Scott's Slot Cars
H.O. vs. Large Scale Slot Cars
February 1, 2009
By Scott Lewis
Generally speaking this is the biggest question for anyone who wants
to get into slot cars as more than just toys. As a hobby
you can surely do both, but since absolutely nothing interchanges
between them you will initially have to decide between HO scale and 1/32
or one of the other large scale slot cars.
HO, or 1/64 scale, is much smaller than 1/32. Keep in mind that the cars are both twice as short and twice as narrow. In other words HO cars are actually 1/4 the size of 1/32 scale cars. This is very apparent with the track where the width of a two lane piece of track is 3" wide vs. 6" wide for the larger track.
Space and cost are the two major factors in deciding between the two scales. HO cars tend to run from $15-$35, while 1/32 cars tend to run from $30-70. You will spend at least twice as much per car (on average) with the larger scale cars. Track is worse. Expect to spend about 3 times as much on a 1/32 track than a HO track. When you see a HO race set for over $100 it usually means it is four lanes and includes a lot of track. For $100 in 1/32 you are going to get a basic oval or figure 8. Figure about $70-170 for a good HO race set, and $200-500 for a good 1/32 set. Price is a huge advantage to HO scale slot cars.
If your space is limited then HO may be the only way to go. You can get reasonable variety with a 4 lane layout on a 4x8 board with HO. 1/32 on a 4x4 board is going to be tough, and you will not get 4 lanes of 1/32 on a 4x8 board.
There are two major drawbacks to HO. 1) Realism, and 2) Digital.
Let's start with realism. Some of the "super" HO cars have such strong magnets that it takes little effort to drive at completely unrealistic scale speeds. My own G-Plus and Super-Magnatraction cars can literally hang upside-down from the track just from the magnets. Some of the older style cars (or retro designed new cars) that only use minor "magnatraction" require more skill to drive. Myself, I own 10 of the super magnet cars, and over 30 of the AFX Magnatraction cars. I enjoy driving the Magnatraction cars a lot more. In fact, my 10 year old son says he prefers the cars that "slide." Their speeds are more realistic as well. It requires more skill to get these cars around a track fast. It is not as pronounces as it is with larger scale cars, but it is there. I do not find a lot of fun in dropping a G-Plus car down and going near full speed everywhere on the track at speeds I can barely watch.
There is still a realism problem with the Magnatraction cars that slide. In turns with guardrails you can "lean" on the guardrail and drive much faster than with the inner lane. With a four lane layout 3 lanes are without a guardrail. There are ways around this. For two lane layouts you need to build your layout with equal time on the guardrail for each lane. The other alternative (and the only real solution for 4 lanes) is to buy or build borders. Borders would be the exact same height as the track and lay up against it. The car on the outside lane would be able to slide the rear tires onto the border without falling off the track. Racing would be even. Granted, borders on HO tracks is a nuisance, and except for people that build elaborate, permanent tracks I haven't seen them. I get around this by building four lane layouts and racing on the middle two lanes as much as possible.
What about digital. There is no digital in the world of HO cars. I remember during the seventies and maybe early eighties the HO companies tried building HO scale tracks that would allow lane changing. I know I owned one at some point in time. The version I remember was called TCR (if memory serves, for Total Control Racing). This system had track with walls built-in to each track. There were 3 contact "rails" per lane. The rails provided power to the cars. One car would use the left and right rail while one car would use the middle and right (or left) rail. This allowed 2 cars to share a lane. Cool! The problem with this is the lane changing mechanics. To change lanes you pressed a button on the controller. What happened was this button cut off power to the car and it would drift across the track to the other lane. You could not change lanes in the turns, because there was a divider wall between the lanes on turns.
This system did allow lane changing, but why change lanes at all. As mentioned there were walls on the track and walls between the lanes in the turns. The reason people wanted to change lanes was because they wanted the outside lane so they could "lean" against the guardrail at full speed. With TCR there were no guardrails and every lane in every turn had something to hold the cars in place. So who wants to "slow down" to change lanes. It didn't work.
If you want the digital experience, especially with the pit stops, refueling, passing, blocking, etc. then you have to set up to the big cars.
Large Scale (1/32)
For this discussion we will stick with 1/32 scale for the large cars. Read this article to see why I chose to use 1/32 as the reference for large scale slotted cars.
In the analog world large scale slotted cars are completely different from HO scale. 1/32 cars actually "handle." Really. These cars will slide through turns before deslotting. You have to control your speed much more accurately to get the most out of these cars. And large scale tracks usually do not use guardrails to "lean" against. One lane does not have a huge advantage over the other. Yes, if you are in a tight hairpin turn the inside lane must go slower, but also travels a shorter distance. The difference is much less than with HO cars. And this makes it a lot more fun. You have to get use to a car. Some cars will distinctly understeer (run forward out of the rail) and others will over steer (slide the tail out). The more you race the better you learn your car and the faster your lap times. This is called "skill." And skill in driving is the number 1 reason people choose 1/32 (and other large scale slotted cars) over HO.
Large scale racing also require large amounts of space. A 4x8 board is going to have a fairly simple 1/32 layout (and forget 1/24 on a 4x8 board). If you are going to setup a track on a game room or living room floor for a long weekend of racing than 1/32 is excellent. I have even heard of someone building a 1/24 layout in his backyard... on the grass... for a month. One of the reasons for this is that the cars need the distance to get up to speed. The larger the car the more time it takes to get up to speed, and the more speed you can get up to.
These speeds won't seem as fast in scale to HO, but put an HO car on a really large track with really long straights and it will feel slow compared to a larger car on a similar amount of straight. At the modest speeds you will reach in a home track 1/32 is very pleasing. Since it takes a more skill to drive these cars well it doesn't matter that the speed is not the same scale speed as HO.
The two biggest downsides to 1/32 slot cars is 1) Cost, and 2) Space. They take up a lot of space and they cost at least twice as much as an overall hobby.
The digital experience. This is where large scale slot cars take a totally different turn. Cars can change lanes, pit stop, refuel, pass, block, draft, etc. Most importantly you can race more than 2 cars on 2 lanes. These are elements of slot car racing that is not available to HO racing. Some people think digital is a bad thing. We will save that for another article. As for this topic if you want to go digital you have to stick to the larger cars. There are a lot of accessories for digital slot cars. Fuel towers, lap counting towers, wireless controllers, etc. It adds a lot to the experience.
There is no real conclusion here. You can have a lot of fun with either HO or large scale slotted cars. HO is less realistic, but that can be accounted for to a degree. Certainly you can build some very elaborate layouts for a lot less money and in a lot less space with HO. When you switch to the big cars you get more of everything that makes HO fun. More realism, more skill, more track, more costs, etc. Bigger is better.
If you have the space and the money I recommend going with the large scale. You won't regret it.