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Mad Dogs and Englishmen

Submitted by on August 26, 2009

For the first time in 70 years Brooklands, the world’s first permanent racing venue, resounded to the throb of competition engines this weekend.  Well, less of a throb and more of a whir.

Your correspondent was one of 44 competitors in a Feature Race at the historic oval circuit for cars which competed there between 1920 and 1939.  An array of machines the like of which not even Lord March at Goodwood could hope to bring together was assembled – albeit in 1/32 scale, ready to take on not the legendary 2.75 mile concrete oval but a 100-metre wooden road course.

Slot car racing remains one of the principal rites of passage for the true petrolhead, and in recent years there has been a surge of popularity for the hobby.  For those who want something more tactile than computer sims, and even a whiff of real life engineering, then there is a cornucopia of fun to be found from new ‘micro’ sets to induct the preschool racer to a boom in retro slot racing for, well, retro slot racers of advancing years.

After all, events such as Goodwood and Pebble Beach are massively popular but inaccessible as a participation sport to all but middle-aged rock stars and the occasional plutocrat.  Now it’s possible to recreate these automotive masterpieces in miniature, thanks to a fast-growing cottage industry in the UK and USA.

So it was that I decided to get in on the action and built a 3.8-litre supercharged Alfa Romeo 8C/35 grand prix car, as raced by Tazio Nuvolari against the mighty ‘silver arrows’ of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union – and by enthusiastic amateurs at Brooklands.

The big Alfa was also relatively straightforward to build, not least because everyone had to use the same ‘spec’ motor – 25,000rpm slimline model that was designed for DVD players.  The chassis was a nickel silver kit, coming from a manufacturer who could also provide regulation wheels, tyres and electrical connections.

My handiwork was scrutineered  on arrival to ensure that the rigorous governance on dimensions, control tyres, ground clearance and so on were all ‘by the book’.  Overkill for a toy car race, you say?  Not a bit of it.  The regular competitors at these events deliver the sort of attention to detail in terms of construction, weight distribution, tyre technology and motor tuning that would make Adrian Newey blush.

Unlike my effort, the hardcore racers featured a ‘rattle plate’ chassis: a loose-mounted, heavy piece of metal that provides ballast and, in the really clever designs, provides a form of suspension.  Small wonder that Ross Brawn’s design career began building cars like these.

There were other clever touches to be found too – from bodies carved from balsa wood for ‘added lightness’ to independent front axles – even miniscule differentials!  Meanwhile my common-or-garden hand controller was put in the shade by guys bearing an array of knobs and dials that could limit wheelspin, optimise brakes and torque and basically turn you into Michael Schumacher.

Before the start there was a concours d’elegance.  I was feeling quite chipper about my chances until I got up close to the handiwork on show, where I found that not only are some of these guys precision engineers, but could also make a fortune in set decoration in Hollywood.

With this last shot at glory now passed it was time to hit the track.  My decision to go steady and try to run at my own pace paid off in the first heat, finishing fourth out of six.  Keep this up and I’d qualify for the next round, I told myself – and then immediately attempted to drive the wheelnuts off my baby Alfa – with predictable results.

In the end it was no contest: there wasn’t a chance in hell that this newbie was going to get on par with guys who have been doing this week-in and week-out for 40-odd years.  Yet as the laps racked up, the crashes got harder and the Alfa got more and more battle scarred with every race, I couldn’t help but grin from ear to ear.

It’s an eccentric pastime, perhaps, for a few dozen grown men to indulge in – but all the ingredients of our sport are there.  Just in miniature.  On a glorious English summer’s afternoon, with a CD of Fred Astaire singing Cole Porter over the tannoy, I stood on the veranda of that famous clubhouse and basked in the knowledge that I had been racing… at Brooklands of all places.

Nick Garton – Mediatica

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