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Rural Missouri Magazine

Racing by radio
RC racers seek big car thrills on the tiny track at Novelty raceway

by Bob McEowen

A 1/8-scale gas buggy throws dirt as it dives into a turn at Novelty R/C Raceways. The north-central Missouri track is a favorite with hobbyists who race model cars.

Engines scream and dirt flies from spinning tires as race cars sweep into a 180-degree turn. The cars approach a steep incline and then launch 6 feet into the air before plopping down onto the track and heading into another sharp curve.

Some of the cars negotiate the turn with ease. Others flip over onto their tops or crash into barriers along the edge of the track. No yellow flag is waved. Not a single tow truck is dispatched to the rescue. Instead, marshals dressed in T-shirts and shorts hurry to the scene and set the racers upright. Across the arena, drivers positioned on a wooden riser flick their fingers against throttle controls and the cars speed back into the fray.

It’s the opening day of competition at Novelty R/C Raceways, and the 1/8-scale buggies are on the track. Just under 2 feet long and capable of speeds up to 70 mph, these gas-powered, radio-controlled racers are the fastest and often most expensive vehicles on dirt. Their operators must maintain constant concentration to keep them upright and in the race.

“You really have to stay focused on what you’re doing,” says Rex Franke, owner of the RC racing track in the north-central Missouri town of Novelty and an avid radio-controlled car racer. “If you look five feet in front of you, you’re going to lose track of your car and it’s gone. You’re not going to know where it’s at.”

David Ronkoski of Versailles installs a battery pack in an electric-powered, radio-controlled race car prior to a qualifying heat.

Indeed, the row of men lining the driving stand at the Novelty raceway each appears completely fixated on his respective car, as the vehicles wind around a 650-foot-long raceway.

Novelty R/C Raceways is one of perhaps a dozen radio-controlled racing tracks in Missouri. Larger, but decidedly more rural than many other RC venues in the state, the Novelty track is also somewhat unique in that it is owned and operated by an individual and not a model car racing club.

Rex, a member of Lewis County Electric Cooperative, built his track and launched a small hobby shop in 1999 after attending his first RC car race just two years earlier.

Today, he and his wife, Rejena, host a series of weekend matches for area radio-controlled racing enthusiasts as well as trophy races and state-level events that attract competitors from around Missouri and neighboring states.

“There’s no place else that you can race that feels like this place. It just feels laid back,” says David Ronkoski, an RC racer from Versailles who attended the season opener Rex hosted on April 25. “We’ve been looking forward to this all winter.”

The April event featured 50 cars entered by 35 drivers. Each racer turned out with a veritable hobby shop’s worth of spare parts, tools and supplies in order to sustain the weekend’s activities. To the casual observer, the cars appear to be toys, but it doesn’t take long to realize these are highly developed racing machines.

“It’s just like a full-size race car and even more so. You can adjust every single thing on it,” says Brent Burton, one-half of the Two Cousins Racing Team from Bloomfield, Iowa. Between qualifying heats, Brent and his cousin, Tony, tear into their radio-controlled cars and fine-tune everything from the camber of the tires to the way the engines respond to their radio transmitters.

Racers concentrate on their cars while operating the controls of radio transmitters from the drivers’ platform at Novelty R/C Raceway. Learning to drive the cars instinctively requires hours of practice.

For Tony Burton, driving RC cars provides many of the same challenges he once enjoyed racing motorcycles. “I’m 38 now, and I’m at the age where I need to slow down,” he says. “I still want to have this kind of fun — jumping, and the excitement of riding on dirt — and this is pretty close. You have to learn to read terrain, just like in motocross. Your tire selection, set-up, what works best on the track for the conditions — it’s all about that.”

Cars and trucks are grouped based on the vehicle’s body style and scale, whether they’re two- or four-wheel drive, the tire size and the type of engine (gas or electric), among other distinctions. The rules are determined by ROAR, or Remotely Operated Auto Racers, an organization that sanctions RC competitions in the U.S and Canada.

The fastest cars, the 1/8-scale gas buggies, will complete a lap around Rex’s track in less than 25 seconds. The fastest drivers in entry-level classes will take a little more than 30 seconds to round the course, while beginners often require a minute or more.

Each car or truck entered in a race carries a miniature transponder that signals the track’s computer every time that vehicle crosses the starting line. The computer records the lap time for each car (to 1/1000 of a second accuracy), as well as total elapsed time and the number of laps for each race. Qualifying heats last five minutes, as do the main races for electric powered cars. The final evening races in the gas-powered truck and buggy classes last 15 minutes.

Although only five or six seconds separate lap times for the fastest drivers in the various classes, the price to play differs greatly. Every driver pays the same amount to enter the race — $25 for the first car on a trophy race weekend — but the cars themselves run the gamut from affordable to outrageous.

Novelty R/C Raceways owner Rex Franke announces lap times during a qualifying heat. Tiny transponders installed in the cars signal a computer in the announcing booth each time a racer crosses the start line. Lap times are calculated to 1/1000 of a second.

“There are all different levels. It just depends on how much you want to spend and how competitive you want to be,” says Rex, an auto body shop owner who carries starter cars as well as build-it-yourself race kits and performance parts in the small hobby shop next to his racetrack.

“They’ve got some ready-to-run vehicles that you can get for about $185,” he says. “For the 1/8th-scale buggies, the gas powered ones, you’ll see $2,500 to $3,000. Electric, two-wheel drive trucks, you’re still looking at probably $700 minimum.”

The expense doesn’t stop at the car and controller. Specialty manufacturers offer upgraded components for every part of the cars, from custom shocks and brakes to high-performance motors that burn nitro-methane — the same fuel that powers full-size dragsters — though with oil added to lube the RC cars’ tiny two-stroke engines.

No matter how fancy or expensive the car, RC racing still comes down to the skill of the driver, Rex says. “It you can’t drive the car around the track, you could spend $10,000 on a car and it’s not going to do you a bit of good.

“Driver ability is the big thing,” he says. “People think they can just grab a hold of these things and go. It’s just not that easy.”

Tiny adjustments to the brakes, throttle and steering in mid-air allow a driver to correct a car’s path or prevent a crash landing. Just the right touch on the accelerator can mean the difference between powering through a turn smoothly, or crashing into a barrier.

Even steering takes experience.

A young marshal scampers to rescue a flipped car while another buggy flies across Quadzilla.

“If the car is going away from you, right is right and left is left. But when that car is coming toward you, it’s exactly opposite,” Rex explains.

It’s not enough to keep the car on the track, though. Racers at Novelty are expected to keep control of their vehicles and avoid the kind of bump-and-run driving that excites fans of full-size NASCAR racing.

“We try to race clean,” Rex says. “When you’re racing side by side and trying to pass, you’re going to rub once in awhile, but it’s not like taking somebody completely out.

“Some of the guys get a little over-excited and they’ll get into somebody else. That’s what we call hacking,” he says. “We try to keep that under control because that causes a lot of hard feelings and it’s not really what we like to see. Because, you know, it’s a kids sport, too.”

It takes hundreds of hours of “wheel time” for a driver to learn to operate his radio-controlled car instinctively. Once driving skills are second nature, though, Rex says radio-controlled racing — especially the main event races that follow a long day of qualifying heats — offers excitement that approaches full-size motor sports.

“When you’re nip and tuck for the whole race and just waiting for somebody to make a mistake to get around them, that’s the thrill of driving the big cars,” Rex says. “It’s the same feeling — only you’re standing on the driving stand and you’re looking at that car and you’re trying to figure out what that car would feel like if you were in it.

“For me and a lot of guys, the thrill of it is just amazing,” he says.

For more information, contact Novelty R/C Raceways at 660-739-4530, or log on to www.noveltyrc.com.

Track marshals stand at the ready to right cars that are upset by the Novelty track’s many jumps, twists and turns. The biggest jump — part of a series of hazards that local racers call “Quadzilla” — sends cars as much as 6 feet in the air.

Rural Missouri magazine - November 2014
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