Article published by Ivan Delgado, images by Doug Breithaupt.
Fat Fendered '40 Ford (25th Anniversary)
Ford Probe Funny Car
Forget the Phantom Menace collectibles. Move over Pokemon. In Puerto Rico it is the Hot Wheels races. It is the new fever that has taken the island by storm. Everyone is involved; from toddlers to adults. Even old folks get a kick out of the races. People seem to get as much excitement racing these little metal bolides down a gravity-driven track, as if it was a 1:1 drag race. Locally, the races are commonly referred to as Hot Wheels races. However, it seems unfair to call them such, since one of the favorite (and by that I mean faster) vehicles is not a Hot Wheels, and actually it does not look fast at all! Therefore, for the sake of fairness we will refer to the subject as miniature car drag races.
As everyone knows, Mattel's excellent Hot Wheels track systems have been around since the very beginning of Hot Wheels. But they never seemed gain local interest for organized, island-wide competition like today's races. I remember myself playing with early Mattel track systems and in the process, destroying redliner jewels such as the VW Bus, the 67, Camaro and the Street Snorter. But this new drag racing craze is different. I have tried to figure out why the fuss about miniature car drag racing, and eventually came up with a half convincing answer.
In Puerto Rico there has always been a drag racing tradition. However, in recent years there have been several fatal accidents involving illegal street drag racing. The police have acted swiftly cracking down drag racing activities and prohibiting any drag or circuit racing outside tracks up to NHRA standards. There are only two tracks with those requirements in Puerto Rico (Salinas and Carolina). It is rather expensive for the racetrack owners to maintain safety standards required in order to be certified for insurance purposes. So they pass on the bill to racing fans, charging up to $20.00 for entrance to a drag racing event. Furthermore, the two available racetracks are quite distant for many racing fans to go on a weekly basis. The solution; combine one of the favorite hobbies of local males; diecast collecting, with drag racing, and what do you get? Voila, miniature car drag racing! The races allow the family to spend quality time together. Also it has helped many closet diecast enthusiasts (such as myself) go out and proclaim our love for the hobby, and has served as focal points for miniature car collector meetings. Basically, a swap meet or convention would not be complete without a drag racetrack.
Firebird Funny Car #1
Like we mentioned earlier, some of the fastest miniatures around are not Hot Wheels and do not necessarily look fast at all. This is the case of the Matchbox Bradley Tank. Before someone discovered how fast they were on the drag strip, Bradley tanks could be locally found everywhere a dime a dozen. Now you are lucky to find one in the secondary market for less that $5.00. And the price will go up as it becomes less common. The fact that fast looks have nothing to do with speed is one of my few personal complaints about miniature car drag races. A really fast looking car like for example the Twin Mill II is not necessarily faster on the track. In fact, vehicles like the Twin Mill II, the Power Pipes, or the Salt flat Racer do not stand a chance against slow-looking vehicles such as the Matchbox Bradley, or the Matchbox 1999 Snow Groomer. Yes, the Snow Groomer! Some of you readers are probably drooling, thinking of the aftermarket sale price for some of these cars. I will tell you which ones soon enough. Read on.
Firebird Funny Car #2
How does a local miniature drag strip looks like? There are several images at Javier Caballero's Puerto Rico Hot Wheels site (type Puerto Rico Hot Wheels on your search window). This site also has a history of the miniature car races from the very first drag strip at Wenchy's Golf. Typically, a racetrack consists of two strips of 2-inch metal siding strip. The kind used in construction that you can buy in 10-foot-long strips at Home Depot or Builder's Square. Nail them side-by-side on 1" by 12" or 2" by 8" boards, to a length of about 40 feet. This is the average length of most local drag strips. The track is divided into an acceleration segment, which spans about 15 feet and has an inclination of about 30 degrees. Then there is a final drag segment of about 25 feet, with an angle of about 5 degrees. The two segments are hinged together. The starting device is either mechanically actuated or electronic and sometimes it is synchronized to a timer that measures lap times.
It takes about 5 seconds for the cars to race down the track. Usually, the time difference between winner and looser is measured in milliseconds. So, for a racetrack to be effective (and to avoid arguments), the arrival of the cars to the thickly padded finish box is determined electronically. Some of these tracks have start-finish sensors and switches wired to timers. Other tracks feature fiber optic technology. In some racetracks, there is a rule that if the winner cannot be discerned visually (a close call), the looser has the right to a re-run, this time changing lanes. If the looser now wins, then they will flip a coin to see who gets the better lane on the third run, which will decide who wins.
Fat Fendered '40 Ford
Every week, new drag racetracks get more and more sophisticated. As if the real competition is who can build the coolest and most technologically advanced racetrack. Some racetracks are painted with radical designs and fitted with lights and sounds. Every week, racing activities are announced in newspapers or TV newscast. Also, many local businesses are sponsoring tracks. You can even bring a racetrack to your kid's birthday, and make him the most popular kid in the neighborhood!
The cars involved in miniature racing are of course, the ones that use Newton's simple laws of motion to their advantage. In other words, when the force applied (gravity) to an object (the car) with X mass, and resting on a surface (the track), exceeds the maximum static friction force, it starts to move. Therefore, the force of sliding or kinetic friction will be smaller that the maximum static friction force, right? Of course. In this, Hot Wheels have the overwhelming advantage, since speed is one of their two basic marketing principles (the other one is cool looks). The only other name brand with competitive cars is Matchbox. No other brand (that I know of) makes cars fast enough to compete with Hot Wheels. However, there are some makes with models that have parts that are good for racing. Many local racing enthusiast remove the wheels of Kay Bee's Speed Rebels, to fit them to other cars for racing in the Modified Car categories (Speed Rebels are not heavy enough, but the wheel technology is good). Raceable Johnny Lightning cars are heavy, but are less available and usually come with rubber tires, which slow them down.
There is also a category for 'plumbed' cars. Take any car, for example the Hot Wheels Ambulance, and fill it with lead. The rule is simple; the lead cannot be seen in order to be accepted. There are several cars that are sought after because they can be plumbed to meet this requirement.
To avoid cheating, every car is weighed before inscription to a race. In some racetracks, the owner enters the name of the car into a computer database and if the weight of the car goes over the weight of the same car given by the computer (within a certain percent difference), the car is banned from competition. I have even seen people banned from a race activity for attempting to cheat. In case there are 25 competitors with a Hot Wheels Tail Dragger (Collector # 659) for example, the roof of each car is labeled with the name of the competitor. Each car entered and weighed is paired with another car randomly, then they are raced. The looser is eliminated and the winner passes on to compete with the winner of another race, and so on until one car wins. The winner will take home a trophy, valuable diecast, and/or cash.
Inevitably, the hobby has created a vigorous aftermarket involving those cars that are winners on the racetrack. Scalpers run around everywhere there is a race, so they can sell their overpriced cars to eager race enthusiasts. A usual heart-breaking scene is a little 5-year old boy with two dollars in his hand asking a scalper if he can sell him a Fat-Fendered for that amount!
In my opinion, the top ten most popular cars in local race events are (in decreasing order of value):
1) Chevy Stock Car (white 'Huffman Racing' or black), Hot Wheels ($25)
2) Fat Fendered, Hot Wheels ($15-20)
3) Funny Car, Hot Wheels ($10-12)
4) Firebird Funny Car, Hot Wheels ($8-10)
5) Bradley Tank, Matchbox ($4-8)
6) Dairy Delivery, Hot Wheels ($5-8)
5) Chevelle SS, 1998 First Edition, Hot Wheels ($4-6)
6) VW Bug, ($4-6)
7) Baja Bug, Hot Wheels ($4-6)
8) Chrysler Atlantic; Matchbox ($4-5)
9) Tail Dragger, Hot Wheels ($3-5; the First edition car is much more valuable for collectors, but for racers are just as valuable as the Pinstripe Power Series car)
10) Monte Carlo Concept, Hot Wheels ($3)
Other fast cars are the Hot Wheels GT Racer, the Ferrari 308, the 67, Camaro, the Dodge Concept Car, the Matchbox 'FedEx' truck, the 'National Car Rental' green bus, and the Snow Groomer. The 1999 New Edition 'Turbolence' seems to be the new sensation. This vehicle will run faster if thrown backwards! (It has earned a nickname that we would rather not say here). Another vehicle becoming quickly popular is the 1999 Hot Wheels Rescue Ranger truck. Note that most of these cars are recent editions and are currently available in unopened boxes. But these cars are very scarce in local store shelves because of the infamous store fatboys. These people have access to store warehouses. They open the boxes once they get to the warehouse, and remove all valuable vehicles, including the Treasure Hunt cars, leaving us collectors to the mercy of the aftermarket scalpers.
In addition to mainline cars, there are the Hot Wheels Crashers. These cars are heavier that mainline Hot Wheels, and therefore run faster. Sometimes they compete in their own category. The most valuable and sought-after Crasher for racing is the Thrash Test (black sports coupe, $18). This is because the car 'breaks' vertically, and this gives it more front-to-back rigidity on the racetrack.
I am sure there are faster cars out there that are waiting to be discovered. But these are not likely to be commonly available. I would like to see a competitive car of a brand name other than Hot Wheels or Matchbox. This would make the races more interesting and definitely open another market. I believe the miniature car races are much more than a fad. I am sure that as long as there is a diecast miniature collecting hobby, and a love for drag racing, there will always be miniature car races.