At first glance, you might be forgiven for thinking you've wandered onto the set of a Fellini movie. People are grouped around the edge of a pond about half the size of a football field, watching what sounds like miniature chain saws cutting ovals in the water.
A closer examination reveals that while most of the people are simply interested onlookers at this bizarre happening, several of them are holding little black boxes bristling with aerials and joysticks, and that what you first took to be submarine chain saws are actually meticulously detailed scale-model replicas of a class of racing boat called an "unlimited hydro."
Ask someone what's going on, and you'll discover that you are witnessing an event put on by the Southern California Scale Thunderboat Assn. These people are racing radio-controlled speedboats that are about 3 1/2-feet long, weigh 15 to 20 pounds, run on fuel that is 50% nitromethane, cost in excess of $1,000 and will hit a top speed of more than 60 miles an hour.
Like Real Boats
"These are just like real boats, with all the thrills," said Leonard Feeback, owner of a replica of the 1965 Miss Bardahl unlimited hydro. "They fly, they die, but our drivers don't get hurt. That's the thing about this sport. You get all the thrills of close competition in fast machinery, and you can take chances you wouldn't dare with a full-size boat. Even in the most horrendous crash, the only thing that gets hurt is your wallet."
Welcome to the small and speedy world of R/C models, one of America's least-known, fastest-growing hobbies.
"The R/C model industry has tripled in size in the past five years," said Dean Hughey, a columnist for Radio Control Modeler magazine. "It's a multibillion-dollar industry that operates worldwide. For every manufacturer of R/C models and equipment in the United States, there are five overseas. And the number of people into one or another area of the R/C model hobby reaches hundreds of thousands. The sport is particularly big in Florida and several places in the Midwest, but California is definitely the hot spot, because of how much time and disposable income people have, and because of weather that allows you to play with your toys year-round."
All Types of Craft
Those toys take all manner of shape these days. People who are glancingly familiar with the world of R/C models tend to think in terms of radio-controlled planes. Planes there are in abundance, but there are also gliders, helicopters, on- and off-road racing cars, powerboats, sailboats, hovercraft, even jet skis.
"Every area of the sport has its devotees," Hughey said, "but the various forms of R/C cars probably are the most popular, because you don't have to go to a specific facility to use them, as you do with boats and planes. You can run your R/C car down the driveway, down the street or in the nearest vacant lot. And the newest trend, which is happening first in California, of course, is indoor R/C car-racing facilities with several kinds of tracks all under one roof. With so many venues, there is some sort of R/C competition, usually several, going on every weekend."
Another attraction of the automotive segment is that it's the easiest to learn to operate and the least expensive way into the R/C hobby. A starter 1/10th-scale R/C car kit, complete with vehicle, radio-control unit, batteries and recharger, can be had for as little as $170, with prices rising from there to as much as $3,000 or more for highly sophisticated one-quarter-scale models of Grand National stock cars that weigh 30 pounds, are powered by modified chain-saw engines and hit speeds in excess of 80 m.p.h.
The entry-level cost of an R/C model boat is in the $200 range, up to around $1,000. A basic airplane kit can also be had for about $200, but the costs of top-line hardware are in the $5,000 range, and be prepared for higher costs of maintenance and crash repair. Helicopters, which are the most expensive and most difficult to operate, start at $500.
You Need Only Common Sense
"It took me about a year-and-a-half of flying planes to get comfortable and proficient, but there's no reason anyone with the normal amount of coordination and common sense can't learn to fly an R/C plane," said Steve Neill, a Hollywood special-effects man so deep into the sport that his latest project involves dropping a built-from-scratch, jet-powered R/C scale model of Glamorous Glennis (the plane Chuck Yeager used to break the sound barrier) from the wing of a scale-model B-29 bomber that has a 29-foot wingspan and takes two people to fly.