Analog slot car racing speeds through today's digital world

Wednesday, December 13, 2017
The racing can get tense on certain weekends as some enthusiasts travel hours to race their slot cars in Lewisburg at Hot Slots.
Tribune photo by Erin Morris

The sound of tiny model cars buzzing and circling a track while families converse and watch others compete creates an inviting atmosphere in Lewisburg. It finally has a shop designated for slot car racing. AJ Riddle is the 31-year-old owner and founder of Hot Slots located at 711 Cornersville Road.

Slot car racing started in the early 1900s. By the '60s, the hobby flourished as it spread to America. Using pistol-grip controllers, people compete using handcrafted miniature electrically-operated toy racing cars on tracks. Unfortunately, the fad died out in the '70s due to radio-controlled cars, not to mention the introduction of video game consoles.

Hot Slots has a 20'x48' road course and an 88' drag strip with a scale of 1/4 mile. Every third weekend of the month, Hot Slots hosts a big race that attracts enthusiasts from all over. The prize money from this past month paid out over $3,500. Not only does Hot Slots attract racing competitors, but many have held birthday parties here too.

After the departure of his business partner, Riddle relocated from Columbia to Lewisburg in hopes of reviving the once popular '60s craze. Despite the stereotype-- older gentlemen-- Hot Slots' customers range from 4-year-olds to 70-year-olds. Some even drive over two hours to race in Lewisburg. Although Riddle sees many adults come in, families come to race too. He launched the store with the goal of uniting people everywhere.

"It's not just for the kids, it includes everyone," Riddle said.

Riddle gave up his management position at O'Reilly Auto Parts in order to pursue his passion for slot cars and to ensure the success of his business.

"You gotta go after what you love. It helps that it's one of the most fun jobs I've ever had," he said laughing.

Three years ago, Riddle was the only slot car racing place in middle Tennessee. What sets his business apart from his competitors? Riddle devotes time to helping and coaching all of his new and old customers.

"Lots of other shop owners won't spend time with some, but I will," he said.

According to Riddle, most public racetracks have closed, but the hobby is suddenly booming again with the help of the internet. It has made it easier to access parts for those who like to build their own cars, as well as connecting people interested in the hobby.

"These cars operate just like real cars, sometimes the parts break. Then, you need to replace them. That's the beauty of it," he said. His business has all the replacement parts for the model cars too.

If someone does not have a slot car, no worries. They can always rent one from Hot Slots for only $10 to race.

"You only need to do it once. Then, you're hooked," he said.

Some people have invested a lot into this hobby. Riddle's personal collection of slot cars is estimated at $8,000, and a new track is valued at $25,000.

The next step for someone who gets hooked is to buy the parts to build your own car. Hot Slots has everything you need to do that. From a simple starter kit for beginners, the shop truly helps make this a hands-on hobby. If you are not a DIY person, Riddle specializes in making custom cars for slot car enthusiasts.

Recently, Riddle has started making custom wheels for the model cars. Riddle has taught himself everything he knows.

"I didn't learn this from a class or anything, I just sat down one day and started playing with the numbers. It was a long process... trial and error, but I finally got the hang of it."

Riddle recently traveled to a slot car competition in Louisville, Kentucky. He made over $2,000 just from his custom wheels.

None of that means the hobby needs to cost a lot in order to have fun at it, however.

"Remember, you only need one car to win," a customer from Hot Slots said.

Hot Slots is open Wednesdays and Thursdays from 5 p.m. - 10 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays 2 p.m. - 10 p.m.