It's a familiar scene to a lot of parents — a group of boys gathered around a racetrack, watching as their miniature cars fly by. But the cars and the tracks are bigger than the HO scale that came to market in the 1960s -- and so are the boys who play with them.
Monday nights, a group of adults, mostly men, gather around a 34-foot track to race their slot cars at Legions Hobbies and Games, host to the Pittsburgh Slotcar Racing League, in Pines Plaza on Perry Highway in Ross.
“We usually have about 20 to 25 every Monday night,” said Rob Pernell, owner of Legions.
The group was started in 2010 by John Williams who had been involved with slot car racing at A.B. Charles, a hobby shop in Dormont. When the shop closed in March 2013 and moved to Peters, it downsized and got rid of its tracks, leaving the hobbyists without a place to meet.
Mr. Williams of Brookline had been involved with the hobby for years, but the children interested in the cars were what motivated him to start the league.
“We had birthday parties for the kids and they loved it — I wanted to further the hobby and the kids needed the organization,” he said.
Mr. Pernell heard through word-of-mouth that the group needed somewhere to meet.
“I had the room, so I thought ‘why not?’” Mr. Pernell said. He put in the 34-foot track along with a 25-foot track for the members and soon, they were meeting every week.
On Mondays at 7 p.m., the members gather to race and enjoy others of like mind, said Mr. Williams.
“We have members from all walks of life and all over the area. Some of our guys are retired, others are craftsmen and some are attorneys. These might be folks who otherwise have nothing in common, but they all enjoy slot cars,” he said. There are 40 to 50 members in the League, Mr. Williams said.
Friday nights are reserved for the Junior League — racers ages 6 to 15.
Mr. Pernell said the cars are larger than some of the men may have used when they were children. At 1/32 scale, the basic cost of a car is approximately $50. Visitors can borrow a car to see if they like the hobby.
“It can be intimidating when you come and see some of the cars these guys have. We want to make it easy for people to give it a try,” he said.
Mr. Williams says he has a lot of cars and he shares Mr. Pernell’s hopes that those interested in slot cars just come to a meeting and give it a try.
“You can buy a day pass for $10 and use some of our cars and controllers. These guys are really helpful and will lend a hand,” Mr. Williams said.
Brian James agreed. Mr. James’ 10-year-old son, Bram, has embraced the hobby since his uncle, Mr. Pernell, invited him to host a birthday party at the shop.
“Bram has always been interested in cars so Rob asked us if we wanted to have his party there. He loved it,” he said. Since the party in August, Bram has attended the Friday night Junior League sessions.
In addition to having fun, Bram has learned several things from the league, his dad said.
“He said he wanted to buy a Lamborghini [slot car] and now he is saving for it. It gives him a purpose to save – he went out and shoveled driveways and walks and put the money away for a car,” he said.
Bram has also met other young people that his dad said he wouldn’t have otherwise been able to meet and has learned that there are ways to compete outside of the normal sports world.
“He plays hockey and soccer, but this is different. This is his thing,” he said.
Bram has also shared what he has learned about slot cars with his fellow fourth-graders at Highcliff Elementary School in Ross.
“He owns it. They don’t know about slot cars and will ask him all sorts of questions — he loves it,” he said.
Mr. James said that Bram has learned a lot from the adult racers involved.
“They are great. He had trouble with one of his cars and one of the guys took the car and put new wheels on it and it fixed the problem. There was no cost, no expectation, he just wanted to help,” he said.
Passing on the interest to children is one of the driving forces for Mr. Williams to volunteer his time to the league.
“I enjoy doing it for the kids. A lot of parents aren’t hands-on with this, so I can help with that,” he said.
Even though his 13-year-old daughter, Allison, has no desire to race, she helps her dad with paperwork and other logistics with the league.
“I love having her help and it is a way for us to spend time together,” he said.
Mr. Williams said hobbyists can get started in slot car racing for under $300. In addition to the cost of a car, there are controllers and track passes. A yearly pass to Legion is $85 and the car and controller can be between $120 to $200.
For more information about the Pittsburgh Slotcar Racing League visit their Facebook page.
Kathleen Ganster, freelance writer, firstname.lastname@example.org.