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RC racing makes Powell debut

Homesteader dirt track a hit with drivers

The tone sounds. Accelerators are hit and drivers launch themselves into motion, navigating turns, straightaways and a variety of jumps and bumps. A burst of speed at the wrong moment causes one vehicle to land nose-first, tumbling several times before coming to a rest on its side.

No worries. This is the realm of remote-control racing. Within moments, the vehicle is lifted, set on all four wheels and the race continues on.

The scaled-down motor sport made a debut of sorts on Sunday in Powell’s Homesteader Park. Members of a Billings race club and local enthusiasts joined forces to christen Powell’s dirt track. The course, which received rave reviews from the Billings crowd, is located between the horseshoe pits and the aquatic center.

The track is the brainchild of Powell resident Chris Schulze, president of the local remote control flying club, the Wyoming Sagebrush Hoppers, and a remote control racing enthusiast since the 1980s.

“We saw they were redoing the park and took a chance and asked if we could put a track in over there,” said Schulze. “They said to go ahead.”

The result is a dirt track laid out within a rectangular footprint. There are several tight corners, rolling bumps and elevation changes. A newly-constructed wooden platform provides drivers a raised vantage point from which they can observe the entire track and pilot their vehicles. Transponders in each vehicle relay lap times to a computer, enabling race organizers to determine the fastest lap times for each driver.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Schulze said of the activity. “That’s what it’s all about. This first race was a freebie designed to get people out and and having fun.”

Future races, Schulze said, will be sanctioned by ROAR (Remotely Operated Auto Racers), a U.S. and Canadian governing body that sanctions events throughout the two countries, including national championship races. Among other reasons to join, Schulze says, membership in the national organization provides some insurance benefits to racers.

The Powell course is described as a “short course” by Schulze. The description isn’t meant so much as a reference to the track’s length as it is an allusion to the technicality of the course. While there are some track sections where drivers are free to put the hammer down and go full throttle, the bulk of the course is designed to test an operator’s precision on the various turns and jumps.

“It’s designed to be tight and twisty,” Schulze said. “On a speed course, if you crash, you might be half a lap down and out of the race by the time you get back upright. On a short course, you still have a chance to get back into the race.”

Due to the nature of the track, the course sets up well for electric vehicles with a low-end acceleration.

“It’s a driver’s track,” Schulze notes.

And it is an activity that is catching on. He estimates about 15 people have purchased vehicles in town. A basic race-worthy unit retails for approximately $120.

“That comes with the batteries and everything,” Schulze said. “Hopefully that keeps it affordable for the kids.”

Make no mistake though, remote control racing is hardly an event that’s just for kids. As Sunday’s races went on, youth mingled with adults on the race platform to take turns guiding their vehicles through the twists and turns of the Powell track.

Schulze said there’s no minimum age to participate in races — ROAR’s national webpage proclaims a membership that ranges from age 7 to age 70. The Powell driver says, in his experience, those younger than 14 tend to struggle when racing.

“There’s times you have to go slow in order to go fast,” Schulze said, referring to the need to cut velocity in order to safely navigate the technical sections of track. “Younger kids sometimes just want to get out there and floor it, because it’s a race. They have problems with trying to slow down and take corners.”

Sunday’s crowd showed a mix of all age ranges. Fathers and sons raced while families and individuals walking nearby park paths gazed on in both interest and curiosity at the happenings on the track.

“I started racing in the 80s,” Schulze said. “It’s a great way to pass the time and to meet some great people. Hopefully, with a track here in town, it’s something that will catch on. It’s a great activity.”

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