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Finishing the race

Slot car raceway and arcade in Greece is the last of its kind

The plazas and big box stores of Dewey Avenue frame a solid facade for subur- ban streets trailing into the night. One particular shop, though, lodged between a collision garage and Chinese restaurant, breaks the stream of white fluorescent with a kaleidoscope of neon. Past this mirage of color lies a wonderland of amusements that has persevered over the last fifty years.There, a man with a red, white, and blue windbreaker and bushy gray sideburns stands amid a dizzying cloud of lights, buzzers, cars, and vintage arcade games. This is Rodger Hoffman, the owner of Fantasy Raceways.

He throws the switch on a solid metal box with large dials (its industrial clunkiness something only the Cold War era could produce) and an electric hum revs up. Hoff- man chooses a blue Champion Turbo Flex from a glass display case cluttered with dozens of other small cars and car parts. He puts it on the track and picks up the control- ler, pushes his finger on the trigger, and BANG! With a high-pitched drone, like a tent zipper, the car streaks around the track.

The din of an arcade and the clutter of a tiny autoshop surrounds Hoffman, but he is the eye of his own hurricane.Trumpet sound effects issue from one of the games near the front desk, and it’s like he doesn’t hear them. The Indiana Jones theme trills from a pinball machine. Nothing. He’s in his element. The Turbo Flex flies around the track, past a soldering iron, bottles of oil for delicate gears and axles, and needlenose pliers.The items sit among receipts, notebooks, and half a dozen soda cans with the tabs removed.

Hoffman’s fingers slope gently to the tips, smoothed by thirty years in a business where finesse—whether on the slot car trigger, Discs of Tron joystick, or screw driver— makes the difference between victory and defeat. Hoffman says there used to be about a dozen slot car tracks around Rochester, but his is the last remaining. He estimates between fifty and 100 customers, hailing from Syracuse to Niagara Falls, trek to his shop on a regular basis. It’s just $2.50 per person for fifteen minutes with a car, a lane, and a trigger.

Slot cars are simple machines: a frame slightly bigger than an iPhone, a small engine, copper braids that connect to an electric track, and a little plastic wedge that fits in the slotted track.The driver stands by the track with a controller, and the more he or she pulls the trigger, the faster the car goes. Too fast, and it flies off the track. A child can do this, and a big part of Hoffman’s business is birthday parties. He says they always like it and usually come back. Even so, parties are not his bread and butter.

“The main business is actually adults,” he says. “People who did it when they were younger, back in the sixties.” Slot car expats. Guys who show up to race or just chat Hoffman up about the drag racers in American Graffiti or how “even though Stevie Nicks had an affair with Mick Fleetwood, she still has a lovely voice.” Slot cars were huge fifty years ago—kids had sets at home, or they went to a track like Fantasy. Guys still show up with wooden boxes full of cars and parts. Skull and crossbones decals are donned, as are nicknames like Centipede Bob and New Guy Mike (who has actually been a regular for five years).

The 145-foot track is divided into eight lanes, each with a color corresponding to a different car: red, white, green, orange, blue, yellow, purple, and black. Most of these are also represented in the dynamic show of neon lights overhead. Hoffman likes neon.

Cars fly around the track, and the rolling numbers of Hoffman’s 60s-era lap counter spin, keeping track of the winner. It needs tune-ups sometimes, but it’s been with him since the beginning. “I just like old-school stuff,”hesays.“Thewholestoreisoldschool. The only computer in here is the drag strip.”

Hoffman uses a key to open the metal drag strip control box with its twenty-five-cent price sign. He flicks a wire back and forth and takes a yellow hot rod called Gas Master from an oil-stained tea towel and places it on the track. He lets it rip. Gas Master is built with a hinge so it pops a wheelie while tear- ing down the track. Hoffman smiles. “That’s always a crowd-pleaser,” he says.

Hoffman does recognize the trends shifting, despite his affinity for old-school methods. After advertising on the backs of Tops receipts and restaurant placemats for a while, he has switched to promotions on sites like LivingSocial. But bring up the fade of classic Americana or motor head extinction, and he’ll counter with the rising popularity of pinball machines or the father/son, father/daughter teams that come to his shop.

Or, more likely, he’ll just throw the switch and invite you to take the Turbo Flex out for a spin.

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Pete Wayner is a freelance multimedia journalist in Rochester. 


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