SI Vault
Lisa Twyman Bessone
November 20, 1989
Recall when slot cars were a kids' fad? Nowadays they are very high-tech and very adult
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November 20, 1989

Streaking Back At 1,560 Mph

Recall when slot cars were a kids' fad? Nowadays they are very high-tech and very adult

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Koford's cars look like origami figures made of plastic. "They're built for speed, not looks," he says. Cocked wings hold the 11-inch-long cars on the track through the banked turns. But as a car accelerates down the straightaways, the force of air moving over the body flattens the wings, thereby reducing aerodynamic drag. "Speed-controlled aerodynamics," says Koford. "Not even the Indy Cars have tried this trick."

For the myriad qualifying heats and time trials at the world championships, eight drivers at a time line up along Grand Raceway's straightaway, squeezing and releasing controllers that look like power drills without the bits. Heads bob and weave as drivers and spectators follow specific cars around the track.

"I think driving a slot car is more difficult than real racing," says Martin Grammen of West Germany. Grammen is seated in a wheelchair on an elevated platform across from the rest of the drivers. He controls his car by operating a throttle stick on a console resting on his lap Ten years ago Grammen broke his neck when the Formula Two car he was driving slammed into a wall. The accident left his hands paralyzed. "It's taken me quite a long time to get used to driving like this," he says.

Grammen, winner of the world championships' amateur class, is at Grand Raceway courtesy of van Rossem, who flew in 100 drivers from as far away as New Zealand and paid their expenses while they were in Chicago. Van Rossem can afford such indulgences. He made millions forecasting economic trends and is reported to have a controlling interest in more than 60 companies. Picassos hang in his apartment in Brussels. At the 1986 world championships, in Toulouse, France, he awarded a Ferrari—a real Ferrari, $70,000 worth—to one of the winners.

Van Rossem admires slot cars modeled after Jaguars and Porsches, rather than the high-tech wing cars—or what he calls the "space-age wedges of Swiss cheese." To preserve the concept of slot cars as scaled-down racers, in 1988 he created the Concours d'El�gance, with a $2,500 prize for the best model of a car competing in international racing. Gary Cannel, an English train engineer, won the Grand Raceway Concours with a meticulously scaled-down Jaguar.

Le Mans-type races for slot cars were another van Rossem creation, though those races usually run closer to eight hours than the 24 hours of the real thing. He stipulated that both types of cars—the replicas of classic racers and the faster wing cars—share in the prize money in all types of races he sponsored. Then he and De Bella set up Eurotoy, now located in Lowell, Mich., to market the model slots he was promoting. The pros, only a handful really, didn't like the fact that he was kicking them out of the limelight," says De Bella.

Van Rossem's methods have caused others to shy away. To promote a 1987 race in Belgium, he ran a billboard ad throughout Europe that featured a topless blonde. He also delighted in printing National Enquirer-type stories about American racers in the now defunct Euroslot, a magazine he used to publish in Belgium.

He has recently announced he will no longer sponsor races involving wing cars. "I am not interested in those poor devils," van Rossem says of wing car enthusiasts. "I don't even want my name associated with them." Instead, he will be backing a Belgian Formula One team called Moneytron and is planning to invest an additional $5 million in a new slot car racing series.

Wing car organizers are confident that their version of the sport can stand on its own. "It was nice to get free plane tickets," says Koford, "but the sport can survive without van Rossem. We hold over a hundred races a year that have nothing to do with him."

To be sure, the future of slot car racing seems to be based on more than a wing and a prayer.

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