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Thunder Alley

Miles DeCoster's Invitational 24-Hour Le Mans-style Slot Car Endurance Championship

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When he turned 40 Miles DeCoster bought five table-hockey sets. They were the kind with players controlled by rods and knobs; three had players made of sheet metal the rest were plastic, and the rinks were all different sizes. For more than a year Miles spent practically every night running passing drills alone down in his girlfriend's basement. He would have been unbeatable if he'd had any competition, but his girlfriend wouldn't touch the game and he couldn't find anyone else to play with. When they broke up he left the hockey sets behind.

Then Miles bought a Nintendo deck and played Marios I, II. and III for a year, but he dropped it after saving the princess. A few thousand times. Not long after that, he got married, moved into his wife's place, and rediscovered slot car racing. He's spent much of the past year alone in a new basement playing beat the clock on a circle of track going nowhere. What Miles really needs is competition, so he's hosting an invitational race.

It's a Le Mans-style endurance race starting at noon on a Saturday and scheduled to end at noon Sunday. He's named it "24 Hours in Thunder Alley." Thunder Alley is in a nook of a wide corridor at In These Times, where Miles works as the art director. He's built a 16-foot-long table for 70 feet of electrified track, designed a course, installed a PA system, and set up a video camera to record the action. He's supplying the four cars for the race--2 Toyotas, a Nissan, and a Jaguar, near-perfect two-and-a-half-inch replicas of the real thing. Besides size, the major difference between these cars and a real car is these have magnets--two small pieces of metal called pickup shoes--and a prong on the underside. The pickup shoes conduct electricity from the track to the car, the prong (called a guide pin) holds the car in the track's groove, and the magnet keeps the car on the track. Or it's supposed to. Slot cars are capable of speeds that are the scale equivalent of more than 700 mph; if they were real they'd break the land speed record set on a straightaway at the Bonneville Salt Flats. This course has four curves, two of which could be described as hairpin.

Miles color-coded the slots: yellow, red, blue, and black. Since the inside slots, red and blue, are supposed to be best, the cars will rotate among them. They'll run half-hour heats in each slot with 20-minute breaks in between. The long breaks are needed to allow the cars to cool off, because a half hour of 700 mph racing gets the metal on the bottom hot enough to burn your fingers. It can also hurt the car. Miles has bought pit equipment, which he's laid out on a table next to the track. He's got a complete set of extra parts for each car and a hypodermic needle for oil injections.

The entrance fee is ten bucks. Miles says it's to cover expenses, but that's a lie. The $30 he'll collect from the other three teams won't even come close. Maybe it'll cover the beer and pizza. Miles plans to give out certificates to all the racers and award a trophy to the winner. He doesn't actually have the trophy yet, but he promises to award it "as soon as I find one."

About 40 people have been invited to race or watch: coworkers, friends, relatives, a couple of guys Miles met at other races. But it's a cold gray Saturday, surly as a prison guard. By noon, only three other people, representing Team Sam and Team Ed, are here to race. A few people working in the office stop by to run a lap or kibitz. Miles asks his wife Gale, who's wearing a black-and-white checked shirt, to hold the green flag until Team Harvey arrives. He announces the delay over the PA.

Miles isn't the first person in his family to host a sporting competition. His older brother Jake, a lawyer, holds a golf tournament every Fourth of July. Jake had dreamed since childhood of having a golf course of his own, ever since the nearby public course was demolished to make way for Highway 61. So when he grew up he built one on his farm in Missouri. One of the holes is located on a small island in the middle of the river that runs through his land; he calls his tournament the Fabius River Links Invitational. Jake was invited to the race but sent his regrets. He promised to try the track the following week when he'd be in town looking for a publisher for his book, a manual on risk management for owners of golf courses.

Miles is the odds-on favorite to win, and not just because it's his cars and track. He's the only person here with experience racing as an adult. Until recently he raced against other grown-ups at the JK Raceway track in Lombard almost every Wednesday night. The last race he entered was held in the basement of a private home in Winnebago, Illinois. He saw an ad for it in Scale Auto Racing News.

Not counting his childhood, Miles has only been racing for a year. He was visiting his parents down on the farm in Canton, Missouri, when he found a box in the attic filled with parts, papers, and three 1/24 scale, slot cars, the big ones. He looked around for track. No track. The papers were newsletters he'd written and illustrated in pen and crayon. Relics from 1967, they reported the races he held daily in his garage. He brought the box back to Chicago. The following week while visiting Gale's parents in Pennsylvania, Miles went to a flea market and found a hundred feet of big track selling for $30. It was too good to pass up.

He set it up on the first floor of their place near Clark and Addison. The old cars still ran.

They ran from the foyer through the living room into the kitchen and back again. Looking out the window from the finish line Miles could see McDonald's and Wrigley Field, but inside he had Daytona. After three days Gale asked for a reprieve. Cars kept flying at her feet. Miles agreed the cars didn't hold the track very well. He bought a new car, but it wasn't much different from the old ones. He went to Toys "R" Us and bought a smaller, HO, set, which he put in the basement.

Slot cars come in three sizes: 1/24, 1/32, and HO. The HO cars are about two and a half inches long, the 1/24s about six inches. HO cars are supposed to be about 1/80th the size of a real car, but, Miles says, "I double-checked the measurements using a Chaparral, and they were more like 1/65th." Chaparral was Miles's dream car when he was a kid. In preparation for the race he's placed Xeroxes of the Chaparral logo like flags around the track. He didnt bring his Chapparal with him today. It's his prize car, and this race is going to be a tough one.

"HO cars have gotten better since I was a kid," Miles says. "They've added traction magnets to them and they really hold the track. Technology in the bigger cars hasn't changed much." When Miles was a kid it would have been impossible to race slot cars for 24 hours. "We tried it but we couldnt go more than 4 hours. Circuits blew, our transformers melted." He picks up his Toyota and examines the bottom. "It should work out OK today, but the cars are going to take a beating."

When Miles was a kid, storefronts and hobby shops across America were jammed with boys putting cars and allowances on the line. Farm boys like Miles set up their own tracks, buying parts on trips into town. Slot car racing's popularity plummeted in 1968 and continued to drop through the early 70s. "Pong" appeared, marking the beginning of the video-game era. By the early 80s slot car racing had just about disappeared.

It's made a comeback lately, mainly among men in their 30s and 40s who raced when they were kids. The number of tracks in the U.S. has risen steadily each of the last five years. A wealthy Belgian named Jean Pierre van Rossem sponsors a world championship that attracts hundreds of racers from around the world. This year he'll fly the world's top racers to Bruges to compete for $100,000 in prize money. He also pays for their hotel rooms. "A couple of years ago van Rossem gave a real Ferrari to the champion," Miles laughs. "He's kind of eccentric."

By 12:30 Team Harvey still hasn't arrived, so Miles says to start the race without them. Gale announces "Gentlemen, start your engines," and waves the green flag. Technically speaking, the gentlemen can't start their engines because the cars don't have them (they have motors), but they push their thumbs to their controllers and the cars take off. Bob, driving for Team Ed, is a guy in his 20s who hasn't raced slot cars since he was a kid. Ed, who invited him, is due at five. Miles drives for the DeCoster Racing Team, while Gale and his brother Rich count laps and spot the track. Sam, driving for Team Sam, will split driving time with his dad. He's four years old and he's been car crazy for most of his life, but the kibitzers don't give him much of a chance.

Sam confounds them by taking the early lead. Clutching the controller, he sticks his tongue out like Michael Jordan. He laps Bob over and over, but his lead over Miles can't last, and it doesn't. With mechanical efficiency, Miles pulls ahead. Bob pushes his controller to the limit--he's over 700 from the start and flying off the track on at least one curve in every lap. Gale breaks a sweat running after his car. Sam's dad coaches him, "Slow and steady wins the race." Slow and steady gets Sam second place in the first heat, 13 laps behind Miles, 21 laps up on Bob.

It's after three by the time the driver for Team Harvey shows up. He's just in time for the fourth heat. Gale counts the laps, adding the lowest team total of each previous heat, which becomes Team Harvey's total. Bob still hits the wall, and sometimes the floor, but not as often as before. He takes second place from Sam by a lap. None of the drivers utters a word. It takes a delicate touch and hard concentration to keep going fast enough to compete. The four cars running together produce a high-pitched whine that sounds like a mantra.

Five hours into it, a dozen curiosity seekers arrive to watch the race. Ed shows up and takes a seat. Sam goes to the bathroom, his dad takes over for him. The racers ignore the spectators except when a car goes off the track. The audience is crowded around a particularly bad curve. "Can you get that?" Bob asks one. "Put it on red. No, red. At the curve." The situation is getting tense. Sam's dad is losing time because the spectators are too slow to respond. At the end of the heat he's had enough. He tells Sam it's time to go.

"You're tired," he explains.

"I'm not tired!"

"Yes you are."

Miles's ex-girlfriend (he picked up his hockey sets from her a few weeks ago) walks in just in time to take over for them. Sam cries all the way to the door.

Ed takes over for Bob for one heat, then Bob comes back and Ed sits down. Miles gives up his controls to Rich and to Gale but only for two heats each. Gale is pissed. "Next time," she says, "I'm not spotting, I'm racing." Team Harvey becomes a group effort, different friends and spectators taking turns at the controls. Teams Sam and Harvey are out of contention. The race is between Bob and Miles, and Bob is gaining steadily.

By about 11 PM it's becoming obvious that no one will endure the night. No one but Miles wants to race till noon Sunday. He proposes one more rotation, one more time in each slot for each car. Blue has been the top slot of the day. All those who raced more than three heats had their best time in it. Bob has it next. Miles runs blue after. This gives Miles an advantage, but Bob agrees that one more rotation is fair. He thinks he can catch up and build a lead on blue, then hold off Miles at the end. He's almost right.

Just after midnight, with two heats to go, Bob and Miles have tied at 2,353 laps apiece. Bob's been going over 700 for ten hours and almost never flies off the track anymore. Good thing too, because no one is left to spot the track. A guy named Chris is racing Team Sam's car and Team Harvey is gone. Gale is practically spent. Both Bob and Miles are wide awake. In the first heat of the day Bob did 127 laps. He just ran 217 in the blue lane. When Miles takes his turn on blue he outruns Bob 213 to 185. That's just enough of a cushion. Miles wins by 16 laps. In 12 hours, half a day, he's gone around the track 2,764 times, Bob 2,748. Miles calculates the time difference between them at approximately one minute and 40 seconds.

Miles promises to mail Bob his second place certificate, but he doesn't think he'll buy himself a trophy. He invites Bob to come back to the office, he'll leave the track up. He won't be driving to any other tracks anytime soon. His real car, a 1982 Toyota, was stolen from the office parking lot last week. Gale leans back in her chair, while Bob bundles up against the cold. Miles ducks into a cubicle and switches on a computer. "Gotta write a newsletter," he explains.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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