Two doors darkened by the winter evening hour, two distinct contests pitting me against one man. To my left, a real life drag racing garage with engines to raise the dead and every red flag within me. Never have I made so right a decision.
One literally hears the electricity from outside as he enters the Slot Car Cave. It’s hard to explain secondhand. A 70-foot pit stall of a place, filled wall-to-wall with metal track and plastic racers, gear-and-gasoline decor and a steady lineup of regulars every Thursday and Saturday.
Kenny Farrell, 46, and brother Aaron, 39, co-own the place just south of the Catawba River Bridge. Kenny lives on Little Allison Creek, but his days are anything but serene or tranquil. He works on and races the full-grown hot rods next door, makes the outer shells for a living. Aaron sells the fiberglass.
The Florida transplants are stop-and-go arteries for a family with racing in its blood. Their lone regret with the slot car business is their dad didn’t live to see it open three years ago.
Aaron has three daughters who aren’t unfamiliar as track marshals. Kenny has a drag racing itch he hasn’t scratched out in 30 years, and now a near Eagle Scout son pounding the pedals at age 15.
And, remarkably, a wife who understands.
“It was there way before she was,” Kenny says. “It was kind of take it or leave it.”
But Kenny isn’t the Dale Earnhardt of slot car racing. He’s the Bruton Smith. The brothers hand-pick a couple of house ringers to show me how its done.
Upstairs is the 55-foot drag strip and golden boy who I’ll match up against. It’s been open a month, but Kylan Soder, 10, has it figured out already. He comes from Fort Mill a time or two most every week, tinkering with gears and computer monitoring his reaction speed, acceleration, consistency.
I won’t lie. I know a few trigger tricks from my academic team days. First to squeeze when the tree light hits green and – gone. Wait, wait. I wasn’t ready for – adios. Soder fires off passes with uncanny anticipation. He’s in a groove from the first green, pausing only to walk the length of the track and return our vehicles. Talk about a contest that’s over before it starts.
He’s reeling off .89-second runs. Over the first 55 feet, that’s hood-to-nose with the Atlas V rocket that put the Curiosity rover on Mars, four times faster than the first rocket to land men on the moon.
It’s also considerably faster than my attempts. I win one of maybe 10 warm-ups, then drop two straight in our best-of-three, holding close to a quarter second off pace. Everything here is computerized to the slightest variable, overhead screens dissecting my runner-up status at all sorts of intervals.
I concede to a mere child, but an impressive one. The drag strip is nice, but I’m here for the big boy downstairs. This superspeedway stretches 220 feet. Eight lanes winding along six turns and as many straightaways.
Cars zipping close and fast enough to keep the pit repair counter on constant standby. Even with devilish turns and over dozens of laps, at sub-five second rounds we’re talking speed to pique a patrolman’s radar in a school zone.
I’m nearly too in awe of the thing to race atop it. The closest comparable raceway is in New Jersey. These aren’t the toy tracks tucked beneath Christmas trees. Unless, maybe, you’ve tinseled up a redwood.
“That’s what most people think of,” Aaron says.
Kenny is a district leader with Boy Scouts, and loves how slot cars on this scale can get kids off video games, offer social interaction with fellow racers, give them something to work toward where they don’t automatically win every time. I’m imagining how someone with a Pinewood Derby mindset must react to such size and speed.
“You ought to see their eyes,” Kenny says.
Driver introductions are complete, at least in my head, and it’s go time. I’ll race Aaron and Vince Thomas, a York squeezer with maybe 20 years on these type cars. We’ll go five rounds, three laps at a time.
Full disclosure – I booked my last birthday here. Finished second to my knucklehead cousin David, but we both learned the rather obvious secret to finishing up front – stay on the track.
“These cars turn laps in six seconds,” Aaron says. “It takes a person a minimum of three seconds to reset a car if it runs off track. That’s at least half a lap.”
Funny thing about the birthday bouts, where the car leading the last lap almost never crossed the line first. The same happens here. I’m back in turn three, but let the throttle roar through the last true straightaway, passing both cars through the far arc and final two hairpins. The next heat Aaron and I, somehow, make contact. He spins out and I cruise to another win.
One more and I’m spraying champaign and lip-locking some fire-suited supermodel. Aaron and Vince put a cork in my plans. They warm up and each beat me by a good second in heat three, Vince winning. Aaron and I spin out next go-round, leaving Vince practically to idle across the start-finish.
Last heat, and all I need is one win. Heck, I’d take Aaron winning and a sportsmanlike tie with Vince. Both point leaders navigate the turns and barrel home. It’s nearly a photo finish. Vince’s car frames the picture.
They’re going to have to pry the trigger from my hands. Another second-place finish, another guarantee that I can do better with just a little more practice, a little more experience, a little more familiarity with the track. Which, as owner, is a win for Kenny.
“We’re hooked,” warns Bill Ader, a Rock Hill long-timer who’s seen this look in my eye before. “There’s no getting out of it.”
It’s easy to see how you could melt an hour or seven in here. Or why folks from all over hang around until midnight or later on many a race night. I’d probably need as long on the practice track to keep up with the league guys. I’ll stick to the rentals.
Both brothers shake my hand as I exit between turns four and five. Kenny reminds me there’s always the drag racing anytime I’m interested. I’m not. If I’m finishing second, I at least want to be able to walk away from the race. The only question left is, for how long?
On Your Marks Scoreboard
Competition: Racers at the Slot Car Cave in Rock Hill, owned by Kenny and Aaron Farrell
Contest: Two of three on the 55-foot drag racing track, then five heats on the 220-foot superspeedway
Score: I lost two rather easily on the drag strip, but rebounded with two wins on the big track, before losing three more heats. Final score: Slot Car Cave 5, Marks 2.