Norfolk's mini racing triumph

The revival of a once-famous club is the signal that slot cars are back in the fast lane.

By RICHARD BATSON

A row of red lights over the starting grid go out, and the cars whizz off in a whirr of engines.

Crowds are literally glued to the action in the grandstands. Scantily-clad girls add a splash of glamour in the busy paddock. And a mini Murray Walker peers down from his pit-side vantage point.

It's go, go, go! But the high octane motor racing thrills are not at Monaco or Monza. They are inside a shed in the depths of rural Norfolk.

This is slot racing as it gears up to a revival, after its 1960s heydays, when every boy's dream Christmas present was a box full of plastic track, some colourful cars and a hand controller that would turn you into the Stirling Moss of the dining room.

After slipping into neutral, as computer games took over teenagers' playtime, the hobby is making a comeback.

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And the revival of a once-famous club is the signal that slot cars are back in the fast lane.

The Presto Park Model Motor Racing Circuit, in its new home at Aylsham, is the reincarnation of a club which used to run in Norwich in the 60s and 70s - until a switch to expensive imported high performance American cars saw it move to Formula 1-style levels which were beyond the pocket of the average "clubman" racer.

Now, hey Presto, it is back, using affordable Scalextric kit at a time when the famous brand is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

Creators Mike and Averil Harvey have made a 100ft long track, with fast straights, tricky bends and a Goodwood-style chicane.

The landscaped circuit, which took three months to build, also has grandstands, a heliport, and 500 hand-painted people ranging from pit crews to promotional girls.

As well as the grand prix style starting lights, there are lap timers accurate to 1/1000th of a second, and a public address system for a race commentator.

On Wednesday club nights, eight marshals are positioned around the track to put crashed cars back on track. And the number of racers is booming with more than 20 people, some coming from as far afield as Suffolk, competing for championships in miniature sports, touring, Nascar and Formula 1 cars.

Lap records range between 6.28 and 7.48 seconds depending on class, meaning scale speeds equivalent to 300mph.

"I saw a gap for something like this," said former policeman Mike, who is a fan of the hobby and has a circuit at home.

While members were mainly middle aged men, there were also some keen teenagers who enjoyed the "more tangible" elements of slot racing to the virtual computer games.

"They love something which is more physical, and which involves preparing and building the cars as well as racing them," he added.

Even cars costing a pocket money few pounds could be made competitive with a few tweaks and tricks of the trade, including sanding down the tyres, freeing up the engines and bearings, and loosening the body from the chassis a little to make them more flexible and less likely to flip off the track.

One of the drivers, Paul Hassall, 53, from Norwich, said early Scalextric involved clockwork motor cars, before electric engines were put in tin plate racers on a rubber track which just had one on and off switch.

There was no comparison with the early days for road-holding and speed, he added, and there had been a 1980s revival of the hobby when cars were upgraded, including the addition of lights.

New digital technology was also set to revolutionise the fun by allowing cars to change lanes and block rival drivers.

But Presto Park is based on the traditional four lane slots, and Mike said that for £120 members could join and buy themselves a competitive car.

And the permanent track offers the solution to every Scalextric racer's nightmare - a muttering mum trying to vacuum around the track as it weaves through the dining table legs, and cars being chased and eaten by the pet dog.

Anyone interested in joining can call Mike or Averil on 01603 754319.

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