For a few moments, Joe Giegel is a giant.
He picks up a police car between his thumb and forefinger, sets it down at an intersection and sends it hurtling down the road, red lights flashing.
Giegel lets his inner child out when he runs his slot cars in the basement of his Spokane Valley home. An elaborate slot car track, complete with Goodyear barriers and slopes, winds its way around an entire room. About 130 miniature cars line the edges of the track, everything from new Miatas to the yellow dunebuggy with red stripes that Giegel’s older brother played with as a kid.
Slot cars, which experienced their heyday in the 1960s and ‘70s, are miniature electric cars, about the size of Matchbox cars, that are raced around a slotted track and controlled by a hand-held device. Slot car collectors say that besides being fun, the hobby improves hand-eye coordination and provides a good way to learn about mechanics. They also like the sense of camaraderie that results from communicating with other collectors.
“You can have more cool cars than Bill Gates and they all fit in your den,” said Malcolm Michael of Castro Valley, Calif., in an e-mail sent to Giegel.
Giegel’s interest in slot cars started when he was 5 or 6 years old and started playing with his brother’s cars and track. He kept at it until midway through high school.
“I used to take some grief about it when I was growing up, in high school,” he said. “My older brother’s friends and my older sister’s friends would make fun of it, then I’d go upstairs and half an hour later, they’d be fighting over who got to run the cars.”
When Giegel and his wife Lisa moved to Spokane two years ago, they discovered that they had room to set up a track. A few redesigns led to the current four-lane track.
Some slot car collectors prefer to keep their best cars on display, but Giegel said his track is designed for use, and it’s built with kids in mind. When he designs a course, Giegel focuses on creating something that’s challenging but navigable for his friends’ kids.
“I’ve got straightaways for the kids who like to just gun it and intersections for the kids who like to smash and crash,” he said.
Slot cars aren’t just for kids, though. One of Giegel’s friend drives up from Boise to race with him.
“They spend all day,” Lisa Giegel said. “It’s like little kids down here.”
Even the Giegels’ dog enjoys the track, standing on a chair and barking as cars whip around the curves.
Giegel is always looking for people to talk shop with. A self-proclaimed computer nerd, the Hewlett-Packard network engineer corresponds with other slot car enthusiasts on an Internet mailing list. He also buys some cars and track sections from people he has met through the Internet, and he has his own web site (www.concentric.net/jpgiegel) with photos and diagrams.
Though he’s seen some older cars being sold for around $600, Giegel says his “pain threshold” is around $20. He goes to White Elephant every week, periodically visits other hobby shops and sometimes orders supplies through the mail. Last fall, he attended his first slot car show in Cleveland and picked up a few cars there.
Giegel credits his interest with leading him into engineering, explaining that working with slot cars taught him about electricity, power, wiring and design.
“I think it’s always going to be around to some extent,” he said. “Any kid that likes to put things together would enjoy this kind of hobby. For older people, you feel like you’re back in the ‘70s, down in your basement doing this again.”
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