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Thrills And Spills On The Lounge Carpet – The Slot Racing Boom

NUREMBERG, Germany (dpa) – Model-car slot racing is back with a vengeance this year, reviving a hobby that toy retailers pronounced dead long ago.

Not content to watch aces like Michael Schumacher and Mika Hakkinen compete on the world’s grand prix circuits, fans are discovering the real-time excitement of racing cars you can touch and feel. These are not just graphics on a computer screen.

“For the past three years we’ve experienced a real boom that began in the United States,” said Gunether Leifer, a designer at Germany’s premier maker, STS Racing Carrera, in the southern city of Nuremberg.

German youngsters in particular are trading their computer consoles for slot racing cars in the popular 1:32 scale, many of them little marvels of technology, with a degree of realism unheard of in the halycon days of the sport, the 1960s and ’70s.

New models and track configurations appear regularly now that slot racing has emerged from the doldrums of the last two decades when a flood of poor-quality, cheap Far Eastern imports drove traditional manufacturers close to the wall.

There’s a bewildering variety of racers in 1:32 scale, which means the dimensions of cars have been scaled down to 1/32nd of their original size.

“The range of products has gone up a lot. There are hundreds of models on the market in all kinds of colour schemes,” said Olaf Koehn who runs a model shop in the northern German city of Hanover.

It’s possible to assemble the entire 2000 Formula 1 grid in miniature and a wide selection of this year’s Le Mans 24 hours entrants. If you like, Hakkinen’s McLaren-Mercedes can be pitted alongside a model of the BMW that won the French classic. Road cars like the BMW Z3, Jaguars or even carts are all available.

The technology is much better these days compared to the predecessors that used to fly off most of the corners. Special tyres enhance grip along with powerful magnets that let the cars hug the track better. On some cars the front wheels steer into the curves.

There’s no getting away from computers altogether though. Modern software and compact race computers make it possible to calculate lap times right down to thousandths of a second.

The newest thing about these “slot racers” – named after the guiding metal slot in the track – is the incredible detail. “In terms of detailing they can stand any comparison with static display models,” said Guenther Leifer.

Two comparatively young Spanish companies are responsible for the slot car revival: Fly and Ninco.

“Seven years ago we started what was designed to be just a test with two models of the Renault Clio,” said Gabriele Eicker of Ninco’s German importers, Eicker-Racing in Solingen. The quality and fidelity of the “Clios” set them apart from most other products on the market and the result was an unusual success story.

The little racers turned out to be bestsellers – and today a whole collection has mushroomed out of these modest beginnings. “Our turnover has gone up by between 250 and 300 per cent every year,” said Eicker.

In some cases it took until 199 for the comeback to show itself in sales figures and big department stores like Germany’s Karstadt say the positive trend only really kicked in during that year.

“We’re optimistic though that this revival will be sustained,” said company spokesman Micheal Scheibe.

The Internet has become a happy hunting-ground for slot car fans seeking new equipment and the latest information.

From www.ninco.com to www.carrera-toys.de and www.scalextric.co.uk, the firms are all represented. For beginners the American sites www.slot-racer.com and www.sportscraftcars.com/slotracing.htm provide an excellent overview.

Another way is to simply enter the words “slot racing” into a decent search machine like Alta Vista or Google and see what comes out.

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