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I'm sorry if I've been flaunting it a bit lately; you know- the rock star lifestyle, the instant access no-limit credit facilities, all that stuff. But life as a superstar slot car roadie is not all scalex and drugs and rock and roll. There's a downside. Jealousy. Let me tell you about it.
It started when Stew Roberts decided, on a whim, to take one of his Enzos out of the garage and spin round to see his mate Eldon John, another multi-millionaire rocker with a taste for slot racing- in his case, a curious addiction to a relatively obscure Californian manufacturer of the 60s whose name he adopted early in his showbiz career. Another world tour had just finished and Stew's band were dispersed across various parts of the country. It left me unexpectedly alone in his vast mansion, with all day to spend in the workshop. Well, I say workshop. It's more like a laboratory, really. Stew built a new wing onto the mansion (which now covers four entire counties) especially for slot racing. It houses the tracks as well as this state-of-the-art facility with programmable laser cutting equipment, computer controlled lathes, complex industrial vac-forming machinery, arc-welding gear, as well as all the usual slot car building and tuning gadgets. So there I was, with strict instructions to bullet-proof the motors for the up-coming home leg of the Iron Kanopener challenge. We'd failed badly in the first round, mainly because of overheating problems. Stew was determined to show the arrogant young hard-core heavy metal punks that us old 'uns could still cut it on stage and on the track. There was a lot at stake for Stew. He knew his onions. He was going to dangle the prospect of another race like a carrot in front of Iron Kanopener. Then there was another hot potato to consider. Badger. A spicy little number that one, who was keen to rub salt in Stew's wounds. The last meeting had been peppered with insults flying between them, and Stew wasn't going to lie down like a lamb. His main beef (oh do please quit the lame 'Stew' puns, per-lease!) was that she had once been his personal roadie, but had sabotaged his Scalextric Williams before a gig. He'd fired her on the spot, and now she was out for revenge.
As I was saying. There I was, in the workshop/lab, putting the final touches to the new official Stew Roberts team car. I reckoned it was my own personal masterpiece, actually. I'd put everything I knew about slot cars into this baby. A Peugeot 905. The hottest motor I'd ever built, but lightened, ventilated, ball-raced, and with heatsinking in every available space. This thing will run all year, I thought to myself. The chassis, with due acknowledgement to Stew's hi-tech machinery, was an absolute jewel. Seven hundred and eighty nine separate laser cut titanium parts, hinged, sprung and interlocking, gave this chassis the most amazing track-hugging flexibility, with an almost infinite degree of adjustment for stiffness, ride height and micrometer-governed alignment. Yet the accuracy of the workmanship (although I say so myself) made sure that this thing would race through a scud missile attack and out the other side. And it weighed practically nothing. Every individual part was ground away to the minimum, micro-drilled or hollowed out. All I had to do was fettle the prototype on the track, then set the computers to deliver six more identical cars for the rest of the band.
It was a fine day in Gloucestershire, where the Slot Car Wing of Stew's mansion was situated. The glass roof, modelled on the British Museum Entrance hall, let in floods of light, and the soothingly amplified external sounds of rural life- birdsong and gunfire, mainly. I switched on the track and the lap timers, and laid the Peugeot in the slot. I fired it up and watched it whistle away, almost noiselessly, along the main 150 foot straight. Those carbon fibre gears were smooth. I wound it round the infield at a quite easy pace, opened it up again down the back straight and brought it home to conclude a successful first lap. It felt good. The gear ratio was about right, as calculated, the motor was slowly warming up, the chassis was responsive- I should have stopped and picked it up then, just for a formal check up, but the lap timer chimed in. 'Fourteen point oh-one-nine-four-seven-three-eight' breathed Joanna Lumley's sampled voice. Creedence Clearwater Revival in drag! That was almost two seconds under the outright lap record, on a slow warm up lap! The car was so smooth and easy to drive, I hadn't realised how fast it was going. So I stayed on. This would be good I thought. How many more seconds can I knock off the record? Driving the thing was hypnotic. It held me there all by itself, with Joanna's languorous voice checking the times over the house P.A.
Then the tone of her voice changed. 'New lap record. Again.' She'd never said 'again' before. And she sounded bored. Odd for a computer sampled synthetic voice. 'Please don't stop, Mr Roberts', she continued. 'If you do stop, it will be fatal.' I couldn't quite believe my ears. Was this really the lap counter talking? Anyway, it was me, Clint Finger, slot car tuner to the stars, not Stew Roberts, veteran rock and roller at the controller. Something was wrong. Stopping- fatal? Despite the shock, I kept the car going- it was at the furthest point on the track by now, and marshalling for yourself on this layout is a real drag. But by the time the car was within reach, the lap timer had spoken again. This time in even more sinister tones. 'If you let that car stop, Mr Roberts, it will be the last thing you ever do. That lane is wired to an enormous bomb. The computer has been tracking your times for the last five laps and has engaged the destruct mechanisms as programmed. If your lap times fall below the fourteen second mark, the bomb will be triggered. If the car is stopped, removed from the track, or the track shorted out, the bomb will also be triggered. You have no choice, Mr Roberts. The only way you can remain alive is to keep driving. But you are going to die, sooner or later. When that motor blows, Mr Roberts, so do you. HA HA HA. And on past experience, it won't be long! Goodbye, Stew. You are going to die slot racing. I hope you enjoy it. Sayonara, Mr Roberts!'
This had to be a joke. The guys in the band are a right bunch. Stoned out practical jokers every one. It's a way of life out on the road, on tour day after day. I nearly stopped the car then and there, but a chill went through me. What if it wasn't a wind up? I started shaking, but held on to the throttle, thumbing the Peugeot round the track on automatic. The strangely sexy voice of the lap timer cut through again. 'Last lap fourteen seconds dead. Drop one thousandth of a second on this lap and you also will be dead.' It jolted me back to concentrating on my driving. This new Peugeot was probably the only car in the world capable of averaging less than fourteen on this track. All the bullet-proofing I'd built into it was presently extending my life span in a very real way. As long as I could keep it circulating, I could survive. There was no-one to call, no help to be had. Stew was away at Eldon's place in Norfolk and Suffolk. The band were all at their own homes. I had to stay awake, and concentrating. One slip, one deslot, one slow lap, and I was Shredded Wheat. The sweat began to bead up on my forehead, then drip down my temples and off my chin. I had to keep thinking, concentrating. If only we had that Challenger pace car…maybe I could have substituted it and got away… All the time the breathy voice of the lap counter repeated my times relentlessly… 'Thirteen point oh-four-eight-seven.' 'Thirteen point six-three-four-five.' Maybe I could find a way of locking the throttle at a constant speed, so I could put it down and escape? I began to feel for an average setting that would take the car on a complete lap. With my free hand I felt in my pockets for some wire, some string, anything that could lock the trigger in one position. But it was no good. Despite being the most fabulous handling car I'd ever driven, there was no way I could find a flat speed that would get the car round the corners and down the straight quick enough to make a sub-fourteen second lap. Then I began to think- what if I dropped the throttle just as the car tripped a new lap? That might give me fourteen seconds to run, out of the door and clear of danger. But my legs were starting to shake now. And it was a big room. And maybe releasing the throttle would trigger the bomb straightaway…But unless I could come up with something better, it might still be my only chance. It was a big risk, and a careful calculation to make…I could give myself more time to think just by driving in this constant rhythms, but all the time I was getting nearer the point of collapse. I would need to run, fast. The lap timer was grinding away at my nerves… 'Thirteen point eight-oh-oh-four'. That was too close. My thought processes were shattered. How many hours had passed already? The sky was beginning to darken visibly through the glass ceiling. The sound system was starting to relay the hooting of owls and other nocturnal activities. This could well be my last night. I was going to die racing, the monotonous voice of the lap timer taunting me to the end. So I thought I'd make a go of it. Put in some fast laps. Give me something to aim at, some focus- something to take my mind off being blown into hamburgers. I reeled off some pretty satisfying laps. This was a good car. Maybe Stew would be able to set the computers to roll out the rest of the team. It would be some sort of memorial to their old pal. And all this was intended for Stew in the first place. I hoped he would appreciate it. After they'd cleaned up the mess.
Just then I heard a door slam and reverberate through the house. Footsteps. It was a long walk to the East Wing. The sweat was coursing down the back of my neck like a waterfall, my knees were buckled and braced against the trackside. My thumb was aching- no, stinging with pain as if a nine-inch nail was being driven through it everytime I rammed it down for the straightaways. Then Stew wandered in. I gasped loudly, gulped a few breaths, but couldn't speak.
'Hi Clint. Having fun? Eldon wasn't in. Had to redo a few scenes for his new video in Tristan da Cuna. Car's looking good. Like the livery. Smooth runner eh? Can I have a go?' Before I could speak, he'd wrested the throttle out of my hand and taken control. I yelled. 'Don't stop, for Hendrix' sake. There's a bomb. It's gonna go off if the lap time falls below fourteen! 'Nice one, Clint. Yeah, know the film. Hey- smooth car.' He wasn't taking me seriously. 'Thirteen point nine-oh-nine-four.' The smokey female voice ticked off the time again. Close. Too close. I tried to grab the throttle back. Stew didn't want to let go. The car was slowing down dangerously. I fought with him, ramming my thumb over his, trying desperately to keep the speed up. We'd lost a lot of time through the esses- I concentrated on keeping the pressure up, at least until we hit he straight again. Two hands on the throttle wasn't the best way to drive- especially at lap record speeds. 'Listen to me Stew. Please.' I begged. 'This is serious. Someone has booby trapped the track. If we drop below fourteen seconds, the whole place is going to blow!'
'Thirteen point nine-eight-nine-seven.' By now Stew had recognised the desperation on my face, the sweat and the weariness and the stench of fear. 'OK man. I've got it now. All I have to do is cruise at sub fourteen seconds. With this car it's a piece of cake. You take it easy Clint. Let's work out what's happening here.' 'Twelve point nine-nine-nine-nine-nine. New fastest lap.'
I sank down onto the floor, a temporary sense of relief flooding through me. But how long could Stew keep going? I had to get help. 'Stew. Give me your mobile. I'll call Inspector Thumb.'
It seemed like hours until Thumb showed up. In fact it was. His Elise dumped its oil just outside Oxford and had a fuel blockage near Slough. Still, he got here, a little dishevelled, his trademark trenchcoat saturated and reeking of oil and petrol. But not half as dishevelled as Stew and me. I'd been pouring water over him to keep him cool, keeping him topped up with some special purple sweeties that he said helped his stamina, while I took a break to massage my thumb back into shape, ready for the next shift if necessary. Thumb sauntered in, drawn straight to the track, throwing his fuel splattered coat absent-mindedly to the floor. 'I thought you said it was an emergency? The car seems to be going OK.' 'Yeah, sure the car's OK, but it's the bomb we're worried about.' I said. 'Bomb? What bomb?' Thumb muttered idly, now crouched against the trackside and watching the car intently. 'Hmm. Peugeot 905B. Baldi-Alliot car, Monza '92. Interesting. Like the way you've done the front airfoil. Very distinctive. Good turn of speed. Holds on well through the esses there. Carries the momentum through nicely. Very well balanced. What motor? Mind if I have a look?' He held his hand out to grab it as it passed round the slow inside turn just in front of him. 'NOOOOOO!' We both screamed. Me and Stew together. It sounded just like the intro to his 1973 classic version of 'Lick My Decals Off Baby'. And it was enough to shock Thumb out of his absorbed concentration on the progress of the Peugeot. Understandable as that may be. It was one of my best cars, after all. But it's always difficult to get Inspector Thumb's full attention when there's a slot car within his field of vision. 'Twelve point eight-oh-oh-seven', breathed the lap counter. Thumb turned towards me with an admiring look. I held his gaze. Slowly, agonisingly, we got him to grasp the situation. 'WHAAAT? There's a bomb in here? You brought me all this way to get blown up?' 'No, we brought you all this way to stop us getting blown up.' 'You don't want me then, you want Sergeant Argent. He's much better with bombs. He's always driving one… But I should go. I think I left my soldering iron switched on at home.' 'Wait wait wait- you can't leave us here!' 'Alright, I'll call Argent, bring him over.' A moment later, he was on his mobile. 'Argent! Get round to Stew Roberts' mansion immediately. It's an emergency. What ? You're walking the dog? I don't care. Bring him with you… actually, he might well be useful.' Thumb switched off his mobile, and Stew looked nervous. 'That's not a police sniffer dog your man's got with him is it?' he asked. 'Only I've got some, uh, things stashed around here that- that he, er, he might not like the smell of. Might upset him. Could send him a bit barmy. Like catnip. Only for dogs.' Stew was getting even more flustered. 'Don't concern yourself, Mr Roberts. Fluffy might help us sniff out the bomb.'
'Thirteen point seven-eight-nine-oh.'
'I don't want to worry you guys,' I chipped in. 'But we might be in more trouble than we think. I've just noticed something about the car.'
'The rear tyres are wearing down. There's not much clearance under that chassis. If it starts to ground out anywhere round the track, it'll cause a short. And that will detonate the bomb.' Thumb made an instinctive move towards the door, but I held onto him. 'No-one leaves here until we all sort this out together. Inspector- I know you're a good driver. Stew's beginning to tire. I've driven my stint- my thumb's virtually seized up. I don't think I could manage to keep it in the park anymore. You wanted to try the car- now's your chance. But you need to drive carefully.' 'Can't we just slip another car on the track, one with fresh tyres?' 'No Inspector. That Peugeot is a brand new prototype that just shattered the outright lap record. There's no other car in the world that can keep up a sub-fourteen second pace on this track. I'm afraid we havn't got much time left.' 'What do you mean, we?' Thumb asked nervously. The pressure was cranking up, inch by inch, second by second.
'Thirteen point six-six-six-oh.'
Argent arrived just then, heaving the most enormous Great Dane reluctantly along the polished floors, dragging it's claws and flapping madly. 'Stay, Fluffy. What's the problem, Sir?' 'All we want you to do, Argent, is to drive this car for a bit while we all take young Fluffy for a walk. Here, take the controller from my hand. Gently. Don't lose any speed. We have to maintain a constant lap time for, uh, for the Guinness book of records attempt we're making. For charity, you know. Just one thing. If it starts trailing sparks, duck.' 'Right you are, sir.'
I did try and remonstrate with Thumb, but he insisted that it was best not to explain in too much detail to Argent. He'd only panic, he explained. But then we all noticed Fluffy was getting excited. Sniffing energetically around one part of the track. Thumb crouched down. 'What's this? A broken bottle. Hmm. Strong smell. Yours, Roberts?' 'Let me look. No. I don't use patchouli oil. But I know who does.'
Fluffy immediately set off on a trail, dragging Thumb by the leash down the main corridor and out through a concealed side door into a garden. Just to the left was a little potting shed. Fluffy plunged through the wooded door, splintering it into toothpicks. Inside was a woman, crouched low over a laptop computer, a microphone nestling deep within her generous cleavage. Two distinctive streaks of bleach white cascaded through her long shining black hair. 'Badger' said Stew.
'C'mon guys, can't you take a joke? Just applying a little psychological pressure before the race meet. I like to see you stew, Stew.' 'Psychological pressure? An interesting new euphemism for a bomb, madam,' said Thumb, pompously. 'Disarm that device immediately!'
'There's no bomb, fellas. Like I said, it's just a wind-up. No actual bomb.' Just then a huge whomp, a thump, followed by the sound of breaking glass flying into smithereens interrupted the conversation. 'Jumping Jacksons! What was that?…Argent! Poor Argent!' Stew gasped. 'Everyone back to the track!'
We ran full pelt back to the race room. Charred timber, glistening glass fragments, and a heat that frazzled my nostril hairs confronted us. In the middle stood a dazed, blackened figure with no eyebrows and a partially melted Professor Motor eight-ohm controller stuck to his right hand. 'I knew he'd be alright,' said Thumb. 'What on earth happened? Badger said there was no bomb….' I asked as I laid an arm round the poor guy's trembling shoulder.
'Bomb? Not a bomb, sir. My mistake. Sorry Mr. Roberts, I seem to have broken your race track.' 'Don't worry man, I'll buy another. What on earth happened?'
'Well,' responded a shaken and stirred Sergeant Argent, 'You know you said to duck if the car started sparking? Well it did. A pity. I was enjoying the drive. Really nice car. Not as pretty as my Saxo, but…' 'Get on with it man. We've got homes to go to' said Thumb. 'Only just' said Stew, glancing round at the debris. 'Yes sir. Well, sir, I saw the car sparking badly from the rear- I think the chassis is a bit low, sir. Anyway, I remembered what you said, and I ducked. Then I got up again, and the sparks had ignited the bodyshell. The whole car seemed very hot. Had it been running a long time?' 'Yes' we said in unison. 'Well, the flames were getting a hold of it alright, so I grabbed an old raincoat that was lying over there to smother the fire. They never let you down, do they sir, usually? But as soon as I threw it onto the car, the whole thing went up like a fireball. The flames shattered the roof glass, and, and, Oh I'm so sorry Mr Roberts. I've got all your records. Except the crappy disco ones…' Sergeant Argent started to cry. 'Shock, I expect, I said. 'Where's Badger?' said Stew.
We retraced our steps to the garden. The shed was empty. All that remained was a lingering smell of patchouli oil.
 

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BRILLIANT!


I bet there's more than me who'd like a lap counter with Joanna Lumley's voice


Then again, it may be too much of a distraction



Mark.
 
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