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Slot-car racing making a comeback on Pa. tracks

Sunday, January 11, 2004

By Monica von Dobeneck, The Associated Press

CAMPBELLTOWN, Lebanon County -- Stone Rocks of Campbelltown gripped his controller as his head swiveled back and forth, trying to keep up with the whir as his 4-inch car zipped around the slot car track at the Keystone Raceway.

Chris Knight, Patriot News via AP
Racers guide their cars at the Keystone Slotcar Raceway in Campbelltown, the second slot car track to open recently in Lebanon County.
Click photo for larger image.

Seven other cars were on the track at the same time, occasionally veering out of control and flying through the air or crashing into each other. They didn't stay out of circulation long, however, before somebody scooped them up and placed them back on the track at the point they left.

If someone crashes into you, "them's the breaks," Rocks said.

Rocks, a local disc jockey, and the other racers were competing in the Penn-Jersey series for 4-inch NASCAR-style cars on a recent Saturday. They came from all over Pennsylvania as well as New Jersey, Maryland, New York and Virginia to the new slot car track in Campbelltown, offering evidence of rising interest in the hobby that reached its zenith in the 1960s and early 1970s.

Keystone Slotcar Raceway is the second slot car track to open in Lebanon County in the past few months. The other is the Guindon-Apolis Raceway, which opened on Cumberland Street in Lebanon in the old Dauphin Deposit Bank building.

"Slot cars have been around for a long time, but it took a real downturn in the 1980s," said Mark Greene, co-owner of Keystone along with John Linnane.

According to Jay Kisling, the Penn-Jersey series director, 10 tracks have opened in Pennsylvania in the past year. Linnane said that as recently as a couple of years ago, three tracks closed for every one that opened. Now, that ratio is reversed, he said.

Greene and Linnane had been operating out of a barn in Hershey before the growing interest in slot cars had them looking for a more accessible location. They leased the former Leeds Corner store on Main Street and Route 117 in Campbelltown in September, but only recently got approval from the South Londonderry Township zoning-hearing board to operate there.

Keith Guindon, owner of Guindon-Apolis Raceway, had been operating out of his basement, then a bank in Fredericksburg since 1996, and opened in Lebanon in October.

Chris Knight, Patriot News via AP
Slotcars are racked up in anticipation of the next race to start as Jim Biehl, of Boyertown, places his car on the track at the Keystone Slotcar Raceway.
Click photo for larger image.

Many of the racers at Keystone were middle-aged men, such as Rocks. There were a few teenage boys, but no women. According to Kisling, few women race, although those who do are generally very good. One from Boise, Idaho, has won several national championships.

"I did this when I was a kid in the late Sixties and early Seventies," Rocks said. "From 1971 to a couple of years ago, my stuff sat in a shoe box. I like the competition and the camaraderie. I'd rather be here racing than watching NASCAR."

At Guindon-Apolis, employee Dicky Snader said he also got into the sport as a kid, running the smaller, HO scale model cars at Kipp's HO Raceway on Lehman Street in Lebanon, which has been there for 42 years.

Rocks said he was intrigued by figuring out how to make a car go a little faster. There's an art to "putting the cars together, learning to tune the frame, setting it up for different track conditions, adjusting for temperature, just figuring out how to make something work a little better," he said.

The world record for a slot car on a straight track is 124 mph from a standing start, Rocks said. The cars whirling around a curved, banked track can reach speeds of 30 to 70 mph, depending on their class.

Aside from running races, Keystone runs beginner classes. A lot of men who did it when they were kids come back with their sons, Greene said.

Keystone will rent a car for $2 for 15 minutes. A spot on the track rents for $6 an hour. Both local racetracks will rent their facilities for birthday parties or Scout groups.

Some people build their cars from scratch, but most use kits.

Guindon said people could get a starter car kit for $48.

"Slot cars tend to take off when the economy is slow," Guindon said. "It's a cheap form of entertainment."

The top races offer modest cash prizes, but the prize is more likely to be a gift certificate to the hosting shop.

Greene said slot cars appealed to "engineers, kids, doctors, roofers: anybody who has ever played with models or likes cars."

For Lynn Umberger, of Palmyra, who was competing in the recent race in Campbelltown, it's about the speed.

"It's almost like racing a real car without the expense or the danger," he said. "I've never heard of anyone getting killed in a slot-car race."

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