By Aaron Waldron
Though many tracks in Europe and Asia maintain a permanent track layout for years at a time, the RC racing scene in the U.S. has almost always trended toward constantly refreshed courses. It’s a lot of work for the track’s employees or volunteers, especially without heavy equipment needed to move jumps without wheelbarrows, but a track rebuild can serve as a “reset” button for track owners and racers alike.
It’s not just the excitement of a new course that brings racers out to the first few nights on a fresh track rebuild. If you’re a casual racer who has been struggling on a particular layout, especially if there’s that one awkwardly-angled double jump you just haven’t been able to nail consistently, a freshly rebuilt track puts everyone back on an even playing field. The three-time defending Saturday Stock Buggy winner won’t have the advantage of practicing four nights a week. You won’t be beating yourself up for not practicing more often. The winner of the first club race on a fresh layout will be the one who was able to adapt most quickly - an often forgotten skill in a hobby that’s moving toward video game-like consistency.
Everything about rebuilding a track, especially in off-road, is difficult. You might kill half a tree’s worth of graph paper drawing up layout ideas, only to get to the track and figure out that certain sections won’t work. Rounding up the necessary help, whether it be employees working overtime or coaxing volunteers with refreshments, is never easy. Securing the required equipment and materials can be time-consuming and often times quite costly. Even if you’re one to enjoy constructing something great out of sheer physical exertion, building an RC track can be exhausting.
And even when you think the long hours of nailing pipes, shoveling dirt, testing jumps, re-shaping features, and grunting in approval are finished, you’ll never know how the track will actually pan out until the first wave of incredibly critical racers hits the drivers’ stand.
There’s perhaps no bigger labor of love involved with running an RC racing facility than rebuilding the track, but they continue to do it because the work is totally worth it. Not only can a fresh track improve club racing turnouts and moods of the entrants, but it’s a chance to put any issues with the last track (that awkward double, the ruts on the front straight, etc.) behind them.
I got introduced to what happens behind the scenes of a track build at an early age, when my father took over caring for the local off-road track in exchange for a monthly tab at the hobby shop. He created templates of the track’s dimensions on graph paper, and we filled up spiral notebooks with different layout ideas. That’s when those hours of building bicycle jumps in the backyard clicked into the big picture for me, and I appreciated the work he put into what I maintain was the best off-road track in SoCal at the time. It’s also what has inspired me to never hesitate to grab a shovel or broom and help whenever a track needs it - I won’t sit there and whine about a particular section when I can fix it myself.
Seeing what went into building tracks helped me as a racer, because I learned to focus on the details - bumps on the surface, angles of the jumps, and alignment of the pipes. Growing as racers is what helped my dad build better layouts, because we could talk about what obstacles worked and what didn’t. Continuing to travel to dozens of tracks around the world and observing the work of hundreds of track builders from all over, there are definite patterns of tracks built by racers who knew what to look for, and those who just mailed it in (and probably never tested the layout with an actual car). Here are five features I think have no business on any RC track:
This is Track Design 101 - every driver on the stand should have an uninterrupted view of their vehicle at all times. There’s simply no excuse for creating blind spots, no matter how brief.
On-road tracks don’t have much to worry about when it comes to creating blind spots, since the tallest object on the course will be the lane dividers, but once you begin introducing jumps and elevation changes to an off-road track, careful consideration should be taken to ensure jumps or berms don’t block even the shortest drivers on extreme ends of the stand (especially those using wheelchairs!) from seeing far corners.
As a general rule, the lowest point of the track should be closest to the drivers’ stand, centered within the length of the course. Elevation should build up progressively, with the left, back, and right perimeter being the highest point. While the track shouldn’t necessarily be bowl-shaped, this is something to keep in mind if you want to dig a Not only does this mean you’ll have the best perspective possible no matter where you’re standing, but you’re less likely to run into problems seeing around the transmitter of the drivers near you. Don’t build a huge mound in the center of the track, and don’t dig holes on the four corners. Got it?
This also goes for jumps, berms, and smaller obstacles as well. You might not think that tabletop you just built is blocking the entrance to the 180 behind it, but the four people on the left-most end of the drivers’ stand can’t see their cars for ten feet.
That’s not all, though. The perspective offered by your drivers’ stand, either short or tall, should be kept in mind when building other features, too. The track should never slope downward (either across or along a lane) toward the back of the course, because the lane will look particularly narrow. Jumps that head straight toward, or straight away, from the drivers’ stand are typically a bad idea because the length is hard to judge - if you’re going to build one of these jumps, make the landing very forgiving.
If you’re building a track, bring a car with you. Drive each section from all parts of the drivers’ stand. An extra bit of care when building will save you from a lot of complaints in the coming weeks.
The average speeds of both on- and off-road tracks have increased dramatically, so track design is more important than ever when it comes to reducing broken parts. Especially in faster turns, joints between barriers should be built at the largest angle possible. For example, if it’s possible to use two 135-degree angles instead of one 90-degree angle, you’re going to reduce the angle of contact when a driver gets the corner wrong.
See the 90-degree turn in the back-left corner of this panorama from RCI V2 for the AOC race a few weeks ago?
By the time racing began, that turn had been shortened up. This photo doesn’t show it very well, but you can see at the top of the image that the two striped pieces (along with a short straight piece joining them) had been fitted in place.
You can get away with using a hard 90-degree turn in slower sections of the track, and you may consider building curbs around these corners and 180s to give drivers more cushion for error. There’s a right and wrong way to build curbs, though.
If you make the curb too steep or too abrupt, all they do is flip cars - or even break them. Especially in off-road, curbs often seem to be an afterthought; rather than plan for the space and rake them out properly, where cars can drive up on the curb at a reasonable pace without flipping, flying, or snapping, many track builders put them in at the last minute and make them too steep, for fear of the curb protruding too far into the racing line - which is what it’s supposed to do!
On-road curbs must be different, obviously. While you can’t exactly dump a glob of concrete into the apex of the corner, they should still be separate from the racing surface - be it in height, being slightly rough, or being slippery. Barriers should be far enough from the curb that you can hit the curb without hitting the barrier, but not so far that racers will then see the curb as part of the racing line (like the photo above).
There’s nothing that says “by the time I got to that section I just didn’t care anymore,” than a track builder filling a straight section with moguls. It might seem like a win-win situation - building moguls just requires making piles of dirt, and it should create a lane with multiple lines - but the section creates a nightmare for the ankles of turn marshals and every driver eventually funnels into one particular path. Why make a lane 15 feet wide if everyone is going to follow the leader through it? You might as well bottleneck the pipes down to 12 inches.
If you want to break up the repetition of jumps and turns, build a section of “whoops” or “whoop-de-do’s.” They should be sized and spaced so that cars can either jump through them in different combinations, or skip across them at a moderate speed. The trick is not to make it so difficult, though, that it’s impossible to complete for an entire race. Like in Supercross, a well-built whoops section can be the deciding factor of any off-road track.
How many catastrophic straightaway collisions do we have to see before agreeing that front straightaways are a bad idea? Having the fastest part of the track run alongside the drivers’ stand and pit lane is just a terrible idea. When you’re on the drivers’ stand, you temporarily lose the ability to look ahead of your car as it passes directly beneath you while your head turns from side-to-side. Want to take a guess where straightaway crashes tend to happen most often? Exactly.
Nitro tracks don’t need a front straight, either. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a nitro track that didn’t have a straight section of the course at least as long as pit lane somewhere else on the track. Using a front straight so that you can build pit lane alongside means off- and on-ramps more dangerous than I-405 through Los Angeles. Besides, a front straight has to be crossed by turn marshals or pit men to return a stalled vehicle.
Worst of all, the space right in front of the drivers’ stand is where the most difficult sections should be placed - re-read the first part of this article. Why put the tricky off-camber corner and mis-aligned double jump over 100 ft. away from the drivers’ stand when you can put it where the racers can actually see it?
Show me a killer track with a front straightaway, and I’ll show you a layout that would be even better if rotated 180 degrees. Every. Single. Time.
Nothing says “insurance liability” like sending a turn marshal into intersecting lanes with a jump involved.
Want to make it even worse? Add a bridge into the mix!
A crossover section is probably the greatest example of a track feature that might make perfect sense when you’re testing the layout yourself and no other cars on the track, but will be a disaster when you get 25 cars on a practice day and someone’s six-year-old tries to be helpful. Don’t do it.
Designing a great track layout can be difficult, but more builders have found trouble by trying to be too fancy than they have by sticking to the basics. After all, every track that’s deemed “too easy” during practice ends up hosting terrific heads-up racing. Make sure the jumps and turns are reasonable, eliminate blind spots, and keep the turn marshals in mind, and your racers will thank you for it.