By Aaron Waldron
There was a lot that happened this past weekend - history-making victories, rule-breaking controversies and flaring tempers. Where should we start?
Is this a hobby? Or a sport?
So let me get this straight:
- RC racing is a sport with professional drivers
- Professional drivers at the top of our sport are viewed as professionals at the top of other sports
- A pro baseball player that breaks a wooden bat over his knee after striking out is passionate, but -
- An RC racer who smashes his transmitter is a crybaby and a poor representative
Oh, okay. Got it.
This is an area where the line between “hobby” and “sport” is too blurry to make a distinction. Sure, if you snapped a bat in a beer league community softball team, you’re probably a hothead — but professional baseball players snap bats like toothpicks and throw helmets into the dugout hundreds of times a season and no one bats an eye.
Just because RC racing is unique in that the average hobbyist can race alongside a top pro doesn’t excuse the fact that these are contrasting and hypocritical points of view. Do you think your social media condemnation is going to make his sponsors think twice? One of them created a GoFundMe account to replace the transmitter as a joke.
Could you walk into your job working at the front desk of a local auto parts store and smash a computer because you got frustrated? Of course not. However, those bat-snapping baseball players often took body-damaging drugs and manipulated testing results to get around the rules. At the extreme, the most competitive financial traders in the country tried so hard to “win” in their field that they bent rules and regulations and crippled the global economy. Context matters.
You’ll get no protest from me that this hobby should try to hold onto its “hobby” roots, and that includes keeping tempers in check. However, you can’t justify pro drivers making six-figure salaries/bonuses and crying out for mainstream media attention, which always comes back to how expensive and serious racers take this hobby, yet berate the industry’s elite for taking it seriously.
Photo: Tim Moore, via Facebook
Ty Tessmann’s victory will probably go underrated in terms of how much this win meant to the Tessmann family, XRAY and the ROAR Nationals record books. The Canadian star joined Ryan Maifield as a four-time winner of the 1/8-Scale Nitro Truck category - meaning that the two drivers account for eight of the 12 titles recognized for the division. It was the first ROAR Fuel Off-Road National title for XRAY, and Tessmann joined Maifield and Ryan Cavalieri as the only drivers to win either class with more than one manufacturer (Maifield has driven three different brands to titles in the Truck class, and a fourth if you count his Buggy win). Maifield took eight years to win four Truck titles, while Tessmann won four times in the last six years.
By contrast, Jared Tebo joined Adam Drake, Tessmann and Cavalieri as the only drivers to win more than one ROAR national championship in the Nitro Buggy class. His seven-year drought was the longest spread of anyone, in either class, between titles, and Kyosho matched Mugen Seiki (1997 and 2004) for the longest drought for a manufacturer. It was also AKA’s second-ever win in buggy, after Tebo’s two-class sweep in 2010.
Youngsters and young stars
The Junior class is an awesome addition to the ROAR Fuel Off-Road Nationals and should be a model for other RC events to showcase the future of our industry - even if they don’t all plan on being the next wave of pro drivers. While the way ROAR determined the format this year (running a single rocket round of qualifying, rather than simply using the existing times and points) was a bit clunky, the final was a fun race to watch with a deserving winner.
And Camden Lime wasn’t the only young racer whose talent shone this weekend. We know Spencer Rivkin is an amazing talent, but 18-year-old Alex Kosciuszek, 19-year-old Blake Pickett, 13-year-old CJ Jelin and 20-year-old Tanner Stees also made the finals. In fact, Jelin's bump-up from the semi took him out of the Junior main event!
This photo op, though, makes me cringe. Look, kids - do well at an RC race and you can get your picture taken with the trophy girls!
Radio communication is a win
This was the first ROAR event in which it was legal for drivers and mechanics to use headsets to communicate, and they spread through the pits like wildfire. Mechanics raved about having clearer conversation with their drivers, drivers said they were able to focus on driving instead of worrying about missing the call to pit, and the result was less yelling in pit lane.
Youngsters and young stars, Part Two
“He’s just a kid” is a great way to explain why a 12-year-old might choose to go play catch instead of clean his buggy. It is not a sound defense of a child cursing out other drivers, hitting turn marshals, or shoving adults.
I’m not a parent, but I am someone who has stakes in the ongoing success of this industry. Sustaining that success will be difficult in the aftermath of a lawsuit when a turn marshal or spectator ends up in the hospital when the potential damage of an eight-pound buggy traveling 20+ mph is not adequately respected, no matter the age of its driver. The cars are getting faster, the tracks are getting more extreme, and the racers are getting younger. It’s one thing for race directors to turn a blind eye when a grown man with financial assets and a temper goes full aggro, but it’s quite another to brush it off when a child does it. Both the race directors and parents could use these meltdowns as teaching opportunities - including enforcing disqualifications and suspensions.
Is this a hobby? Or a sport? Part Two
Before anyone goes nuts about what they’re about to read, please don’t take this as a slight against Stateline RC Raceway or the program that the ROAR Management Team, Kevin Myers and the crew put on this past weekend. The pit area was nice, the environment was awesome, the track was incredible, and the work put in to recover from the practice-canceling rainstorm was amazing.
From a “hobby” perspective, this was about as good as races could get. On Saturday night, the pit area turned into a cozy campfire, corn hole tournament, and DJ dance party with some of the best track food I’ve ever had.
Still, the race was held in a neighborhood of a town of just 2,200, nearly two hours from most major airports, and Mother Nature came within just days of washing away hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel expenses. Here’s what this week’s forecast looks like - each of the rainy days ranges between 60-80% chance of precipitation:
From a “sport” perspective, having the biggest race of the year in someone’s backyard says more about the industry than the backyard in which the race was held. Two of the tracks that have hosted the race in the last five years are covered, and companies like Race Time Entertainment (promoters of the Alabama Manufacturer Shootout and Wicked Weekend) host events on temporary tracks built inside arenas while managing to turn a profit while tracks that host ROAR National events often experience a negative financial impact. If you want to "reward" tracks by giving them a prestigious event, then revive the Regionals. The concept of rotating these races to different areas of the country, based solely on a voluntary bidding process, is a noble one - but if we are truly trying to elevate this industry, we should be trying to morph this race into a showcase while also shielding it from the absolutely uncontrollable.
This amazing weekend could have just as easily been a soggy punchline.
I’m pretty sick of hearing hobbyists that have paid $30 for a membership (which provides necessary insurance, among other administrative support) crying out that less-than-perfect technical inspection of a fuel tank means the whole organization is worthless and incompetent and just needs to die.
Do you know why ROAR is still around after fifty years? Because it’s necessary, and because any of the dozens of attempts to replace it failed within years.
You want to make a difference? Don’t just write me an email asking me to air your grievances in my column - stand up and volunteer to do something about it. Record the issues you have with ROAR, and ask your regional director how to help fix them. Think the class rules need changing? Ask to be put on a committee - and keep asking. Want a regional championship? Find a track in your area to help organize it. Not happy with how wings and fuel tanks are inspected? Work with the RMT to find a better way.
ROAR’s rules are not in place to penalize racers, they’re there to help protect the hobby from itself. If you excuse two semifinalists from not turn marshaling before their own race, and instead rely on guilting volunteers into helping get the program started, you will be accused of playing favorites. If the side dams of a 1/8-scale buggy wing are allowed to grow to sprint-car-sized proportions, it will effect the racing - and if they disappear completely, there isn’t an adequately visible place on the car to place car numbers for the scorekeepers to see. Likewise, a transponder failing mid-race is not the same as the car losing ballast and dropping below the minimum weight, so if you have the resources to protect the sanctity of the national championship then it’s your obligation to do it - because recognizing someone who didn’t otherwise earn the victory fair and square would destroy what the race is supposed to mean.
Don’t miss the spirit of the rules because you’re too caught up in looking for reasons to point fingers.
ROAR Rules, Part Two
Unless you have one referee per car, enforcing rough driving penalties will never work. We’ve been over this. If a race director insists that rough driving will lead to penalties, the drivers won’t stop when they initiate contact because they’ll expect to be penalized anyway - and the drivers that get hit will get mad at you for not doing anything about it.
This isn’t just to ROAR, it’s to everyone - stop relying on scare tactics and guilt to police rough driving. Figure it out, or drop it. You have a better chance of putting a stop to the outbursts on the drivers’ stand afterward than you do the preceding collision, so perhaps that’s where the attention should be focused.
ROAR Rules, Part Three
ROAR - I’ve gone to bat for you several times over the last decade and will continue to do so. Your rule book, and the processes used to enforce it, will always face serious scrutiny — and deservedly so. It’s also a bit of a mess in some areas. Please fix it. I will help.
XRAY’s rapid rise
It’s amazing what four months can do, isn’t it?
In nearly every other major market across the world, XRAY is a powerhouse capable of winning any event on any surface. Sure, they’ve remained incredibly competitive in on-road racing circles since the brand was introduced to North America, but this was their biggest nitro off-road win yet on U.S. soil. For many years, the company’s top driver here was Josh Wheeler - a former ROAR Nationals TQ and IFMAR Worlds finalist, but also a part-timer with a family and a business to run. Now that they’ve got a full tent of team members and one of the best drivers on the planet, who went from two disastrous DNF’s at the Dirt Nitro Challenge to a Truck title and Buggy TQ in just four months? Look out, America.
Tricky track layout
I think the course at Stateline RC Raceway perfectly illustrated not only what nitro off-road tracks could be, but also why the old-school definition of “real off-road” is not sustainable across the board.
For a race like the Nationals, this was awesome. Because Stateline RC Raceway is smaller than most of the tracks that tend to host major nitro off-road races, the jumps and whoops and ruts were less about “punch it and pray” as they were about requiring timing and a methodical approach. On tracks twice the size, the cars are moving too fast for those types of bumps and jumps to make sense - and the racing suffers. If you build a course as slow and technical as what we saw this past weekend at a track the size of Fear Farm RC Raceway or RC Tracks of Las Vegas we’d probably be looking at 1-minute lap times.
With those higher speeds comes bigger ruts. As it was, the Stateline RC Raceway track got pretty beat up after over 266 hours of combined run time (and more than 26,000 laps). By contrast, the Dirt Nitro Challenge endured more than 530 hours of combined run time and over 38,000 laps this past February. I don’t think there’s any doubt that local drivers will have an easier time club racing at Stateline RC Raceway for the next couple of months than Arizonans do at Fear Farm RC Raceway after the Dirt Nitro Challenge.
These tracks are not all created equally, from the dirt used to the weather they tolerate to the size of the dimensions. Just because “real off-road” worked this past weekend doesn’t mean it’s what all events should try to mimic.
The takeaway of Tessmann and Tebo’s triumphs
There’s a reason why so few different racers have one the ROAR Fuel Off-Road Nationals in the last decade - it’s tough. North America went from an “also-ran” in the global nitro off-road scene to one of the most competitive on Earth, occupying nearly half of the spots on the grid for the IFMAR Worlds final since 2002 as well as four titles.
Last weekend, we got to see two of the best do what they do best - Tessmann ran near the top of the charts all weekend, got out front and stayed there, while Tebo recovered from a frustrating qualifying performance and so-so finish in the semi to win from sixth on the grid through sheer grit and determination.
If you watched it, either live or through replay, you were a witness to greatness - perhaps the greatest this generation has ever seen.