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Ross Township store home of Pittsburgh Slotcar Racing League

| Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014, 11:49 a.m.
Randy Jarosz | For the McKnight Journal
Frank Dempster of Bridgeville watches as his slot car makes a turn on the track Monday, Jan. 13, 2014, during a Pittsburgh Slotcar Racing League session at Legions Hobbies & Games in Ross Township.

In the back room of Legions Hobbies & Games in Ross Township, a computerized voice announced, “Race will begin in five seconds.”

Moments later, the sound of revving engines in tiny Audis and Jaguars filled the room, and the Pittsburgh Slotcar Racing League kicked off its second season Jan. 13 in its North Hills location.

“We're pretty much the only place in the area that does this,” said Legions owner Rob Pernell, who welcomed the league to his shop in July.

Slot cars are miniature race cars, often modeled after real race cars, that are guided by grooves, or slots, in tracks and have motors that are powered by an electric track.

The Pittsburgh Slotcar Racing League has been around for about three years and attracts car lovers and racing enthusiasts who gather once a week to compete. The league has about 20 adult racers who compete on Monday nights and 10 racers in the junior league, which is open to youths ages 6 to 14, on Friday nights.

“I always wanted to be a race-car driver,” league founder John Williams, 43, of Pittsburgh's Brookline neighborhood, said. “This is the closest I'm going to get to it.”

The art of racing slot cars, Williams said, is keeping the car on the track by slowing at bends but making good times by accelerating on the straights.

Racers moderate the speed of the cars with hand-held speed controllers that are plugged into the table.

In most races, cars are equipped with magnets that help hold them to the track, but league racers usually challenge themselves by running at least one race without magnets each session.

“It's not as fast, but I enjoy that the most,” said Pernell, who has some experience racing slot cars.

Enthusiasts can swap engines, add weight to their cars and change the wheels to make them faster. Cars sell for about $60, but collector cars can cost as much as $500.

League member Brad Herskovitz, 36, of Economy Borough recently picked up the hobby.

“It was something I liked when I was a kid,” he said. “It's fast. It's fun. The guys are great.”

With Pernell's help, a few league members have filled space that once was storage with a four-lane, 118-foot racing track that fills a 9-foot-by-32-foot table.

Moving at about 10 mph, each car makes it around the winding track in about eight seconds.

On Legions' track, four cars can race in each heat. There is a series of three-minute heats in a race. Races take about 45 minutes to an hour for all racers to clock their times. The car to complete the most laps in the set time period wins.

“I like to go fast,” Williams said. “I have the driving record to prove it.”

Racers pay a $5 entry fee each session, and the top quarter of winners are paid out in Legion gift cards, so the league can support its host.

The league previously was located in the basement of the A.B. Charles Hobby Shop in Mt. Lebanon until last March, when the store downsized and moved to Canonsburg, where it didn't have room for a full slot-car track.

When the league was left without a space to use, Pernell, 46, of McCandless, offered a location in the back of his North Hills store and invested about $3,000 in the track.

Even though the league doesn't pay rent, Pernell said, hosting slot car races has been good for business.

He hopes to have slot-car-racing birthday parties in the space by this summer, and anyone can pay to use the course during normal business hours. A one-time pass is $10, and a one-year pass is $85.

Legions has one of the last courses in the region. The hobby has seen a dip in popularity since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s.

League member George Hodder, 71, of Harrison City in Westmoreland County, raced slot cars in the '60s and said racing took place at a different track in the area every week.

“There used to be tracks all over the Pittsburgh area,” Hodder said.

Kelsey Shea is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6353 or kshea@tribweb.com.

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