Jaime Flores has been a radio-controlled-vehicle enthusiast most of his life and gets a genuine buzz when pitting himself against other racers. It's a hobby that appeals to all ages, he says, recommending that children under 12 start with a ready-to-race R/C kit and that everybody else builds his own so he knows how to fix it in the event of a breakdown. Instructions are generally easy to follow, come in many different languages, and, according to Flores, are comparable to shelf-building kits from Home Depot--with just a few more steps.
Radio-control kits come in two ways: ready-to-race, which means for $125-$400, you get the truck, the motor, the radio control--everything but the batteries (if you go electric) or the fuel (if you go nitro). Build-your-own is just that--you assemble the truck from transmission to suspension, then paint and customize the premolded plastic body. For the first-timer, assembling a kit averages 20 hours and takes a lot of patience, as you'll be working with gears and screws no bigger than your pinky fingernail. Prices for build-your-own range from about $200 to $400, but, as opposed to ready-to-race, they offer the enthusiast a far better appreciation for electronics/mechanics and a sense of accomplishment. You also get to choose superior-quality components. General maintenance for an R/C amounts to about five bucks a month--that is, of course, if you resist upgrading.
Flores, who's the assistant manager of the Hobby Place in Los Angeles, California, hires only loyal R/C customers to run the shop: They know their stuff, and, like Flores and the majority of R/C lovers, infect contagious enthusiasm over the subject.
"Watching electric trucks is one thing, but watching nitro is another," says his technician, Anthony Jefferson, who indicates a display case that houses numerous R/C truck kits and models. "The smell! The sounds! Screaming as they go around!"
Jefferson claims the current top speed for an electric-powered R/C four-wheeler is 111 mph and 101 mph for a nitro--pretty fast for something a little bigger than a shoe. He says nitro (gas-powered) is relatively new in popularity but is as affordable as electric. "With R/C, you can buy the truck of your dreams and customize it any way you want." He emphasizes that radio-control accessories are limitless, as every component--from the engine to the tires--is upgradable. "If you want to go faster," he says, "you have to spend some money." He also believes truck owners are the majority of truck R/C buyers. "Throw the truck in back of the truck, and when it's time to take a break, take it out of the back. You're always ready to go."
The SoCal R/C Raceway in Huntington Beach doesn't smell like gasoline, but rather of motor cleaner and Jack in the Box. Between the elevated, caged tracks are rows of long, blue tables, upon which R/C hobbyists, under bright fluorescent lights, wield soldering irons to perform surgery on their prized trucks and buggies.
The raceway has been around since the mid-'90s and serves up a host of on- and off-roading contests for novice and professional (R/C is popular enough that some racers are sponsored). The raceway has its own hobby/repair shop, but there's more than enough room here to operate on your own dream machine. To keep races challenging, the track is redesigned every few weeks to modify the various jumps and obstacles. Since the track is indoors, racing is confined to electric-powered R/C. Prizes are plaques and a chance to move up in class.
Danny King, assistant art director for Motor Trend and a racer for about six months, carries a big brown tackle box and duffel bag to accommodate his radio-control paraphernalia. He makes all necessary repairs before a race and charges his batteries--a pack lasts six to seven minutes (races last four minutes and are divided into heats for each class). King's truck is a Losi, Triple X, Matt Francis Edition, on which he's spent about a grand, including modifications. He'll be racing as a novice.
The trickiest part about R/C racing is to keep going forward without colliding into anything that will bring the truck to a stop--there is no reverse gear. A turn marshall stands on the track to pick up vehicles that have flipped over and right ones that can't get out of a corner (racers take turns performing this duty). Steering, which is operated via a radio-controller, is responsive to even the slightest touch of the wheel, and acceleration reaches top speed, normally in the 30-40-mph range, in a snap.
J.J. Lynch, a 26-year-old R/C fan from Los Alamitos, has raced in L.A., Phoenix, and Las Vegas for the past eight years. His Traxxis Emax monster truck, which he claims to have spent over $1000 for customizing, jumps higher and goes faster than just about anything else on the track, squashing most cars and buggies that get in its way. He says he owes his love of the hobby to "the desire to perform better and go faster. I can't leave anything to stock." J.J. is quick to point out that R/C keeps kids off the streets and further notes that schools are getting students involved as well. His parents have been behind him since the beginning.
Danny King, however, wasn't taking monster jumps at SoCal on this day. His bulkheads, which hold the A-arms to the truck chassis, snapped during a practice run. He made the repair with the grace of a magician, but still only placed seventh in the sixth race, which he attributes to a bad start and driving too aggressively. He says it's easy to get caught up in the excitement when the flag goes down. King prefers racing electric over nitro, as electric R/Cs are easier to work with--but on this day, King, who maintains a part-time job on weekends to help support his hobby, wound up spending $75 on a new battery charger after realizing his motor wasn't up to snuff. He notes: "That's a whole day of delivering chicken down the drain."
For all the information on R/C you can possibly imagine, including an R/C track finder, go to www.rcvehicles.about.com.