By Aaron Waldron
There’s no bigger spark of controversy in RC racing than incidental contact. It happens in every class, at every level, at every track around the world.
Some drivers don’t seem to mind contact - in this hobby, they’re called “hacks.” Some drivers intentionally avoid contact, instead stressing the moral high road - they’re often called “not winners.”
Luckily for RC racers, no one gets physically hurt when two cars collide - that’s one of the biggest draws of RC cars versus any other not-remotely-controlled form of motorsport. That’s not to say that multi-car wrecks are victimless accidents. Many a podium-worthy performance has been destroyed by another vehicle, and the human reactions to such contact range from the calm “ah, oh well” to flying fists and tears.
You might feel like they were on the same level, but few crashes between two RC cars are as bad - or as intentional - as Matt Kenseth's wreck of Joey Logano at Martinsville Speedway a couple of weeks ago that earned Kenseth a suspension. Kenseth was rightfully penalized, as his actions, above all else, put human lives in danger.
In fact, it’s that lack of potential physical harm that makes incidental contact such a big problem in RC racing. While you might escape from a poorly advised passing attempt in a full-size car with a couple hundred dollars in body damage, you could also end up in the hospital, financially cripple your racing effort by tearing up the car - or even die. “Send it in” on someone in an RC race, and won’t likely exceed $20 and a half-hour of wrenching. Of course, that’s only if the wreck even breaks anything. RC cars are built to take a crash - no matter if it’s solo or not. Crashes happen, even for the best racers in the world.
The relatively low penalty for overexuberance also makes it easier to justify exacting your own vigilante justice. Why not immediately exact revenge on the driver who spun you out by smashing him when you catch up three laps later? Even if your intent is to actually cause harm, you can launch your vehicle into the turn marshal rather than handling your frustration like a rational adult. Why get face-to-face when you can make your point from a distance?
For most RC events, car-to-car contact is policed by the honor system. If you feel you caused an unfair collision with another car, you’re often expected to stop and concede the position. Of course, that code of sportsmanship varies from driver to driver - which is what sparks the controversy. Whose fault was that crash? Was the leading car in the process of spinning out, and it was an accident? Was he intentionally blocking? What one might think as “trying to take advantage of someone else’s mistake,” another might see as “you’re an (*&^%$%^&!!”
It’s even worse when there’s a referee involved. Drivers often tend to practice the hit-and-run more often at Worlds-level races where referees are present, because they feel the weight of making those sportsmanship judgements has been removed from their shoulders. If the referee doesn’t call it, did it really happen? Of course, every racer on the other side of the coin feels even more slighted - the referee’s whole job was to watch the track, and you didn’t get compensated for what you feel was a blatant hack. Never mind the fact that there’s never more than 2-3 officials in charge of watching 10+ cars, but it still wouldn’t be possible for a dozen referees to determine cause and intent for most RC accidents.
Instant replay has been implemented in a few pro sports leagues over the last few years, but it’s not a viable option for RC racing. Even for tracks that broadcast their races on LiveRC, even the best webcam setups don’t provide a close-up view that would let an official determine what happened. Several times over the last year, at races where we broadcasted the event ourselves, I was asked by a race official to scan through LiveRC’s replays of races in order for referees to make a judgement call on contact between two drivers. Not once did the replay result in a change of the race standings. Of course, unless it was during a battle for the lead, we probably didn’t have a replay of the crash on camera, but that doesn’t mean a racer can’t come sobbing to the race officials in protest.
The sheer physics of RC cars make contact between two vehicles absolutely inevitable. It’s not just because you’re standing on a platform yards away from the car, but the resolution of RC racing versus full-size motorsports isn’t even close.
A 13-inch long 2WD buggy traveling through a turn at 10 mph is covering 11.7333 car lengths every second. For a TORC 1600 class buggy to travel 11.7333 car lengths every second, must travel 69.2 mph - and while they might touch that velocity down a straight away, there’s no way they’re carrying that momentum through a corner.
It’s even worse when you’re comparing on-road cars. At 10 mph, a 1/10-scale 190mm touring car travels 10.79 car lengths per second. That’s the same as going 111.33 mph in a full-size Sprint Cup car, or 106.28 mph in a full-size British Touring Car Championship series vehicle. Going 10 mph through a hairpin corner on your average carpet or asphalt track is a piece of cake, but hugging a Sprint Cup car around the final turn at Sonoma at 111 mph? Ha!
All of those nerdy numbers are to say that RC racing happens at an incredible speed, where split-second decisions with instantly reactive vehicles must constantly be made - and when you’re battling with someone else, you also have to guess that person’s decisions as well. That’s why, at even the highest level of RC racing, the world’s best will sometimes crash into each other. The question then, of course, is how to handle it.
Most of the time, the answer for those involved is simply to “suck it up.” Most crashes are accidents, and no one is completely innocent when it comes to causing contact. Sometimes the racer that crashed into you, regardless of whose fault it actually was, will apologize (either verbally, or by stopping and letting you pass). Sometimes, they won’t. Sometimes the driver that hit you simply ran out of talent - you'd feel bad for going off on an inexperienced racer who was just trying his best and didn't know any better, wouldn't you? Unless you’re racing for a paycheck and a World Championship, it really doesn’t matter. And if you actually are racing for a paycheck and a World Championship, the only thing you can do is plead your case to the referees. Once the decision is made, it’s over.
Even if a hack is found to be intentional, what do you do? Disqualify the person? You probably won't find a driver throwing away his own chance at a solid result by intentionally wrecking someone at a big event - it often happens after that driver already feels like his race is over, so he won't likely feel too bad about the penalty. And at the club level, track owners have a hard time justifying penalizing a paying customer for cheating, let alone judgment calls.
“The honor system” might not be perfect, but what are the alternatives? Here are both sides of the logical extreme:
Anything goes - If you can take someone out, so be it. Chances are pretty good that you’ll end up causing yourself harm as well, but there won’t be any official punishment. Parts might get broken, and feelings would surely be hurt, but at least there wouldn’t be any question whether or not someone should be penalized and another should be compensated.
Massive penalties - If you come in contact with another car, regardless of whether or not you’re leading or trailing, you lose a lap. Cars following from behind would be way less likely to force a pass attempt, and cars leading with a close pursuer would think twice before trying to block or maintain position after a mistake. And for cars getting lapped, collisions involving the leader are an instant DQ. Get out of the way!
Compared to either of those, “the honor system” might not seem so bad.