by Wayne Halabourda
The idea came about quite by accident. As a Technology teacher, I had actually resisted anything to do with the internet. Me: afraid of change, afraid of all that information. It seemed a position diametrically opposed to the very notion - the essence - of being a technology teacher. But the time had come; the time was now. There was no turning back. I had to squeeze my head through that digital birth canal. I had to sit down, shut up, and open my eyes. So I sat there at my work station, and then I sat some more, scratching my head, eating another donut, wondering - my computer urging me on - what should I search... what should I search? Ah, slotcars! I had not played with those things in over 25 years. I wondered if I would even get a match, thinking that slot racing had gone the way of the dodo back in the early 70's, a sport that went super nova, like when I tried to plug my Eldon into a wall socket (A move some may argue to be the best thing to do with such a car!). Alright Yahoo, let's see what you can do. Slotcars... Slotcars... Holy Toledo! My eyes bulged; my heart raced. I could not believe what my cryogenic brain was seeing. I had woken from my sleep into a veritable renaissance. What wonders - wing cars, cobalt magnets, fish rubber, and where the hell did the drop arms go? I ate up every article, every website. I started showing my students, trying to explain what this was all about, but they were too young. They didn't understand. With no commercial raceways in our area, I felt they were being cheated out of one of the true joys of growing up. The age of electronics - computers, video games and the like - that passive collection of and, and/or, xnor had snatched the silver spoon from their lips. Well, I was going to do something about it.
The school that I work at, Walnut Grove Secondary - situated outside Vancouver, Canada - was going through a growth spurt that required an addition be built. In the plans was a new technology shop. Until now, I was bouncing around three separate shops teaching drafting, wood working, and technology. So, when my principal asked if I wanted to set up and move into the new shop, I didn't quite kiss her, but I could have. I was given an empty room and a generous budget. I was also given the mandate to build up our technology classes. Walnut Grove's traditional shop programs - woodworking, metalworking, electronics, automotives, and drafting were amongst the strongest in the district. However, tech was floundering. This year, there are six sections of grade eight technology, but only one of grade nine/ten and no senior students at all. In a school with over 1700 students, this is not very many techies. Somehow, we were losing these kids. Perhaps the problem was a lack of focus in the curriculum; kids signing up for technology did not know exactly what they would be doing. We had no identity. So, how was I to win these students back? I had myriad ideas, but no ears to listen. I needed a carrot to lure kids through my front door.
By now you must know that high school slot racing was the panacea I was looking for. I read and re-read Ray Gardner's "Slot Track Building" and Parma's "How to Build Your Own Slot Car Race Track". By trade I am a carpenter and cabinet maker and an insatiable designer so I also had a few ideas of my own on how to build a track. I started drawing countless (literally hundreds) possible layouts. The original plan was to get as many students participating as possible. First thoughts centered around a moveable, eight lane, 1/32nd scale track, but after a colleague suggested another layout for my work benches that freed up a bit more floor space, I eventually settled on a permanent, six lane, 1/24th scale road course. Even though there would be two fewer students racing at a time, I felt that the larger scale would be a whole lot more fun. Besides, just working on the cars is an equally enjoyable (and educational) aspect of the sport. It would also give us an excuse for a field trip into Washington State to run on some of the big tracks around Seattle.
The goal was to jam as much lap length into my limited floor space as possible. There are some visibility and marshalling compromises, but when you consider that the under-and-over layout is about 70' long and takes only 18'-6" x 10'-0" it is actually very drivable. The surface is 30" wide and has 4 1/8" lane spacing. There are flat, banked, and off-camber curves.
Construction began in October and, because of the scope of the project (and the fact that the students only had two or three classes per week), I decided to help the project along by working on it after school. It quickly became an obsession that saw some of my other work neglected. It was clear that I was going to enjoy this track as much as anyone!
Construction is essentially commercial quality. I reasoned that if students were to help build the track, they needed to see that things were done the right way, not the quickest way. The 1/2" MDF surface was gunned down to 2"x3" cross supports that were tied together with 3/4" plywood side stringers. Guard rails are made from 1/4" thick, high density polyethylene called "puck board" as it is usually used to line the boards in hockey rinks. The track is braided and originally got its power from six old PC power supplies. This was totally inadequate and were quickly replaced with six 12 volt, 10.2 amp linear DC power supplies. This super-clean power is constant and lets the motors run as if they were in a refrigerator. All wiring is stranded 10ga. copper with two taps. I had hoped that our electronics department would build the lap counters and timers, but when I saw (via the NET of course) that there was a company, TrakMate, making them right in my own backyard, I bought commercially. Our system is PC based, uses infra red sensors (no dead strip), supports straight and random lane rotation and times down to 1/1000th of a second. It gives last, best, and average lap times and keeps track of both heat and total laps. As well, we have a shut off relay that allows for both timed and set-lap heats. TrakMate is also reasonably priced. The six-lane version with shut off relay was under $200.00.
By mid January the track neared completion. I could resist no longer. I had to hook up power to one lane - to give the students a taste of what was coming, of course. I had purchased a couple of Flexi cars, controllers and some spare parts while on a trip to Toronto last summer, just for such an occasion. The first few laps saw the car slipping around like a trout on the bottom of a tin boat. This prompted a post on the Slotside Bulletin board that resulted in some great ideas to improve traction. Lap times immediately dropped from the mid seven second range to the mid threes! As the car streaked around the track, I couldn't help but notice the kids watching, slack-jawed, eyes spray glued to every blast down the straights and every fish tail in the corners. I knew then that all the hard work just might pay off. This was indeed a great idea. As course selection for next year is just under way, I will soon see if my classes are as full as I expect.
As a cost saving measure, my plan is to have junior students race and tune Flexi-type cars. The track is small enough as it is. We do not need G7 wing cars or Eurosport bullets running around here in a half second. We will look at motors, aerodynamics, gearing, chassis set up and so on. At the end of the year, in the unlikely situation where students do not want to race any longer, I will buy their cars back. Then, next year, I can open "Honest Wayne's" used car lot - a further move to reduce costs to students unable to buy new. I really want to avoid excluding kids because of money issues. I envision my senior students designing and building brass / wire chassis, and if I can find a local shop capable of EDM, we could also download Autocad drawings to cut steel frames as well. We will also be blueprinting motors and designing, vacuum-forming and airbrushing bodies. Eventually I would like to buy a comm lathe, tire truer, and magnet zapper. We may even build solid state controllers and a couple of ambitious students are already talking about building home tracks.
Down the road, I hope to build a longer track, do some open wheel racing, make 1/32nd scale cars and perhaps a drag strip. I would also like to conduct professional development workshops, in the hope that other technology teachers might get turned on to slotcars. Who knows, a few years from now, we may have the Walnut Grove Slot Car Team competing against other school teams.
This project has been a huge, but incredibly rewarding undertaking. There were many sacrifices - nights spent working late, away from my wife and kids. I even spent four days over our Christmas break at school working on the track. In the final analysis I am reminded of that old computer adage, Garbage In - Garbage Out. If this is true, then the opposite must also be true, Quality In - Quality Out. This track has been and will continue to be a great source of personal and professional growth.
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