The Old Weird Herald - the most dangerous 'zine in slot car racing!

Euroscale Slot Cars

In the American Market

by Bob Ward


Fly Porsche GT1

The reintroduction of Euroscale slot car and race set lines, including Scalextric, SCX, Ninco, and Fly to the general American hobby market is likely to become the most significant development in the slot racing category since the 1960's. It has very real potential to make slot cars an enduring industry staple along with plastic kits and model railroading.

If handled right, these product lines can not only make a fortune for their manufacturers and American importer / distributors but also revive the hobby of model car racing, creating a whole new or, rather, reborn segment of the hobby industry. Euroscale has the potential of making slot racing not just a competitive sport but also a model hobby in which a vast range of individual interests is encompassed in a single product category. Scale racing on home layouts shares with railroading the opportunity to create an exciting segment of the world in miniature, closely resembling the 1/1 scale world but allowing infinite scope for creativity. There is a place for the single minded competitive slot racer, who, in reality, has always been a minority of slot racing's potential market. There is also a place for the much larger legions of model builders, 1/1 scale racing fans, and aspiring track builders. For these hobbyists slot racing is less a pure competitive exercise than a way of identifying with and participating in the world of automobile racing.

These are the people the American slot racing industry has not addressed for decades, and they represent a vast untapped market. They also represent the potential to reinvent slot racing on a new and sounder economic base.

There are several reasons why Euroscale fills a real need and why it has such tremendous potential.

I. The never ending problems of commercial raceways.

Slot racing, as it exists in America today, depends almost entirely on the fortunes of large commercial raceways. The raceways, however, have always labored under serious economic handicaps.

The most important of these is the enormous cost of renting the large commercial spaces a raceway, with its huge tracks, requires. Yet the tracks themselves, even with high track time and car rental rates, generate relatively little revenue for the space they take up. Most retail stores, in order to be viable, must fill their space with shelves of salable merchandise. A raceway has to pay for its large square footage out of the turnover from a relatively small amount of merchandising space. Thus the raceway, compared to most other retail businesses, labors under a severe economic handicap.

Slot racing manufacturers and distributors are well aware of this handicap. They try to protect the raceways by selling slot racing merchandise only to retailers who maintain tracks and a regular race schedule. They especially try to keep their products out of mail-order channels. This does help the raceways by keeping their sales from being siphoned off by retailers who do not have their enormous overhead burden, but it has had the unintended side effect of largely killing off the sport in places where there are no commercial raceways.

There are very few racers who will go the trouble of scratchbuilding a home track and ferreting out sources of supply to sustain their hobby. At present, HO racing is the only widely available alternative to the commercial raceway.

Another problem is the one-dimensional nature of the sport as it presently exists. Participation in slot racing today typically consists of purchasing ready-to-run cars, either factory or raceway-assembled, and running them. There is far less emphasis on building one's own equipment than there once was, except at the higher levels of slot racing that relatively few racers ever get to. Many raceways no longer carry a K&S metal rack, the traditional source of chassis builders' raw materials. Some do not even carry paint for bodies. When the racer's car gets tired , he often either pays the raceway to rebuild it or buys a new one. When the body gets trashed, he buys a new prepainted and decalled body.

The cars, even in the presently existing scale classes, really are not very good likenesses of the full-size cars after which they are modeled. They are not visually appealing enough to be collected and appreciated for their aesthetic qualities. And, of course, most raceways do not encourage people to build their own tracks. Thus, if the thrill of open competition wanes and the expense of remaining competitive mounts up, there are few other satisfactions to hold the racer's interest. The turnover of customers is quite high. The raceway has to keep a steady stream of new customers coming in to replace the dropouts. Over the long haul, this often proves especially difficult to sustain in this easy-in, easy-out sport.

Over time, the cost of racing becomes a major problem for many who get into the commercial raceway scene. Even in the supposedly low-cost classes, where equipment is limited to the most inexpensive cars and motors, money can still buy a championship. Some racers in stock-motor classes will buy a dozen motors to get one that is far to the happy end of the performance bell curve. They will do this as often as it takes to always have a fresh top 2% motor. There is no way to match the advantage this gives except to match the dollar outlay (or to have a "connection" with the raceway or a manufacturer, which really gives one an advantage.) The same thing happens with chassis, tires, and even bodies. Sealed motors, motor grab bags, and other cost-control measures help but do not solve the problem completely.

The racer who got in thinking he could buy one car with one motor and be competitive goes away disillusioned. The racer's costs are increased by the fact that raceway competition, with its high speeds, crash impacts, and amperage, can use up equipment rapidly, often leaving the racer, at the end, with a box full of raced-to-death cars that may not be good for much of anything. The requirements of being competitive often are such that cars have to be treated as essentially expendable. Too often the racer comes out with very little to show for all the money he spent.

This is not helped by the high entry fees and track time rates most raceways find it necessary to charge. At $2.00 for 15 minutes of track time and entry fees as high as $20.00 for a regular weekly race, a racer will have spent what it would cost to build a home track long before he has practiced and raced enough to become really good. A comprehensive survey of those who have left the sport would probably show that cost is the biggest factor in their departure.

And, despite the raceway owners' sincere efforts to prevent it, the atmosphere in many raceways is still not all it could be. The "I'm a pro, you're a geek" mentality, in which the upper-level racers look down on the beginners and are often unpleasant to them, still appears far too often. In addition, there is no way to regulate the intensity of competition. Many people who want to race on a very gentle, casual basis, perhaps just with a few friends or family members, find even the entry-level classes at the raceway more intense than they care for, particularly when their beginner's ineptitude is on public display. Even if they just rent track time for a family "race" they run the risk of being terrorized by a "pro" with a blindingly fast wing car a lane or two over.

In general, too many of the factors that determine whether slot racing is a comfortable experience for them are beyond their control when they go to the raceway.

Distance also can be a negative. If the racer has to drive for miles every time he wants to race, the logistics cause real problems, particularly for kids who depend on mom's taxi for transportation. Even if the raceway is close to home, parents are less and less comfortable these days with letting their children go to public places of any kind without them.

All these factors are inherent in the very nature of commercial raceways. They can be a real deterrent to potential racers. The local raceway is often the only place to race within practical travel distance for the casual participant. If a person has a bad or even just unsatisfactory experience there it is often the end not only of his relationship with that raceway but also of his slot racing experience. A very conscientious proprietor can reduce these problems to some extent, but they can never be eliminated.

The typical pattern for a commercial raceway is to do a lot of business at first until the novelty of it begins to wear off for the customers. After that the raceway struggles. Many who enter the raceway business look at it as a one to two -year in-and-out venture. Countless thousands of slot racers have left the hobby when their local raceways went out of business, leaving them abandoned with a box full of cars and no place to run them.

In Sonoma County, California, three raceways went out of business between March of 1994 and the end of 1995. One reopened in much less expensive space. Another raceway stayed in business but changed locations. A hobby shop in an adjacent county took out its two-year-old Hasse Nilsson track and reduced its floor space accordingly because the slot racing was not paying its way. Slot Car Junction in South San Francisco, recently closed down. It had been very successful for a while but could not sustain itself even after negotiating significant rent reductions from its landlord.

None of this should be taken as a blanket condemnation of commercial raceways or of their owners. Most raceways are run by honest, well-meaning people who try hard to give customers their money's worth. There are many enthusiasts who have a great time at the commercial raceways and these establishments serve a substantial market. The key point, however, is that they are missing an even larger pool of potential customers and are handicapped in serving those they do get. It is fair to say that slot car racing, as it presently exists, is a boom-and bust business for its retail dealers. Most never really overcome its built-in economic disadvantages and they seldom, in any given location, develop any real staying power. Despite their best efforts, they all too often face overwhelming obstacles to long-term profitability.

Nevertheless, a vast pool of potential customers is still out there. The fact that stores everywhere, from hobby shops to mass merchandisers, sell HO race sets by the hundreds of thousands year after year says that there is still a demand for slot racing that people can do at home where they can run it their own way.

II. HO racing - its strengths and limitations.

HO racing is relatively inexpensive. It is space-efficient, an important factor as homes and the rooms in them get smaller. The cars look good and the enthusiast can draw upon the realms of model railroading and die cast collectible vehicles as well as accessories made for HO slot tracks to create a highly realistic miniature race track with buildings, figures, vehicles, trees, and all the life-like details one could want. HO slot track layouts can approach the intricacy and artistry of model railroads. They allow the builder to incorporate many of the same skills and satisfactions into his hobby, yet they are simple to start with and, like railroading, they grow with the builder's skill and range of interests.

However, HO does have its problems.

The main one is that everything is so very tiny. This can be a real problem for little fingers or for aging eyes. The cars can be modified and made faster, not to mention more expensive, but they offer little scope for the true scratch builder. The concours enthusiast needs extremely sharp eyes and fine tools to detail them realistically. Another problem is that HO cars, with their magnetized chassis clinging to steel strips in the track, behave in a very uncarlike fashion. They travel at scale speeds more like those of jet aircraft than racing cars and corner on rails right up to the limit. At that point the magnets are overcome and the car goes tumbling. For many, HO cars lack visual impressiveness and the true flavor of their 1/1 scale counterparts.

Another problem is that parts, service, and help are often hard for the consumer to obtain. This is because most HO sets are sold by mass merchandisers like Toys R Us and Wal Mart. For this kind of store replacement parts are a stock-keeping nuisance and employees seldom know enough to offer any kind of help to the customer when the cars don't run. All they can usually do is to exchange a whole set or car as defective. Mass merchandisers want only the big-ticket race set sales. They generally resist carrying parts or even cars, extra track, and accessories. Many hobby shops, frozen out of the high-dollar sales by the discount competition, (as one hobby shop employee calls them, the Mart Brothers - K Mart and Wal Mart) don't want to bother with stocking the parts, either.

The HO sets continue to sell in spite of these drawbacks. They fill a genuine need among home racers, but there has to be a place in the market for something better (and bigger) for the home racing enthusiast. The American slot racing industry once filled this need masterfully back in the mid-sixties, but literally abandoned it to go chasing after the commercial raceway business during the first great slot racing boom. In so doing it missed its chance to build a solid, if less spectacular, economic base founded on the home hobbyist.

The home set market, properly served, would have sustained the manufacturers through the inevitable commercial raceway bust and all the boom and bust cycles since. The industry needs to rediscover that its largest potential market and best long-term prospects are in the American home.

III. Bringing back scale racing.

There is one more truth the slot racing industry needs to rediscover. That is that slot racing, in order to reach the vast untapped market it is now missing, needs to become true model car racing again. For every racer or potential racer who is attracted to slot racing as a competitive sport unto itself there are probably a dozen for whom the appeal is in building and racing cars that really look like the full-size article. For these people, ultimate performance is not the most important thing. The cars need only be fast enough to provide a driving challenge, relatively equal in performance to provide close competition, inexpensive and easy to buy and maintain, and above all, highly realistic looking and detailed. The slot racing industry partially understands that much of the appeal of slot racing is in identifying with full-size racing and its cars and drivers. Its mistake is in thinking that the actual racing is the only or principal means by which this identifying takes place. In fact, the racing itself is just the tip of the iceberg, the bulk of which consists of all the scale-related aspects of the hobby.

The slot racing industry made a fundamental mistake in the late '60's when it quit producing kits of scale cars with injection-molded plastic bodies and went to increasingly "thingy" cars. This move drove away the model builders, the scale enthusiasts, most of the collectors, and everybody else for whom scale realism was what made the experience appealing. The desire for scale realism is the major motivation for the present growing interest in collecting vintage slot cars. There is nothing comparable to the old cars readily available from American manufacturers today. People are willingly paying hefty prices for examples of '60's scale cars in good condition.

Now, it should be noted that some of the hottest collectibles are cars like the BZ Batmobile and the Classic line, which were among the more flamboyant of the non-scale cars in the '60's. However, the Batmobile's extremely high value comes more from the popularity of Batman collectibles in general than from its qualities as a slot car. The value of Classic items appears to be driven by a degree of speculation fueled by heavy promotion on the part of certain dealers and producers of reproductions. In general, however, it is the scale cars that are sought after. Some of the highest prices presently offered and asked are for the last of the Cox injection-molded 1/24 Chaparrals. These extremely rare cars represent to collectors a kind of ultimate in scale slot cars, and it is this quality, along with their scarcity, that makes them so highly prized. If Cox still has the tooling for their slot cars and would put them back into production with modern motors and tires at a reasonable price, they would sell beyond anyone's expectations.

IV. Why Euroscale?

Clearly, there is a need for something like Euroscale in the United States. Euroscale is the right product line at the right time. It can overcome or avoid every one of slot racing's problems.

Euroscale is, at its heart, a home racing system. It is a multidimensional hobby, encompassing competition, track layout construction, collecting, and at least the possibility of modifying the cars using a variety of modeling skills to create unique vehicles. This gives Euroscale the potential for the kind of broad popularity and staying power model railroading has enjoyed for decades.

Even the most basic Euroscale car has aesthetic qualities that make it virtually certain to become collectable. This is a great strength, as it plays to the high level of public awareness of and interest in collectibles of all kinds The cars, track, and other items the racer buys are not "used up" as in raceway competition. With proper care, the cars can be raced and enjoyed indefinitely and emerge more or less intact with their value preserved and even increased. This gives to slot racing a vital quality that has helped make model railroading so popular. That quality is the racer's ability to accumulate cars, track, and accessories to build an impressive collection and layout over time. New cars purchased by the racer are additions to those already owned, not necessary to replace them.

The Euroscale enthusiast, because he is racing in his own home on his own layout, has complete control of the type, level, intensity, and schedule of racing, as well as who he is racing with. He controls all the factors that affect his comfort level. These include control of costs, complexity, and his own investment of time, money, and effort. He can even start his own race program, inviting like-minded enthusiasts to compete. He can run it as he sees fit.

The distance problem is eliminated. The local raceway is now in the racer's own recreation room, and it will never close down unless the racer wants it to. Parents can let their kids race to their hearts' content without worrying about them. And, of course, the Euroscale owner never pays for track time or car rentals.

Euroscale also offers every advantage of HO home racing and overcomes nearly all of its disadvantages. An entry-level Euroscale set is not as inexpensive as the HO sets at WalMart, but a complete 1/32 scale home racing set is still less expensive than a couple of cars and controllers for the commercial raceways. A basic Euroscale circuit can be set up on a 4X8 sheet of plywood, which is the same space requirement as entry-level HO tracks. The cars are at least as good-looking as HO cars, and the greater interior volume of the bodies for the size of the mechanical components allows them to be much more accurate scale models and therefore more impressive to the scale model enthusiast.

Because Scalextric, SCX, and now Ninco offer complete racing systems with cars, track, and accessories, the racer can build a realistic detailed layout, adding to it over time in the same way as an HO slot track or a model railroad. The vintage car collector can run his old cars from the '60's and '70's, and, with some modifications and higher-amperage power sources, he can even run Womp, I-32, and other currently available 1/32 cars on a Euroscale track. (Parma, in fact, makes a version of the Womp car with a low-amp motor specifically for home sets.) There is at least one hobby shop in Europe that has made a 1/32 commercial track out of Scalextric track sections, so the track has potential to accept higher-performance cars if that is the owner's preference. Thus, the Euroscale owner is limited only by his imagination in making his home layout whatever he wants it to be, and he can combine a wide variety of creative skills and interests in constructing it.

Euroscale overcomes the problem of microscopic parts that causes frustration for HO owners. The cars and their parts are relatively big and easy to handle and work on.

The cars perform much more realistically than do HO cars. They can be slid through the corners. Their top speeds, while more than high enough to look and feel fast, are not so high that the car is just a blur going around the track. This, combined with their greater size, makes them much more visually impressive and satisfying, not to mention realistic.

The parts and service problem can be overcome by marketing the sets, cars and parts in a way that makes it worthwhile for the retailer to get involved. Right now, with Euroscale just beginning to catch on in America, manufacturers are in an excellent position to see that that happens.

Distilling all of the above, Euroscale has four tremendous strengths going for it. First, it is a hobby that can be carried on entirely in the owner's home (but it also lends itself to excellent club or even commercial raceway competition if people so desire). Second, it is many hobbies in one, engaging the widest possible range of interests. Third, it is a scale model hobby that takes full advantage of all the color and lore of 1/1 scale racing and the vast pool of public enthusiasm for it. Finally, almost everything made by the Euroscale manufacturers is eminently collectible and of good quality.

V. Marketing Euroscale in America.

To take advantage of all these strengths, Euroscale must be marketed properly. To begin with, the manufacturers and importers need to offer all the normal elements essential to any successful business, including:

Here are some general observations on how Euroscale could and should be marketed effectively in the United States:

Manufacturers will need to establish in the public mind a new paradigm of slot racing. This new paradigm draws upon the best of the early days of slot racing in the '60's and adds to it all the improvements in product quality, reliability, and convenience that have been developed over the years. It must emphasize in particular home tracks and racing, scale realism, sustained interest, and lasting value backed up by a long-term commitment on the part of manufacturers, importers, and retailers.

There must be a solid retailer network, committed to service as well as sales. This means dealers who will carry the full line, including sets, cars, track, accessories, and parts. The dealers must also be willing and able to give the consumer information, advice, and help, and to provide repair and troubleshooting service. The retailers must be willing to put a major effort into promoting Euroscale in their local areas, working in tandem with manufacturers' and the importers' own promotional efforts. This will only happen if the importers pick the right kind of retailers and give them a deal that will be profitable for them.

It is vital that manufacturers and importers commit to marketing Euroscale product lines predominantly through independent hobby shops, toy stores, and slot car raceways. These are the only retailers who can provide the customer support necessary to build long-term loyalty in consumers.

The line should be sold only to those stores who will commit to carry sets, cars, and parts and to provide competent service and advice to the customers. This virtually eliminates the mass merchandisers at the start. In the case of commercial raceways, the importer should sell the line only to those that will install a large Euroscale layout and run a regular race program for Euroscale cars. This will ensure that Euroscale racers will not have to share the same track with wing cars and other non-scale projectiles.

A good plan would be to make available attractively-priced packages of sectional track to those retailers who want to have a Euroscale layout in their stores. A 4-lane layout could even be offered free with a large enough order.

If the manufacturers want Euroscale to make it really big here they will have to develop product lines geared to American tastes. This means, of course, American race cars, or at least cars that figure prominently in American racing history. The Indy cars and Winston Cup cars presently available are a good start, but the American market will need more. Not only does the market need contemporary cars, but also some icons from the past, including some or all of the following:

It is important that the products should appear thoroughly American and be easy for fans of all kinds of American racing to identify with.

Most of the above cars are in pairs that could be put in race sets. The ones to start with , after the contemporary Winston Cup cars already in the pipeline, would be the CanAm cars, followed by either the winged sprinters or the NASCAR trucks. As each pair of cars is produced, they should be put into a racing set. The sprint cars and the short-track late models should, perhaps, come with an oval of track with slightly banked turns. Perhaps an enterprising manufacturer could design a banked turn on which the outside lane was banked a bit more steeply than the inside lane to equalize cornering speeds between the two lanes.

It's very important that the bodies, wheels, and any other components affecting the cars' appearance be as accurate and authentic as possible. The bodies need to "sit right" on the chassis, also. The cars must be clearly perceived by the consumer as scale models, sharply differentiated from toys, though they should also be durable enough for kids to get a great deal of play value from them.

The manufacturers should offer "generic" cars without any markings, and should offer a steady stream of different decal sheets for the various cars. There should be factory hop-up parts, especially different kinds of tires for different track surfaces. If the manufacturers do not, the after market will.

For the long term, the industry needs to develop and produce wider track with at least 3 1/2" between lane centers so today's longer and wider cars will have plenty of room to race. The track should also have deeper slots capable of accepting a standard jet guide as used on commercial raceways.

The sets, cars, and all the rest of the product lines need to be widely available at reasonable prices. The idea is to sell race cars, not instant collectors' pieces. The cars need to be inexpensive enough and available enough for ordinary people to afford lots of them. Owners should not consider them too rare or valuable to knock around day after day on the race track or carve up in a kitbashing or hopup project. The present price point of the cars, around $30-40 is not bad, about the price of an entry-level raceway car. If the price could be driven down to around $25 without sacrificing quality or taking away the dealer's profit margin, the cars would be an unbeatable value. If a set could be produced that would sell within the price range of common HO sets, that would be the best introduction to Euroscale the industry could provide. In any case, the products must be perceived as offering outstanding value for whatever they cost.

Since the industry will be reinventing the whole hobby of slot racing on an entirely new basis, it will have to promote the products like never before. The manufacturers will not be selling just a new product but a new pastime. The best single thing they can do is to provide as many potential Euroscale owners as possible with the chance to actually drive the cars, touch them, and examine them closely. This means getting operating layouts into stores, shopping malls, car shows, fairs, race tracks, and any other place where large numbers of potential Euroscale owners are to be found.

A vital part of developing a dealer network should be to take a really nice portable layout to the stores to provide their customers with a hands-on introduction to Euroscale. This should be done to help dealers introduce the product line and at regular intervals to help promote sales, especially during the Christmas shopping season. As mentioned before, dealers should be encouraged and assisted to put in their own layouts for both organized competition and demonstrations for their customers.

Euroscale needs to be featured prominently and often in as many publications, both in and out of the hobby field, as possible. Scale Auto Racing News is always looking for good articles with photos on all kinds of slot racing subjects, including scale 1/32 cars. John Ford, the publisher, would probably welcome the opportunity to do an interview with a representative of a U.S. importer. AmBritGlyn and The Old Weird Herald E-zine are other obvious venues for publicizing Euroscale manufacturers' wares.

The model car magazines, such as Scale Auto Enthusiast, are another place to get Euroscale cars and tracks featured. They have long held an anti-slot car bias, but this is because most slot cars have been anything but scale models and therefore of little interest to these magazines' readers. Euroscale cars, however, are very much scale model cars, and articles that showcase the scale aspects of model car racing - painting and detailing, body modifications, and collecting, might well be something the model car magazines would welcome.

There are also various magazines for collectors with areas of interest that would include collectible slot cars. Popular technology magazines, such as Popular Mechanics, are always interested in articles that would interest their readers.

Ultimately, there needs to be a magazine devoted exclusively or primarily to scale model car racing, especially 1/32 scale. Euroscale manufacturers and importers should take the lead in bringing such a magazine into existence, supplying articles and supporting the publication with advertising. Each issue should have in it at least one major article dealing with racing, modifying, or collecting Euroscale cars and there should be frequent articles on home tracks.

In addition, Euroscale should be seen on television and on the Internet. In short, every possible medium should be used to expose people to 1/32 scale model car racing in general and Euroscale in particular.

If all of this is done skillfully, aggressively, and with full backing from the factories, Euroscale will be a success in America. North America is the richest consumer market in the world. Euroscale is poised to conquer it, and time will tell if the attempt succeeds.

Bob Ward mail bobward@oldweirdherald.com

Model Car Racing Writer, Historian, Researcher, and Consultant

Copyright 1998, Robert M. Ward

All rights reserved


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