I have had many hobbies over the years, from video gaming (I was an arcade junky in my formative years in the early 1980’s), music (guitars and guitar playing), shooting, off road motorcycling, and bicycling.
As I get older, I can enjoy fewer and fewer of these for a variety of reasons. I don’t play as many video games as I used to (in the 1990’s and early 00’s I was majorly addicted to FPS games. Now I play a couple rounds of Forza a month if I am lucky,) I struggle to play guitar as I have pretty severe arthritis in my left hand, as for shooting, I used to live in Arizona where there were lots of ranges and places to partake. Now that I am back in California, it is a lot less “fun”. C’est la vie. For motorcycling, in my early 40’s my reflexes started to atrophy, and with it, the risk went too high.
I do still bicycle, but mostly it is for fitness (or what level of fitness I can achieve with the time available to get out).
I realized I needed something fun to do, that is a distraction from the hustle of the day to day life. One thing that has always interested me was remote control modeling. Early in life I dreamt of building RC and flying RC planes. A neighbor across the street from where I grew up built and flew control cable airplanes, and I would go watch him practice this at the local park. Tres cool! (This was circa 1973 or so).
One of the trails that I cycle on runs by a local flying field, and to this day, I stop there and gawk at the fliers.
But I also realize that flight might be beyond my skill set. So what is something that is easier to nose into? That’s right, cars…
RC cars have also come a lone way from the primitive toys that we got for christmas in the 1970’s. You know, the ones that went forward straight, but to turn, they reversed, and that caused them to pivot. Entertaining – for about 30 minutes – and a terror for the cat, but not a great experience.
Back then, the only viable option was to use small glow plug nitro (nitro methanol fuel, two-strokes) motors that were messy, loud, and obnoxious to non -participants in the sport. There really wasn’t an electric option then, as motors were pretty weak, and batteries were low voltage and low capacity.
But the advent of high torque, high power brushless electric motors, and very powerful LiPo batteries, the dynamic has shifted, and there is a plethora of excellent choices to get started.
As a beginner, there are seemingly endless options to get into the sport. Some brands have offers that cover the gamut (Traxxas for example) with ready to run (RTR) rigs that minimize the learning curve. Others are more specialized, and then there is the competitive racing crowd, where you buy a kit, and you finish it how you prefer. The latter route is not advisable for rank beginners (like myself) regardless of how tempting it is. It is not that the skills required for assembly are difficult to attain and master, it is just that you have a fairly long build ahead of you, AND you need to select many components (motor, radio, servo, ESC, wheels, tires) to complete it, and as a n00b, you really have no background in to what to select for safe.
Plus, a kit and all the additional parts will cost more to get you in the game. This may seem counter intuitive to the uninitiated, but the RTR cars are all compromises. They come with good components, but on the lower end. Radios, motors, suspension and the like will be decent, but not something that an enthusiast would open their wallet for.
How to choose
There is an enormous amount of literature and how to’s on the internet. This literally didn’t exist when I was growing up. Back then, you were at the mercy of the local hobby shop, and of course they recommended what they carried. This wasn’t as terrible as it sounds, as you would build a bond with the guy(or gal) behind the counter. When I was an early teenager, I built a lot of models (tanks and planes were my thing) I spent a lot of time at D&J Hobbies in Campbell (may they rest in peace, I read that they closed a few years ago) and would have long conversations with the staff.
Alas, the local hobby shop, at least as I recall it, is no longer. Sure there are a few that remain, but they cling to life by being hyper-specialized. The internet hasn’t been kind to them, both from the pricing pressures of the behemoths (Amazon) and the proliferation of excellent quality content and videos, that whole business model of the local hobby shop is on life support.
So, you set off on your quest for information. It is helpful to answer some honest questions up front:
- What is your skill level? Are you a rank beginner? Have you dabbled in the past, and are looking to reenter? The sophistication of the sport is much more than it was 20, 30 or 40 years ago. For about $1,500 you can buy a gasoline powered 1/5th scale car that weighs 70 pounds (30 Kg) and will do 100+ MPH. You hit something with that at speed, and you can kill someone.
- Will you “bash” (that is tinker and drive ad hoc in open areas) mostly, or do you want to try your had at racing. Be honest here too, as what makes a competitive racer can reduce the fun of bashing, and a fun basher will leave you unsatisfied on the track. There is another category that is popular and fun, but maybe not for the n00b, that being crawlers. They are slow, designed to emulate a jeep doing insane things on rocks and trails with a lot of pucker factor. My thinking on that is it is probably not as much fun for a true beginner. Better to bash and build some skills before taking this spur track.
- How much money do you want to spend? To build a competitive race buggy you can expect to drop close to $2K, a lot of bread for a toy. A good basher that will provide a lot of fun can be had (1/10th scale) in that $250 – $500 realm, depending on how much power and speed you desire. Plus they are almost all RTRs
- Regardless of what you decide to spend up front, there will be additional costs. Most RTR’s do not have batteries, so you will have to select the type and size of battery you want. Plenty of cheaper NiMH options, but they are lower capacity, heavier, and less powerful. You are gonna want to go LiPO. But don’t forget that you will need a charger (and a good LiPO charger is worth spending extra money on). So that $300 RTR is really closer to $500 to be ready.
- Are you a tinkerer? Do you like to modify, tweak, customize your things? If so, then the world of RC cars is for you. There is an AMAZING amount of mods you can do, upgrades to better components, add more adjustability, change the characteristics of the suspension, bigger motors, better radios, … you get the idea. If that is your bag, then it is worth spending more money to get closer to one of those “kits” that the racers use. Then you can glom on to someone who runs a similar rig at a local race, and ask them what they are running, and what upgrades they have made. Trust me, they aren’t scary dudes, they LOVE to talk tech.
In summary, if you are unsure if this hobby will stick, you can (and should) go inexpensive. Traxxas makes great gear, and there is a huge online presence there. If you have a burning desire, and a budget to match, then step up to some of the other makers (Arrma, Losi, etc).
What way did I go?
I was torn between a short course truck, and a buggy. I know that I am mostly (if not only) going to bash, but to have the option to run at the local track was something I wanted in my pocket. Either way, I knew I wanted 4wd, as I know that provides a level of stability, and control that is helpful for a novice, even though it is a disadvantage for hot laps, and I know that I like tinkering.
I chose this, because it looked cool, it has great specs (it is not the cheapest option, but not unreasonable), and the TLR (Team Losi Racing) catalog has tons of race level upgrades for it.
The sad thing is that I tried to buy it at a local hobby shop, and one not too far away had it, but three trips there, and apart from talking to a very helpful customer who was amazing at answering my myriad questions, I couldn’t get the attention of the staff. They were too busy helping their regular clientele.
I tried to drop nearly $800 in their pocket, but I couldn’t get their attention. No wonder why Amazon, and other large online e-tailers are destroying the local shops. Customer service has gone to hell.