Cub Scouts grow up, but for one interesting subculture, their tastes do not. The fun of the Pinewood Derby need not be abandoned, thanks to the efforts of Tim Byrnes and the Gateway Hot Wheelers Club, headquartered in Collinsville, Ill.
The bimonthly club meetings and the upcoming annual Midwest Hot Wheelers Rally feature downhill racing, not of carved wooden Pinewood Derby cars but of stock and modified Hot Wheels 1/64-scale cars by Mattel.
Byrnes wanted a good track that his cars and those of other club members could race down. What he and fellow Hot Wheels collector Fred Long wound up building puts the standard Pinewood Derby course to shame. His sloping wooden four-lane track boasts an electronic device complete with infrared beams that trigger a digital display, which instantly indicates the first-, second-, third- and last-place finishers.
The track allows the subculture of fully grown males intent on winning their latter-day derbies to seriously pursue what might be called very short-track racing. Four distinct classes of cars go for the win on the 24-foot-long track. The most popular is the Blackwall, so called because the toy cars' tires are basic black. The relatively common Hot Wheels produced from 1977 through the present fall into this group. The Redline class includes cars made between 1968 and 1977, the first series of Hot Wheels produced, which feature a smart-looking redwall tire. They tend to go faster, thanks to superior suspension, Byrnes says, and require their own class. Next is the kids' class, in which anything goes, as long as you're 12 or younger. Finally we have the top-fuel dragsters of the outlaw class. These cars, typically gutted and then packed with lead weights or quarters, are as heavily modified as collectors can make them. They need not even be Hot Wheels-brand chassis; the only real rule for outlaws is that they be of the 1/64-scale size.
Hot Wheels downhill racing is surprisingly popular. The GHWC meetings usually include about 200-250 cars entered in the races, Byrnes says, and big regional events like the rally attract about 500. The field is generally about half kids, half adults, with a healthy coalition of father-child racing teams.
The hobby has really taken off as a result of Byrnes' one-of-a-kind track. "I just sat back and thought to myself, 'What would be the best way to race like you did when you were a kid?'" he says. He and Long, a professional carpenter, decided to put the reliable orange plastic Hot Wheels racing track of their youth atop an 8-foot-long slanting wedge, then run it for 16 feet straight before the cars passed under the electronic finish line and bounced to a stop in "finishing plaza" chambers of carpet foam and felt. They started with two lanes but soon had to expand to four to accommodate demand.
The resulting labor of love, says Byrnes, has drawn least three dozen inquiries by phone and e-mail asking how it can be re-created for other Hot Wheel racing enthusiasts. If you're going to use gravity to race little cars, apparently this is as good as it gets. "What we're trying to do is have this kind of racing we did as kids," Byrnes adds. "The only thing that we've done is, we've used modern technology to make it more accurate, more fair and more fun."
In addition to downhill racing, visitors to the rally will enjoy trading and buying Hot Wheels (including limited-edition commemorative GHWC Rally cars), raffles and a custom-car contest that is fascinating to behold. Competitors in the contest take apart Hot Wheels cars and creatively rebuild fantasy cars with blown engines, crazy paint jobs and all manner of reconfiguring. Past entries have included a stretch limo made from several cars and a car composed of the front ends of two identical cars joined together. "The (custom-car) competition is fierce," says Byrnes.
The portion of the rally that takes place at the Collinsville Holiday Inn features another kind of toy-car racing. The Sizzler is a defunct model of battery-powered Hot Wheels car that, after charging for 90 seconds, has enough juice to speed around for about five minutes. Rallygoers race them in 100-lap heats around a specially designed Sizzlers track that allows for some NASCAR-style fender-bumping. The cars whizz by so fast that competitors must use handheld "clicker counters" to count the laps. If your car runs out of power midrace, you must make a "pit stop" to recharge. Byrnes says the Sizzlers races are fun -- a bit more unpredictable than the downhill races, and the collectors run them late into the night.
The 33-year-old Byrnes, an electronics technician at a power station, has been collecting since age 11 or so. He's had time to amass more than 5,000 Hot Wheels, which is not such an outlandish number for many of his fellow club members. What is unusual is his way of showing off some of his favorites: He has a 6-foot tall Timex-watch display case in his living room with 200 cars inside. He can turn the thing on and admire his cars as the display lights up and spins. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Byrnes' wife actually tolerates this! Actually she's a hobby enthusiast as well, and their young daughters enjoy racing on Dad's downhill track at the meetings and rallies. In fact, sometimes Dad fills the living room with curves and loops of orange track and three or four superchargers, devices that fling the car forward along the track so you don't have to keep pushing them along by hand. This guy's kids are really lucky that Dad never quite grew up.
Hot Wheels racing has apparently become a major attraction in Puerto Rico. It's not uncommon to spot adults racing the little cars down tracks set up in the street or in bars at night, accompanied by the shouts of gamblers.
But many finicky American toy collectors, attempting to preserve their cars' value, never even remove them from their packaging. Not Byrnes -- his motto, he says, is "Take 'em out of the pack, put 'em onto the track."
The Midwest Hot Wheelers Rally takes place at the Holiday Inn of Collinsville, 10000 Eastport Plaza, July 13 and 14, and at the Gateway Convention Center, Hwy. 157 just north of I-55/70 in Collinsville, Ill., 10 a.m.-4 p.m. July 15. Call 618-345-4971 for more information, or visit www.siue.edu/~dbrown/gatewayhw/ or members.aol.com/tbyrnes943/index.html.