By Aaron Waldron
When I made my to-do list for this four-day work week last Friday, the bullet point for today’s column had the working headline of “make something up.” I never intended for it to stick, but I didn’t have an idea for a topic at the time. When I sat down to start typing, though, the phrase both made me laugh and prompted a legitimate idea to pop into my head that was reinforced by something I saw on social media over the weekend.
Over the last few years, I’ve noticed something that’s perhaps just as corrosive to the continued vitality of the RC racing community than the more extreme cases of racers cheating, or throwing tantrums: the long-timer going through the motions.
You probably know what I’m talking about. Every local track has a handful of racers who show up twice a week when the doors open, set up their stuff in the corner of the pits, wrench on their cars, practice or race (but not always), and stay until the owners are ready to lock up for the night. Their cars are usually impeccably prepared, but don’t get adjusted very often. They’re usually among the most experienced racers at the local level, but don’t have the focus to run up front for the main event; their talent level peaked a decade ago, and they’re just not getting any better. They’re mostly apathetic turn marshals, often the last to get to the proper cone and careful not to strain a hamstring flipping cars over. They’ll buy enough stuff from the hobby shop to feel entitled to express their opinions on business operations, but get most of their gear through sponsors and exhaustive browsing of online megastores.
When I think about the troublemakers I've seen at club racers over the past 20+ years, these are the racers who stick out to me. Because the ultra-competitive hothead who fights turn marshals typically only lasts a year or two, and the clueless newbie either figures it out or vanishes as well, but the loathsome loafer is reliable. He's nice to the people he likes, but sticks to the clique-y in-crowd that turns off incoming hobbyists; he knows enough to be helpful, but is incapable of delivering that knowledge without showing off his experience; he's been around long enough to be familiar with a lot of pro drivers and brand reps, and he mistakes their polite brushing off as true friendship and insider connections. He's often a larger-than-life personality, but in a way that feels icky and unattractive. He's never done anything bad enough to get kicked out completely, but has probably pushed the track owner to the point of asking him to leave early once or twice. Everyone likes the underdog that was finishing seventh a year ago, but kept to himself, worked hard, and is now winning 2-3 times a month; no one likes the loud-mouth who is content to finish fifth for five years in a row and try to take credit for that younger driver's rapid improvement.
Racers that fit the above description tend to race at facilities that adopt the same sort of philosophy. I'm not sure which comes first, the chicken or the egg, but anyone who calls himself a racer but frowns and pouts as the field passes him by is a great match for a facility that started out with a fresh coat of paint and some gung-ho ambition but resorts to blaming its customers for a downward-trending financial situation.
And that's why it's important for the RC community to continue making things up as we go: because stagnancy leads to decay. I've watched someome who was a mid-pack, sportsman-class electric off-road racer become a national contender in nitro on-road racing, and seen more than a couple of drivers finally let go of lifelong brand allegiance only to skyrocket to the top of their class after buying a new vehicle. I've also seen facilities built in locations that were doomed to fail flourish under new ownership.
It doesn't have to be a wholesale change to a totally new racing discipline or a huge investment; a couple of weeks ago, Tacoma RC Raceway ran a ten-hour endurance race with teams that were randomly drawn from individual entries the morning of the event — and while that might be a bit extreme, there's nothing stopping a local track from surprising its racers on a Friday night that's suddenly a competition among two-man teams, or that will forego two rounds of typical staggered-start qualifying for the occasional Heat Race Qualifying Format heads-up starts. Get everyone to mount up a set of long-wearing Pro-Line Dirt Hawgs and see who can adapt to the radically-different handling characteristics:
I've proposed ideas like special events that shake up the status quo (which you can read about here) like two-man competitions and last-man-standing dollar races that inject a bit of fun into the end of a race day. Organizing an achievement system that rewards repeat business (like this one you can read here) can give these flat-lining fanatics a chance to compete at something. Re-arrange the pit tables every six months or so to encourage racers to pit somewhere new, and maybe make a new friend. Devising a monthly concourse competition, or an annual contest to see who can hand-built the coolest hop-up part can breathe new life into the same ol' scene, and coax even the most curmudgeonly out of his cave.
Although Albert Einstein never actually said "Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results," that doesn't mean it's not brilliant advice. If the only true constant in life is change, the best thing racers and tracks can do for one another is to keep trying new ideas. If two-time IFMAR world champion and 17-time ROAR Nationals winner Jared Tebo, who just won the coveted Nitro Buggy crown at Stateline RC in June, most definitely not stuck in any sort of rut, can try something new — like racing RC sprint cars — then a local track, and its stuck-in-a-rut racers, have no excuse.