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Drivers Get Kicks, Stay Sharp With Minicars

08/29/2002 – Updated 08:47 PM ET

Drivers get kicks, stay sharp with minicars

By Gary Graves, USA TODAY

Kurt Busch and Ryan Newman simultaneously tried to make the same tight turn when their cars bumped hard, sending Busch’s ride into the grass while Newman went speeding along.

Busch didn’t get mad, nor did he try to get even. He simply righted himself and got back on track, accepting the brush as yet another of them racin’ deals.

Besides, Newman’s car broke a little later.

Neither would be so understanding if this scene had occurred during a NASCAR race, but the mood was decidedly relaxed one recent Saturday as they raced their radio-controlled (R/C) cars around the Winston Cup drivers’ motor-home area. They were joined by fellow drivers, crewmembers and their families in an event organized by the Motor Racing Outreach, a Christian ministry, but any race weekend might find many of them doing this anyway.

Such is the popularity of a childhood activity among the stock-car set. Their involvement varies, but they all reap some benefit from racing the one-tenth-scale cars: Some say it takes them back to their carefree youth, while others insist it helps them decompress from a long day in the big car.

A more avid segment uses it as an outlet for their competitive juices, which can pay off on race day.

“It can be serious and fun at the same time,” says Newman, who has replaced the R/C car that was stolen when he was young. “It’s relaxing, but it can get hot and heavy at times. It’s something we can enjoy without the necessity to perform.”

The sampling below suggests that a growing number of drivers, crewmembers and crew chiefs seem to agree:

* Jeff Green might be NASCAR’s unofficial R/C king, owning eight cars and two boats.
* Kevin Harvick owns two trucks and a car and has even gotten wife DeLana hooked.
* Jeff Gordon got a car as a 30th birthday gift last year and has added another.
* Michael “Fatback” McSwain, Ricky Rudd’s crew chief, has a stable of cars and four-wheel-drive trucks.
* Steve Park and several others have at least one car.

“It’s just racing, and we’re competitive in anything we do,” says Green, who even designed an R/C car body for one company. “It’s just a good time. It’s amazing how close those cars are to the real ones.”

That alone separates R/C cars from ones you buy at retail stores. While some drivers own battery-operated cars, most prefer gas-powered models starting around $300 for a basic setup to about $600 for an advanced ride. They are available at specialty hobby stores and on the Internet.

And, just like in NASCAR, their speed depends on what their owners spend on upgrades. By “tricking out” the cars with engine, chassis, suspension, tire and body upgrades, they can exceed 50 mph on a good surface.

It’s a good thing NASCAR drivers are paid well, because some have been known to drop at least $2,000 on a state-of-the-art car. Harvick figures he has spent about $10,000 on his three and still must replace one he borrowed from his wife.

Gas mileage? An impressive 30 mpg, but you’re also talking about a vehicle about one-tenth the size of a regular car. Best of all, there’s no inspection before or after the race to worry about.

“It gets higher-end all the time,” Gordon says. “You find out what’s the best out there and you’re like, ‘Now I need that and that.’ I just started out with something to get going and keep stepping it up all the time. I don’t like to go out to a track and not be the fastest guy out there.”

If driving an R/C car seems like an odd leisure activity for guys who drive for a living, consider their options. The average race weekend involves personal appearances with and for sponsors, doing interviews and mapping race strategy.

Even if drivers have some downtime, their high visibility makes it difficult to attend a movie or go shopping without a crowd. While some venture outside the motor-home compound, others stay behind, passing the hours with video games or quality time with family members, fellow drivers or crewmembers.

“There are no appearances to make or no sponsors to deal with,” Harvick says. “You can race it and wreck it, and the only one you have to answer to is yourself.”

No one can say exactly when R/C cars infiltrated NASCAR Nation, but driver interest has risen over the past two seasons. But they have nothing on crewmembers, who break out their cars on a moment’s notice if they find a nice, flat surface.

“It just seemed like a craze got going and started from there,” says Joe Gibbs Racing tire specialist Jonathan Davis, who owns two cars. “It’s definitely a release, because we get to make the decisions. A lot of us feel like it’s our chance to be crew chiefs, and when you get the chance, you do it.”

And if there’s a stop with an R/C track nearby, count on NASCAR guys to skip the infield confines for a chance to open it up. One regular venue is the Collectibles of Auto Racing shop in Pembroke, N.H., about 12 miles south of New Hampshire International Speedway, where Gordon and Busch sneaked off to after qualifying for last month’s New England 300.

There they found a one-fifth-mile asphalt tri-oval featuring 12-degree banking that screams for all-out racing. At first a few drivers would drift in with their cars and blend in with the locals. But general manager Bruce Breton has seen such an increase over the past year that he closes the track to give them privacy.

“We want just to let them get some relaxation,” says Breton, who also moves some stock during race weekend. “But if you’ve got a good R/C car with a good engine and suspension, you can really play around here. And more and more drivers seem to come in here for relaxation.”

At the same time, they’re discovering the R/C cars provide ideas and techniques they’ve been able to apply to the big cars. Green, a former Busch Series champion, has found some suspension pointers that have actually worked on his No. 31 Chevy this season.

He has also noticed that steering the 5-pound car around at high speeds has improved his hand-eye coordination for guiding the 3,500-pound car. Other drivers have concurred, suggesting that R/C car racing is less a hobby than research that needs to be pursued as often as possible.

“It just keeps you on your toes,” says Green, 31, who took up R/C racing in his 20s. “The same things you do with the (Winston Cup) car you do with these cars, and they keep you polished as a driver. Plus, we’re just competitive at heart. We’d even race to the grocery store.”

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