By Aaron Waldron
Last Friday, October 16, was the eighth anniversary of a day when, at age 21, I quit racing RC cars seriously.
Not completely, of course. I’ve competed hundreds of times since then, sometimes club racing 2-3 times a week. I’ve entered an IFMAR Worlds, and raced at trophy events and some of the largest events in the country. But since October 16, 2007, it has only been for fun.
Before that, RC racing had started to feel like work. In fact, it was work.
By the time I quit taking RC racing seriously, I had been competing for 14 years. My father introduced me to the hobby at age 7, with a Christmas present, I entered my first race - in a parking lot - just a few months later. That opened the floodgates.
Once we learned that racetracks existed, our lives totally changed. Instead of riding ATV’s in the desert or taking family trips to the river, we began spending every weekend at RC tracks around Southern California. When we first started, I’d enter the Novice class occasionally while attending regular practice days. When I moved up to the “Stock Truck” class, my Dad started racing, too. By then, there were three outdoor off-road tracks and a handful of regular parking lot races operating in the San Diego area. Often, we’d race four times in a weekend - all three tracks raced Friday night, one organized heats on Saturday morning, another Saturday night, and the third attracted a crowd on Sundays. That wasn’t even counting the half-dozen or so tracks a bit further north.
While my school-age friends were hanging out with each other, I spent my childhood years at RC tracks. When all three of our local tracks closed, our round trips doubled in distance on the weekends. I started gaining the interest of sponsors by the time I was in high school, and even delayed getting my license until a couple of months after my 16th birthday because I was never home on the weekends to take the classes during the school year.
After high school, I started college and began working at the local hobby shop - because they gave me the weekends off to go racing. The staff often kept the magazines on the counter opened to pages with a race report or advertisement that showed my picture, just to see if customers would notice. After a couple of months, I was promoted to be one of the shift managers. It was a fun, easy way to make a little extra spending money after class - but when a new manager was put in place and he told me I couldn’t have three days off to go to the Hot Rod Shootout, I went anyway.
After all, that was the year my sponsors started giving my father and I our gear for free, and I even made some contingency money by scoring a few A-Main finishes.
There were only a handful of places to race in SoCal in the mid-2000s, so they were typically pretty busy with the area’s factory teams. Racing against the fastest pro drivers in the country every weekend was great practice for big events, but I didn’t win very often.
After going through some pretty horrifying medical issues at the end of 2005, RC wasn’t just a passion - it was therapy. Being at the racetrack was an excuse to get outside, and practicing helped me get my coordination back. When I wasn’t at the track I got more involved with my sponsors by helping customers in forums, and started taking more advantage of opportunities to write articles for magazines and websites. It took a year before I felt like I was “back to normal” (whatever that meant).
The following year, 2007, was an emotional roller coaster. After years of trying, I finally made the Pro Buggy A-Main at The Dirt Nitro Challenge. After the announcer read the final qualifying order, I cried on the drive from the track to the hotel. After months in and out of the hospital, and everything my family and I went through, that was was my first major A-Main in over a year.
A month later, at the Silver State, I came in with all of the expectations in the world - I never felt any pressure from my parents or my sponsors, but I was always my own biggest critic, and I had made the A-Main in Vegas before. The weekend, though, was a disaster, and I qualified into three B-Mains: 1/10-scale truck, 1/8-scale buggy, and my first major 1/8-scale truck race.
Following a particularly rough qualifying race, I sulked back to my pit area after turn marshaling. I was interrupted from wallowing in my own self-pity when a racer came running up to my pit area asking for pit help.
It was someone I had known for a few years, but only because he often traveled from the upper half of the state to larger events in SoCal. He’s a genuine hobbyist in every sense of the phrase, a perennial sportsman mid-packer who always seems to be smiling, even when telling stories of how badly a particular race went. He’s heard me tell this story before, and thinks it’s hilarious that he unknowingly played such an important catalyst in my life.
This man came running up to my pit area in a hurry, and my first impression of the scenario was a total mess - he had come sprinting from the RV lot on the far end of the track, carrying his starter box, truck and radio, swinging a pit bag full of tools (that were falling out by the step). By this time, more than a handful of manufacturers made purpose-built 1/8-scale “truggy” kits, but he was still racing a T-Maxx conversion - and he had topped it with a body meant for a different truck, which didn’t even have the windows masked out.
“Would you mind helping me? I can’t find my pit guy, and my race is up next,” he gasped, out of breath from the weighted-down jog from his motorhome. I helped collect his temp gun, fuel bottle, and whatever else had fallen out of his pit bag, and we hustled to pit lane. With some effort, we got the truck running for a few laps of warm-up, and he came back in for fuel before the start of the heat.
“Do you want me to lean it out?” I asked, since the truck was running like a pig.
“Nah, just fill it up. The engine is still breaking in,” he called down from the drivers’ stand; the thought of going to a big race with an engine that wasn’t in race-ready condition made my neck twitch involuntarily. “Besides,” he added, “if it makes any more power, I won’t be able to control it.” I grabbed the fuel bottle, topped off the tank, and sent him on his way.
With just a minute or two left in the heat race, the driver lost one of his tires. He drove for another few corners and crashed, and the turn marshal shut off his truck. I ran out to the turn marshal to collect the truck and tire, then sprinted back to pit lane and started searching the pit bag for a wheel nut and wrench. Before I found either, the driver walked into pit lane.
“Do you want me to put the wheel back on so you can finish your last lap?” I asked.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said with his typical, laid-back grin, “I’m just bummed that the turn marshal shut it off - I could’ve limped it around with three tires. Anyway, thanks for the help!” He grabbed his gear and trudged back toward his motorhome, in the opposite direction of where I was headed.
I felt like an idiot. There I was, being all cranky about crashing once or twice in a seven-minute race, and this guy laughed off being denied the opportunity to “trike” it around one of the roughest tracks in the world.
I didn’t bump into any of the finals, and traffic on the 300+ mile drive home only added insult to insult. The race motivated me to work harder, and practice even more. I had a pretty solid summer of race results, and, after applying and interviewing for the position, got hired to be the team manager for my chassis sponsor. They gave me a couple of weeks to prepare while my desk and paperwork were sorted.
Less than a week before my first day, an RC magazine where I had contributed and interned had an editor position open up. My internship there had been a blast, and I looked up to the editors as having a sort of “dream job” - basically, getting paid to enjoy the hobby without worry of results. I interviewed for it and got offered the job, but I felt bad for committing to the team manager position. I knew that, as team manager, my own racing efforts would probably have to take a backseat to helping everyone else, but I wasn’t sure that I was ready to give that up.
On my commute home from my first day, though, I had plenty of time to sit in traffic and think - and it was on the same stretch of freeway where I had sat in traffic on the way home from Silver State a few months prior. It was that moment that I realized I had turned my favorite hobby - competing against other hobbyists with RC cars - into a job. I felt like all of the practice and club racing, no matter how much fun it was, meant nothing if I didn't make the next major A-Main.
I handed in my two-week notice the next day, took the magazine job, and on my first week at my new gig, I was sent to cover a major race (where I qualified for both Invitational class finals). I haven’t looked back since.
I raced a lot over the next half-decade, but I’ve slowed down these last couple of years - especially since I travel so much, and don’t have the time to commit to being competitive at the level I expect of myself. I still get to be around the hobby that I’ve loved for so long, but without the pressure of trying to win.
Even though it has been in a different capacity, that’s what it took for RC to become fun again - to quit taking it seriously.