Thumbelina goes for a spin

Feb. 13, 2003, midnight | By Beth Gula | 21 years, 3 months ago

Nitro-car racers pit their miniature vehicles against the competition

Senior Eric Wei slaves over his car on Jan 10, his back hunched over the engine while he fine-tunes the transmission, tweaks the motor and realigns wheels. He takes the car out for a spin, pressing the accelerator to test the limits of the car. But Wei won't be risking his life or his driver's license in cutthroat races on deserted roads or racetracks anytime soon. Instead, he'll fill his foot-long remote-controlled vehicles with nitro-powered gas for a parking-lot pick-up meet.

Characterized by an intense passion for their hobby, a small group of radio-controlled (R/C) "nitro-car" racers from Blair are finding a niche in a modest but diverse racing community blossoming in the Washington, D.C., area. These boys are willing to fork over big bucks for the sheer joy of building and showing off their super-fast small cars.

Cordial competition

Every Friday night, about ten to 20 R/C enthusiasts congregate at Federal Plaza on Rockville Pike outside Hobby Works, one of few nitro retailers in the area. Not even frigid temperatures, piercing winds and intermittent snow on this wintry night keep the hobbyists at home.

It's after 9:00 p.m. when Wei, junior Scott Nguyen and sophomore Yuriy Romanenko pull into the emptying parking lot. The cacophonous drone of miniature engines already fills the air from several cars buzzing around like flies on the pavement as the three Blazers use tiny wrenches, drills and pins to ready their cars to race.

All three are working tonight on scale-model vehicles that run on gasoline mixed with nitrogen methane fuel that propels the cars to high speeds. According to Hobby Products International (HPI), a leader in R/C car production and racing, upgraded nitro cars can perform at around 80 miles per hour.

Plus, longtime racer Scott Metz explains that nitro engines, which only have about one-and-a-half horsepower, can perform up to an incredible 4,900 revolutions per minute, something not even full-scale vehicles can do.

Wei stamps his foot on the ground in frustration over his malfunctioning car as Romanenko, in his distinct Russian accent, simply declares, "My engine's not so hot."

Meanwhile, a spontaneous drag race starts on the asphalt as an older teen raises and then drops his arm to signal two competitors, a middle-aged man and a boy no older than 12, to race their swift vehicles to the end of two half-filled parking-lot rows.

Though the competitors in the lot differ in personality, ethnicity and age, all find common ground in their love for their small, quick cars. "It's just all about the hobby, not what kind of person you are," Wei comments. "Just who's the fastest and has the coolest parts."

Courtney Thompson, a Hobby Works manager, concurs that the Friday-night ritual has an accessible, laid-back atmosphere. "They're not really races; they're people showing off their cars and coming out and
having fun," he says.

Need for speed

The allure of speed is part of the fun for many, including Romanenko, who explains that he became interested in nitro cars through his love of souped-up automobiles and high acceleration. "I really like cars, real cars," he says, still busy fiddling with the various bolts and shafts on his model. "Speed––risks you take . . ."

"Hitting the curb," Wei breaks in.

"Flying," Romanenko adds, as they both burst into laughter.

Romanenko's attraction to the appeal and danger of fast driving is common among nitro racers, according to HPI Licensing Agent Juliann Miller-Boyer. While many dream of someday racing hotrods or speedboats, says Miller-Boyer, R/C is a cheaper, easier and smaller-scale alternative with many of the same components.

Costly velocity

Committed nitro racers, however, usually can't rely solely on pocket change and allowances to fund their hobby. Spending tens and even hundreds of dollars on special parts, or "hop-ups," allows racers to improve their vehicle's performance. "There's your driving skills and then there's your car," Wei says. "If you don't have a fast car, you won't be the best."

Individual racers hooked on the sport spend an average of $500 per year on parts and necessities such as gasoline, estimates Thompson. Many continue to buy upgrades as parts break, eventually building a faster and lighter car.

Romanenko, for example, became involved in the sport only a few months ago, deciding on an impulse to purchase a pre-assembled car. He estimates that he has already spent around $2,000 on RC car parts.

Obsessive upgrading and a growing market spell profit for stores such as Hobby Works, which grosses tens of thousands of dollars each year on nitro-car products. "Since I've been here, it's definitely gained a lot of popularity in the community," Thompson says. "We sell probably in the neighborhood of $30,000 a year, easily. That's a real low-ball estimate, too."

Thompson began working at the hobby shop eight months ago and has since been drawn into the world of nitro racing. "It's very addictive," he explains succinctly, now sympathetic to how thousands of dollars can easily be spent on these small cars.

A light snow begins to swirl down in the bright lot, and the nitro cars are still only warming up as a line of real cars leaving the lot pull by, including a shiny black, low-riding Corvette. "A lot of hot cars pass around here," Wei comments appreciatively as he works.

The nitro racers make way for moving cars for the most part, but Romanenko maneuvers his now-operational R/C up close to the dark sports car, jokingly challenging driver to a race.

As the row of passing automobiles slows down, the motorists, peering through their windows at the group, seem to be looking from the outside at this band of under-the-radar thrill seekers who are into racing for the long run.

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Beth Gula. Beth Gula is junior in the Communication Arts Program, and she enjoys playing Blair soccer and lacrosse (yeah lax!). Reading, listening to music, and hanging out with friends are all ways she spends rare free time. Random favorites include Weezer, cheesecake, the Baltimore Aquarium, and … More »

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