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Groove rider: Slot car racing is back

by Nik Berg
7 October 2021 4 min read
Groove rider: Slot car racing is back
Photos: Nik Berg, Ivan Berg and Race Wars

History is repeating itself.

I’m standing at the side of a multi-lane slot car track, finger twitching on the trigger of my controller and desperately trying to beat my dad around the circuit, my BMW M1 against his Ford GT40.

We last did this decades ago when he built me a 1/64 scale Aurora track, but even then he was quite the expert.

In the late 1960s my father, Ivan Berg, was making a living designing hotel conference facilities, and building models on the side for his friend who ran the Beatties model shop in London. The family living room was taken over by a 100-foot-long Airfix track and regular weekly race nights were held, often attended by the local constabulary who’d leave their squad car and their Roadcraft outside.

Ivan Berg with the Duke of Edinburgh at the opening of the Aviemore slot car track
Ivan Berg races on as the Duke of Edinburgh asks questions during the opening of a slot car track in Aviemore.

When the Rank Hotel group was looking for a fun apres-ski activity to install in its Aviemore hotel, my dad suggested a slot car track. He designed and oversaw the construction of the circuit, with its slots routed into a plywood base and the metal braided electrical contacts laid in by hand. The track was opened by the Duke of Edinburgh and my father was commissioned to build another on the Isle of Man.

By the time I came along he’d moved on to new ventures but slot cars were still a memorable part of my childhood and, I hope, my own kids’ as well, as several birthdays built up a reasonable sized Scalextric/Carrera combo that’s now gathering dust in the loft.

And so we find ourselves at what is claimed to be Europe’s biggest, and certainly Britain’s only, dedicated slot car centre – Race Wars in Milton Keynes – and not that much has changed in 50 years.

Step inside what looks like a shop front and you’ll discover seven slot car tracks where anyone from the age of six and older can book a session and race in private groups or with other visitors, with prices starting from £7 for 30 minutes of wheel-to-wheel racing.

Build it and they will race

Race Wars slot cars on track

Six of the seven tracks are built exactly the same way as my dad would have designed them, with a wooden base, while one is made from off-the-shelf Carrera plastic track. All but this one use hefty 1:24 scale cars which dwarf the Scalextric models that so many of us, and our own kids, are used to.

Paul Cooper, owner of Race Wars, still fondly remembers his own first slot car track with its pair of Jaguar D-types. “I’ve been a model builder all my life. I’ve always built models from power boats to radio controlled cars,” says Paul.

The idea for Race Wars came about quite by chance. Cooper and his wife were attending a wedding in Hamburg and around the corner from their hotel was the Renncenter slot racing venue. Paul was rather more excited about this than the wedding and spent all the time he could racing and talking to the owner, reigniting his childhood passion.

As Cooper developed his own vision for a slot racing centre back home he visited Hamburg a further 20 times or more.

“At the time, there were 69 private slot car clubs in the UK which were more for the experienced racers. But there was nothing in this country where people could come along, have a bit of fun and be introduced to the hobby,” he explains.

Located in a retail centre in Milton Keynes with takeaway restaurants for neighbours, Race Wars took Cooper and his team six months and “a heavy six figure” sum to fit out and build the tracks. Each circuit also has its own timing screen with sophisticated computer software to control the racing which had to be designed for Race Wars’ specification.

“That’s the biggest difference to my day,” says my dad Ivan. “We used to have mechanical lap counters. The cars are much better as well, so much more durable – ours would probably only last 20 minutes before something would break, so we’d have a team of people constantly repairing them.”

There are around 40 Carrera models to choose from for visitors who pay £13 for an hour of racing which can be split across several circuits. The standard race format is three minutes long, with drivers swapping lanes after each race to ensure a fair fight and that nobody hogs that advantageous inside line.

Ivan Berg tackles the slot car track at Race Wars
Ivan Berg steels himself to tackle the slot car track at Race Wars

Race Wars’ centrepiece is a huge eight-lane track that once hosted British Slot Car Racing Association events, but is probably a little too challenging for newcomers. The other circuits are all quirkily landscaped with themes including Stonehenge, Egypt, an airport and a coastal track, complete with its own lighthouse.

None of the cars are fitted with magnets, so you can’t just pull the trigger to the max and zip round. Instead, you really have to pay attention to the braking zones and learn the circuit, going easy on the throttle on corner exit to avoid spinning out. Then, as you switch tracks, you start the process all over again. All the while you’ll be scanning between track and screen to watch your lap times and those of your rivals. It’s a whole lot more involving than your home Scalextric, that’s for sure.

Slot car racing is for all the family

Paul Cooper and Ivan Berg racing slot cars
Paul Cooper, left, and Ivan Berg racing slot cars

With its licensed bar, fast food and chart music pumping out through a powerful sound system Race Wars has a similar vibe to an indoor karting track. If you want to race something a little more substantial than a slot car there are also four linked Fanatec simulators running Project Cars which cost £10 for 30 minutes.

Cooper perhaps best sums up the appeal of racing slot cars. “We recently had four generations from the same family, with the children, their parents, the grand parents and great grandparents, all taking part and racing one another on the same track. Where else can you do that, and not need any particular ability to compete on even terms? It was fantastic to see them having such fun.”

Having opened (and closed, and opened again) during the Coronavirus pandemic Race Wars is zooming ahead, proving popular with families, birthday parties, corporate events, stag and hen parties, and more serious players. The day we visited members of the the Red Bull Racing F1 team were booked in for a night of slot car action, while several regular racers have now bought their own cars and a membership club is in the offing.

If I’m ever going to beat my dad I reckon I’ll have to join.

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Comments

  • Lanford Kelly says:

    Brings back a lot of memories!!

  • Reed Merritt says:

    Wonderful!

  • Ian rhodes says:

    If visiting this venue fires up your appetite there’s plenty of local clubs available. London, Manchester,Wolverhampton,Cardiff, Stoke,Liverpool,Burnley,Oxford to name but a few.

  • Alan Smith says:

    Also available in the USA.
    We will be hosting a 24 Hour Race Nov 10th – 13th at the ScaleRacing Center in Tacoma WA USA.

    14 lanes, 24 hours, with 6 hours in darkness. This is real racing in miniature.

    See http://www.facebook.com/scaleracingcenter for mor info

  • Michael morley says:

    Outstanding time! Raced my whole life…as children..things improved when we created a rule “if car crashes..jumps groove…for any reason..your race is over.
    This eliminated the scramble to get a car back on track.

    Also developed focus and racing situational awareness. Just as in real racing …moves/risk must be assessed on cost/benefit basis.
    Ex. You may want to pass in the big sweeping corner…but being on the outside would make you vulnerable to being knocked off by car in the next inside groove “drifting” thru corner.

    You also must learn notorious spots on track where cars are less stable…and moderate your efforts there.
    We would set a timer for 3, 5 10 or even 1 hour…for races.
    Forced us to maintain focus…it was possible to get into a rythm—stream of conciousness..mindset.

    It was wonderful..

    My claim to fame was winning the slot car race event at national boy scout jamboree at Moraine park Pennsylvania. I raced for 6 hours and came out on top of hundreds of others to win a real nice train set….
    There was some luck involved…as I had to assess vulnerability in each corner and minimize exposure to crazy drivers…ignorant drivers…etc.

    Just as in real racing..there are places you MUST follow to go fast…and corners that if you perfect that corner…you will never have a bad lap time….and you won’t have a good lap time UNTIL you perfect it.

    I still have my track …and the rig my father made to allow it to fold against the wall.
    I am now 64…I got it in 4th grade…I grew up to race motorcycles for 20 years…
    The focus developed slot car racing served me well in NCAA tennis and basketball. It helped land me in the NC table tennis hall of fame…

    Good times…

  • Allen says:

    There’s happily a great raceway just outside of Charlotte, NC, some in SC and hopefully more coming. I had taken 50 years off and now racing with friends. Try it, you’ll love it.

  • Steve says:

    For enthusiasts of slot car racing in Scotland, there are numerous clubs available in the Inverness, Dundee and Fife areas.

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