Strolling Amok

Pops goes on tour.

Introducing: Team Shoestring

Now that some of us will soon be recovering from injuries received over the Christmas dinner table, whether digestive or emotional, I present something which will almost certainly damage your psyche. That is the reassembled promotional website of Team Shoestring. So let me refer you to the diabolical Team Shoestring blog page that currently contains a half-hour audio recording called “The Team Shoestring Updates”. I plan to expand this page over time with a little of the pictorial shenanigans originally depicted on the original Team Shoestring website. I’m undecided as to whether that’s a promise or a threat, so you be the judge. As I do so, more of the topic titles on that page will be changed into active links which lead to their own special pages.

Backstory: Actually, you need this in order to have the anything on that page make any sense at all, particularly the “Team Shoestring Updates” audio recordings. This is a blatantly ridiculous promotional scheme that goes back to its beginnings in late 1991, centering on radio-control model car racing. R/C model car racing was a hobby that took off in the 1980s, after slot car racing had peaked. R/C racing was the next step in the evolution, since it allowed full steering capability in addition to braking and acceleration. This capability came at a much higher price (being at the time much more expensive than it is even today), but for many, it was worth it. “Pan” cars were used on smooth surfaces because they had practically no suspensions to deal with surface irregularities, but they were unbeatable on those surfaces due to lower weight and drivetrain efficiency. “Off-road” cars had full working suspensions as well as 2WD or 4WD powertrains, and participants typically had to adjust spring rates and shock absorbers to deal with the rough dirt tracks and jumps. To be competitive with either type of car took a great deal of effort in chassis tuning and gearing.

Here’s a typical 1/10th-scale off-road car, this one being a Schumacher ProCat 4WD. I would later morph it into being the Storm Pace Truck.

I had been racing 1/10th-scale radio-controlled off-road model cars for many years, but in 1992 became aware of a local group that regularly hosted competitive events featuring 1/10th-scale stock car oval races. The organizer named the series STORM, and what was unique about it was that he had a telephone hotline to call which promoted a summary of the last race as well as an unusually professional hype of the upcoming event and location, complete with background music, racer interviews, and an enthusiastic announcer’s voice. At the time, only a few major “real” car racing venues had anything at all like this. STORM was a summer series, with all events taking place outdoors at business parking lots as well as paved model race tracks which catered to this once-popular hobby.

The STORM series was patterned after ASA short-oval stock car racing, and catered to a small niche of R/C racers that liked to participate in endurance events. The ovals at each event’s location were laid out and marked, usually with walls on the perimeter, and unlike most endurance events, were very small. This was unlike nearly all other endurance events, which took place at large, banked ovals that invited very high speeds. By comparison, Storm endurance racing was less complex and needed less expensive gear, which opened it up to more hobbyists because it didn’t call for vendor sponsorships and long-distance travel to participate. The comparatively tiny STORM track layouts were nicknamed “the STORM Bullring” because of the close quarters. These R/C cars, being powered by small electric motors, could not (as best I recall) complete more than 60 or so laps on a set of batteries at racing speeds. Since the most typical STORM event was 200 laps, “hot” battery changes were required because the race never temporarily paused for people to change their batteries. The usual practice of unfastening the car’s body to get at batteries and their electrical connectors would take far too long in a STORM race, so participants were expected to improvise methods of quickly swapping battery packs so they could rejoin the ongoing race with minimal delay.

The crew of STORM racers at a night event. I am at bottom right, holding the official STORM Pace Truck, used in later racing seasons to intercept the race leaders and slow the pace after a chain-reaction crash. That allowed the unfortunates to retrieve their cars without jeopardizing those racers still circling the track. The pace truck then pulled away and dived for cover, letting the racers go back to full speed. I’ll show and describe the Pace Truck on the Team Shoestring Page, because it’s the only such vehicle and procedure ever used in R/C endurance racing, as far as I’m aware.

On race day, numerous heats were run in order to determine who qualified to run in the main event, and in what starting order. The organizer antied up for an automated lap counting system (paid for by entry fees), and during each run looked at his laptop computer to see which cars were in the lead. Since the mass of cars circling the small track was impossible for anyone else to tell who was where in the standings, he constantly announced through a PA system how the race was progressing, identifying the cars (and drivers) that were vying for the lead and right on down the line. Telling where you were was also made easier during a major crash, when a yellow flag was called and the remaining cars were regrouped in order behind the leader, still circling the track. Unlike all other races I’d ever been to, he “talked it up” as if this were a full-scale NASCAR race, and he did an excellent job of it. Because many events took place at small eateries, each such event drew sizable numbers of spectators who just wandered by and stayed to watch and cheer for their favorite. Since each pit stop could determine who would win, the pressure was on and the level of tension belied the fact that this was just a bunch of guys racing their model cars in a parking lot. The businesses enjoyed the commotion and the drawing power it made, in spite of the fact that they lost some of their parking lot space to pull passersby in. Win/win.

Here is one driver exploring the traction limits prior to the Mr. Beef 300. Each racing location offered notably different handling issues to overcome. Parking lots coated with sealer usually required an application of sugar water to find any traction at all.

Thus, when I decided to field a car for the 1992 STORM racing season, it was a big deal for me because I didn’t have a pan car, and had never driven one. Inspired by the organizer’s elaborately-scripted telephone hot line, I decided to get in the spirit of things and do more than just show up at the first event. I developed a single, rather pretentious audio abomination suitable for play on the hotline, naming myself Team Shoestring (due to my very limited budget) and pretending that it was a professional stock car racing organization that was planning to throw its hat in the ring for the upcoming season. He found it amusing enough (I was parodying his style, after all) to introduce Team Shoestring’s intent and include the segment as a part of his hotline announcements. Having been carried away by the hotline’s detail and infectious enthusiasm, I felt duty-bound to invent a fictitious driver, team background, team race car facility, and oddities about the team’s lore that could fuel further audio segments. He made the mistake of including many of those as well, but by that time, I was making the recordings just for their own sake, and I eventually made a small Team Shoestring website that included bogus historical photos as well as some pretty implausible current activities of the driver’s family. Why not have fun with it? Some of the other racers enjoyed this odd parody style of humor, while a few honestly couldn’t see anything funny in it. They just showed up to race R/C cars, and my pretending that Team Shoestring was a real entity with PR promotions seemed just too absurd. No matter. I had a grand time!

These weren’t your Radio Shack toy R/C cars by any stretch. Among other things, this racer has differential weight scales, which allow the measurement of spring preloads at each tire, which affects how the car handles in the turns.


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