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Playing The Slots 

by Michael Bowen

I'm standing at the end of a long straightaway just as it climbs into a steeply banked curve. Three cars are hurtling at full throttle right at me. Racing side by side, they accelerate into a blur. Anyone's instinct would be to jump back, get out of the way.

Anyone who's a chicken like me. For these particular cars run on the electricity in braids on either side of the grooves they must follow in a roadway made of plastic. These cars are sped up and slowed down by electronic controllers wired into the side of a model racetrack. These cars are seven inches long.

It's Friday night at Stanley J's Raceway, Spokane's slot car hangout, located just across Division from the big grain elevators. Tonight, there are four racers on the premier Blue Track, three corner marshals (for repositioning race cars into their grooves whenever they spin out, which is fairly often), some hangers-on, and Denise on the microphone over there, announcing cumulative lap totals and warning the competitors just before the start of each heat. It all has the feel of an Olympic ski race: To signal the start, an automated system beeps three descending tones.

Drivers pilot their slot cars for three minutes on each of the circuit's eight color-coded lanes. Between each of the heats, they sprint to wherever their cars were located on the course when the power shut down, slap on color-coded stickers indicating their car's new lane, squirt traction gel onto the rear tires, blow on the cars' electric motors (and their hand-held controllers) to prevent overheating. Tonight's winner circles the track more than 220 times; a printout reports his fastest lap at 4.11862 seconds.

For slot car racing has become a highly technical and competitive pursuit. Racks of paraphernalia on the wall -- bodies, frames, tires, controllers -- indicate the hobby's complexity. Dave Ziuchkovski, the owner of Stanley J's, has witnessed the growth and the decline: "We've been here since '89. But the mid-Sixties were the heyday. At that time, along about 1963-67, I believe, slot car racing accounted for more gross revenues in this country than golf and skiing combined." But it's still a viable subculture: "I was on Ebay the other day," he reports, "and there were 151 pages of slot car stuff for sale."

So why did I draw blank stares when I told people about this assignment? "For most people, they've never heard of it. Or they think that it just disappeared. Or they're just unaware of it," says Ziuchkovski. "We get calls all the time, people asking, 'Can two people sit in these cars at the same time?' "

But racers like Alex Evart understand the appeal of slot cars, even in a video game era. A student at Rogers High, Evart has a pierced lip, a black wool cap, a Korn T-shirt. "Most people I talk to at school, they think I'm playing with Matchbox cars or something," he says. "But this is hands-on: You get to build [the cars] and drive them."

"It's the speed, man -- total control," shouts another driver in passing. Evart retains a boyish delight in smashing things up: "With the 12-cars, the frames are made out of piano wire. You can just bounce those off the wall, man -- it won't hurt anything. That's how flexible they are.' Evart clearly understands the appeal of model cars: He spent $80 on his last set of tires. Slot car tires.

On a recent afternoon, my daughter and I checked out the slots' appeal by "racing" a couple of banged-up rentals around the novices' circuit. These out-of-the-box models aren't exactly lightning: As they scuttle down the back straight, you can take a couple of breaths. Still, we were getting fairly proficient, we thought -- we were only spinning out, oh, about six times per lap -- when in walks another father-daughter duo.

They rent a couple of the much speedier Group 12 cars, which are basically some flexible clear plastic packaging wrapped around a wire frame and an oversized electric motor. On the 12-cars, the front tires make dimes look gigantic; the rear tires are what you'd find on a top-fuel dragster in Lilliput (with "Daytona Pro Track" spelled out in the cutest little raised white letters on the sidewalls).

Even though the other pair were racing on an entirely different track, it was clear that our collective butts were being kicked. The Speed Demon People had their wedge-shaped Saran Wrap roadsters screaming down the 50-foot front straight on the Blue Track so fast that, quite literally, it was hard to follow them with your eye.

I share with owner Ziuchkovski my amazement that such little autos can negotiate a 155-foot circuit with six turns in barely four seconds. So these Group 12 cars, they're about as fast as they get, right?

Ziuchkovski pulls a poker face. "Well," he says, "now the Open Class, they're quite a bit faster. We've had them in here doing a 1.6."

As in seconds. As in scale speeds approaching 1,500 mph.

Traffic cops are missing out: There's room for a speed trap at Stanley J's. A miniature one.

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