One of a series of posts about the racing antics we got up to before arriving in competitive karting. Check the overview for links to other posts in the series.

As I’ve mentioned, my coordination with radio-controlled racing cars was not something to brag about.

Technically, 1970s RC cars were interesting – they had tiny two-stroke gasoline engines (we used one called a Veco .19), fuel systems (although we didn’t use gasoline), and a kind of suspension and steering gear.  That part I could deal with and was fun. 

But there was also lots of electronics in the radio gear, which was something totally new to me in those days.

Back then, you bought your radio gear as a kit from companies such as Heathkit. It was like buying furniture from Ikea — lots of pieces and often-unfathomable instructions.  

I could solder a brass-and-steel slot car together but soldering electrical connections was a whole new ball game.  After I’d finished assembling my radio transmitter Fred Zufelt, who was more experienced in electronics than I, had to pull it all apart and re-solder it all for me so it would actually work!  

In late 1972, we (best-friend David Sampson and I) tagged along with Fred and Dave Elliott to an RC race at Ottawa’s Museum of Science and Technology. The RC club had commandeered the parking lot (with the Museum’s permission of course) and created the outline of a track with great lengths of garden hose.

Fred and Dave were already heavily involved in the sport and, that day, Ottawa Citizen reporter Jim Blackman arrived to do a story on the miniature cars (yes, I still have a copy). I ended up in a newspaper photograph as the flagman…

We were all set to do this ourselves in 1973, and so David and I bought our cars (previously enjoyed) from Fred and Dave. Mine was a beautifully-done Heathkit model (1:8 scale) of Mark Donohue’s 1968 Sunoco CanAm McLaren sports car; Dave always did a spectacular job of modeling.

The little two-stroke engines made the little cars very fast — I’d guess they could get up to 50 miles an hour or more and would accelerate quickly. In the end, all very nice equipment.

But I just couldn’t get the hang of it.  When the car was speeding away from me and I moved the steering joystick to the right, the car would turn right.  When the car was coming toward me and I moved the joystick to the right, and the car would turn left!  Somehow my brain just wouldn’t connect those things and I banged up one or two cars against parking lot curbing.

Driving it on an oval was OK.  David and I took our cars to school one night and drove them in the teacher’s parking lot.  At least when it was only turning left, my mind had enough time to think about which direction it would turn on both sides of the oval. That was enough fun to keep me going.

But driving it on a road course was another matter entirely. Not only did I have to think about which way the car was going, but the direction of the corner overlaid another layer of complexity.  And there wasn’t much time between one corner and the next to figure it out.  My poor little old brain just wasn’t up to the challenge.

The little cars were supposedly fast enough that aerodynamics came in to play. Most had big wings on the back. But I couldn’t get it going well enough to test out that idea. If it worked, it would have been fun to try out different aerodynamic ideas. At the time, aero was a new experimental and interesting thing in all facets of motor racing.

David and I competed in a race in Quebec at a shopping mall.  We were both also-rans (the racing term for someone in the race but not at the front of the pack). I recall we both had technical troubles and didn’t finish the race.  My Aunt Margaret (from Scotland) was there, and my Dad was there taking pictures. Our good friend Marijke can be seen sitting on the back of my Volkswagen. There’s an 8mm movie of this race in the house somewhere and I’ll get it digitized and posted here soon.

For my second season of RC cars (I don’t give up easily), I built my own car: the 1972 Mark Donohue L&M Porsche CanAm car.

Having limited fabrication facilities I made it out of aluminum sheet, which made it light but also a bit fragile.  Although the previous year’s McLaren body was made out of fibreglass, the Porsche’s body was made of lexan, a kind of plastic that is supposed to be bullet-proof.  And I went to town with the modelling — a beautiful paint job and it looked just like the real thing in 1:8 scale.  I was so proud… 

All of these factors came together in one abrupt, funny and frustrating moment:  I misjudged which direction to turn the car and it plowed headlong into a concrete curb.  The result was that the aluminum pan bent into a semi-circle leaving the car looking rather like a crescent moon.  And the bullet-proof body was intact but, on impact, 90 percent of the paint flew off in a explosive cloud of paint flakes, leaving just the largely-transparent lexan body shell.  (No film of that, unfortunately.)

That was pretty much the point at which I decided I needed to get my butt in the driver’s seat — then there would be no question which way the vehicle would go when I turned the steering wheel!

Read the next installment in the series: Finally, a taste of real racing.


  1. I feel your pain, brother! I never did RC cars, but I was ground crew when my son took up RC flying. He let me try my had at the controls once. I was just fine when it was going away from me, but if it was coming towards me, my brain could not convince my hands to move the controls the opposite way to what was instinctual. I quickly (and wisely) handed the controls back and never tempted the God of Gravity again.


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