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Miniature cars, big interest

Radio-controlled race cars draw kids of all ages to a dirt track behind Saugus Café

Posted: July 27, 2009 10:10 p.m.
Updated: July 28, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Two trophy trucks crash as they go over a jump in the open short course race at Hot Rod Hobbies and Raceways on Saturday.

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Dust rose and circled in the air as dozens of mini race cars whizzed across a 425-foot track.

Wheels spun and motors buzzed. Some cars leaped across multiple jumps as others struggled to climb from their ruts.

Spectators of various ages followed the cuts, turns and leaps as these radio-controlled race cars made their away around a dirt track located behind the Saugus Café.

"You definitely got to have hand-eye coordination," said racer Cody Turner, of Lancaster. "You kind of need a lot of practice."

Turner had just stepped down from the racers' platform last Tuesday, where he clung to his remote control and dictated his cars' every move.

On Tuesday and Saturday evenings, dozens of "RC" professionals and hobbyists flock to the track for two heat races and a main event.

They participate in off-road racing with 1/36th- to 1/8th-scale nitro or electric-powered trucks, dune buggies and more.

"This is like laid back for me almost," said Turner, 18, who's been racing for two years. "In a big race, I'd be more focused."

For many, the meets are vital to prepare for national competitions like the upcoming Reedy Truck Race of Champions in September. Some 200 to 250 participants are expected to compete.

The track behind Saugus Café is run by Hot Rod Hobbies and Raceways on Railroad Avenue.

"For being a small little hole-in-the-wall, I'd say we're one of the top five most-known tracks," said owner Jimmy Babcock.

Babcock said the track sees a lot of 17- to 23-year-olds return to the hobby after putting down their remote controls when they were younger.

"Those are the people we try to get in here, so they're not out on Saturday night at places they shouldn't be at," Babcock said. "It's good, clean fun."

According to Babcock, there are more "big kids than little kids" out on the race track.

Unless a racer is privately sponsored by a company, there is no money in the racing.

"Awarding money is looked down on in the industry, to keep it a hobby," he said. "The running joke is we all race for bowling trophies."

Babcock, of Santa Clarita, is the hobby shop's fourth owner since it was established in 1980.

"I started working here as the grunt worker, from building tracks to emptying trash cans," he said.

Babcock started racing at 17 years old and didn't stop until two years ago, at age 32.

"I started here on this track," he said. "The first time I ever saw one was with a buddy of mine at Saugus High. ... We came down that first Tuesday night and I was hooked."

Newhall residents and friends John Barnett, Erik Knowles and Paul Mahone started racing two months ago after setting aside their controllers for a couple of decades.

"I knew I'd get back into it," said Barnett, 36. "I saw the big gas-powered truck and I knew I had to have it."

Barnett was referring to the Traxxas slash truck, which the men feel has brought many people back into RC racing because of its affordability.

For Knowles, 42, the hobby brings back the fun of racing again.

"There's guys I grew up with racing at the Saugus Speedway with - that's kind of what brought me back," he said. "I saw a bunch of guys from the go-cart days, so we get to race each other again."

The hobby is also starting to see a surge in female racers, Babcock said.

Hot Rod Hobbies has a policy that girls and women race for free, which helps get the wives, girlfriends and sisters out to the track, Babcock said.

"It used to be nothing but guys, but over the last two years we see more girlfriends and sisters," he said.

Laura Bendrat, of Canyon Country, was one of a few women at the course last Tuesday night, but that doesn't phase her, she said. It was her boyfriend who introduced her to the hobby.

"I ride dirt bikes so this is right up my alley," she said.

Bryce Terzian, 19, likes that he can "fine-tune the cars to your driver preference" and that the hobby is "injury free."

"I just started racing again a month ago," said Terzian, of Ventura. "I've been racing motorcycles my whole life, but I always hurt myself with those."

Off-road racing on the dirt track is at 6 p.m. Tuesdays and 4 p.m. Saturdays. Racing on the paved oval track is at 10 a.m. on the first Sunday of each month.

Hot Rod Hobbies' Web site is www.hotrodhobbies.com. The phone number is (661) 255-2404.

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