By Aaron Waldron
Whether you like it or not, off-road racing on tracks made of carpet and astroturf isn’t going anywhere. The practice has been happening across North America, Europe, and Asia for years, especially in areas where it’s difficult to build a permanent dirt track for any reason - available land, poor weather, etc. Sure, it can be difficult to accept that the long-standing definition of our beloved niche hobby is changing, but it could very well end up being a good thing.
Critics of carpet racing will cry until they’re blue in the face about how it’s not “real” off-road (though many turn around and defend using slicks on damp and perfectly swept clay), but a growing number of racers are finding plenty of things to like about sprinkling pre-made obstacles on an incredibly grippy surface. Although the permanent off-road track at Yatabe Arena won’t be the course that’s used for this year’s IFMAR Worlds, it’s a terrific example of what can be done with carpet: plenty of jumps, a large elevation change, and - frankly - more surface character than many of today’s dirt tracks.
There are reasons to worry, of course. I’ve written several doomsday prophecies about how the rising traction levels of what we now call “dirt” tracks has led to the increasing costs of being competitive - and how we’re heading down the same rabbit hole that killed on-road racing. Time will tell if $500+ 2WD buggies are in our future, but as car designs for each discipline continue to diverge, areas where both dirt and carpet tracks exist will likely suffer from a hard fracturing of its racer base - unless everyone that races in your area doesn’t mind having two completely different kits. Forget the thought of buying a mid-motor buggy that you could convert to rear-motor if you thought it would help on a loamy track, as we’re talking about completely different chassis and drivetrain layouts. The most dominant current-generation buggies on dirt tracks aren’t even close on carpet.
There’s also that whole aspect of the idea of racing a spaceship-looking buggy on a bright green track surface (or the kind of carpet most people associate with an elementary school classroom) being completely impossible for the average non-RC racing geek to relate to, but I’ll save my next bout of hating on the loss of scale realism for another column.
I’ve been a pretty vocal critic of racing off-road on artificial surfaces, but I’ve almost completely changed my tune - in fact, I think this could actually be a good thing for our hobby…if it’s done right. Because carpet racing is here to stay, it’s time that the RC industry starts looking into ways to take full advantage of the reason why building temporary carpet and turf tracks became a fad in the first place - the fact that they’re temporary.
It’s well-documented that RC races don’t draw crowds. Even major championship events held in county fairgrounds struggle to gather people who don’t have a friend or relative competing to come watch - and if they do, the incredibly (and pointlessly) complicated format of an RC race makes it impossible to follow along for more than a few laps of a main event. In order to increase the number of people that see RC racing, the races must find the spectators.
Less documented is how unattractive to potential hobbyists it can be to watch seriously intense, turn marshal-berating, chain-smoking pro racers battle it out for stakes they don’t understand, especially when a single mistake can be such a disaster. I've said it before and I'll say it a million times - RC racing has much bigger things to worry about - like making its events look more accessible to newcomers - before it tries to market itself as a “spectator sport.”
Which brings me to my original point - in order to make the best use of the proliferation of carpet and turf off-road tracks, these temporary courses need to be this hobby’s escape from the gloomy warehouses in the seedy neighborhoods of the low- to middle-income suburbs and vacant industrial complexes where most are hidden.
It can be done. High-profile carpet on-road races have been held in hotel ballrooms for decades, and the Euro Offroad Series has done well staging its rounds at expos and other high-traffic events, but inviting racers to compete on a temporary course at a much smaller scale could be a profound benefit to our entire industry. Can you imagine the extra exposure your race program and local hobby shop would get if you held a club race every six months where new people would actually see it?
I implore race directors near and far to pack up a roll of Ozite, some lane markers, and a handful of their pre-built jumps and begin talking to shopping malls, schools, churches, county fairs, hotels, and convention centers about taking over some unused space for a couple of days. Spin the conversation in a way that’s mutually beneficial (offer to split the entry fees, draw new business, promise to clean up afterward) and you might be amazed at the opportunities you could find. The track surface might not be über-consistent, the pit area might be a bit cramped, and you might not make a ton of profit, but you could play an integral role in helping grow our hobby. The racers might get excited about racing in a new venue, in front of actual people, and we just might start seeing more fresh faces at the local tracks - no matter what kind of surface the track is built on.
If any race directors need help writing up proposals to local business owners in order to try and make this happen, you know where to find me.
Special thanks to Youzoh Furudate for the cover photo