At least once a month, an unassuming storefront in Sunset Park, Brooklyn transforms into a fierce battleground. Inside, a small crowd cheers and groans as miniature cars dart across a winding track, batteries buzzing as the tiny vehicles twist and turn like Formula 1 cars running through the streets of Monaco.
“This is like a chess match,” says Noel Lopez, the race’s champion. “You have no control after you place your car on the track, but that’s part of the fun.”
It’s just another race day at Rui Yong Hobby, a local shop in NYC that hosts monthly Tamiya Mini-Four-Wheel Drive (4WD) tournaments. The competitions regularly draw a group of 20 or more hobbyists hailing from all across the city and beyond, all itching to put their customized cars to the test.
Once considered a relic of the past, a curious piece of nostalgia, slotcar racing and its variants, like mini 4WD, are experiencing a modest resurgence. And NYC’s competitive racing scene—primarily centered at Rui Yong—might just point to the future of the industry.
“I’ve only been into Tamiya for a year or so, but it’s incredible,” says Lopez as he tinkers with his cars. Users have no control over mini 4WD models; they simply customize their car’s parts, switch on the battery, and place them on the track.
“It’s kind of like a science experiment to get the right setup,” he continues. “People think that because you don’t use a remote control, it must be simple, but that’s the furthest thing from the truth.” The rest of the competitors are a varied bunch: a pack of 20-somethings, families with young children, longtime enthusiasts, and middle-aged men simply looking to get out of the house.
“Listen,” says one man perched in the corner who asks to remain anonymous. “I’ve got two hobbies in this world: Tamiya racing and going to the bar. And my wife prefers I stick to the racing.”
Seated next to the man are Nelson and Christine Vega, who travel from Poughkeepsie each month with their two young children to compete at Rui Yong. Their family is so invested in the hobby that their daughter’s Girl Scout troop even adopted Tamiya racing as one of its primary fundraising activities. “No one upstate had heard of this,” says Christine, “so we brought it up to Poughkeepsie and it’s been a big hit. The beauty is that it’s cross-generational and anyone can play.”
Most of the racers at Rui Yong are relatively new to the hobby, and the shop itself is only about two years old. Lewis Lin, a local Brooklyn racer who grew up an avid Tamiya fan in his native China, attributes the hobby’s renewed popularity to the recent success of its competitors.
“Gundam models have become really big in the past decade,” he explains, “and typically, hobby shops like this one will sell Gundams right next to Tamiya. So I see a lot of customers going from one to the other. It’s a natural progression.”
The future of the hobby
Rising tides have certainly played a role. A 2017 study by the Association for Creative Industries showed that the hobby and crafting industry, thanks to renewed interest from millennials, had grown into a $43.9 billion industry, a 45 percent increase from 2011.
But it’s not all sunshine and rainbows, especially when you drill down and examine the hobby manufacturing industry in particular. According to the National Retail Hobby Stores Association, there are only about 3,492 hobby stores in the US—a sharp decrease from 5,000 in 2011.
That’s what makes social events, like Rui Yong’s regular tournaments, so crucial for the future of the industry.
“Unfortunately, the hobby market is often the to adopt new ideas,” says Fred Medel, marketing manager of Tamiya America, Inc. “For example: a lot of hobby manufacturers didn’t want to put barcodes on their products until the ’90s, and that’s a practice that was standard in the ’70s. And even recently, they continue to fax their orders to distributors. We tell them: ‘No, you can us or use our online portals!”
As hobby stores struggle to break old traditions, companies like Tamiya have been advocating that more of them adopt formalized racing structures. “One of the things we explain to retailers is that this will not work unless you have a racing program of some kind,” Medel continues. “If you just have the cars sitting in the shop with no way of racing, they won’t sell.”
These efforts are paying off. Brian Smolik, the owner of popular hobby blog Big Squid RC and the vice president of the RC Council of the Hobby Manufacturers Association, has noticed that the entire industry, from Tamiyas to slotcars to RC cars, are trending social.
“When I was in high school, I couldn’t be caught dead playing with a model car,” Smolik says. “But now, with our country’s emphasis on STEM and just geek culture in general being so popular, we see that people more than ever are willing to meet up and bond over this amazing hobby.”
In addition to more races at local hobby shops, Smolik has noticed an increase in multiday social events, like Axialfest, where hundreds of RC enthusiasts will gather to race their cars on miles-long tracks in the wilderness. “Some events will start at 10pm, and racers will wear headlamps as they follow their cars all night,” Smolik says. “It’s pretty wild.”
Although the hobby industry might be trending younger and more social, not of the old guard is resistant. Back in Brooklyn stands Buzz-A-Rama, the city’s slot car racing nirvana since it opened in 1965. Owner Frank “Buzz” Perri has seen the miniature racing scene rise, fall, and rise again three times over.
He still sits at the front register every weekend, chatting with racers.
“The racing scene has always been cyclical,” he explains. “But lately I’ve been getting a lot of new people who find me on the Internet and want to give it a try.” When Buzz-A-Rama opened more than half a century ago, there were nearly 50 other slotcar racetracks in the five boroughs. Today, Perri’s store is the last one left. “The others all got into the business to make coin,” Perri says. “For me, it’s a real passion.”
Perri is glad to see the hobby industry trending social—after all, it’s what he’s has been preaching since day one, with his store having hosted countless tournaments and birthday parties over the past five decades. In particular, Perri and his regulars have noticed that online communities and forums have made it easier than ever for younger hobbyists to buy parts and get involved.
“Some of the younger guys take their cars seriously,” says Thomas Foster, a 68-year-old Brooklyn native who’s been racing at Buzz-A-Rama every weekend for the past 15 years. “If I have a problem with my chassis, I’ll fix it by eye, but the newer folks will strap their miniatures to a jig and whip out a micrometer. stuff!”
From the old timers at Buzz-A-Rama to the new enthusiasts at Rui Yong, the hobby industry has arguably never been this social. And that’s music to the ears of enthusiastic drivers like Smolik.
“Why are we all so passionate about this?” Smolik asks. “It comes down to this: My wife would be happy if I parked a Lamborghini and a monster truck in my garage.” He continues, “So this is how we live out those dreams. And as long as the companies keep producing these cars, people will keep finding ways to race them.”