ST. MARYS — It’s a cold Sunday afternoon in January, but at Lost in the 50s Diner, it might as well be derby season in the summer, as competitors zip down a 16-volt electrified slot car track with the cars they design and race most weekends at speeds from 30 and 70 mph, although one track, a new track, has a record of 140 mph from the last owner.
It’s the third year since Rick Francis paid $3,500 for the second-hand track one weekend on a rainy business trip to Virginia. Some weekends, as many as 91 cars compete in a bright white room with racing on the television and toy-sized spare parts on the wall that make it look like a miniature mechanic’s shop — all only one room away from the Lost in the 50s diner.
“People like to go fast,” Francis said. “You can do it here for a little bit of money.”
Francis compared it to drag racing, which is expensive to do because of the cost of the cars.
Slot car racing is a three-generation hobby for the Francis family, with Don Francis Sr., Don Francis Jr., and Don “DJ” Francis III all competing against each other.
Some families bring mini-garages where they store their cars. Some even look like real garages, painted with black and white tile bunkers for each vehicle.
The racing works by computer. The track has pre-staging and staging lights, and then yellow and green lights. When the green light goes on, competitors pull the trigger, and the cars take off for a half second, with the computer recording their speeds.
The hand-built cars have names like Nitro Headache, Passionate Poncho II, Gas Rhonda.
Speed is determined by motor size, set up, traction, and whether it has a hard or soft plastic body. Motors range between $12 and $400.
Slot car and drag racing have a special relationship; many of the competitors do both, and many of the cars are designed after the cars the men raced in their time.
Dave Weiss has a car painted identical to his real race car, and also has one based on a car Larry Sattler, a competitor, used to drag race.
Sattler was a great local drag car racer in the 1980s.
“I went to the racetrack once when I was little, with my dad, and never really got out of it,” Sattler said.
When he was old enough to get his own car, Sattler became a full-time drag racer, close to racing professionally until a bad accident in the 1980s. The car he races on the slot track is a replica of his favorite drag racer, made for him by his son, Scott Sattler, also a slot racer, as a Christmas present.
“If all drag racers would try this, they would be hooked,” said the younger Sattler, because it gives them something to do in the winter.
“Been racing since I was five,” Scott Sattler said. “You do not get better with age.”
Noah Dotson races a 2009 Camaro and that’s a replica of his grandfather, Larry Hall’s, real car. Dotson says he and his dad watch drag racing on TV, and his dad used to drag race, so slot racing brought the family to race together.
Morgan Neeley came with her uncle and his cousin, and said she likes drag racing with her family.
“It’s really cool to go pick out your stickers and your colors,” she said of building her car.
“It’s been a blast,” said her uncle, Alan Sharp.
While slot car racing may have hit a peak in the 1970s, Francis said he believes it’s making a comeback. Races are held in Miamisburg, Cincinnati, and Columbus, and there’s a national competition.
Local competitor Jesse Moyar recently went to Miamisburg to race and won.
Lost in the 50s is coordinating with other nearby tracks to host a monthly traveling competition that will bring in approximately 500 to 600 cars to the events.