Slot car racing is growing in popularity again, with the UK’s annual festival that celebrates the hobby attracting fans from around the world
Julie Scale had no idea how big things would become. Seven years ago the 54-year-old from Poynton, in Cheshire, and owner of Scale Models, decided to join forces with two other slot car businesses and create an event for enthusiasts to meet, swap stories and buy and sell equipment. “We were all in the business and thought it would be a good idea,” she says. “But we didn’t realise just how popular it would be.”
That first event – named the UK Slot Car Festival – took place at Donington but according to Scale so many people turned up that they had to erect marquees outside to accommodate everyone. The following year they relocated to the British Motor Museum, near Coventry.
This year’s festival took place in May and attracted 5,000 people over two days. The event is sponsored by Scalextric, the most famous slot car maker, but also attracted other manufacturers including Carrera and Slot.it as well as global businesses such as Professor Motor, the US slot car retailer.
But it is the crowds of fans that make the event so special. According to Scale, people travel from around the world to make the festival: “We’ve had visitors from America, New Zealand and Canada,” she says. “People plan their holidays around it. And of course there are plenty of fans in the UK too.”
Slot cars have their roots in America, but in Britain they hit the big time in the late 1950s with the arrival of Scalextric, a Hampshire-based company that started building 1/32 scale models of popular cars of the day such as the Jaguar XJ120, MG TF, Austin Healey 100 and Aston Martin DB2. Early cars were rough and ready representations of the real thing. As the market grew, however, they became increasingly accurate with some models even being based on the CAD blueprints of the actual vehicle.
Their popularity peaked over the next two decades before computer games replaced them as the default hobby for young racing fans.
“I think there is a renewed interest in slot car racing, similar to the revival in vinyl sales,” says Scale. “People these days tend to play racing games on computers or PlayStation, but the ability to hold a car and race it in real life is increasing in popularity. People love the fact that it’s something you can play across the generations. For example, you can race slot cars against your grandad and there aren’t many games that allow you to do that.”
Despite younger people getting involved, slot cars is now overwhelmingly a passion for the older generation. According to Scale there is a distinct pattern to people getting involved in the hobby. “We tend to see people returning to slot cars when they reach 35-40 years of age,” she says. “They want models of the cars that they loved when they were 10. So in the past we have had companies making new versions of older cars such as the GT40, which has been very popular. At the moment there is lots of demand for rally cars from the 1980s and ’90s.”
At the British Motor Museum there was plenty of evidence that the hobby had evolved into the 21st century, too. As well as painstakingly crafted models by specialist manufacturers, there were enthusiasts who specialised in creating inch-perfect scale models of famous race tracks – complete with grandstands – drag racers that reached 45mph and a 3D printing machine that would create perfect new slot car chassis at the touch of a button. One enterprising company had even modified PlayStation controllers to work with slot car racers. So there is hope yet for the younger generation…