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Brian Ferguson
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Despite the earlier snow, the roads were in good shape and Ray arrived at the raceway before most of the other racers. After the usual chat with the shop owner, he staked out his customary spot at the same work table he had used for several years. Ray knew he needed to get some practice time with his radical creation and headed straight to the track. After hooking up his now-so-obsolete electronic controller, he took a deep breath and placed the car on the track. He felt some relief when he gently pressed the trigger, heard the telltale sounds of the solenoids energizing, and saw the car lift slightly and move away. Cautiously, he drove many slow laps, feeling out the active nature of the chassis. Then he increased the pace gradually, looking for any sign that might indicate a problem. The faster he went, the smoother it seemed to get, and it became difficult to sense any sort of limit. By now, Ray was circulating at a very competitive pace and the eyes of some of the other racers were glued to his car. Everyone knew Ray's car would run fast and most of the locals used his performance to judge their own. Ray was, by now, dancing with the lap record and had yet to deslot. Casual gazes by onlookers had become stares. Ray decided that prudence might be wise. Knowing that the car worked extremely well, he pulled the car from the track just as the first of the factory teams arrived for the night's activities. Ray headed straight to tech inspection, where the car passed the quick pre-race, external once over, and registered for the night's unlimited Sports/GT race. He then placed the car back in his case, and began the long wait for qualifying to begin.

As always, Ray lent a hand to any of the local racers that needed a little help. Tonight was no different. He helped two guys with motor problems, repaired a broken chassis, and helped another fix an aging diode controller. Ray was the only top racer these guys could turn to - the factory teams who monopolized one end of the work area (where it was easy to maintain secrecy and privacy) were always "too busy", and only too happy to point toward the sales counter. The local racers had long given up on getting any sort of help from the factory teams, and indeed, sentiment against them was spreading like a bad odour.

As the start of qualifying approached, Ray headed back to his own spot to do a little last-minute check on his car. On the way, he stopped by the bulletin board and looked at the series standings. Unless the leader finished fourth or worse, Ray needed the race win plus the bonus point for top qualifier. He was glad he had been the first to register as that meant he would be the last driver to qualify and would know exactly what time he needed to beat.

The first of the 38 drivers to qualify were the final entrants, and those were mostly local racers who hadn't registered until they were sure their cars were performing. Each time a driver stepped up for their one minute, timed-lap session, Ray felt his adrenalin level rise a little higher. Twenty-six qualifiers had run before the first factory driver took to the track. The previous best lap of 6.645 seconds was instantly reduced to 6.494, just 0.1 away from the track record. Perhaps not surprisingly, since the car employed on-board traction control, brake control, power conditioning, aerodynamic aid control, and other features described only by cryptic titles like XPS and GFC. By the time Ray's main opponent hit the track, 35 drivers had qualified and the top time stood at 6.407. The locals had turned to watch, sensing that the track record was about to fall. Ray's rival instantly began lapping in the 6.40 range and then, with time running out, blistered off a 6.396 and a 6.387, setting a new track record and sending the crowd into a hushed silence. With car and controller in hand, Ray waited for the second last qualifier to run and then stepped up to the track. He fought the urge to look around the room at what had become a wall of spectators, and told himself to drive like he had in practice. Knowing he would only get 8 or possibly 9 laps, Ray replayed the last laps of practice in his mind as he waited for the power to come on. When it did, the car shuddered and clicked, and then lifted itself off the track and sped away. Ray found his rhythm almost instantly and by lap 4 was circulating in the very low 6.4 range. He edged ever faster, lap by lap, gaining confidence in the strange car. On lap 7, a moan escaped the crowd as Ray posted a 6.389. Silence followed on lap 8 as his time slipped to a 6.394. But all hell broke loose on lap 9 when Ray stopped the clock on his final lap with a 6.380!

Amid the cheers, whistles, and applause of the local crowd, the factory boys stood out like a sore thumb. This being the series finale, all of the factory team representatives were present, and none were looking pleased. Some stared numbly, while others engaged in animated conversations, with fingers pointing and arms waving. The peculiar nature of Ray's car hadn't gone unnoticed though. The start-up firing of the solenoids and the rapid-fire clicking as the car negotiated the track were more than obvious. Ray was under protest before the final race even began. They claimed every number of things were wrong with his entry and he shouldn't be allowed to race the car, but all were ultimately disgarded by the event stewards because no apparent rule had been contravened by Ray's creation.

Ray and three of the factory drivers had, of course, qualified straight to the final, and had to wait while the elimination races were run to see which other two drivers would advance. Between marshalling stints, Ray took the opportunity to oil and tune his car for the race. He felt strangely calm and relaxed. Qualifying had given him the confidence he needed in the car, and for some reason he remembered something he had muttered while building it - "they can ALL whine THIS Tuesday!", and he allowed himself a slight grin, knowing that they already were. At the far end of the work area, the mood in the team camps was somber, and no one was grinning.

It came as no surprise to anyone that the two drivers who moved up to fill out the final race were factory sponsored. Six drivers, five professional and one privateer. The format for the feature race was simple, if somewhat grueling. Six, five-minute heats, with one minute between heats to change lanes, and a two-minute pre-race warmup.

Ray had starting lane choice and elected to start on his worst lane, the inside gutter lane. With the normal rotation, he would then finish on his favourite lane. As if trying to psyche Ray, his main rival chose a lane that would put him beside Ray for the final five heats.

Ray took just a few practice laps and pulled his car from the track, saving it for the race. He watched as the others lapped, all apparently searching for hidden thousandths of a second in their lap times. The power was cut off, and all cars were placed at the start line.

The entire 165 foot, custom routed track was lined with spectators, two or three deep in places. This was the most important race that had ever been staged here, and casual slot racers and even local residents had shown up to watch. A great many had been called by friends when qualifying had produced a local driver as pole-sitter. Others had gathered, wearing factory team T-shirts that had cost them as much as an RTR car. The marshalls for the race had been specially selected by the track owner. He wanted no controversy in that area and had put together the finest group available, except, of course, for Ray being otherwise occupied!

Then came the countdown for the start of heat one! 3-2-1-GO! Power on! Ray was never one to charge the first turn, and didn't this time. He always elected to start easy, avoid early problems, and stay in touch with the leader. The red Ferrari that he needed to beat was in front, with two more cars in between. Ray kept the distance to under half a lap, despite having to pass two cars that weren't making it easy. Just beyond halfway, Ray had finally seen open track between himself and the leader and began to reel him in. He still could not fully fathom the capabilities of his chassis and was constantly surprised at how deep he could dive into the turns and how soon he could get back on the power. As time ran out in the first heat, Ray's Porsche had moved to within 15 feet of the Ferrari, and both cars had lapped the rest of the field at least once. The crowd applauded the two leaders who had not deslotted in the first heat.

Heat two was a near repeat. Ray's car rocketed away, and he had caught the Ferrari by half distance, but then, uncharacteristically, Ray deslotted at the tight hairpin. Quick marshalling kept him in second, but again he finished the heat about 15 feet behind his nemesis. Ray was a little shaken by the off because it seemed that the car had literally jumped out of the slot.

Heat three was a crowd pleaser. The Ferrari was caught and passed by Ray's Porsche after just one minute, and Ray drew away, turning four lap records in the process. At the halfway point, the sister car to the Ferrari, now down by six laps and running in fifth, rocketed into the hairpin without braking, and missed Ray's car, thanks to his reactions, by mere millimeters, absolutely destroying itself on the outside retaining wall. His day was done, and he was lucky to escape the building before the partisan crowd got their hands on him - they were convinced it was no accidental off. Ray finished the heat with nearly 40 feet between himself and the lone, remaining Ferrari.

During the changeover period for heat four, Ray noticed heat coming from the center area of the car where the computer was located. He ignored the motor and applied the cooling fan there instead. It worried him. "The computer circuits shouldn't be overheating", he thought to himself. "They could only heat up if..." and his thought tapered off as the horn signalled a return to position.

A worried Ray started the fourth heat in tentative fashion, and the Ferrari had closed to within ten feet before he regained his normal composure and began to draw away once again. With his mind on the computer, Ray pushed harder than ever, trying to sense every motion of the car's programmed robotics, and run at the limits of his own programming and driving skills. In the process, he caught, and passed, the Ferrari. Late in the heat, though, the car suddenly jumped out of the slot in the fast right hander coming onto the main straight. The Ferrari unlapped itself. Ray took off in pursuit. He could feel the car acting strangely now if he pushed it too hard, and he backed off a little. With no further offs, he managed to hold his ground and finished the heat nearly 100 feet ahead of his rival. By this point, the third place car was nearly 10 laps behind the Porsche and Ferrari battle.

Ray was more than concerned. This time, during the changeover, he almost burnt his finger on the guide tongue below the CPU of his home-brewed computer. He placed an aluminum block and the small motor cooling fan on the area and tried to think the problem through. Then it hit him - like a ton of bricks! The track supply wasn't a regulated, electronic unit like his own, it was a pair of large bus batteries with a charger that was on all the time. The AC leakage from the charger was playing havoc with the system. "Damn!", he cursed himself. He had used diodes to step the voltage down, but hadn't used an on-board regulator IC. The chips were overheating because they were seeing the AC voltage fluctuations.

When heat five started, Ray knew that the heat would eventually affect him again. He couldn't get the chips cold enough between heats. To compensate, he ran as fast as the car would allow until the heat caused a computer glitch. Once again, he lapped the Ferrari and drew away. His cause was helped when the Ferrari went off at the fast esses. Ray had nearly two laps on his enemy. This time, when the computer hiccupped, it did so on the straight and the car literally jumped into the air and landed back in the slot. Ray backed off immediately. He cruised to the end of the heat, the car jumping and behaving erratically, and finished exactly one lap ahead of his rival whose car coasted to a stop immediately alongside his.

Ray put the aluminum block and fan on the center section immediately this time, but he knew he was in very big trouble. The heat shimmer through the underside of the 1/16" brass plate told him that the delicate chips wouldn't take another five minutes. He was lucky they'd lasted this long. He couldn't fix it, there was no time. And he knew, when the chips finally failed, and with no control for the electromagnets, the car would become an undriveable rag doll. With only seconds left in the changeover period, he grabbed a spare braid from his pit box and wedged it tightly between two pins on the peripheral interface adapter IC. "If I'm wrong, this is over now!", he thought as he replaced the car on the track.

When the final heat started, Ray's repair indeed took effect as he imagined, but it wasn't a fix. He had bypassed the computer and locked the outputs to the electromagnets. In effect, he was driving a slot car from the 60's, with piano wire rails and brass tongue and side pans, but no active technology at all. Worse yet, if the braid came loose or shorted the wrong pins on the IC, he would be instantly doomed.

Within seconds of the start of the heat, it became apparent that the Ferrari was much faster than Ray's Porsche. The factory car was circulating nearly a half a second faster. Ray's one lap lead evaporated in less than a minute and a half. The Ferrari took the lead. Then they both hit traffic. For the next minute, Ray held station against the Ferrari. Traction control, ABS, and the other fancy circuits didn't help the factory car in close-quarters racing when the cars being passed were fighting for positions of their own and weren't giving way! Ray instinctively used his unnatural racecraft, and pushed the Porsche through an impossible window of opportunity as all five cars came into the hairpin. Somehow he got away with it. He pushed the car harder and harder, and some onlookers later said that they thought he had regained computer control, and he drew away from the Ferrari and the other battling factory cars.

Ray would later say that he drove the last two minutes unconsciously, unable to clearly remember much of it, but those of us that were there can recall very clearly that he was only two seconds ahead when the Ferrari got past the backmarkers and into clear space. Smoke was beginning to trail from Ray's car, the disabled CPU chip now literally cooking. One minute remained, and the inevitable happened. The Ferrari slipped past and took the lead. But it wasn't drawing away. Ray held the gap at about five feet for what seemed like ages, the Porsche defying the laws of physics as it careened around the circuit. And then, almost imperceptibly, Ray began to claw back at the Ferrari's lead. Pulling some unnatural reserve of talent from somewhere, he inched ever closer to his rival. Thick smoke now billowed from the stricken car as Ray flung the Porsche through the esses and drew alongside the Ferrari as they flashed under the overpass and raced toward the carousel bend.

Suddenly, the power was off. The race was over! Ray's car stopped just 4 inches ahead of the factory team's car!

The roar from the spectators was deafening. Even those who supported the concept of factory participation cheered the win by the local privateer racer. Many surged toward the drivers' area to shake Ray's hand, and the factory drivers had to move quickly to avoid being caught up by the throng.

But multiple protests by the factory teams were lodged immediately, all claiming that Ray's car violated the minimum clearance rule. A quick check on the test block revealed that the unpowered car indeed was resting on the block's surface, and Ray's disqualification was announced. It was something Ray had never considered because the ride control system was always active on the track and clearance was not a problem.

Ridiculed and jeered at by the factory teams as he packed away his equipment and prepared to leave the track, Ray felt like a beaten man. He had put everything he had into this race and had come up short. Even worse, he felt like he had let all of the local racers down.

He was about to walk out the door for the last time when he had a sudden inspiration. The rule book had been published, on behalf of the series organizers, by the very team that had just claimed victory from him. He asked them for a copy - his was at home. They reluctantly handed it over, demanding that he pay for it, and, all the while, mocked the actions of his car by making robotic-like motions.

After less than a minute, Ray filed an appeal request to the organizers. Within minutes, the race and series titles were returned to Ray Sallot. The rules had stated a minimum clearance that, in the words of the regulations, "must be maintained by cars racing on the track". Ray's car had always maintained the required clearance while actually racing.

In the furor that followed, one factory team promised their withdrawal of sponsorship for the series and another threatened to withdraw product from local distribution channels. Another fired their local driver on the spot. But all of the grandstanding was to no avail. The organizers desperately wanted to appease the factories but they could do nothing to change the wording of the rules after the fact.

Ray walked away that night a proud man. He had beaten the factory techno-wizards at their own game. And, strangely, he felt only a tiny regret that he would never set foot in a raceway again. Now, for the first time, he knew what his father meant when he'd told him about the collapse of the "golden era" back in the early 1970's. About how the thirst for dominance had led companies to push slot racing to levels that couldn't be sustained. And how the true purists and lovers of the hobby had abandoned the dying commercial centers and had gone underground to follow their passion.

And now, in 2012, it was happening all over again.
 

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Alan Tadd
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Brilliant Fergy.


We are so lucky on this Forum to have such talented writers, I love these short stories.

More, More, More please.

Regards

Alan
 

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Russell Sheldon
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Great writing, Fergy. Why do I suspect that Ray may not be a fictional character....?

Kind regards

Russell
 

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Wonderful, Fergy- I'm going to print off both episodes and hunker down in the old armchair tonight. Must check on Laprhroig stocks to ensure a perfect evening....
 

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QUOTE (lotus03 @ 19 Mar 2004, 00:37)I can't read, can you record it onto cassette and send it to me?
just mark the text and have the computer read it out loud to you....

is quite interesting - especially when HAL does the reading...


//peter
 

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Wow
wut can i say that was truely magnificiant. This is the best forum ever i love coming on here at night after a bad day and reading a work of art like that. I love you guys!!!(in a brotherly way)
 

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Brian Ferguson
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3,652 Posts
Thanks for the comments, guys!


I'm definitely no Hemingway but every once in a while I just enjoy writing, and what better thing to write about than slots! I always feel strange putting my writing out in public - I did it 35 years ago and felt the same way then - but, every once in a while, I do it just because I like it. SF members are just the unfortunate audience who have to put up with me now! Oddly, the whole story came to me while I was winding solenoids for my future active pit lane.


Jeff (Rail Racer) gets some credit for this story - he was my "test reader" and offered some truly helpful suggestions that definitely made it better than it originally was.


Russell - No comment!...


Lotus - you'll have to wait for the film...
 

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So, Fergy...
Inspector Thumb was right! Rail Racer, the 'blue-eyed Welsh Adonis' IS the evil genius, the puppetmaster, the capo of this whole operation! Head for the hills!
 

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Brian Ferguson
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Discussion Starter · #13 ·
QUOTE Rail Racer, the 'blue-eyed Welsh Adonis' IS the evil genius, the puppetmaster

Good grief, Howmet, I failed to make the connection!


Hang on.... you just called me a puppet!
Ahhh.... but wait a minute, he would have taken this very conversation into account, wouldn't he?
No doubt... he's smooth, very smooth! But we're starting to get his measure, I think!
 
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