As Christmas Day approaches, forgive us for indulging in a spot of timely nostalgia. Because in a world before computer games, drones and massive smart phones existed, the humble slot car racing set was king. It was the toy that many a youngster wanted to find under the Christmas tree.
Despite the modern-day competition, the collective appeal hasn’t waned. This year, the beloved British brand Scalextric celebrated its 60th anniversary, marking the occasion by gradually releasing a special collection of cars. And whether young or old, the raw, childlike glee you get from whizzing model cars around a track as fast as possible is still hard to beat.
Here are six points that explore the enduring popularity of slot car racing, and how it could even have a part to play in the future of everyday motoring.
1. It unites families
As a concept, slot car racing is so simple yet versatile that it frequently bridges generation gaps, gender gaps and even sibling rivalries. As we touched on above, watching cars flying around a track - and inevitably off it again and again - is universally captivating.
It brings families together. And with that comes a unique opportunity for grandparents, parents and children to bond over a love of cars. Many a father will have handed a set down to his kids and enjoyed racing together, as perhaps his father did before him. It's these type of cherished memories that mean the mere mention of slot car racing still revs up nostalgic excitement in many. It's also why few will pass up the opportunity to have a go, whatever their age.
2. The agony of choice
Slot car racing gives those of us who aren’t Jay Leno the chance to own our dream garage of cars. But when it comes to the racing, which one do you choose? From vintage single seaters to rally cars, stunning hypercars to elite racing thoroughbreds, and an ever-expanding licensed catalogue including F1, the BTCC and British GT, there’s something for every car fan.
And this is where the generational aspect really comes into its own. The universal nature of slot car racing means you can play out timeless races that would either be impossible or a bit of a mismatch in real life. Watching Grandad race his favourite childhood model from the 1950s to victory against your kids’ newer ride – and the ensuing reactions - is priceless.
3. It’s sociable and makes anyone competitive
As we touched on above, if you want to engage the entire family this Christmas then simply get the Scalextric set down from the loft.
Unlike that traditional game of Monopoly, things will rarely get out of hand. The social interaction and playful banter that comes with racing slot cars is all part of the fun. It's why there are an increasing number of bars and dedicated-venues around the UK that are offering slot car racing as a way of encouraging young adults to have fun and get talking to one another over something other than a beer.
And this applies regardless of whether you're a mad petrolhead or someone who has never even seen a racing car before. The controls - a simple handheld trigger that acts as an electric throttle - are easy enough for a complete novice to pick up but difficult to master. As such, races are usually very close-run affairs, which simply adds to the competitive spirit for both racers and bystanders.
4. It’s a chance to get creative
For many, the love affair with slot car racing starts with a simple oval or ‘figure of 8’ track. But with extension kits and more complicated track pieces comes the opportunity to get creative and develop your own super-sized layouts, with the only limits being the amount of time, space and extra track to hand.
Nowadays you can purchase all kinds of themed kits and pre-designed tracks if you’d rather get straight down to the racing. But there’s always been a huge amount of fun to be had in coming up with your own weird and wacky creations, which in the YouTube era makes for fun viewing if you’d rather not go to all that effort (and cost) yourself.
Speaking of which, save yourself the trouble of trying to beat the world record. The longest slot car track ever built, measuring 2.9 miles, was created by James May and around 300 volunteers in August 2009 as part of the BBC series James May’s Toy Stories.
5. It’s a great first step in engineering
If you want your kids to know more about how things work, hand them a mini screwdriver and let them open up a slot car. The tried and trusted method of learning how to fix something by taking it apart first rings very true here.
Slot cars are famed for being simple bits of kit that are relatively easy to tweak and adapt. Moreover, for those with an eye on a future career in motorsport, there are performance gains to be hand from tinkering with your car’s setup. Some favourite tricks include adding stronger magnets to help your ride stick to the track better (i.e. downforce), adding foam rubber rear tyres (i.e. traction) and carefully removing sections of bodywork to lighten the car (i.e. minimising weight).
It’s possibly a bit over the top for that Christmas Day race – some may even call it cheating - but it’s useful knowledge to have in reserve if things start getting super competitive.
6. It could be the future of motoring
Electric cars are becoming an increasingly common feature on Britain's roads, but concerns around range and charging infrastructure are often cited as being the reason for why many are holding back from adopting electric and hybrid vehicles.
A slot car-style stretch of road was tested in France earlier this year, capable of wirelessly charging cars while they drive at speeds up to 62mph. It's a breakthrough that could potentially eliminate range anxiety and pave the way for making electric cars much more popular. This follows previous developments such as those in South Korea, where OLEV buses in the city of Gumi fitted with the compatible equipment wirelessly charge while snaking around their daily routes.
Of course, there are questions surrounding how motorists would pay for the electricity that remain to be answered. And as explored by our Future of Fuel Report, electric is simply one of a number of options on the table at this point in time as we begin to move away from traditionally-fuelled vehicles. But it’s somewhat intriguing that some of the major questions regarding future car infrastructure might lie in a decades-old toy that is currently sat up in the loft or wrapped up under the Christmas tree.