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VALLEY / VENTURA COUNTY SPORTS

Road Rage

Miniature car racing is catching on from Saugus to Simi Valley.

July 03, 1999|VINCE KOWALICK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENCINO — They're off and running again at the Encino Velodrome near Balboa Park, an 880-foot, high-banked concrete oval built for bicycle racing in 1961.

Competitors aren't pedaling their vehicles. But they are pushing the pedal to the metal, so to speak.

Radio-controlled race cars--one-10th scale, battery powered vehicles steered by operators with hand-held controls--approach speeds of 60 mph as competition heats up between members of the Competition Oval Racing Club.

Race attendants known as turn marshals are positioned throughout the dirt infield specifically to retrieve wayward race cars and quickly return them to the pavement.

Sometimes, when a car flies off the track, its operator flies off the handle.

"What's the problem over there?" longtime club member Bob Sarnelle snaps at a turn marshal.

Several seconds pass before Sarnelle's car is back on track. He has lost too much ground, leaving him out of the running for the checkered flag.

"Thanks," Sarnelle says, sarcastically.

When the day at the races is complete, trophies are awarded, points tallied and good cheer exchanged.

CORC, which returned regular racing to the velodrome this year after a seven-year hiatus, will stage five more events at the facility through December, including one today at 10:30 a.m.

The Encino Velodrome was the site of the annual "RC Thunderdrome," the Daytona 500 of radio-controlled racing, before it was discontinued in 1992.

CORC is among a handful of RC organizations whose members are among the upper-echelon of competitors. Some vehicles are valued at $1,000. A set of tires can cost $80.

"It's definitely not for the beginners," said Roland Chavarry, club president. "The high-end of the hobby has become expensive if you want to be good at it. It's a fun atmosphere here because it is like a real race track. In this area, it's the best."

Yet, it is far from the only venue in which the diminutive cars compete. Beginning racers can get started by spending $200 for a ready-to-race vehicle.

"It's never been better for a beginner because ready-made kits have become more affordable," said Dan Moynihan of Chatsworth, an RC manufacturer and promoter. "Technology has increased, meaning there is more stuff out there, and--kind of like home electronics or computers--they've become more user-friendly."

Entry-level RC enthusiasts compete in organized races at "parking lot" race tracks. The makeshift tracks can be reconfigured weekly to form oval or road courses. Plywood and fire hoses serve as perimeter walls. Fruit punch is applied to the pavement to enhance traction.

Operators navigate from atop a wooden grandstand or makeshift perch. Laps are tallied by a computer with the aid of a coin-sized transmitter in the nose of each car that sends a signal to the computer.

Race Prep Raceway in Chatsworth, an RC hobby shop, stages races outside. Inside, owner Steve Dunn organizes weekly races for off-road RC cars on a dirt course. Racers pay a $10 fee and compete for trophies.

"We get about 40 to 45 people," Dunn said. "We're searching for a place to build an outdoor track."

At Hot Rod Hobbies in Saugus, owner Rod Weisbaum maintains two dirt tracks and plans to stage parking lot races twice a month.

The Simi Valley Ground Pounders, a nonprofit RC club not affiliated with a hobby shop, conducts races on the first and third Sunday of each month in the parking lot of a shopping center at Los Angeles Avenue and Madera Road.

With 25 members and growing, Ground Pounders pay $5 to run on the course. The club publishes results on its web site.

"We try to keep expenses down," said Jack Kasten, club president. "That's why we run out here. We have a policy: If you don't have the money, you race anyway."

Most entry-level organizations divide competition into classes, separating experienced and novice racers. Virtually any kind of vehicle and racing division is represented in the RC world, including stock cars, touring cars, dune buggies and off-road trucks.

Vehicles are state-of-the-art in technology and design. Chassis, axles and wheels are made of carbon fiber--lightweight yet sturdy material similar to that used in aircraft. Steering and suspension pieces are crafted from titanium.

"Everything is just getting better and better," Dunn said. "The electronic equipment is getting better and it lasts longer. The engines are getting better and more reliable."

Racers whose skills progress rapidly are tempted to move up to a higher level. But they had better be prepared to spend money.

"My first question to people who walk in and look at a car is, 'Where are you going to drive it?' " Weisbaum said. "Then it's a matter of money. If you want to drive it around your backyard, it doesn't matter what kind of car you get. If you want to race with the pros, you've got to spend more money."

Racing in parking lots is fine, but it pales in comparison to the velodrome, which the club leases from the Southern California Cycling Assn.

"We tell them that the track is for fast-moving objects," Chavarry said. "And you guys aren't it."

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