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Brian Ferguson
3,652 Posts
It was four o'clock in the morning. The snow was falling in near blizzard-like fashion, whipped into little tornadoes by a brisk north wind. A glow emanated through the frosted window of the basement workshop, illuminating the dancing snowflakes as if on some unnatural, surreal stage.

Inside, a figure sat in front of a cluttered wooden workbench, atop a tall stool, gently turning an object in his hands. He appeared mesmerized by the thing he held, as if the shininess of the metal or perhaps the complexity of its construction had hypnotized him. Curled up on the floor beside him, the golden retriever had long since given up waiting for his master to make the customary preparations for retiring, and was fast asleep.

To a casual observer it might have seemed that Ray Sallot was in a trance, but every now and then he turned away from the workbench, made the short trek to the basement fridge, grabbed another beer, twisted the top off and blindly fired it into the wastebasket, before resuming his perch on the wooden stool. Each time Ray moved, the dog would cock open one eye, follow his movement across the room, then drift back to sleep when he returned. Ray had been here for hours, seldom moving, but his mind had been racing at a feverish pace, ideas developed and discarded faster than a politician's promises.

There had to be a way. He could sense it. He could almost taste it. Only the mechanics of it were eluding him.

Suddenly, he raised his head and stared at the old Porsche 956 resting on the shelf at the rear of the bench. He put down the brass and wire chassis that he had been fondling for ages, and reached out to pick up the Porsche. Briefly, he touched the car's pickups to his bench power supply. The rear wheels spun as the motor received power. The headlights and taillights he had installed lit up. He removed the car from the power. The lights stayed on. One minute passed, then two.

"That's it!", he cried aloud. The startled retriever jumped up, banged its head against the workbench, yelped, and dizzily sat back, gratefully accepting absent-minded condolence pats from Ray's empty right hand. He continued to stare at the glowing headlights of the 956 that he held in his left.

Slowly, he put the Porsche down, and still transfixed by the glow of the headlights which were just now beginning to fade, he pulled a small parts cabinet toward him from its perch at the rear of the bench. He slid open several trays and quickly sifted through their contents, removing several bits and pieces and putting them to one side.

"Just one thing left", he muttered quietly. Reaching under the bench, Ray pulled out a small cardboard box labelled 'Armature Rewinding Stuff'. He opened the box and removed a small spool of fine magnet wire. Next, he took an old axle and quickly chopped off a half-inch length with the Dremel tool that always hung within reach above the bench. "Damn!" The dog's ear twitched as Ray cursed. Once again he had held the metal in his fingers too long while cutting it. He gave the finger a quick lick, blew on it, and carried on. Slowly and deliberately, he wrapped several layers of the magnet wire around the small piece of steel axle, then cemented it in place with a few drops of CA glue.

"One more beer", he said, looking down at the dog. When he returned, he plugged in his soldering iron, took a long drink from the bottle, and contemplated what would prove to be the true test of his idea. Ray grabbed the coil he had just wound, a resistor, and a large capacitor. With the iron hot, he soldered them into a complete circuit, adding two wires from the capacitor's leads. He stripped the outboard ends of the two wires. "Now or never", he muttered. He touched the leads to the bench power supply. A bead of sweat formed on his brow as he realized that the next step was the ultimate proof of his concept. Ray removed the leads from the power, then picked up the rest of the axle he had just cannibalized and moved it slowly toward one end of the coil he had wound. When the axle was within one inch, it suddenly flew out of his hand to the end of the coil and stuck there, magnetically. After some 30 seconds, it fell away, the capacitor's charge, and therefore the coil's, now dissipated.

"Yes!", he cried, and the dog again jumped, careful this time to avoid another head injury. "We can do it, Tequila, we can DO it!", Ray announced to his companion, who didn't have a clue what the fuss was about but gladly took the pats and ear scratches that were offered. "C'mon, boy, let's go to bed. We can start putting this all together tomorrow." Ray switched off the light and the pair headed upstairs, just as the darkness outside began to give way to the slow creep of dawn.

It was almost noon when the retriever gently nudged the sleeping figure. A cold, wet nose on a human cheek just can't be ignored. Ray twisted away, then opened one eye, looked at the clock, and jumped out of bed. He let the dog out, put on a pot of coffee, and, as if questioning his own sanity, took a quick trip to the basement to make sure he hadn't been dreaming. The experiment of the night before, along with the many parts he had picked for use today, still lay on the workbench. He went back upstairs, let the dog in and fed it, wolfed down a quick breakfast, and then the pair headed back downstairs to begin turning all of Ray's theory into reality.

It was Monday. A time card at the rail yard would sit idle for today and tomorrow. It was Ray Sallot's weekend. A carefully chosen job bid had got him what he wanted - Monday and Tuesday off - perfect since race night was on Tuesday. He always had time to react to what others had shown up with the week before, and he had the perfect two days off for motivating him to do something about it. In reality, Ray was one of the top racers, and seldom had to react to anything. More often than not, HE was the one who had outclassed the field with a new chassis design, or built a motor that outran everything, or just plain outdrove the other entries. He was a die-hard slot racer, but he was more. Much more. He was a gentleman racer - the kind of guy who, in the midst of a race, would reach for, and reslot, another driver's car that had deslotted at the worst possible place. Sometimes his ethics had cost him a win, but that was Ray.

It was different now though. The other racers all had digital controllers, some of which even had tiny LCD screens for altering values, programmable logic array chips in the cars that effectively emulated traction control and anti-lock brakes, and a host of other things that made Ray feel as if the entire hobby had gotten away from him. It wasn't slot racing anymore. It wasn't about who could build, or who could drive - it was about who could afford. It was also about contacts. Some of the guys were getting help from the factories - the latest, greatest, confidential stuff. They didn't have a clue how it worked, and they didn't need to. They just needed to know that it did. They pressed the trigger, the car rocketed to the front and stayed there. Secrets had replaced the sharing of knowledge that Ray had always thought was the cornerstone of the hobby.

Last Tuesday had been the straw that broke the camel's back. It was the penultimate round in the championship - Ray was leading by a scant two points over a factory backed driver. In two of the early heats, Ray had paused to reslot that same driver when he had deslotted on the pit straight. The driver said nothing. In the final heat, Ray had overcooked it coming onto the drivers' straight and slid to a halt in front of the same driver, who passed Ray's car without a second thought. Two and a half laps went by before a turn marshall was finally able to wedge himself between the factory driver and the track to reslot Ray's car. Ray thanked the marshall, who was genuinely shocked that such an acknowledgement could, or even should, be made.

Ray finished fourth that night, and dropped to third in the championship points race. For two days, he had thought constantly about why he still raced, when the comraderie was gone and politics and business had become the cornerstones of the sport, and ultimately decided that his day was done. With grim, determined acceptance, Ray vowed that there would be one more race, the last in the season's title chase, and the last that he would ever contest. But he would go out in style - thumbing his nose at the factories and the drivers who had no knowledge of why their car was even fast but who were quick to whine if it wasn't the winner. "They can ALL whine THIS Tuesday!", thought Ray to himself.

As the golden retriever resumed his usual position at the edge of the small carpet in front of the workbench, Ray sat down on the stool, moved the previous night's work to one side, and brought out his chassis jig to the center of the bench top. He moved the soldering iron into place on his right, checked that the Dremel had power, put the small boxes that held the brass and piano wire that were the hallmark of his craft in an orderly fashion to his left, and then did something totally alien to him - he grabbed a piece of paper and began to sketch the chassis that he was about to build. Ray NEVER drew out a chassis - he just sat down and built it. But this was different, it was no normal chassis. It was something that would later be described as "overly complex, technically ridiculous, and a death knell for slot racing". Ironically, these words would come from the very companies that sought to gain by technically monopolizing the hobby.

Ray spent all day Monday cutting brass and wire pieces, forming each part with the kind of precision that only a master craftsman can achieve. Each piece was carefully checked for fit, and if it didn't meet his standards, Ray discarded it and made a new one. By early evening, the dozens of pieces were finished and arranged carefully, ready for assembly.

After only a brief earlier lunch break, Ray headed upstairs for dinner, his four-legged companion in tow. Over a quick meal of eggs and ham, Ray contemplated the sequence of assembly of the chassis. It would be pretty easy, he decided, but he needed to make up the coils before he got too far through the assembly.

By 8 pm, Ray was back at the workbench. The time of day was right, so he decided a lager would help him work out the final details. One eye of his best friend followed him across the room and back. "I need to do the coils first", he said aloud. More axles were sacrificed, and a great deal of his 34 guage rewinding wire too. Within an hour, 6 perfectly wound electromagnetic coils sat next to the multitude of chassis parts that had been prepared earlier.

By 11 pm, the chassis parts were all soldered into a single piece. It was unlike anything he had built before - there were articulations everywhere! Front wheels flopped up and down, an extra guide tongue hinge flailed around, the motor pod flopped up and down and side to side. Nothing seemed to be held in place at all. It was the "rag doll" version of a scratchbuilt chassis.

"Perfect!", said Ray, "and we'll have this done in no time tomorrow!" A quick pat told his friend that the day was done. The light was switched off and the two headed upstairs for the night.

The basement light was switched on again just a mere 6 hours later. Ray had awoken with great anticipation and couldn't wait for daybreak to get back to his project. The golden retriever wasn't so keen this morning and remained at the foot of the bed, allowing Ray to start off on his own. By the time the dog finally sauntered downstairs to find Ray, the chassis looked like something out of a sci-fi film. Tiny electromagnetic coils now were mounted in six different locations, one end held in place by tiny piano wire pins, the other ends were in close proximity to piano wire forms soldered to various chassis parts, with miniature coil springs, taken from HO cars, bridging the gap and providing some damping action. Tiny infrared sensors were also mounted near the points where the coils were mounted, aimed to sense movement of the chassis parts that the coils were mounted to or otherwise were adjacent to. Wires from the coils and sensors all ran to the center of the chassis, and this was where Ray was now concentrating his efforts.

Ray was a computer geek in addition to being a slot racing fanatic - he knew how to use things like EPROMs, PLAs and other fancy IC chips. He had long ago learned how to make quick work of programming an EPROM chip. In essence, all he had to do was write a very simple program to monitor a few inputs, and force controlled reactions via the electromagnetic coils. For him, this was simple stuff. By 10 am, Ray had not only completed the program, but had also "burned" an EPROM with the program's logic permanently embedded. It was already the technology of decades past, but Ray was comfortable with it, and it was enough for his needs today. Armed with the EPROM, an antique 6810 microprocessor chip, a 6510 peripheral interface adapter, and a couple of quad line driver ICs, he had cobbled together a rudimentary micro computer that sat nicely on the guide tongue of the car, taking up a mere 3/16" below the future interior. Off to each side were a large capacitor and a board with several resistors and diodes that were tied into the computer and the leads to the coils. It had become very complex and sinister looking.

Outside, the snow was still falling. Nearly a foot of the white stuff had accumulated over the last day and a half and it showed no sign of relenting. Ray began to wonder if the race meet would even happen. Still, he pushed forward. "Almost ready!", he announced to Tequila, who opened an eye and then closed it as if winking agreement.

He added the motor, wheels, and guideflag to the chassis. Then he sat back and looked at his creation. It was complete. Ray felt his stomach tense, because he knew it WASN'T complete - it hadn't been tested at all! Slowly, as if scared by the prospect that it wouldn't work, his hand reached for the switch on his bench power supply. Click. Slowly he picked up the car. It still flopped around like a fish out of water. Hesitating, he finally moved the car forward and touched the guideflag to the power rails. The chassis nearly snapped out of his hands, and the engine revved. Electromagnets fired, the chassis stiffened within his hand, and suddenly it seemed like he was holding a traditional chassis! He pulled the car away from the power. The engine stopped. Gently, he pushed upward on one front wheel. The opposite front wheel moved upward too! He pushed up against a rear wheel - the opposite rear wheel moved up, then the entire motor pod gently pushed down as if trying to keep the rear wheels glued to the track! He turned the guide flag, and the entire motor and axle assembly twisted, attempting to follow the turn. All over the car, for every little motion, there was an instant and proportional reaction by one or more of the electromagnets! Soon, the stored energy in the capacitors was dissipated, and the car went limp once again.

Ray stared at his creation. It worked, it actually worked! He had built a chassis that had active suspension much like a 1980's era Formula One car! "Let's see their faces tonight!", he said to Tequila, who by now thought Ray was approaching insanity and lay still with both eyes closed.

After lunch, Ray scanned his collection for a suitable body. Despite its age, he settled on a Fly Porsche 911 GT1 98 and decided that was the body he would use - the rules clearly stated hard bodies, and the green Porsche, in Jever livery, was still a pretty car. It was low, and more importantly, it also cleared all the components on his chassis so he was quite pleased with the body. He took his time mounting it - it wasn't easy with every part of the chassis hanging limply, and he had to stop repeatedly to power up the onboard system to check his progress. But knowing that this would be the last body he would ever mount to a competitive slot car, Ray was patient, savouring every moment as the Porsche neared completion. At last, it was done.

Outside, the snow had stopped falling, and the sun had come out. Ray headed upstairs to fix an early dinner for himself and Tequila, who, since food was involved, forgot the neglect of the past two days and raced up the stairs behind his master.

Having eaten almost as fast as the dog, Ray began packing his slot car box for the night's activity. Even his laptop, EPROM burner, and few spare EPROMS got selected for the trip. "Just in case", thought Ray. Tequila lay quietly upstairs, knowing that race night was the night she stayed home and Ray didn't. With everything packed and loaded into the car, Ray turned to the dog. "This is the last time, Tequila, because I won't be doing this anymore", his voice trailed off at the end, like someone who is choking back emotion as they speak. Then he was out the door, into the car, and gone. be continued...

Great story, lets have the rest.

I love the dog in the story as I have a golden retriever six years old that sits there watching my wife as she walks aound our kitchen, I am sure he understands some words.


Bracken is a nut case (the dog Not me) he is very large for GR and still think he is a puppy and l really love having him along with a house full of other animals.

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