Cars are small, but excitement is really big

AND THEY'RE OFF

February 26, 1992|By Robert A. Erlandson | Robert A. Erlandson,Staff Writer

Like brightly colored, ski-jumping beetles, the trucks soared off the ramps.

Faster and faster they sped, caroming off the sidewalls and crashing into one another. Some flipped over, wheels spinning helplessly in the air.

Grown men ran across the blue-carpeted track, dodging the speeding racers in an awkward ballet to send overturned vehicles back to the fray.

Welcome to the Cockeysville Astrodome, the world of high-tech, mini-auto racing.

Two nights a week, 18-inch-by-9-inch, radio-controlled replicas of racing cars and trucks, one-10th the size of the real things, hit speeds over 25 mph in four-minute races around a 212-foot oval track.

"The adrenalin rush is really there, it's still pumping," said a hard-breathing Gary Nixon, 51, moments after he won the stock-car race and captured his second blue ribbon of the evening with a replica of Richard Petty's No. 43 Pontiac. Earlier, he won the truck-class race.

If anyone knows about the excitement of racing, it's Mr. Nixon.

A world-class motorcycle racer in the 1960s and 1970s, he won the world championship in 1976, reaching speeds above 185 mph.

The Oklahoma native sees no contradiction between those years, during which he broke 18 bones in various crashes, and his present devotion to the safer sport of mini-racing.

"It's the same feeling of competition, racing with the little cars," said Mr. Nixon, who operates a hobby shop on York Road in Cockeysville that specializes in radio-controlled cars and aircraft.

Mr. Nixon leased the burned-out former warehouse behind his shop to set up the race track a few years ago, then turned the operation over to the Cockeysville Astrodome Racers Club. The non-profit club transformed the track from a concrete-floor course into the largest carpeted, indoor mini-racing oval in Maryland. Just as at real racetracks, banners and signs advertising motor and tire companies decorate the walls. "Welcome Racing Fans," one reads.

Mini-auto racing attracts broad participation: "rednecks, dentists, doctors, engineers, we have them all, even people who have real race cars," said Art LaPole, 37, of Hampden, a former club president. Members range in age from teen-agers to those in their 50s.

Spectators are welcome and are encouraged to become racers, said club President Curt Brown, 32, of Timonium, a Westinghouse electronics engineer. The club needs new members, he said. "Once someone comes with kids, they're hooked. We help young drivers get started."

Thursdays attract the older, more experienced "drivers," while on Saturdays, more young people fill the crowd.

John Holbrook, 51, a Woodberry resident who raced stock cars in the 1950s and 1960s at Westport Stadium and Dorsey Speedway, said: "You get as much out of these [models] as one of those [stock cars]. It's real competition, even though it's scaled-down."

John Price, 12, whose father drives him from Monkton to the races twice a week, said he has already won three main-event races and is looking forward to more. "I drive trucks. They're the most fun, and I'm getting better at it," he said.

Mini-racing offers all the elements of real racing: speed, maneuverability, tactics and strategy, Mr. LaPole said.

Speed is important, but is not the most important element, he said. Intense concentration and good hand-eye coordination, needed to direct the little vehicles around the course, determine who are the best racers, he said.

The races are so fast and the radio-controlled steering and acceleration so delicate that the loss of concentration during the blink of an eye can mean disaster.

After years flying model planes, Chuck Moreland, 40, of Parkton has been racing mini-cars for the last month. "I come two nights a week," he said. "I'm working on becoming a better driver, and once you get competitive, it's hard to stay away."

The concentration the hobby demands offers relief from the daily grind, Mr. Moreland said. "It is good intensity. It purges you of the daily business tension," he said.

The little cars are so fast that it became impossible to record laps and times manually, Mr. Brown said, so the club computerized the track.

Every vehicle carries an identifying transponder. Each time it crosses an antenna under the carpet at the finish line, the computer records its speed and the number of laps completed, said Mr. Brown. He holds the track record for laps in a four-minute race -- 40. The computer also automatically ranks each car in the qualifying heats against the clock to establish its position in the main races.

The cars look like toys, but they definitely are not, Mr. LaPole said. Mini-auto racing is a high-tech hobby made possible by miniaturized electronics, and plastics and compounds that are able to absorb the punishment the cars take as they speed around the track.

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