Slot Car Night was a big event, ranking somewhere between Christmas and network airings of The Wizard of Oz on the childhood anticipation scale.
Our apartment was too cramped to set up anything of a permanent nature and my brother and I were too young to play with the set unsupervised, so the box of HO scale delights spent most of its time warming the top shelf of my parents’ closet. That inaccessibility and aura of the forbidden only heightened the excitement when my dad decided to set it up for an evening.
The kitchen table was swept clean of domestic bric-à-brac, tangled wires were unfurled, and sections of plastic track snapped together into a semi-elaborate miniature speedway. In many cases, the event was precipitated by the old man bringing home a blister pack featuring a sweet new racing machine or novel stretch of track to add to the assemblage.
I’ve never been able to figure out my father’s involvement in the hobby. He’d been a gearhead since his teens, but also had a jaundiced views about grown men getting caught up in “kiddie bullshit” (hence the eyerolling whenever my brother and I discuss geeky crap in his presence). Based on what I’ve come to learn about the man over the decades, I’d wager it was a inter-sectional interest spurred by fatherhood and his love of being the bearer of grand gestures. After my poor mother suffered through the whining and feet-dragging about finishing our meals and taking our baths, my dad could swoop in with the Super Fun Thing and bask in our rapt adoration.
The excitement and novelty surrounding these occasions — the smell of ozone and the scraping noises of the throttle controllers — went a long way towards masking the underwhelming reality. No slick new car or jump or crash-begging intersection could full offset the herky-jerky movements and frequent derailments caused by my ham-fisted style, or the long stretches of dead time while my dad attempted field repairs on a horrifically abused speed machine. It wasn’t much different than dicking around with Hot Wheels cars, only without the portability and room for improvisation.
(For example, there was no way I would’ve gotten away with placing a slot car in the middle of Merrimac Street to see if it could survive an encounter with a real-life 18-wheeler.)
The bloom had already begun to fall from the rose by the time home videogame systems hit the scene, providing all the vicarious interactive thrills minus the headaches. There was nothing slot cars had to offer that I couldn’t find in Activision’s Grand Prix or Enduro minus the timing and logistic problems. The slot car manufacturers understood this all too well, pushing a slew of gimmicks and innovations even as their ad space in Boys Life and funnybooks got supplanted by breathy pitches for a new generation of digital diversions.
My last foray into the slot car realm was during the closing days of the 1980s, when my Lil Bro got a basic starter set as a birthday present. We set it up in my grandma’s living room a few times and tinkered around with it in a vain effort to make things more interesting. The best I could manage was using my Warhammer 40k paints to add Main Force Patrol livery to the yellow Ferrari that came with the set.
And then we went back to playing videogames, because why the hell would anyone want to pick bits of pet dander from a tiny wheel well when they could just play a half hour of the Master System port of OutRun?
The nostalgic sentiment surrounding Slot Car Nights still remains strong, however. Every so often I come across an old ad or catalog entry for the toys and think “I should…” before my more sensible side in me finishes the sentence with “…leave some things to the realm of fond memory.”