Tool boxes and buzzing motors surround the tinkerers, mechanics and racers of Fresno who appear each Saturday in the parking lot of HobbyTown for one reason – cars.
With shoebox-size race cars zipping around a parking lot track at up to 50 mph, up to 100 central San Joaquin Valley hobbyists gather weekly to learn, race and, hopefully, win.
The business of racing radio-controlled vehicles in Fresno is growing and changing as new generations gain interest and old ones stay passionate. Every weekend, dozens of racers and their loved ones attract curious passers-by to watch at HobbyTown USA on Barstow Avenue.
“These cars are our out-of-the-house women,” Gary Elias said with a laugh. “It’s hard for our wives to get too jealous over a little pile of metal on wheels.”
A theme for many racers was the addictiveness of the hobby and how easy it was to lose themselves in the set-up and speed. The hobbyists ranged from novices learning the ins and outs to veterans who have been racing each other for decades.
“When you’re racing, it’s like you’re out there on the track, inside the car,” Elias said. “It’s such an adrenaline rush. You’re really connected with the car.”
Elias, 43, has been racing for more than 20 years since his brother introduced him to the sport. Although he works as a superintendent for a general construction business, his passion is radio-controlled cars. Now he is getting his teenage son, Taylor, into racing and travels around the country to compete.
“You’re never at a point where you can’t get any better,” Elias said. “There’s always somebody faster, and that challenge is what keeps me coming back.”
He spends close to $10,000 annually on racing, on everything from entry fees to repairs. It’s hard to make money racing, he said, but the opportunity to spend time with family and friends is worth it.
These cars are our out-of-the-house women. It’s hard for our wives to get too jealous over a little pile of metal on wheels.
Racer Gary Elias
Although not everyone spends such large amounts on the hobby, it is still relatively expensive. Entry fees are only $10 (or $5 for novice racers) at HobbyTown’s Saturday races, but the cost of building and maintaining vehicles adds up quickly.
HobbyTown began hosting races nearly three years ago with an average of 20 entrants every weekend, but that number has grown to sometimes reach the 90s. On June 18, 63 people entered, which race director Cody Sanders called an average number.
“We’re definitely busiest when we’re racing,” Sanders said. “RC cars anchor our store.”
In fact, about 35 percent of the store’s profit comes from radio-controlled products, according to store manager Justin Morgan.
Although many racers pick up parts at HobbyTown, websites like eBay and Amazon also are popular places to find used or bulk pieces.
Starting from scratch, it’s easy to spend anywhere from a couple hundred to a couple thousand dollars on a frame, an engine and other supplies, but prices vary depending on the type of car. As with a large-scale vehicle, maintenance and repairs can range in price depending on what needs fixing or replacing.
“Pretty much every time you race, something happens,” Kevin Loberg said, pulling out a huge cardboard box filled with dozens of tires. “You go into it expecting to spend anywhere from $20 to $40 between the entry fee and whatever repairs you’ll need to make that weekend.”
Luckily for newcomers, the open parking lot surrounding the painted-on racetrack is lined by people like Loberg with boxes full of spare pieces to trade and share.
He said many of the racers share knowledge and parts with each other, regardless of their intense competitiveness on the track. He and Elias agreed they would rather win because they were better drivers, not because their car was working a little better.
During the races, friends, families and curious bystanders join the parking lot activities to watch entrants measure the intricate engines before replacing the covers to transform gears and axles into sleek vehicles.
One of the youngest racers on the track was Evan York, who will be going into fifth grade this fall. His uncle, Rod Bandy, has been racing cars for close two decades, but that Saturday was the 10-year-old’s first race.
“Just driving is my favorite part,” he said. “I’m most excited about getting to finish some more races.”
The races are often family affairs, and some families bring lawn chairs and tents to spend the day in, according to Heather Bloomer, who was there with her husband. Although she doesn’t race yet, Bloomer thought it was a matter of time until she, too, was working on the tiny engines.
“It brings people together,” Bloomer said. “Whole families race together – you’ve got people who are new and learning, then there are people who’ve been doing it for years and years.”
HobbyTown is the only on-road track in the area, but there are seven dirt tracks scattered throughout the central San Joaquin Valley. Racer Ryan George built Local RC Racing, a website dedicated to keeping tabs on the sport in the area.