-lane track. Electricity comes not straight from the mains but via a 12-volt battery that smoothes out the power delivery.

The temperature of the room can affect levels of grip, as does the amount of rubber laid down on the track during races. Competitors can turn knobs on their controllers, to fine-tune settings such as braking, in an effort to go faster.

There's a bit of leg-pulling during the heats - about colleagues' reaction times, for instance, as they put a crashed car back into its slot - but mainly it's a study in concentration: eyes flicking around the circuit and index fingers sliding back and forth.

Between races, there's really only time for minor adjustments and a quick clean of the pick-ups. Tom says they use lighter fuel - and jests that shop staff must suspect they're sniffing it when they go in and buy two or three cans at a time!

Do people get blisters on their trigger fingers? (“Slot car racer's swelling”?)

“Most of us have got a real hard bit of skin,” he admits. “With some of the slower classes, you press harder - to try to make it go faster - but of course it doesn't make any difference!

“Years ago the original ones (controllers) used to have variable resistors and if you did a long race they used to get hot. There was a little screw at the end and you used to develop a little burn mark on your hand.”

Cars and competitors are quickly into their rhythm tonight, with 20 laps the benchmark for each two-minute dash. At the end, Richard Mack has triumphed with 86 circuits - a personal best, apparently - even if he's not quite satisfied with how it's gone. There's a bit of a bump near a tight corner that's making things a little slower, he points out with a wry grin.

His fellow participants agree that, however otherworldly it sounds, you do develop a feel for how the car is driving. “If you're going to crash, you know you're going to crash before it happens,” explains tonight's victor.

Nigel Harvey, the club's competition secretary and treasurer, adds with a laugh: “When you get into a groove, it's like you're connected. It's better than drugs, probably.”

He's the sole survivor of the three experienced racers who moved into the area from London and started the Ipswich club in 1976. “He's our Yoda, the Jedi master,” quips Paul Austin, a member who travels from the Stowmarket area, in reference to the wise guru from Star Wars.

Home, for a while, was a function room at the Railway pub in Foxhall Road, where the portable track had to be put up on each occasion. After spells at a number of church halls a home was found at the Grimwade Memorial Hall, in Fore Hamlet, in 1979, where a permanent circuit could be built in the basement.

October, 2002, saw the final night of racing there, with the site earmarked for redevelopment as part of the Ipswich waterfront regeneration. A fortnight later the cars started racing in an industrial unit at a farm just outside Ipswich.

The cost proved prohibitive, though, and the search began for yet another place to lay their track. An official found a new home in his village of Wickham Market, where last spring the circuit was set up in a church hall. The club's grateful to vicar John Eldridge and other parish officials at All Saints'.

Some club members race at other meetings around the country and have met with success in the British Open Championship and at British Slot Car Racing Association finals. In 2005 and 2006 Ipswich club teams took the National Teamrace crown.

It's nearly time to call it a night. The track covered with dust-sheets, and curtains drawn across.

The final discussion is about the respective merits of a finger-operated controller against a thumb-plunger. Nigel's the only one using the latter tonight, but he's planning to make the switch. The consensus is, though, that there's not much in it: you should go with what you find comfortable.

With the lights about to be switched off, Paul sums up the appeal of the pastime.

“There's all this technical stuff, but the enjoyment is driving the things. It really is. When you're in a race, and you're this far behind them and you know you can't fall off because you'll lose time . . . you can't explain that to anybody.

“You can have all the bits and pieces you like; the fun is the racing - side-to-side racing.”

IPSWICH Slot Car Club is always on the lookout for prospective new members, and prides itself on its warm welcome. Newcomers are encouraged to race on their first visit, borrowing the club's cars and controllers.

Members meet on Tuesday evenings, from 7.30pm, in the wooden building at the end of Crown Lane, Wickham Market. (Down the side of the chip shop.)

Contacts: secretary Kevin Leverington, 01728 748361. Competition secretary and treasurer Nigel Harvey, 01473 434073.

Email: info@ipswichslotcars.org.uk

Weblink: www.ipswich.slot.cars.farmore.net

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