In the spirit of full disclosure, this reporter was once a regular at Mountain View's now-defunct Slot Car City. For some of us attending Graham Middle School in the early 1990s, who may have otherwise gotten into serious trouble, the track provided a perfect after-school activity.
But this story isn't about that, it's about the only serious slot car track known to currently exist in Mountain View: Shaun Lee's private "Shaunadega."
After Slot Car City closed in the late '90s, Lee, 48, kept the torch burning by bringing a large oval track, built by master track-builder Brad Bowman in 1997, to his own garage. Shaunadega is a wooden, eight-lane, NASCAR-style oval with stunning detail added by Lee, including a row of palm trees along the back straight made of green bird feathers, a working pit row and a jumbo-tron made from a small LCD screen.
After 10 years of club racing, Lee now also provides the space for children's birthday parties, introducing yet another generation to the decades-old hobby.
"It's a blast; I've been doing it for along time," said Stuart Skjerven, 48, one of about a dozen regulars who come from all over the Bay Area to compete in monthly races. "It's just one of those things where I can be an 8-year-old for a while again," he said.
To Lee, the appeal to racing the 1/64 scale cars is "the adrenaline rush," and the fact that it isn't dangerous. "It only hurts your pocketbook" he says. A laser corrective eye surgery technician by trade, Lee likes to spend his summer doing something actually dangerous: riding a motocross bike.
Slot car racing has been around since the 1910s. Each small electric car rides in a slot, with its speed controlled remotely by the driver. Too much throttle and the car may sail off the track.
Shaunadega has seen its share of spectacular crashes, including the time a car found its way into the fish bowl next to the track, and another time when a car literally exploded into pieces.
The test of concentration and control reaches its peak in Mountain View every summer, when Lee hosts the annual "Shaunadega 500," a reference to the real life Talladega 500. Lee takes two weeks off work to orchestrate the event, and somehow gets Budweiser to make posters with past race winners printed on them. He's even put a quarter-scale NASCAR on the roof of his garage. In the event's most successful year, over 40 racers showed up.
While its often adult men at the races, once in a while there's a youngster in the mix.
"It's a very focused group," Skjerven said. Before a race, "Everybody is very intent on getting their car ready and beating that guy next to them. Everybody does it a little differently."
A favorite at Shaunadega is the functioning pit row, complete with tiny skid marks, figurines changing tires, and row of semi trucks replicating the NASCAR team rigs from the 1999 season. During a race, racers must make a pit stop by hitting a control switch and carefully adjusting the car's speed so that it coasts through the dead section of track in the pits -- but not crash on the turn coming out. Precious seconds are at stake.
Some are attracted to the speed of the cars, which can go over 40 mph, while others seem to enjoy giving their cars incredibly detailed paint jobs -- like Jeff Hurley, the "Michelangelo" of painting tiny slot cars, Skjerven said.
The 1/64 scale cars are the smallest slot cars made, with others ranging up to 1/24 scale. Skjerven explained that his preference for the smaller cars started early.
"When I was a kid, the smaller the car, the larger the layout I could put on my bedroom floor," he said.
The pace has slowed a bit lately at Shaunadega with Lee's newest enterprise: children's birthday parties. On a recent visit to the track with two 6-year-olds it was apparent that he's had practice with the kids. Should things get out of hand, Lee turns the power down on the track's adjustable power supply, slowing the cars. The parties often bring repeat customers, he said, and cars and controllers are provided.
Rates for Lee's birthday parties range from $12 to $20 per child, which includes certificates for race winners and balloons. See www.shaunadega.com for more details.