Though Jim Cunningham’s home near downtown Little Rock is packed with cool stuff — including a huge steel rack full of vintage racing bikes, the toy car he bought the morning JFK was killed in Dallas, and a hairless black cat with the loudest meow you’ve ever heard — it’s the big slot car track that draws the wows.
The track writhes, black and sinuous, over pretty much the whole floor of Cunningham’s huge living room: 16 feet by 9 feet, with 65 feet of two-lane track poured into the space, wrapping in and around and through. Visually and technologically, it’s about as far as you can get from the little Tyco slot car set you may have received for Christmas as a kid.
For one thing, though the mechanics and principle is pretty much the same — a miniature electric raceway where cars follow a groove (the “slot” in slot car racing) in the track, each car’s speed regulated by a pistol-shaped controller with a trigger style throttle — Cunningham’s track is built for bigger cars that are almost a foot long, not the matchbox-sized, lightly-detailed HO-scale cars you might have played with. For another, it’s a digital track, the next generation of slot car racing. Some of the aerodynamic wedge cars in Cunningham’s vast collection of racers can reach a speed of 160 miles per hour and beyond (though most of his cars have a top speed of between 35 and 65 mph). Push a button on the controller as you approach an x-shaped switch in the track and cars can make lightning quick lane changes to pass slower drivers. Depending on how the track is programmed, it can even simulate things like random tire punctures, which make your car desperately slow until you come into the pits for a simulated tire change. Robotic police cruisers can chase and block the racers, blue lights flashing. With another programming change, the track can even simulate fuel, including sputtering to a stop when a simulated gas gauge hits E, forcing drivers to periodically pit and pause for a few seconds while the car “fills up,” just like real racing.
“In the real world, when your [race] car is light on fuel, it’s faster and the brakes work better,” Cunningham said. “This system electronically simulates that. When you pull into the pits and pull back out, you’ll find that the car feels heavier and is slower.”
Since moving to Arkansas from Southern California a few years back, Cunningham has been on a mission to spread the word locally about the hobby that has been his passion for over 50 years, drawing in both seasoned slot car fans and creating new ones. His business, Nomad Raceways, rents out portable slot car tracks in 10 sizes, from tabletop to huge (one of Nomad’s portable tracks is currently on a global tour of real-life race tracks with car maker Acura, to help promote the new Acura NSX supercar). Cunningham also heads the Central Arkansas Slot Car Racers club, made up of around a dozen people of various ages who get together at his home or travel to the handful of other large-scale slot car tracks around the state to hang out, show off their cars and race.
For his part, Cunningham makes a convincing case that slot cars aren’t just kid stuff. Even without the fancy digital simulations his track can do, he says slot cars are a genuine motorsport, and quite possibly the safest and most affordable way to get the thrills and competition of real-life racing.
A native of New Jersey, the slot car bug bit Cunningham early in life. In addition to over 100 cars he has built or bought over the years, displayed in acrylic cases that line the walls of his living room, Cunningham still has all the slot cars from his youth. As an adult, Cunningham moved from New Jersey to Southern California, where he built a brick-and-mortar slot car racing center with several tracks and over $100,000 in inventory. Simultaneously, he was building his reputation as one of the world’s most celebrated painters of high-end racing bicycles through his company CyclArt. In 2016, when CyclArt was purchased by Little Rock-based racing bike builder HIA Velo, Cunningham moved to Little Rock and brought most of his slot car goodies with him.
Though Facebook and word of mouth, Cunningham was soon able to tap into the small network of slot car fans scattered throughout Arkansas, and help others who once raced get involved in the hobby again. “When I meet someone locally who is familiar with slot cars, they almost always tell me that there used to be a place in Park Plaza Mall,” he said. “Apparently that was in the late ’60s. I have a couple of the club members who used to race there. But other than that, I don’t think there was much of a scene. I have connected with a few people who have tracks at home. One of our club members, completely independent of my influence, built a nice HO layout in his garage, so we go there to race. There have been a series of locations which have had a commercial track in a garage or someplace. They come and go.”
Cunningham said the people involved in Central Arkansas Slot Car Racers right now are mostly men, with backgrounds that run the gamut. He sees a lot of architects, engineers, auto mechanics and others who are crazy about vehicles and like to work with their hands. Some raced real cars and motorcycles, but grew tired of the risk and expense of full-size motorsports. One thing he likes to see at Nomad events and club meet-ups are parents introducing their kids to slot cars, helping Generation Screen put down the phone or tablet and get hands-on.
“If Dad plays a video game with [a child], that’s not a fair competition because the kid will slaughter him,” he said. “If you hand a kid a screwdriver, they may not know which end to use. But this is something that can bring them together. It’s a little bit engineering, a little bit competition, a little bit of a social event that’s not silicon-based. A lot of parents like it as an antidote to ‘silicon poisoning.’ ”
Though Cunningham has hundreds of hours in some of the cars he builds for shows and competitions around the country — perfect Lilliputian replicas of famous race cars, with opening doors and hoods, their frames and bodies all hand-built at a small bench huddled in the corner beside the track in his living room — he said most commercially available slot cars sell for between $35 and $75, either as a kit or ready to run. The cost-prohibitive part can be the track. The one in his living room cost around $20,000. But Cunningham is happy to share.
“You can come here to have fun,” he said. “That’s what the club thing is all about. I miss the club racing scene in Southern California, and would like to build a core group here who want to play. They don’t have to build a $5,000 track. They can use mine.”
One of those who rekindled their love of slot cars through Central Arkansas Slot Car Racers is Rodney Weber. Now 66 and retired, Weber bought a slot car in 1968 and raced for a few months at the slot car track in Park Plaza Mall. When the place shut down, he packed up his car and moved on to other hobbies. While moving to a new house a few years ago, he found the box containing his old slot car gear.
“I put it on my bench and tested it out, and it still ran, so I thought: I’m going to look around for a slot car track,” he said. “I didn’t find anything until I found Jim’s phone number. It said he had a slot car track, but he was just down the street. I thought that address must be wrong, but I called the number and Jim said, ‘Yeah, I’ve got a slot car track right in my living room.’ He invited me to come see it, and we’ve been friends ever since.”
In addition to the camaraderie of the club, Weber said he likes the affordability and niche aspect of slot cars. “It’s kind of hard to get people involved in slot car racing, but once you find somebody who gets the bug, they get into it and go all out,” he said. “The cars are cheap, the parts are cheap, everything is cheap compared to something like real car racing, bicycle racing or anything else. That would be one reason to get into it.”
Another who has befriended Cunningham through their shared love of slot car racing is Chris “Big Daddy” Dunegan of Batesville, who owns and operates Batesville Slot Cars and Hobbies, one of just a few commercial slot car tracks in the state and one of only around 300 left in the U.S., down from a high of over 4,000 tracks in the 1970s. A slot car racer since the late 1990s, Dunegan opened his shop a year and a half ago. Inside, there’s a huge, eight-lane slot car track with a 155-foot lap, and a 55-foot drag strip where 1:24th scale drag racers can top 80 miles per hour in under 2 seconds. Dunegan rents cars and controllers for $10 a day, and after you rent the same car seven times, you own it.
Dunegan said Cunningham — who Dunegan calls “Mr. Jim” — usually comes to Batesville to race at least every other Saturday, and Dunegan has been to Cunningham’s track a few times.
“He’s really been a huge help and a huge influence,” Dunegan said. “If I have any questions, I can call Mr. Jim and ask. He is definitely a slot car guy, and just a human encyclopedia. … Jim has some things that should be in a museum, but if he’s got it, you can actually touch it and drive it. It’s very, very cool.”
In addition to running Nomad Raceways rental business and building interest in the Central Arkansas Slot Car Racers club through social media, Cunningham has other ideas on how to spread the good news of slot car racing in Arkansas. One idea he wants to try is an event where competitors from all over the world attempt to set a new slot car land-speed record on a true quarter-mile track (an aerospace engineer friend crunched the numbers and told him a purpose-built land-speed slot car with that much room to run could theoretically go over 650 miles per hour if it didn’t fly apart first). Most of all, though, he just wants to get a whole new generation involved in the hobby he loves, both as fans and potential competitors.
“For me, it really covers all the bases of art, science, technology, social engagement [and] collecting. It’s got all of that. I think it encompasses a lot of interests,” he said. “You can take a model train style approach, or you can take a pure speed approach. You can go small, you can go large. It’s really much more diverse than you might think when someone just says ‘slot car racing.’ Unfortunately, most people’s experience with slot cars is that little set they got for Christmas with a very inexpensive power supply and controllers and cars that were hard to drive. People don’t learn the basic things they need to know to get to the point of really enjoying it. It’s a very broad and rich hobby.”