If you're a NASCAR fan you know that the great ongoing rivalry in the Winston Cup series is not really among drivers or teams but among manufacturers. At present the battle lines are drawn between General Motors and Ford, with Hendrick Racing's megateam and Richard Childress Racing leading the GM legions and Roush Racing and Robert Yates Racing heading up Ford's attack. Chrysler, meanwhile, lurks on the fringes with its Craftsman Truck program and waits for the right moment to hit the battlefield with its ultra-slick sedans.
Now, a similar situation is shaping up in 1/32 scale slot racing. Scalextric, first into the American stock car arena with its Thunderbird and Monte Carlo in 1997, now faces opposition from SCX, which has licensed the hottest name in NASCAR, Jeff Gordon, for its first car and set. The new SCX NASCAR products hit the market recently amid much fanfare and anticipation.
At the 1998 Chicago Hobby Show both Scalextric and SCX had extensive, not to mention expensive, booths. The one-upmanship went on through the entire run of the show with the two camps racing their demonstrator cars head-to-head in deadly earnest. When the smoke cleared, Bryan Young of Irwin Toys, SCX's US importer, was declaring victory in this first battle of the stock car performance wars. The new Jeff Gordon Monte Carlo outran Scalextric's soon-to-be released Taurus every time. End of story-- we won, SCX claims.
Not so fast, says Alan Smith of A Day At The Races, Scalextric's main US importer/ Distributor. Smith says SCX is comparing apples to oranges, because the SCX Monte Carlo, along with all the other 1998 SCX cars, is equipped with a "whacking great magnet". The super-powerful chassis magnet not only sticks the cars to the track so hard that they can be driven practically flat out around the corners, but also is necessary to activate the trainer function of SCX's new Trainer 1 race computer. The SCX car, Smith maintains, is more properly compared to a Fly car, with its very strong magnet, than to any Scalextric product and that an overwhelming magnet does not necessarily make a good race car.
What's the truth here? Whose car really is the best when the difference in magnets is taken out of the equation? Which one is the fastest when the magnets are equalized? In the great tradition of Condemner's...er, Consumer's Reports, with some Brock Yates and a dash of 60 Minutes thrown in, OWH set out to find out.
We got our Monte Carlo test car out of the lavishly-stocked case at Fantasy World Toy and Hobby in Tacoma, Washington, which, as usual, also provided the test venue, their 20 X 10-foot 4-lane Scalextric layout. The track test Taurus, a pre-production "test shot" came From the Hornby R&D department via A Day At The Races.
Before we began testing we carefully examined each car. The Taurus, since it was not an off-the-shelf car, got special scrutiny, including a full disassembly and inspection of all the components. Once we were satisfied that all the parts of both cars were present and in their proper locations, that everything was turning properly, and that ADATR hadn't slipped us a "massaged" car, we went on to our normal evaluations and tests.
SCX Monte Carlo
There is no more distinctive paint scheme in racing than the DuPont rainbow livery of Jeff Gordon's #24. It's also a complex paint scheme, and any model maker attempting to reproduce it in miniature has a major task. SCX has done reasonably well but there are pluses and minuses. The body is molded in a "too-red" shade which should be more of an orange color. The metallic blue paint on the center part of the car is quite nice, and the yellow and green of the stripes are vivid and reasonably accurate. All the car's markings are tampo-stamped, and SCX gets good marks for the overall sharpness, though perhaps the stamping could be a bit more opaque. SCX was the first manufacturer to tampo-stamp all the little contingency decals on the side of a Winston Cup car. On the Monte Carlo they are all readable.
A few paint details are missing, notably the "headlight" decals. The "DuPont" and "Automotive Finishes" logos on the rear quarter panels are too small and badly out of place. The front fender decals extend too far back into the door area and the side numbers are too small. Still, these discrepancies are not going to matter to the majority of purchasers. It's unmistakably Jeff's car, and to most that's all that matters.
The body to which all that paint and tampo-stamping are applied has more serious shortcomings. We compared it with three other 1/32 scale Monte Carlos, a Scalextric, a Revell-Monogram, and a Toybiz. The SCX is considerably shorter, both in overall length and wheelbase, than the Revellogram and the Toybiz and even a bit shorter in wheelbase than the too-short Scalextric. The nose is much blunter and less sloped, and the rear deck is noticeably short.
SCX did include most of the prominent NASCAR body details, including hood and rear deck pins, fuel filler, roof rails and flaps, cowl flaps, windshield and rear window straps (which we would have liked to see painted), quarter window NACA ducts, and rivets at the base of the rear spoiler. The car is modeled with a speedway-size front air intake, which should have been filled in with black paint or molded as an actual opening with a separate black part behind it. The details, except for the rather vaguely-molded NACA ducts, are all reasonably well rendered and the panel lines, though a bit heavy, are clear and even.
A few months ago we criticized the Scalextric Monte Carlo for looking more like a fiberglass short-track car than a Winston Cup competitor. The SCX, however, looks more like a 4-cylinder compact car rebodied with some kind of mail-order dress-up kit to make it into an ersatz Winston Cup car. It will almost fit inside the Toybiz body.
Contributing to the jazzed-up econocar look is SCX's choice of oversize wheels and undersize tires. The combination produces a look better suited to a lower-level SCCA showroom stock car than to anything seen in NASCAR. One is reminded of something a lowrider freak might create if he suddenly became a rabid Jeff Gordon fan. The J.C. Whitney Special impression is strengthened by the fact that the tires are treaded instead of the correct slicks.
Give SCX credit for equipping their Monte Carlo with clear windows and an interior, though the interior tray is flat and relatively featureless. It does have ribbing on the dash and one very nice asset, a semi-complete roll cage, including the front transverse bar behind the top of the windshield. The bars slanting aft from the main roll bar behind the driver are missing, however. The driver figure is a parts bin item with a solid yellow helmet and a blue body. We would think SCX could at least have molded him in red to match the top half of Gordon's driving suit. A window net, molded into the roll cage structure, completes the interior treatment.
Our miniature Jeff Gordon rides to the Winston Cup wars on the rather long-in-the-tooth SRS-2 chassis, previously seen under Volvo BTCC cars and various Group C car bodies. Therein, we think, lies the cause of the car's dimensional deficiencies. The body and wheels appear to have been made to fit the existing chassis, giving SCX a shortcut to the market with their first NASCAR offering. Building the car to the proper wheelbase and tire diameter would have required an all-new chassis. Scalextric also went through something like this with their first NASCAR effort. Both companies used off-the-shelf components to save development time and cost and both, to some degree, have paid a price for it.
The SRS-2 has some technically interesting features. The front end assembly, with Ackerman steering, is attached to the rest of the chassis in a pivoting mount that allows it to rock from side to side. The chassis also incorporates an effective snap-on body mount system which does away with screws and makes maintenance easier.
This time around the SRS-2 is augmented with a chassis magnet that makes the Monte Carlo the most stuck-down car we have ever tested. In the OWH magnet test it easily went all the way over and hung upside down from the track. This was the first car with a rear-mounted magnet ever to manage the feat. The motor is SCX's standard can motor, equipped with robust-looking heavy-duty lead wire. The lead wire, by the way, has a feature we wouldn't mind seeing on every euroscale car. Both ends have little crimped-on brass fittings that press into sockets on the guide or the motor, making lead wire replacement a no-tool, no-solder repair. The fittings need to be crimped on more tightly, however. Two of the four fell off the wires when we removed the motor.
Every once in a while, a new product appears with an uncanny ability to arouse both enthusiasm and frustration in hobbyists at the same time. The first two Scalextric American stock cars, the Monte Carlo and the Thunderbird, were like that. Unveiled at the 1997 Chicago Hobby Show, these two cars showed that Hornby Hobbies Ltd., the manufacturer of Scalextric, was serious about producing cars for the American market. The cars, in four colorful liveries, looked quite handsome on the Scalextric stand, and at $37.95 they were reasonably priced. Slot racers were happy to have them. They were and are good-looking and fun cars to race.
At the same time, it wasn't hard to see that the strict budget and retail price constraints under which the cars were designed and produced had forced a lot of compromises in the final product. The stock cars rode on Scalextric's bottom-of-the-line DTM chassis. The wheels and tires were borrowed from the front end of the company's Formula One cars. The bodies, with their dimensions "fudged" to fit an existing chassis, just didn't look quite right. Most frustrating of all, the stock cars had no interior and blacked-out windows. On top of it all, they emerged just as Ford's NASCAR program was abandoning the Thunderbird body in favor of the Taurus. None of this has stopped slot racers from having a great time with the new stock cars but all the while many have been thinking that Scalextric is capable of something much better.
A year later, the stock car we all knew Scalextric could make is here. The new Taurus, shown for the first time at the 1998 Chicago show, is everything racers have been waiting for and more. This time, the design department started with a blank computer screen and produced a no-compromise no-excuses car that drastically raises the NASCAR-replica industry standard and should please even the most demanding Winston Cup fan.
For starters, there's a new chassis designed from the ground up just for the Taurus body. It even has the words "Ford Taurus" molded into it. It also says "Hornby" and "Made in China". We would have placed that last inscription somewhere less prominent. At the rear, fuel cell detail is molded in. On the #94 McDonald's car the chassis as well as the interior tray is molded in red to match the full-size car. A standard chassis magnet in Scalextric's customary location between the motor and the rear axle replaces the two small round magnets of the earlier cars.
The Mabuchi motor, along with the axles, gears, plastic rear axle bushings, and snap-in guide are standard Scalextric parts. The wheels and tires, however, are all new and they're the best we've ever seen on a Scalextric car. Scalextric has turned out an excellent representation of the steel racing wheels used on Winston Cup cars and most other American stock cars. The slots and lug nut detail are very well done. The tires are all new, compression-molded especially for stock cars from a new rubber compound. All production Tauruses have wheels molded in the correct color for the car with "Goodyear #1" and "Eagle " very cleanly stamped on the tire sidewalls in yellow.
The body of any Winston Cup car is a subtle shape composed of wind-cheating compound curves. From a distance, the nuances of shape and detail get lost in the cars' loud and elaborate paint jobs. Up close, the accuracy with which they are captured in a model makes or breaks the mold maker's effort. With the Taurus, Hornby has done an outstanding job of getting the body right, with the correct overall shape and stance.
All the details are there, including intakes, NACA ducts, roof fences and flaps, fuel filler, hood and deck pins, rear spoiler with rivet detail, and exhausts. The panel lines are clear and deep. The windows have all the frames and straps, which are painted in correct black. As on the full-size car, the driver's window is open and partially filled with a detailed window net.
The interior is packed with details, including roll bars (though the forward part of the cage is missing), molded-in representations of the dash, shifter, wiring, fire bottle, air filtration system, and more. The driver is still the same rather toylike fellow who has been piloting all Scalextric cars for years, but we're told he's due soon for replacement in the team by a young star of the future who's much more realistic looking. This will be the last major upgrade needed to take Scalextric from the realm of toy cars to serious scale models, placing its products on a par with Ninco and Fly in competing for the dollars of the adult consumer.
The first production Tauruses come in three versions, C2141, Jeff Burton's #99 Exide car, C2142, the #94 McDonald's car of Bill Elliott, and C2146, Mark Martin's Valvoline-sponsored #6, all 1998 cars. There have been only 2500 of each produced with a retail price of $45.00 each. Future Taurus production will switch to 1999 cars.
The complex paint and tampo-stamping on these cars is simply incredible and absolutely sets a new standard. The sharpness, opacity, color accuracy, and register are as close to perfect as any we have ever seen. The stamped rendition of the full-size cars' headlight decals is a work of art all by itself. The aluminum colored frames around the black air intake screens on the two Roush cars are perfectly rendered, and the radiator and cooler intake configuration is different on each of the three cars. Especially impressive is the opacity and color quality where a lighter color has been stamped over a darker one. On the McDonald's car the white McDonald's name and nose stripes and the yellow numbers and golden arches show not a trace of the underlying red, and the Super 8 Motels logo is stamped in a different shade of yellow. The only feature obviously missing from the paint treatment on these cars' bodies is that the fuel filler, exhausts, and hood and deck pins are not painted. This is something the purchaser can remedy with a little acrylic paint.
The Fantasy World in-store 4-lane Scalextric layout makes an ideal test venue for euroscale cars. The track has a 16-foot straight, a stretch of fast turns connected by shorter straights, and a very twisty "technical" section. This combination provides an effective all-round test of a car's performance. We were looking forward to the SCX-Scalextric showdown when we took the cars to the FW track. Unfortunately, due to limited availability of the Taurus test car we could not test both cars on the same day. (The test took place prior to the arrival of the production cars.)
The test Taurus was already well-broken in from numerous demonstration runs at ADATR, so we took only a few laps to assure ourselves that all was well, and then moved on, for the moment, to the Monte Carlo. The SCX car was brand-new so we gave it the complete OWH break-in and shakedown procedure with some extra running time thrown in to ensure that it was broken in enough to place it on an equal footing with the Taurus.
During the break-in process we began to encounter problems with the SCX car. It seemed to be very sluggish and underpowered. It was slow on the straights and could be driven flat-out around almost the entire course. From the beginning we only needed the briefest blip of the throttle at three points on the circuit to keep the car in the slot. After about ten one-minute practice runs, the car began to slow noticeably, until we could hold the controller at full throttle all the way around. In that length of time the motor had become too hot to touch. We checked the car for binding, inadequate lubrication, a defective motor, and everything else we could think of and found no identifiable problem.
After letting the motor cool off, we resumed running. The speed had picked back up, but again, after a few minutes, the car could be driven flat out around the course. Repeated mechanical checks, adjustments, and test runs produced no improvement. We even checked the track and controllers with other cars and found everything normal.
We had driven two other 1998 SCX cars, including a Ferrari 333SP and a 4-wheel-drive rally car and had found them both to behave similarly, though not quite to the same degree.
Another problem emerged during break-in. When we drove the car off at one of the few places where we could do it, the pin on the back of the guide would pop out of its socket in the tie rod, disengaging the working steering and causing the car to go around the track with the front wheels cocked at funny angles. This happened repeatedly on even moderate spins, let alone crashes. It was annoyingly difficult to get the pin back in the socket, too. We improved with practice, but we got lots of practice. We have driven several other SRS-2 cars, and this was the first one to do this particular trick.
After extended effort yielded no improvement, we decided to go on to timed runs, since we still had an article to write. We wanted to get some kind of lap times to see if SCX's claim to having the fastest 1/32 scale production stock car was valid.
The normal OWH test procedure is to make 10 one-minute timed runs in rapid succession and record the fastest lap time from each run. On our first timed run we recorded a fast time of 6.766 seconds. On the second run, we got a 6.707. After that, the times got slower until, on the 5th run, we were driving the car flat out around the whole track again and turned a 6.914. We checked the motor and again found it too hot to touch.
After some cooling-off time we put the Monte Carlo back on the track. Sure enough, we were back to three slow-down points and the times had improved to the 6.8s, but after a few more runs the motor was getting hot once more, so we suspended the test with 6.707 seconds as the best overall lap time.
Now, this is a very respectable lap time on the FW track, certainly faster than the Scalextric Thunderbird and Monte Carlo have ever done. The problem was that the motor seemed to be thrashing itself to death to do it. The standard SCX motor has long been known as something of a weakling, and we theorized that SCX, in its effort to get the upper hand over Scalextric, had equipped the car with a chassis magnet the motor simply couldn't cope with.
To check our theory, we removed the magnet and took the car to another layout where we were testing a Scalextric Pacer unit. Without the powerful magnet the Monte Carlo was much livelier on the straights but most of its cornering grip had disappeared. We drove some laps with the car to program the Pacer and then let it drive #24 around for 99 laps. Sure enough, at the end of the run the motor was barely warm.
Scalextric's Taurus, like all the rest of the company's cars, comes with a much less powerful magnet. Scalextric's policy is to make all its ready-to-run cars fully compatible with its race set power supplies and controllers. This rules out high-performance motors and killer magnets as standard equipment while ensuring that new cars will run well on even a decades-old Scalextric track and will not necessarily obsolete all older cars.
The Taurus, as expected, was much quicker on the straights and not nearly as stuck-down in the corners. This is a car you definitely have to drive. Handling, however, is much improved over the earlier Scalextric NASCARs. The fun-to-drive quotient is right up there with the best of them. The work that went into the new chassis and tires shows in very good grip and smooth, quiet performance worthy of a car in which all the parts were designed from the outset to work together.
We were limited by a tight schedule to only eight timed runs with the Taurus. Alan Smith of ADATR, who had brought the car to FW, had to leave for an appointment and, quite understandably at the time, didn't want to let the car out of his sight. On our first run the fastest lap time was only 8.740 seconds, but over the next seven runs we worked down to a best time of 7.165 seconds.
This left the Taurus 0.4 second or roughly 6% slower than the SCX car, and confirmed that SCX does indeed, for the time being at least, have the 1/32 scale out-of-the-box stock car speed crown. Still, we considered this something of an apples-and-oranges comparison due to the vast difference in magnet strength between the two cars. We wanted to find a way to equalize the magnet factor to get a truer comparison between the cars' ultimate capabilities.
Just as we were searching for a way to do that we became aware of a new after market magnet for Scalextric cars, to be released in early 1999. The magnet is a direct replacement for the standard one and snaps into the stock magnet cavity on the chassis. Alan agreed to fit one of his test Tauruses with the new magnet and bring it to Fantasy World.
The new magnet, which will sell for under $6, did not stick the Taurus down nearly as hard as the SCX car's magnet is capable of doing. The Taurus began to roll at approximately 80 degrees of incline on the OWH magnet test. Still, it brought the Taurus much closer to the Monte Carlo's level of magnetic down force.
On the track, the stronger magnet did not change the Taurus's pleasant driving characteristics as much as it simply raised all the limits. Again, due to Christmas-season time constraints, we only got three timed runs in with the strong-magnet Taurus but those three runs were sensational, yielding a fastest time of 6.385 seconds and consistent effortless laps in the mid to high 6.4 second range. The Taurus was still quick down the straight and very smooth and drivable in the turns with a standard Scalextric set controller. This is especially impressive when compared to the track's all-out lap record of about 5.9 seconds, set by a Fly Porsche GT1. Certainly not bad for a relatively high, bulky stock car.
Over the past two years we have seen over and over that competition improves the breed. It can also leave a company in the dust looking more than a little silly if that company does not do its homework. The Tauruses are proof positive that Hornby has done its homework and earned an A-plus. The Jeff Gordon Monte Carlo comes across to us as though SCX attempted a late-night cram that didn't quite work. The best grade we can give it is a C-minus, and that only for use by experienced racers who have the skill and knowledge to deal with the car's problems.
We honestly can find only one thing that needs correcting on the Taurus. The metal strips that make contact with the braid on the car's snap-in guide flag are slightly loose in their mountings, and that looseness can cause wear, increased looseness, and eventually, inconsistent electrical contact. The cure is to put a drop of thick CA glue on each strip where it attaches to the chassis to fix it securely in place. Other than that, we would simply like to see even more detail, like a more realistic driver, the front part of the roll cage, and a few more painted areas, such as the fuel cell, added to an already superlative package.
The same cannot be said for the SCX Monte Carlo. At the very least, the car needs a completely new chassis, a sturdier working steering arrangement (or better yet, its deletion) and properly scale wheels and tires. Most important, if SCX insists on pursuing performance via the King Kong chassis magnet route, it needs to make the RX-10 or some other more powerful motor standard equipment in all its new cars. Better yet, SCX should simply go back to the milder magnet used in previous SRS-2 cars, even if it means the cars will not lap as quickly as the competition's. Our test results lead us to believe that the magnet SCX has chosen to use for 1998 simply overwhelms the motor.
It's interesting to note that in the 1998 SCX catalog the only replacement motor listed is the higher-performance RX-10 pro motor. This makes us wonder if SCX knew all along that the base motor was inadequate for its new cars with the strong magnets. We strongly recommend that anyone purchasing any 1998 SCX car also get the RX-10 motor or replace the magnet with a milder one unless you want to use the car with the Trainer 1 in its trainer mode.
Is the SCX Monte Carlo completely without merit? By no means. With some work and upgrades it can be made into a decent-performing car. Besides, it is, after all, the only Jeff Gordon slot car on the market, and that by itself will satisfy many collector/racers.
The problem is that many thousands of these cars and sets with these cars in them are being sold this Christmas season to consumers completely new to slot racing, including parents buying them as toys for children. We suspect that SCX might begin seeing a return rate ranging from unprecedented to catastrophic beginning as soon as December 26. We truly hope this doesn't happen but if it does it is going to leave many Americans with a negative first impression of the slot car hobby, and that won't be good for anybody. Every manufacturer has a responsibility to produce a product that works reliably, regardless of what else it does. Only time and extended use will tell whether SCX has done that, but we would be less than honest if we didn't say that we have real doubts about the new SCX cars' long-term reliability, especially in the hands of novice owners. In fact, given the widespread distribution of these cars, including to such prestigious outlets as FAO Schwartz, if we were Jeff Gordon, DuPont, or Hendrick racing, we would be having second thoughts about having our name and image associated with this product.
Meanwhile, we'll be enjoying the heck out of our Scalextric Tauruses while we wait for SCX to produce, as it surely will, second-generation stock cars that are as big an improvement over its first offering as Scalextric's were over its initial effort. In 1/32 scale as in 1/1 scale, Winston Cup warfare is heating up, and we are all benefiting from the results. Now, wouldn't it be something if Ninco, Fly, and Chrysler (oops, Daimler-Chrysler) jumped in? Think about it... NASCARized Dodge Intrepids and big Mercedes sedans on a scale replica of Daytona...oh, yes, I love it already! And while we're at it, how about a Pontiac?