Hobby shop has only indoor dirt track north of Seattle
Cautiously, Jake Anderson maneuvers his buggy up to the starting line. When his name is called he zooms off into the first corner and over the jump, only to land nose first a few inches short of the landing.
No worry. The radio-controlled car bounces a couple times and Anderson continues the race, mindful the next time around to really hit the gas over the jump. This is just his fourth time racing and the track at Mike’s R/C World is fast and furious.
“I just try to focus on staying away from the wall,” said Anderson, 17. “And I try to ignore all the other drivers.”
On this particular rainy Saturday, Mike’s R/C World is a comfortable haven for a devoted band of dirt track R/C racers. Outside, a torrential downpour has flooded the roads and muddied the other dirt tracks in the region. But inside the steel-frame building, racers from all over Western Washington and even British Columbia are tearing up the dry dirt.
Mike’s R/C World, located near the Bellingham International Airport, is the only indoor dirt track north of Seattle, and the twice-monthly races are well attended during the wet winter months. Today, 74 cars are signed up to run the track. Races usually start around noon and and finish by 9 p.m.
“When we have 100 entries we will usually go until around 11 or 12 at night,” said Peggy Cooper, the race director.
Without Cooper, the races would be chaos. From the director’s booth, Cooper can see the entire track and she calls out start times, race stats, and which competitors are in the next race.
Then of course there is some heckling: “What are you guys doing down there? You act like you don’t know how to drive!” she jokes with a group of skilled drivers.
Directing back-to-back races all day is a tiring job, but Cooper said she enjoys watching the novice racers like Anderson improve their skills.
After the first novice qualifying round, Anderson was a bit dejected by his slow lap times.
“My motor was dry and I broke my battery,” he said. “But now I got my new battery charging and my dad lubricated my engine for me.”
Owning a hobby shop
Meanwhile, as much as he would like to be out racing his own electric buggy, shop owner Mike Marquart has a business to attend to.
In between races, many competitors are busy perusing the hobby shop for replacement parts along a 40-foot section of wall. Though the wall is stuffed with inventory — from nuts and bolts to springs and servos — Marquart seems to know exactly where everything is located.
Few people have the joy of making a living from their hobby, but doing so isn’t as easy as it sounds. Marquart first opened shop at the intersection of Iron and Kentucky streets five years ago but quickly outgrew the space. So when the opportunity arose to build a new space near the airport, Marquart revved up for the challenge. Business at the new shop is steady, but it requires a lot of time and energy.
“I thought I could race and run the business, but being a small business owner is so time consuming. I only get to race my car about once a month,” Marquart said. “People don’t really know how much sacrifice and commitment it takes to operate this kind of business. You have to be prepared to work hard all the time.”
Like many small-business owners trying to stay afloat, Marquart said he rarely gets a day off. With the advent of eBay, Marquart has to compete with online retailers selling the same R/C cars for much less.
But where the hobby shop struggles, the dirt track excels. Most of Marquart’s customers are repeat customers using the track. And new customers need not look farther than 10 feet to find a suitable track to try out their new R/C car.
Both the shop and the track are open seven days a week and there is always the next race or birthday party to plan for — not to mention designing new race courses.
“We change the track about every three months,” Marquart said. “It takes about a day to till the dirt and steamroll it and then test all the jumps.”
A ‘real life video game’
In the age of online video games and ever-improving 3D graphics, R/C cars are proof that you just can’t beat the real thing.
Sure, racing games are fun and you can do all sorts of stunts that take years to master in the real world. But racing against real people is even better, Marquart said.
“It’s a real life video game. When you crash, you don’t just hit a red button and start over,” he said. “When people crash, they have to pay for the $5 part to fix whatever they broke.”
R/C cars also offer something to tinker with and customize — a real hands-on project. Unlike the kind of radio-controlled cars found at most toy stores, racing cars are meant to be taken apart and pieced back together, Marquart said.
So for many R/C hobbyists, the enjoyment is twofold: “It’s not just driving a car — it’s learning how to work on something,” Marquart said.
Oftentimes, the hobby is passed down through the generations. For instance, Anderson started racing R/C cars because his dad and brother do it. Now they all attend races together and help each other with repairs.
From up in her director’s booth, Cooper likes to watch out for the younger generation of R/C enthusiasts. She tells them to walk instead of run down the stairs and quietly cheers them on after the races. And she said she is glad to see that the hobby is surviving in the digital age, where so many more distractions exist.
Simply put: “These are our future racers,” she said.