Quarterscale auto racing was pioneered eight years ago by former midget driver Steve Cheek of Buffalo, Texas, and midget and off-road racer Jon Rahe of Santa Ana, Calif. After a few scares driving a real midget, Cheek—whose father flew quarterscale airplanes—decided a diminutive, radio-controlled sprint car might be safer. Rahe, then chief engineer for a weed-cutter manufacturer, also was driven by safety concerns, though his first quarterscale was an off-road machine.
"It's not for your average 15-year-old with a paper route," says the 45-year-old Rahe. "But I get the same thrill driving the small car as I did the big ones. I also like getting that thrill without putting on a helmet or going to the hospital."
To date, Rahe's and Cheek's respective companies—RACO and WCM—have sold more than 10,000 machines between them, and other manufacturers are getting into the game. Ralph Greco, West Coast director of QSAC, says his organization has more than 500 members and estimates that there are 1,500 racers across the country. He also says the average number of cars showing up for big races in California has jumped from 40 just last year to 75 this year.
Quarterscale racing is most popular where most of the manufacturers and tracks are—California and Texas—but the New York-New Jersey area is also becoming a hotbed. At least 60 tracks have been set up nationwide. The largest quarterscale gathering in the country is the annual King Kenny Supernationals in Las Vegas. Last year 195 entries raced as sprints, grand nationals and supermodifieds for a purse of $13,000.
While quarterscale racing is appealing because the cars look, sound and smell so realistic, by far the most popular form of R/C racing is that of 1:10 scale battery-powered cars. Radio Operated Auto Racing (ROAR), electric racing's main sanctioning body, claims 15,000 members. Though less evocative of full-sized racers, the 1:10 electrics are faster and more nimble than quarterscalers.
National and international championships are contested in a variety of classes, including off-road, dirt and paved sprints, grand national and road racing. Manufacturers sponsor racers and spend hundreds of thousands of dollars testing cars and equipment, which is why most people involved say it's impossible to be competitive at the highest level without industry backing. Even recreational 1:10 racers spend substantially on spare parts, tools and equipment. Conversely, quarterscalers say their brand of remote-control racing entails a hefty up-front investment but doesn't require as much money to keep a competitive car on the track. Engines cannot be modified, for example, which holds down costs and forces drivers to sharpen their driving and tuning skills.
Whatever the scale or format, radio-controlled auto racing has one unifying virtue—it's one of the few ways race fans can become participants. A bunch of grown men fiddling around with chain-saw-powered toy cars may seem silly, but there's something charming about their fervor. "Sometimes during the week you can't get it out of your mind," says Harvell. "All you can think about is how to make your car work better and go faster."
Nothing small-time about that.