By Aaron Waldron
Nostalgia is a powerful drug. Rarely do you hear anyone say “this is the best time ever!” for anything - technology, professional sports, RC racing, even humankind. Instead, everything seems better and more fun in the past; it’s as though “the grass is greener on the other side” refers to the pages of calendars you’ve long flipped past, or torn off the wall and thrown away.
Before I go too far off the deep end, let me get this out of the way: I know there are still a lot of loamy, rough outdoor tracks in parts of the world. I enjoy seeing pictures from their events, and love hearing that racers who attend those tracks have fun. Hopefully, this crowd reads past the headline of this article. We all good? Okay - moving on.
While technology has advanced further in RC racing in the last ten years than perhaps any decade ever, and the racing scene is as healthy as it has been in years, the cries to “bring back real off-road!” have been getting louder lately. With last year’s IFMAR Worlds held on an astroturf course mimicking what much of the world competes on, and the transition toward smoother, higher-bite tracks in both electric and nitro off-road, there’s plenty for the “good ol’ days” crowd to complain about.
Sadly, it seems there’s a segment of the RC population content to ignore reality, let alone what the vast majority prefers. Rather than accepting that tracks have evolved into their current state out of both the requests from racers as well as sheer economic/logistic necessity, they’ve started blaming track owners and manufacturers for steering the hobby away from “real” off-road - as though there’s a dictionary definition in some RC bible that’s been tarnished, ripped out and burned.
The fact that a good portion of this grumpy group are former racers, rather than current diehards hitting up local tracks every weekend, says a lot about the “make off-road great again” movement, but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to write about it. Actually, I’m especially fired up about it because I was part of that first group until I saw the error of my ways about a year ago - and now I’m full-steam-ahead on the current generation of off-road racing.
Ask those who want “real off-road” to come back what that means, and some won’t even be able to explain it. Others insist on making comparisons to the full-size motor sports they’d like to emulate - like motocross and closed-course off-road racing.
“You know - where they just leave the track alone!” they might say. Except, well:
Forget even mentioning that Supercross and full-size off-road tracks are far smoother than what they were 10, 20 and 30 years ago - because those racing scenes of undergone much of the same transition as RC racing, toward high speeds and close racing over punishingly slow tracks with huge ruts - but apparently tractors and water trucks hitting the course 2-3 times in the course of a single day’s worth of competition doesn’t count as track maintenance? If total apathy from the track crew is the harbinger of “true” off-road, shouldn’t we be racing on native terrain?
If you really think there are enough racers who want “real off-road,” find a track operator and try attracting a turnout of people who agree. I’ll wait.
You know what kind of tracks require relatively little maintenance? Carpet! In fact, because carpet and turf make off-road racing so accessible, we live in a world where much of the newest generation of off-road racers in Europe have never even raced on dirt.
The problem with scaling-up comparisons to full-size motor sports is that not everything scales in proportion. On a nitro 1/8-scale track, it’s not unheard of to see an 8-inch, square-edged rut develop - about twice the size of a nitro buggy tire’s diameter. Can you imagine a five-foot-tall rut on a motocross track? Or a six-foot-tall rut on a TORC Series course? Show me any full-size off-road event where the track sees 20,000+ vehicle-laps and I'll eat my shoes.
Getting a tractor onto an RC track to rebuild jumps and turns during the week isn’t practical for most businesses and clubs, and would be virtually impossible during most big events. Dusty, rough, blown-out tracks have gone the way of the do-do because racers have stopped attending those tracks, and tracks have been trending toward smooth and consistent not just because their clientele ask for it, but because it’s cheaper to build and maintain. Hard-packed clay means less time shoveling to keep a layout fresh, with fewer paycheck-cashing employees working, and I’ve spoken to a handful of track owners who said they became more profitable after replacing their dirt tracks with carpet. If new racers have more fun on tracks where they can go straight without spinning out, and experienced racers enjoy competing fairly against big entry counts, fine-tuning and comparing lap times in conditions that don’t change one second per lap from round to round and week to week, what’s the big deal? Isn’t that a win-win for everyone?
At this year’s Silver State, there was a big stir around the pit area from those who didn’t like the treated surface, high grip, and lack of bumps - without acknowledging that this industry’s closest thing to a publicly accessible RC track in a major city was simply trying not to anger local businesses. Fast forward a few months to the IFMAR Worlds Warm-Up at the same track, and there was a big stir around the pit area from those who hated flipping out of moon craters and spending much of the round-to-round down time cleaning mud off their cars. Rather than trying to analyze track temperature and the abrasive groove that created “inconsistent conditions” at Silver State, there was an equal amount of huffing and puffing about the inability of the track crew to perform the logistically impossible task of laying down a perfectly consistent layer of water in the 90 seconds between heats. And though some drivers complained about tire wear at Silver State, others found their cars easier to drive on used treads. Then, at the Worlds Warm-Up, some drivers tried new tires every run trying to find the grip needed to make their cars handle correctly, while others enjoyed the lower tread wear.
A totally different set of circumstances led to the same types of problems and the same percentage of unhappy racers. If the griping about the grip at Silver State was truly about cost control, there are about five different ways we could make big events cheaper for privateers to attend (like shortening the event) - without making the track more difficult for them to drive on.
The biggest problem with wanting to turn back the clock on anything - including RC racing - is that it’s impossible. It’s not as easy as tilling up some soil and watering the track, because today’s 17.5-and-LiPo-powered cars have about as much power as a NiMH-powered 13-turn from 2002, and we’re not racing MP7.5’s on XTR-compound Crime Fighters anymore. Just as today’s R/C cars have evolved, so have the tires, shocks, electronics, and everything else - even the drivers. Racers aren’t going to just bolt Step Pins on their cars and say “screw it!” like they used to, because this isn’t 15 years ago.
Did you know that Hot Rod Hobbies ran the first “Reedy Outdoor Off-Road Race of Champions” on a wet outdoor track last fall? No? You’re not alone. About 150 entries showed up, mostly locals and Associated/Reedy team drivers - roughly the same turnout as the JBRL series finals a few weeks prior.
All hopes for an off-road renaissance were dashed when AE team manager Brent Thielke was the only notable driver to run a rear-motor 2WD buggy. Most ran their mid-motor cars without straying too far from their “indoor” setup, and installed Holeshots, Double Dees or Grid Irons.
Lost in the ongoing discussion about whether or not hard-packed clay and carpet are “really” off-road is the fact that many big races over the last few years have been incredibly close and exciting to watch. The track layouts have been interesting, with tough rhythm sections, big jumps, and fast laps. As it turns out, even the world’s best drivers find it easier to mix it up and race for position when they’re focused on trying to go fast, rather than simply fighting their way through impossibly huge ruts and slick, sandy dust.
Can we make off-road racing great again? Actually, I think it’s pretty darn great the way it is.