As Hackensack Sleeps, Tiny Racecars Hit the Track. The Record.

Written by Christopher Maag. Posted in Maag Blog, Writing

If you ever get the inclination to drive a Mini-Z racecar, which is radio controlled and fits in the palm of one hand, you will think: This is going to be easy. Just pop in some AA batteries and go!

But if you take your new car and your carefree attitude to Maj’s Hobby Shop in downtown Hackensack on a Friday night, you will get whupped. Lapped. Destroyed. Consider the forces arrayed against you! Do you have theories concerning the proper amount of camber required to make the front tires meet the rubber track in perfect alignment?

You do not.

 

Do you realize the track heats up as the races progress, but the room grows cold after sunset, forcing successful racers to consider complex, multivariate algorithms balancing suspension travel, throttle response, tire squishiness, and whether enough time remains to hork a plate of Chinese takeout before the penultimate race?

You do not.

Tommy Lane does. Lane has raced cars most his life, including work as a mechanic on a NASCAR team and tryouts as a NASCAR driver. Now a resident of South Plainfield, he comes to Hackensack every Friday to drive some of the tiniest racecars ever made.

“This group right here is the best of the best,” said Lane, 40. “We do the same things here as we did on a NASCAR car, only smaller.”

We Americans race big things. We race airplanes and monster trucks. This summer the Judge Pulling Team of Ansonia, Ohio, plans to appear at tractor pulls around the country with The Judge Next Generation, a tractor powered by three jet engines.

Mini-Z occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. Each car weighs about 175 grams, or less than half a pound. In Hackensack they race in a converted office space on the second floor of a nearly deserted building, on a rubber track small enough to fit inside a master bedroom.

Flat out, they might do 15 miles an hour, said Maj Banting, who owns the hobby shop and track.

But at 1/27th the scale of real cars, on a tiny track divided into a dozen turns, Mini-Z racers appear to go 10 times as fast. The quickest cars drive perpetually on edge, their high-output motors always threatening to overpower the tiny rubber tires and send them flying into a wall.

For winning drivers, therefore, the trick is not to go faster. The cars can’t handle any more speed, and neither can the racers’ brains. Instead they tweak their controllers to slow down acceleration, top speed and steering twitchiness. Then they train their eyes and fingers to catch up.

“I can’t drive my car as fast as it can go,” said Sean Lubben, a Friday night regular. “You practice and you develop muscle memory. It takes years.”

Friday night races start after work and often continue until 3 a.m. All that focused time makes Hackensack’s Friday night racers some of the fastest Mini-Z drivers in the world.

“I come here every week,” said Roland Shao, 60, of Queens. “Why? This is the place to come. It has the fastest drivers you’ll see anywhere.”

It’s 10:30 p.m. on a recent Friday, and the roads of downtown Hackensack are quiet. Inside, on Banting’s rubber track, tiny cars crash and fly.

“You guys are flipping all over the place!” said Angel Vargas, 42, who crouches at the end of the straightaway and flips overturned cars back onto their wheels.

Conditions on this night are complex and changing. The track’s southern half sits below a wall of south-facing windows, so it spent all day in sunlight. That gives it more heat — and better traction — than the colder northern half, said racer Devin Malmad. Meanwhile the air temperature plummeted after sunset, as the room grows humid from eight sweaty men.

Every few minutes Malmad uses a digital thermometer and a humidity meter to track the changes. He records his measurements in a notebook for future study.

“The driver adapts to the track,” said Malmad, 17, who started racing Mini-Z at age 14 and is now among the track’s fastest drivers. “I change up the car as conditions change.”

The biggest change is invisible. So many cars pulling tiny burnouts and high-speed sweepers have left a residue of melted rubber on the track, creating a groove with better traction.

But too much traction causes front tires to stick, and sends cars flying. Outside the groove there’s less traction, so the hopped-up engines can easily overpower the tires and flip.

To an unpracticed eye it all looks the same: Cars crashing all over the place. Top drivers swear they can tell the difference.

“In this corner you were over on two wheels every time,” Vargas said to Edel Gonzales, another racer.

Others doubt their ability to know tell what the heck is happening.

“I think it’s half guessing,” said Ben Lee, a Mini-Z enthusiast from Torrance, Calif. “You can never react fast enough. By the time you see the car heading for the wall, it’s already flipped.”

Totally by accident, Lee has played a major role in transforming Mini-Z’s from toys into racecars. The first Mini-Z’s were manufactured by the Japanese company Kyosho as a way to get kids interested in radio-controlled cars. Combining the “control” of radio control with the neat-o verisimilitude of die-cast models, they were viewed by serious hobbyists as cute, slow and cheap.

Today a stock Mini-Z costs $169, controller included.

“Mini-Z’s started out as kind of a novelty,” said Matt Boyd, an editor at RC Action magazine.

Lee liked the cars’ exteriors, how they resembled real Ferraris and Lamborghinis. But looking under the hood left him unsatisfied.

“The basic mechanics are primitive,” said Lee, an aeronautical engineer who designs mechanical systems for military planes.

So he took the double wishbone suspension found on most modern cars and shrank it to 1/27th the size. It allows drivers to adjust the angle of the wheels in three different directions to keep tires pressed flat to the ground.

“I did it just because I thought it made the cars look cool,” Lee said. “But then the top racers started using these parts, and they actually made the cars go faster. I was really surprised.”

Pretty soon Lee was designing all sorts of custom parts for PN Racing, a California-based company that became one of the largest suppliers of Mini-Z modifications. He created aluminum motor mounts to shed weight and lower the center of gravity. PN Racing introduced Lexan windshields, which are one gram lighter than Kyosho’s stock plastic. Complete Lexan body kits cost $14.88 and save 15 grams.

“PN Racing took Mini-Z to the next level,” Banting said.

Top racers take full advantage of the burgeoning Mini-Z aftermarket. Most start with carbon fiber frames. Malmad designed his own frame on a computer, and paid a company to manufacture 20 carbon fiber copies out.

Shao is unimpressed.

“It’s not a proven chassis yet,” Shao said, looking at Malmad’s car.

After the chassis, each car is built “a la carte,” Banting said. Drivers try out different motors, rear suspensions and tire combinations. The sport has gotten so advanced that even Lee can’t keep up.

“Only the top 1 percent of people can have the time and dedication to tweak their car like that,” Lee said. “I can’t even compete at that level. I still love it, but I have a day job.”

Indeed, having a job can be detrimental to one’s Mini-Z standings. Malmad is a senior at St. Peter’s Preparatory School in Jersey City. Vargas is 42 and retired. Shao sells kitchen appliances, but he takes off Fridays to drive from his home in Queens and practice.

“It takes so much practice to be good at this,” Vargas said. “I’m the slowest guy here because I’ve been doing it the least amount of time. I’ve only been doing it two years.”

On Saturdays, first-timers are still welcome to visit Banting’s shop, buy a Mini-Z off the shelf, remove it from the box, and start racing for under $200.

Friday nights are something else entirely. Racers pay $25 a month for unlimited access to the track, whenever Banting’s shop is open, including race nights. Winners receive no prize money, only bragging rights among the dozen or so men who take the racing seriously.

“Your initial investment is about $1,000 to be competitive,” Banting said.

As the racing progresses on a recent Friday night, tension and trash talk among the racers grow more intense. While others make repairs and tweaks, Malmad keeps his car on the track for practice laps. Pushing hard, he turns a lap in 7.5 seconds, a new record.

“I’m just trying to get into Roland’s head,” Malmad said.

Shao pretends not to notice. Instead he eats a dinner of Chinese dumplings and messes with Gonzales, who is working hard to prepare for the last race.

“Ugh. This is not my day,” said Gonzales, who dabs glue onto his tires using a tiny screwdriver.

“What do you mean? You skip your dinner to work on your car,” Shao said. “That means you’re a real racer!”

Gonzales says nothing and fiddles with his suspension.

“This is what happens when you don’t come early,” said Gonzales, who sweats profusely, worried about finishing in time.

When Gonzales says he’s ready, all the drivers place their cars on the straightaway for a staggered start. A computerized bell chimes. Shao, considered the favorite to win, immediately spins out, crashing into a foam guardrail.

“Oh what a terrible start!” he groans.

Malmad takes off cleanly, and soon he’s nearly lapped Gonzales. But Shao gains. Weaving through cars in heavy traffic, Shao picks perfect spots, shaving the track’s 12 turns hard angles and straight lines. His pace speeds up. He finishes one lap in 7.7 seconds, the next in 7.6.

With 35 seconds to go, Shao nudges past Malmad in a far corner. He drives cleanly, and finishes first.

“The grandfather of Mini-Z proves his skills yet again!” Banting calls into the track’s public address system.

Malmad picks up his car and mumbles.

“My car body was rubbing the whole time,” Malmad said. Someone asks how he could tell.

“I could hear it every time it went around,” he said.

The time is 11:30 p.m. Some men start packing their cars into tackle boxes. Shao is asked how he managed such an impressive, come-from-behind victory.

“I got here at 1 p.m.,” he said, “and drove around the track for six hours before anybody showed up.”

Malmad stands up, looks at Shao, and grins.

“Rematch?” he said.

Shao shrugs.

“Hm,” Shao said. He picks up his car and carries it back to the track. “Youngster wants a rematch.”