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A MOMENT WITH MIKE: Where to begin in off-road R/C racing

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By Mike Garrison

Outside of the R/C world, I am still heavily involved in the motocross scene through announcing races, promoting races, co-hosting the Over The Bars Podcast, building/maintaining a private practice track, etc. Through all of this, I think it’s fair to say that I spend more time than I probably should hanging out at the motocross track for one reason or another. I would venture to say that 95% of motocross racers are in some way interested and/or already involved in R/C cars. R/C racing for many people, including myself, is the closest thing to motocross without the hospital bills.

One of the most frequent questions I get asked at the motocross track by riders interested in buying an R/C car is, “What should I buy, and what class would I race?”

After hours upon hours of thinking about it, I have put together what I feel is the best route to follow when starting out in R/C car racing to ensure that your experience is fun, ongoing, and worth the money.

PHASE 1 – The Beginning

There is no question in my opinion in terms of where or what vehicle anyone new to R/C should start out with. You can’t go wrong with a Traxxas 2wd Slash ready-to-run short course truck. I’m not talking about the $500 speed monster, but instead the $200 brushed version that can be upgraded over time if you are just looking to bash it around the backyard and motocross tracks. It’s tougher than nails, parts are cheap, it’s easy and fun to drive, and most tracks offer a Spec Slash or Novice class that this truck will work great – without spending extra bucks to get it dialed in and ready to race.

PHASE 2 – Advancing to Short Course and/or Stadium Truck

You’ve owned the Slash for a season or two of racing, and now you are ready to move on. While the Slash is an excellent starting point, as your racing gets more serious you will need to get a more serious competition level vehicle. There are a lot of classes to choose from, but seeing that you are accustom to the Slash and how a short course truck drives in general, I highly recommend keeping the fun factor up and frustration level down by purchasing a competition short course truck kit. Short course truck racing is not as popular as it once was, however, it is still arguably one of the most fun forms of R/C racing there is. Short course trucks are more forgiving than buggies, and with the closed wheel design it allows for a bit more bump and run fun when racing than open wheel cars do.

If you aren't in the mood for short course, but want an open wheel vehicle that drives and handles somewhere in between a buggy and a short course truck - stadium truck is the answer. Many manufacturer short course and stadium trucks are so similar that they share nearly all parts but the chassis, wheels/tires, bumpers, and body.  

PHASE 3 – Exploring Electric Open Wheel Buggy Racing

You’ve advanced in your driving now, and are ready to take on the next level. Phase 3 is joining the open wheel electric buggy classes. This does not mean stop racing short course, as many racers do both. When joining the buggy classes, I always recommend starting out in a stock motor class – regardless of whether you were racing stock or modified with your short course truck. Not because the competition is less, or it is an entry level class by any means, but instead because a buggy handles entirely different than a truck. Learning to drive a new platform can be difficult, why add another level of difficulty and frustration of harnessing the power of a modified motor?

Choosing a buggy can be a bit difficult, therefore I have put together “Mike’s Pro’s and Con’s” to each form of electric buggy racing:

  • 1/10-scale 2wd buggy – Easy to build, stock and modified classes available, least expensive, less fun on slick tracks.
  • 1/10-scale 4wd buggy – Fastest form of 1/10-scale off-road racing, fun on almost all surfaces, harder to build, more maintenance, often more fragile.
  • 1/8-scale Electric buggy – The most powerful off-road electric class (uses bigger batteries, motors, and electronics than 1/10-scale), typically the most durable form of electric buggy, fun on almost all surfaces, harder to build, more maintenance, most expensive.

Many racers, including even some paid professionals, stay within “Phase 3”. They focus solely on 1/10-scale racing and most importantly 2wd and 4wd Modified buggy in hopes to earn a prestigious World Championship title. At this time, there is National Championship classes for short course and 1/8-scale electric buggy classes, but no World Championships.

PHASE 4 – Burning Nitro

If you have decided that the wide variety of vehicles and racing classes available in “Phase 3” still isn’t enough, next in line comes 1/8-scale nitro racing.

1/8-scale nitro off-road racing is perhaps one of the most fun forms of off-road there is, but it also can be the most expensive, require the most maintenance, and with the factors of tuning engines, making pit stops multiple times throughout a race, and longer races (sometimes as long as 60 minute A-Mains) – a lot can go really good or really bad in a really short amount of time. In my opinion, nothing beats the smells, sounds, and overall “moto-feel” that nitro off-road racing gives you, but on that same note it takes a lot of time and patience to learn the ins and outs to properly tuning an engine, prepping your car for long mains, and mastering pit stops with your mechanic.

Nitro R/C racing (not bashing) can be the most expensive with the use of fuel, engines, starter boxes, glow ignitors, etc., it requires a lot of maintenance, and is more likely to “burn you out” on R/C than electric classes (in my opinion) because of the frustration that can come along with it. On the flip side, for me, nitro off-road racing is also the absolute most rewarding and satisfying form of R/C racing when all goes well and you cross the finish line after an hour-long A-main full of adrenaline rushing racing, pit stops, strategy, bumps, jumps, and the wide open “braaaaaaaap” of nitro burning engines.

Keeping R/C fun is the key to a long-lasting relationship with the sport. It’s all about baby steps. Just because you can go buy the same car as the World Champion, doesn’t mean you will buy it and enjoy it the most. Take your time working through the different classes and forms of racing. Don’t follow the crowd or latest fads, and don’t let anyone shame you into racing or not racing a class or vehicle you enjoy. Instead, buy and race whatever puts the biggest smile on your face – whether that means you stick with your original Traxxas Slash for the next ten years, or you buy the latest and greatest nitro 1/8 buggy tomorrow – just remember to keep it fun. 


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