Racetrack brings slot car hobby to new life in Naperville

Slot car racing, which experienced a boom in the 1960s among boys of a certain age, is hoping to make a comeback in Naperville.

A track and hobby shop called mid-America Raceway is not only hoping to revive interest in slot cars, but also to bring new life to Ogden Mall on the city's northeast side.

These days, the strip mall is known largely for its vacancies, including a large former Kmart, making it the target of ongoing revitalization efforts by city officials.

While the new raceway occupies one formerly empty spot, Mayor Steve Chirico says the city will continue to work with property owners to fill other vacancies on East Ogden with "quality tenants."

Right next to Classic Cinemas Ogden 6 movie theater, mid-America Raceway is a 12,000-square-foot space with six tracks for slot car racing - several more than the average shop these days, owner Roger Schmitt says.

Each track has lanes, or slots, where competitors race homemade cars using pistol -grip controllers.

"The more you squeeze it, the faster it goes," Schmitt said.

But gather too much speed and the car will zoom out of the slot, adding a little physical activity to the sport.

"You have to walk around the track and pick it up and put it back on," Schmitt said. "Nowadays kids aren't used to having to walk - they look for a reset button. But once they come in and try it, they enjoy it."

Many of Schmitt's new customers are 6- or 7-year-olds who stop in with their families after a movie. For $5, a would-be racer can rent a pre-made slot car to try out for 15 minutes.

For anyone who gets hooked, the next step is to buy some parts - gears, tires, chassis, body moldings, maybe a starter set - and Schmitt's store sells them all. That's where the hobby truly becomes hands-on.

"You have to build a slot car," a fact Schmitt says could have contributed to the hobby's decreasing popularity over time. "People don't want to build their toys."

But for those who do enjoy building things, mid-America Raceway also sells tools and parts to put together trains, helicopters, airplanes, boats and other models. The track this fall hosted a world championship competition that drew 124 racers from 19 countries.

Schmitt also owns a slot car track and hobby shop in Bloomington. He says his businesses are among the few places where slot car enthusiasts can race in the area, aside from Dads Slot Cars, a combination track and ice cream shop in Des Plaines, and Chicagoland Raceway in Westmont.

  Homemade cars can race in lanes or slots along six tracks at the new mid-America Raceway in Naperville. Paul Michna/
  Ron Hershman of Anderson, Indiana, tests his slot car before a race at mid-America Raceway in Naperville, which offers six racing tracks and sells parts and tools to build slot cars, helicopters, planes, trains, boats and other models. Paul Michna/
  Driving a slot car at mid-America Raceway in Naperville requires a pistol-grip controller that makes the car go faster the tighter the operator's grip. Paul Michna/
  Slot car hobbyist Terry Watson tests his tires before hitting the tracks at mid-America Raceway in Naperville. Paul Michna/
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