ASHLAND — Here’s how to find Modelville Hobby: Walk through the workshops, factory floor, and shipping area of Lentros Engineering at 280 Eliot Street, where workers fabricate missile components for the Department of Defense.
There, behind a divider, sectioned off within the cavernous building, you’ll find what second-generation owner Peter Lentros calls “the ultimate man cave,” equipped with nearly a dozen slot-car tracks of different scales and sizes, including a behemoth known as the Purple Mile.
Slot-car racing’s heyday had ended by the 1970s. But Modelville Hobby will be alive with the thrilling whine of the miniature cars this weekend as the site of the H.O. Professional Racing Association’s 39th annual national championships.
The competition takes place Thursday through Sunday, from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m., with racers from more than 20 states lined up to compete in nine classes, six of which will determine new national champions, according to organizers. Spectators are welcome.
A slot car sits in a groove, or slot, that guides the car along a racetrack, with drivers setting the speed via remote control. The diminutive cars can travel more than 35 feet per second in competitions. Dynamometers, gaussmeters, pressure gauges, and infrared thermometers are used to maximize the performance of the cars.
However, it was the electric motor that powers the vehicles that first enthralled Lentros as a boy. Now 63, Lentros said he would hang around the laboratory at his father’s engineering company, and watch technicians develop motors to power electric clocks.
Lentros said he would go to the local dump and pull motors out of toys that had been thrown away to experiment on his own.
‘It has all the thrills of real racing, but when you fall off, you don’t die.’
“I’m riding my bike, and I’m 14, and I’m seeing people who were waiting in line to buy these cars. They’re on a track, and they have motors in them, and I knew that was it,” he said. “Here was a hobby where I could apply my love of motors and actually race cars.”
Lentros said he got his first slot car in April 1965, an Aurora Thunderjet. Five years ago, Lentros, who now runs his father’s company, returned to the hobby after a 20-year absence, and in a big way.
Today, he owns 11 tracks in different sizes, including a 220-foot circuit he calls the Holy Grail of slot racing tracks, the American Sovereign prototype, also known as the “Purple Mile.” According to Lentros, the track was built for the Playland at the Beach arcade in San Francisco. The track had spent decades in storage in Texas, and Lentros paid to have it shipped to Ashland and restored.
All told, Lentros said, he has put about $200,000 into the hobby, including purchasing and refurbishing tracks, and outfitting the space in his building for Modelville.
It’s the price of bringing back the legacy of slot car racing, Lentros said.
“It has all the thrills of real racing, but when you fall off, you don’t die,” Lentros said. “You really are controlling the car. There is no computer simulation. . . It is actual, real racing.’’
And some children who grew up racing the tiny vehicles are now serious adult competitors, such as those who will travel to Ashland for this weekend’s competition.
Nantasket Beach Race Club member John Stezelecki said he remembers when slot-car racetracks seemed to be everywhere.
“Back in the early ’60s you saw them in almost every single town. They were like Dunkin’ Donuts,” the Hull resident said.
Lentros said he expected competitors to arrive days before the races start in order to practice and familiarize themselves with the tracks.
One of those competitors is Mark MacVittie, who on Monday was already testing one of the tracks. MacVittie, now retired, said he has been racing slot cars since he was 8 years old, and expects to race against people he’s known for between 20 and 40 years. “I always come back to it,” he said.
MacVittie said he drove from his home in Chandler, Ariz., in his Mustang Shelby GT350. But he’ll be driving something a lot smaller in the next few days.
Said Lentros: “I think the biggest thrill, for me, is just getting a bunch of guys together, sharing ideas, helping each other, and bringing in new people. There’s a lot of camaraderie.”John Swinconeck can be reached at johnswinc@ gmail.com.