Burning Rubber by Remote Control : Radio cars are enjoying a resurgence, among novices and experts alike. The high-tech hobby has a strong following in the Valley.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

What goes around comes around in the radio-controlled race-car business--like the miniature vehicles themselves. Which is why rubber is burn ing once again in neighborhood parking lots.

In Woodland Hills, just a trophy dash from the curb at Victory Boulevard, members of the Tarzana-based Competition Oval Racing Club spend two weekends each month racing on asphalt just outside Victory Speedway, a hobby shop for radio-controlled racers.

"We blow off the pavement, lay down some sugar water to make it sticky and people who buy a car have someplace to drive it against other cars," owner Robert Sarnelle said. "We used to have it in the back part of the parking lot, but we moved it out front to make it more visible."

"Parking-lot racing"--inexpensive, entry-level competition for operators of 1/10th scale, battery-powered "RCs"--has become hotter than a Ferrari at a swap meet in the past two years. The practice is not new, just rediscovered.

Upon their debut in the early 1970s, radio-controlled vehicles sped to popularity as organizers held races on seemingly every spare speck of pavement. However, with the advent of national and even world competition, the hobby has grown more expensive and racing venues more sophisticated.

In 1993, participation was down about 40% nationally from the previous year, according to the National Organization for Racing Radio Controlled Autos, or NORRCA, a 15,000-member sanctioning organization based in Alta Loma.

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RC retailers, organizers and operators hope taking their show back to the streets will pump interest into a hobby that all agree could use a swift kick in the tailpipe.

"It definitely has been down, but we think it's starting to go back up," said Gene Husting, co-owner of Associated Electric in Costa Mesa, a major manufacturer of radio-controlled vehicles. "If a hobby shop wants to sell a lot of RCs, the best way is to have a lot of RC events. And some of these hobby shops have learned that (business) starts to grow pretty soon."

Parking-lot programs have popped up throughout Southern California, including in Orange, Santa Ana and Yorba Linda.

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In March, Race Prep Raceway in Chatsworth got with the program, offering parking-lot races two weekends a month. The shop has offered an indoor dirt track since opening two years ago. But doing it on the asphalt has become, well, the thing to do, owner Steve Dunn said.

"People started asking about it," Dunn said. "It's a little bit easier for newcomers than dirt racing and it doesn't take a lot of money to open up a parking-lot track. Plus, the traffic that drives by. . . . People see it, they stop and they're amazed. We see them as potential customers."

At both Victory Speedway and Race Prep Raceway, participants pay $10 for a full day of competition. Between racing, operators tune their cars and schmooze with competitors.

"The nice part about this is that it's local," said Ted McDonald of Canoga Park, who began racing five years ago. "I used to make two-hour drives to go to races on Sundays. . . . Yorba Linda, San Diego, Bakersfield. I'd leave at 5 o'clock in the morning and come home at 8 at night."

The makeshift tracks can be reconfigured weekly to form oval or road courses. Plywood and fire hoses serve as perimeter walls, and fruit punch is applied to the pavement to provide traction.

Operators navigate from atop a wooden grandstand. Laps are tallied by a computer with the aid of a coin-sized transmitter in the nose of each car that sends a signal to the computer when crossing the start-finish line.

The cars are state-of-the art in technology and design. Chassis, axles and wheels are made of carbon fiber--lightweight, yet sturdy material similar to that used in aircraft. Steering and suspension pieces are crafted from titanium.

"The general public is not aware of what is involved in radio-controlled racing," said Frank Killam of Burbank, a 22-year RC veteran who works as a design sculptor for General Motors at the company's Advanced Concept Center in Newbury Park. "The sophistication of the radio-controlled car industry is just short of the aerospace industry. When I started racing, these cars, basically, were a toy that you raced around in your driveway."

As the industry boomed, serious competitors began spending hundreds of dollars modifying their cars in search of greater speeds and higher levels of competition. Manufacturing accessories became a business itself. Some cars today are worth as much as $1,000.

Regional and national competition attracts hundreds of operators, and races take place at tracks built specifically for radio-controlled vehicles, or on high-banked ovals designed for bicycle racing.

The Olympic Velodrome at Cal State Dominguez Hills, a 333-meter track regarded as the Daytona International Speedway of RC events, serves each September as the site of a weeklong competition that attracts more than 350 of the world's top competitors.

However, the number of tracks across the country has begun to dwindle. The Encino Velodrome near Balboa Park stopped staging RC events in 1991. Other RC tracks in Encino, Northridge, Pomona and Santa Anita have closed during the past two years. Last year, four more tracks in California closed, including those in Bakersfield and Costa Mesa.

"The cost of competition became too much for some people," said Dan Moynihan of Chatsworth, an RC manufacturer and race promoter. "Tires, bodies, chassis, components. . . . Obviously, if you're racing against somebody's machine that is technologically more advanced over what you have, you either have to step up or leave. (Some people) got frustrated and left."

A return to the hobby's roots is geared toward attracting newcomers by keeping costs down and competition levels reasonably high.

In February, NORRCA began publishing guidelines for entry-level competition suitable for parking lots. Separate classes are established for novices and experts, and modification of cars is all but prohibited.

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"The parking lot stuff has helped pick things up," NORRCA PresidenR. Sitman said. "It's not a high-money thing. It's geared more toward Mom and Pop and the kids coming out to spend a few dollars in the afternoon."

Advanced technology has helped matters, too. Last year, Japanese companies Kyosho and Tamiya began marketing affordable "complete-car kits," race-ready vehicles designed to give entry-level racers high-quality performance at a minimal expense. The cars sell for between $150 and $300, including the controller, battery charger and batteries. Sarnelle and other owners say the cars are big sellers.

"It's a lot less expensive to get into the sport than it used to be," Dunn of Race Prep said. "When I first got into it in 1980, a car was about the same price, but you had to modify it with another couple of hundred dollars worth of stuff to make it work well."

Of course, serious competitors still spend thousands. Killam estimates he has pumped more than $100,000 into the hobby over the past two decades. McDonald, who has earned an expert ranking, fields several cars in competition.

But even the Richard Pettys of the RC world are finding the time for a stroll through the parking lot.

"This isn't like at a major track where most guys there are so busy trying to win they don't have time to talk," McDonald said. "Here, there's no pressure. Sometimes, I actually laugh while I'm driving."

Where and When What: Radio-controlled race-car competition.

Location: Victory Speedway, 22960 Victory Blvd., Woodland Hills.

Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. first and third Sundays of the month.

Price: $10.

Call: (818) 888-9000.

Location: Race Prep Raceways, 20115 Nordhoff St., Chatsworth.

Hours: 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. second and fourth Saturdays of the month.

Price: $10.

Call: (818) 709-6800.

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