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Rock County Raceway - HO scale bull ring oval
#1

Rock County Raceway,  part one - The original Tyco oval

   

The idea for the Rock County Raceway came from browsing obscure Californian slot car forums and learning about the great fun to be had with short 'bull ring' ovals. Real-life bull rings were the tiny ovals that appeared around the USA from the 1930s to the 60s that satisfied an appetite for racing where there was either a lack of money or a lack of space to build the more usual quarter-mile or half-mile local tracks. There's no official definition, but a track length of anything less than a quarter or fifth of a mile counts as a bull ring. The racing experience was a very short blast on a very short straight and then skilful driving round the tight corners. Here's a couple of pics of the Kearney Bowl in Fresno that inspired the Californian HO bull ring racing circle...

       

After much playing around and taking advice from the other side of the pond, I set about building my four-lane HO bull ring. I would use Tyco sectional track on a 4 x 2 foot lightweight board. The track and most of the materials were things I had lying around. The table was built with 3mm mdf on top of a timber frame. I squeezed some PVC angles between the frame and board to give an integral retaining wall on each side. The Tyco plastic sectional track was attached using silicone sealant with power wires soldered to the underside of the rails. I drilled holes for light sensors to hook up to a computer via a Trackmate board.

I tested the track and it was just what I'd hoped for. The straights were just under 4 feet long and the turns have an outer radius of just under a foot - a custom six inch radius turn piece inserted at each end to make the corner entry tighten. Overall, the outer lane was thirteen foot long and the inner is ten and a half feet. The average lane length is 11.82 feet or one seventh of a 1/64 scale mile or one sixth of a 1/76 scale mile. The Rock County Raceway was comfortably a 'bull ring'.

Having filled some gaps between track pieces and painted the main straight grey, I held a successful test night in late 2011 - and then that was it for nearly three years. The trials and tribulations of life in general, plus a leaking roof meant the oval stayed in storage until 2014. There was then a whirlwind of activity to get the oval ready in time for its first proper race in August.

The first task was to re-think the oval in light of things I had learned in the three intervening years. I had built two more tracks and my grasp of slot car-related electronics has come on leaps and bounds. I have also become fascinated with the original 1/76 scale cars - particularly the Aurora Thunderjets and their Auto World copies. On dusting down the oval and running some cars, I realised that it was really too small for the quicker cars I'd originally planned to use. The T-jets were perfect and Aurora Magnatraction and Auto World Xtractions quick, but not too quick.

I rewired the track, then built UK club standard 3-pin driver stations, using CAT-6 cabling to connect to the track. I fitted a relay to control track power and reed switches hooked up to Trackmate to provide lap timing and race management.

   

That done, I flipped the board over and finished painting the track, added an infield and painted that too. I used foamboard as end barriers and added some advertising hoardings.

   

I was basing the look of the raceway on a Wisconsin short track. My partner's mother grew up in Beloit and hung out at the local track with her friends - it was just something to do in the summer. In homage, the track was named Rock County Raceway and I added some local ads to the hoardings. Many of the Wisconsin short tracks have now closed, but I looked closely at one of the survivors, the quarter-mile Rockford Speedway just over the border in Illinois. I hope I  captured something of its character...

       

One thing I definitely needed was catch fencing. Nothing I could find commercially looked like what I wanted. In the end I found some plastic netting used for keeping pet reptiles and threaded through piano wire as poles. To avoid injury, I added heat shrink tubing to the top of the wire. The bottom of the wire sits nicely into plastic tubes cut from cotton bud sticks that are glued to the back of the side walls.

   

For some final touches I added a wrecker truck and ambulance to the infield and then we were ready to race in my basement kitchen.

           

Seven club mates from Worthing HO Racing joined me for an excellent evening trying out different race formats with a set of four race-prepared Auto World T-jets. By the end of the night, the quickest drivers were turning sub 2 second laps with the T-jets and even faster with their Magnatractions and Xtractions. The track got the thumbs-up. Here's a very quick taste of the action...



We raced on the oval again the following year, adding in a very enjoyable race with Gareth's Aurora trucks...

   

However, despite everyone's enthusiasm for the track and the racing, there were a few issues that I wasn't happy about - and they weren't going to be solved easily with plastic sectional track. The track surface wasn't as smooth as the T-Jets really needed and there were some electrical issues too. I took the plunge and decided to commission Cheryl and Paul at MaxTrax Scale Racing in New York to build me a plastic routed oval. That moves us on to part two of the Rock County Raceway story...
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#2

Rock County Raceway, part two - Building the MaxTrax oval

   

The problems with the Tyco oval - electrical continuity plus too many lumps and bumps - were accentuated by the kind of racing we were attempting. The old-school pancake cars run without traction magnets - and it's magnets that usually cover up the flaws in HO sectional track. Then there was the precise rhythm of oval racing - a jump in the slot or over a track join, plus any power drops or surges were frustrating and robbing us of typical short track wheel-to-wheel battles. We were the only UK group to be racing T-Jets, but the consensus from over the pond was T-Jets need a routed track.

Why not do it myself? If we were talking 1/32 or 1/43 cars, I would happily grab a router, plus a roll of copper tape and get stuck in. However, routing an HO track takes a huge amount of skill and experience. We're not just talking four guide slots. For each lane there are also two slots required for the vertical steel rails and these need to be routed with extreme precision. A tiny error in depth, width or spacing can give you a completely useless track. I wasn't ready to learn those skills, so I went to the experts. After doing my research, I ended up chatting to Paul and Cheryl at MaxTrax Scale Racing in New York State. Their sectional system has been popular with HO racers across North America for many years, but so far there were no MaxTraxs in the UK. Paul Kniffen took over MaxTrax in 2013 and quickly enhanced the production process with the benefit of over thirty years working as a machinist. Cheryl added a friendly, but professional edge to ordering and customer services.

Between us, we came up with a four piece oval that would be a foot shorter and slightly narrower than the Tyco layout. It was my hunch that this would be an even better size for the T-jets, especially as the power delivery and racing surface would be vastly improved. To make my design a reality, Paul produced a brand new CAD design for a full three-foot straight with cut outs for reed switches halfway along. From me placing my order to the track being shipped took a mere nine days. I then had to wait another three weeks to get my hands on the parcel - thanks to the very thorough work of UK customs. But that extra wait was worth it...

       

Paul had packed the track extremely well and removing each layer of foam exposed yet another beautifully-crafted piece of grey Sintra PVC foamboard. It was an exciting evening in the workshop as I laid out the pieces for the first time - two three-foot straights plus a pair of tight one-hundred and eighty degree bends. The track sections would be electrically connected with stainless steel keys and each piece would then need careful adjustment before screwing down to the base board.

       


I spent quite a while designing and building a lightweight frame to support the track and hold all the electrics, including a Trackmate module for lap timing. My vision was to produce a portable unit with the footprint of the MaxTrax pieces and with only four leads coming out of a track-hugging foamboard surround. I re-used the driver stations I'd built for the original oval, which would help with meeting my deadline - a series of four race evenings over the summer.

       

So how did the new 're-paved' oval match-up? There were eleven racing evenings held on the Rock County Raceway through 2016 and 2017 and I'll look at how the track gave us some brilliant racing in the next part of the story...
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#3

I'm looking forward to some more RCR action this year. So nice to see photos of it again.

And enjoying reading the story of the track.
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#4

Rock County Raceway, part three - racing and tweaking the MaxTrax oval

   

The set-up was merely functional for the first two events in June 2016 - the track was attached to bare wood  and I'd taped the foamboard barriers from the Tyco oval around the edges. For the first race, John created a fantastic mascot - a very realistic foam rubber rock with the RCR logo on it. The rock now sits in the infield of the track at every race night...

   

Six of us had a great evening of racing that first evening, as we did a week later, when four of us proved that we could tweak the format with everyone racing and no marshals. The smooth track surface was perfect for our usual heats-and-finals format - using marshals with six or more racers, track calls with four. However, it also delivered exciting crash-and-burn action to start the evenings - crashes were now entirely the fault of the drivers, not the quirks of the track. We also developed a hybrid format over the summer - a 'four crashes and you're out' system using three penalty cards each. That added an extra dimension to the two-minute finals when we were low on numbers.

A break of six weeks until the next two race events gave me time to iron out some minor issues, add a dedicated track call button and make the look of track a little more pretty. The original Tyco oval had the local short track vibe I wanted - including basic scenics. Second time round, I realised I didn't really need the details to impart that vibe - it was the track itself, plus the character of the T-jets and the racers that creates the atmosphere...

       

The new track gave us closer racing, with the innermost lane not necessarily the best lane, as it clearly was on the original oval. The smooth surface allows racers in the outer two lanes to use more power through the turns. In the first six evenings on the new oval, we had race winners from all four lanes and an overall lap record of 1.535 seconds in the second lane out from the inside (blue).

There was plenty of interest in the first MaxTrax raceway in the UK and the only organised T-jet racing this side of the pond. SuperTires sponsored the first summer season on the new Rock County Raceway - all runners were shod with the latest Pro Series silicone tyres. We also had a visit in August from Tony Baldock, the 2016 top rookie at the Fray in Ferndale - the biggest event on the US T-jet racing calendar. Tony drove into victory lane for the feature race that night and set fastest laps across all four lanes, records that have since been broken.

For the start of the 2017 season, Paul and Cheryl sent us this fantastic new Victory Lane...

   

Also new for 2017 was a second T-Jet class. The original racing was all based around the Johnny Lightning and AutoWorld Thunderjet 500s - modern reproductions of the 'Tuff Ones' version of the Aurora T-Jet. These have the wide rear wheels and tyres that give extra grip and a slightly unnatural stance...


   

We named the new class T-Jet 'Nostalgia' and allowed Aurora and Dash versions of the T-Jet to run with the super-detailed Vincent wheels and a pre-1967 bodyshell...

   

And there was also a new cat who added to the race night entertainment...


   

For 2017, three races were held in the Spring and two in Summer...

   

The racing - split between the two classes - continued to be incredibly exciting. The lap times - on the inside and outside lanes - came down for the Tuff-Ones cars and the Nostalgia class settled in around a second slower per lap - or about 15 laps less over two minutes. With the skinny wheels and harder compound tyre, the Nostalgia cars had to be treated more gently, especially accelerating out of the corners...

   

The inability to accelerate hard out of the corners did cause particular problems for the cars in the outer lanes, although the August Nostalgia race was won from white lane. It was a case of gradually learning a different way of driving the oval. Here's a video of the entire Nostalgia A final from April 2017...



By the end of the 2017 events the lap records were down to:
  • Tuff Ones yellow lane record: 1.511 seconds
  • Nostalgia yellow lane record: 2.301 seconds
  • Tuff One blue lane record: 1.535 seconds
  • Nostalgia blue lane record: 2.551 seconds
  • Tuff Ones white lane record: 1.612 seconds
  • Nostalgia white lane record: 2.526 seconds
  • Tuff Ones red lane record: 1.713 seconds
  • Nostalgia red lane record: 2.593 seconds.
At the end of the final race in August, two issues become apparent. The first was that the reed switch on yellow lane needed replacing. The second - rather alarmingly - was that the hard rubber tyres on the Nostalgia cars were beginning to create ruts in the track surface. US racers confirmed this was not uncommon with these tyres... we'd need to look for another compound.

However, before we went racing again, there would be a gap of at least a year. Building work - to make the basement habitable in winter - took four months in 2018 and then I didn't get my act together to organise anything last year. There are a couple of dates pencilled in for this summer. A new set of reed switches is ready to be fitted and a couple more tweaks can be expected - especially to the Nostalgia class.

The Rock County Raceway does have its own website with some of the history of the build, class regulations and full race results: www.rockcountyraceway.org.uk

Just as the Californian oval racers demonstrated to me back in 2008-9, the Rock County Raceway shows you don't need a big track to have a lot of seriously nerdy fun.
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#5

California Tracks, great fun.  I remember in the very early 70's my cousin taking me to the Madera track, then about 20 years ago I was working on a construction project in the Sausalito/Mill Valley area and several of us ran up to Petaluma to a race on a clay oval track. We had a blast.
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#6

Did you ever solve the tyre issue damaging the track? Nostalgia class was so good. The slower laps made a more rewarding drive.

Hopefully the RCR is ready for resurrection in its new home.
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#7

Yes, the bullring has survived the move and will be returned to action at some point - indoors or outdoors. Needs new reed switches and a new track surround for starters.

There are a couple of solutions for the tyre furrows. One would be to make softer tyres for those skinny wheels. An alternative would be to switch to a wider Vincent wheel which takes Tyco front tyres - and Jel Claws make a tyre that fits.
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