The Control Line of the Paved Racetrack

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Written by By Walt Wilson Bonus Feature
As seen in the February 2015 issue of Model Aviation.
SIXTY YEARS LATER

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The author’s car with a repaired and repainted body after the race on June 7.


Tether cars were built almost as soon as model airplane engines were invented. They evolved from running with handheld cables on parking lots to faster cars that had to be run on specialized tracks with a center pole capable of holding the great centrifugal weights generated by faster running cars. “Cable cars” generally run on a 66- or 70-foot diameter concrete track with a center pole. The cable attaches to a ball bearing near its base. The pole has a platform for a person to climb onto after holding the cable up during the initial laps to avoid catching on grass or other objects in the center of the circle. Tether cars could run more than 100 mph by the beginning of World War II. The American Miniature Race car Association (AMRCA) was established as a national rule-making and governing body. After the war, they came back strongly. The late 1940s and 1950s were the heyday of tether car racing with nearly 100 tracks across the country.

Another type of track was the “rail track.” Rail tracks were built from wood with four rails of channel steel mounted on one side to hold the cars in place. The cars had front and rear brackets containing ball bearings, which held the cars on the rails. There were powered rollers in the track to start the cars.

The cars were started then hand launched on a starting signal. As many as four cars could be run at once. It was exciting competition, but they were not as fast as cable cars.

Cars and engines were manufactured and sold in all of the well-stocked hobby shops. I started racing tether cars in 1947, along with my dad, Walter Wilson, Sr. My first car was a Dooling F powered by a red-head, black-crankcase McCoy .60, with battery ignition, soon followed by a faster McCoy Railton.

Initially, we ran on a 105-foot cable track in Lyons Park on South Broadway in St. Louis, next to the Anheuser-Busch brewery. We then joined a group in Belleville, Illinois, and built a much better track in Swansea, Illinois.

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Jim Crabb prepares his Class 3C Nelson-powered Kuebler/Ellis car for a run.


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Mike Baldwin built this experimental electric ducted-fan car from reinforced PVC pipe. He still has some developmental issues with it.


The competitive engines at the time were Hornet and McCoy 60s. Batteries with coils and condensers, soon to be replaced by magnetos, were the ignition source. Regular gas mixed 3-1 with heavy-weight gear oil was the standard fuel.

Glow plugs were introduced in approximately 1947, but they didn’t produce comparable performance. Glow fuel, though, particularly with various percentages of nitro methane, quickly became the new standard.

There were only three classes of cars for .60s (10 cc): Manufactured, Custom prototypes (looked sort of like race cars), and Streamliners. If you could reach 120 mph, you were usually a winner. The Dooling brothers came out with their .61 in 1947 and blew previous engines away with much-improved performance.

By the early 1950s, Custom Class cars were reaching speeds of 130 to 140 mph. The magic milestone of an official 150 mph speed was reached in 1953. By then, Custom and Manufactured cars were run in different classes.

Smaller cars were manufactured by Cox (Thimbledrome), Ohlsson & Rice, McCoy, Testors, and others along with numerous homebuilt Custom Class models. They usually ran on smaller tracks and were powered by engines ranging from .15 to .29. A collection of them, including one of mine, can be found at www.mitecars.com.

Custom .60-class cars were by far the most popular and machinists across the country built their own versions of them. The 1234 car was very popular. Racers would then purchase completed cars or install engines, build and install fuel tanks, bodies, ignition systems, etc. Magnetos were the preferred ignition choice.

In 1953, Charlie Flynt, a tool-and-die maker from Belleville, Illinois, designed and precision-machined his own line of Custom Class components, such as under pans (chassis), gear boxes, and axles. They were similar to the 1234.

My father and I each got components for two of the first five Flynt cars built. We finished the cars, I built the bodies, and we immediately started running in the low 140 mph range. Charlie was usually the fastest. We traveled the Midwest circuit, Anderson and New Castle Indiana; Chicago; Kansas City; and Belleville, which was one of the fastest tracks in the country.

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J. Phil McDonald pushes a car off to start it.


After some custom rework on my Dooling engine and running 65% nitro, on June 20, 1954, at Anderson, Indiana, I ran 150.50 on my first heat, which tied the existing world record for all classes of tether cars.

It was necessary to make a backup run within 2% to verify there wasn’t a timing error. On my second run, I turned 151.77 to set a new world record! The record stood until August 28, 1955, when Carl Franz turned 152.80. The record for that class of car, III B (side-exhaust Custom) with a 0.051-inch cable, is 164.23, with a 1234 car and Yellow Jacket engine, held by Roy Torrey. A rule change in 2006 increased the cable diameter to 0.059 inch.

Through the years, the major tether car manufacturers didn’t keep up with custom car technology and some stopped production of tether cars. Increasing costs, the loss of several tracks mostly because of noise complaints, and the introduction of radio-controlled cars caused tether car racing to diminish in popularity in the 1970s.

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Jurgen Ekberg and his world-class V Piccopowered FTL car.


Today, tether car racing is internationally popular and the absolute world record of 214.348 mph is held by Gualtiero Picco of Italy, who manufactures engines by that name. Recently, an experimental electric-powered American car turned 211.511 mph at a track in New York. The car is still in the development stages. More information about electric cars can be found at http://vectoracing.com. The AMRCA is formulating rules for electric-powered cars. There are no rail tracks and only three cable tracks left, and roughly 150 active racers in the US. The track in Jackson Park, Anderson, Indiana, built in 1946, is the oldest active tether car track in the world. It’s the Indianapolis 500 of tether car racing, but its surface has deteriorated. It’s presently the largest diameter (70 feet) and slowest of the three active tracks in the US. The other currently active US tracks are in Seaford, New York, and Whittier Narrows, California. They’re 66 feet in diameter (to conform to standard metric dimensions) and the smooth surfaces are treated for maximum traction. Traction is a critical issue for modern tether cars with .60 engines that can generate more than 14 hp on high nitro.

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Tom Pearson’s class 3C fully suspended Kuebler/Ellis with a Nelson .60.


My wife, Suzi, passed away after a long illness, two months short of our 57th wedding anniversary. I began to think about how I wanted to spend the rest of my life. After much thought, one of the things I had on my bucket list was to again visit the Anderson track, hopefully see some old friends, and see and hear the cars run again.

I had been in communication with John Ellis, who builds cars and engines, and Nick Tucci, president of AMRCA, through the years as questions about old cars came up and I found photos to donate to the archives. When John learned that I was going to Anderson, he graciously offered me a car to run.

The car had been loaned to another racer who left the body in rather rough condition. With John’s consent, I repaired and repainted the body. My son, Larry, grandson, Alex Blodgett, and brother-in-law, Bill Predock, and I went to Anderson on June 7. Mike Baldwin, one of the racers, had been there when I set the world record in 1954! After the hellos and new introductions, I prepared to run.

The Class III A (rear-exhaust Custom), car John sent me is the first Kuebler/Ellis with the first Eagle .61 engine John built in 2002. He supplied his Funny Stuff fuel, too, which is 86% nitro.

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The Kuebler/Ellis car with an Eagle .60 engine.


The running procedure is to push the car off and it will run rich until the fuel level changes from gravity to centrifugal force. The engine will then lean out and come in for timing. The racer pushes a button when he feels it’s running its fastest and it’s timed for 6 laps— 1/4 mile on the 70-foot track.

The car is then shut off by holding a broom down and tripping a fuel shutoff, actuated by a wire or other trigger extending above the car’s body. Neither of the men scheduled to run before me was able to get his car started. I was to make the first run of the day.

It started easily. Listening to the run later in a video verified that it didn’t accelerate normally, but broke loose and started spinning wheels after about five laps. I believe that’s when a tire came apart. It didn’t really “hook up” after that. I took time when the digital readout reached 156 mph.

Upon stopping the car, I discovered that the left rear tire had come apart and the remaining tire was probably spinning throughout most of the run. The engine was probably turning in excess of 30,000 rpm! The official time was 154.506 on the first heat, which was the first time I had ever heard the engine run

I changed tires and the glow plug and battery, and then made a second run. Something had shaken loose because of the imbalance of the destroyed tire, and it never leaned out until right before it ran out of fuel. I later discovered a leak in the fuel tank and a snapped-off head screw! Between lack of sleep and the 90° heat, I wasn’t feeling well so I called it a day. As it turned out, I posted the fastest time of the day, which was a welcome outcome for my first time to run in 41 years and the 60th anniversary of setting a world record at the same track.

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J. Phil McDonald’s Class 9A Watson car powered by an O.S. .46.


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In 1954, the author, Walt Wilson, then 22, set a world record of 151.77 mph with his Dooling-powered Flynt car.


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The Kuebler/Ellis car that the author ran in Anderson IN on the 60th anniversary of setting a world record at the same track.


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Jim Crabb’s Class 3C (fully suspended) Kuebler/Ellis car with a Nelson .60 for power.


The car I ran is 21 inches long and weighs 6 pounds, 8 ounces. Today, the newest version that car would cost approximately $6,000 ready to run. A fully suspended Kuebler/Ellis car (the one I ran has a suspended front end and solidly mounted rear end) with an Eagle .61 engine, would cost $6500. Hundreds of older cars are available on eBay and from other sources at much lower prices and there are more than a dozen AMRCA classes for practically any post-World War II type of car. Visit http://amrca.com  for rules, class breakdown, race results, photos, links to clubs and manufacturers, and more information. If you look at the posted results from AMRCA national races between 1954 and 1959, you’ll find my name in most of them.

I want to offer my thanks to J. Phil McDonald and the people at the Anderson racetrack for their hospitality and congeniality. Thanks to John Ellis for a great car and necessities to make it competitive! I want to thank my son, Larry, for his help at the track. Now, I’m working with John to get a new car and Larry and I are planning to return to Anderson, and possibly other tracks, for more races!

—Walt Wilson

 

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