Now imagine that you’ve crawled out from under your rock and decided to rejoin society. The first thing you do is look at your Nokia candy bar phone with its monochromatic display and ability to let you play Snake and think, “I probably need a new phone. Especially since the battery in this thing died about nine years, eleven months, and twenty-nine days ago.”
You notice that there’s an AT&T store nearby. So you walk in and ask, “Hey, do you guys know where there’s a Cingular store around here? I need a new phone.”
The guy behind the counter asks, “Cingular? Have you been living under a rock?” You tell him that yes, yes you have. So he says that AT&T bought Cingular about nine years ago and that he can totally get you a new phone.
You ask, “So what has changed about cell phones in the last ten years?”
He starts to explain. About thirty seconds later your head explodes like that dude from Scanners.
I have this weird tendency to believe that things don’t change at all if I’m not paying attention. I think that’s probably a pretty normal human tendency, but I find it odd since I notice it in myself and I tend to pay attention to things like that. So a week or so ago I walked into Al’s Hobby Shop in downtown Elmhurst, Illinois and asked the guy at the counter what’s been going on in the world of R/C cars since 2000. I didn’t understand something in the neighborhood of 50% of what I was told. I also got into the habit of starting my sentences with, “In my day…”
I’m an old geezer in training, is what I am. I’ve been looking forward to my twilight years since I was 25.
If you think about it it’s probably reasonable to think that a lot of things have changed in the world of R/C cars since I hung up my Futaba Magnum Sport back in 2000. The world of consumer electronics has changed drastically, after all. It’s also changed in ways that directly impact the R/C world. We’ve been making better batteries. We’ve been making electronics smaller, smarter, and lighter. We’ve been creating new ways of making our devices communicate with each other.
I have a cell phone that can connect to the internet, hook in to my wi-fi network, access files from my laptop, and allow me to talk to my grandmother over my Mazda’s sound system right now. Absolutely none of that functionality required me to do anything, either. It was just part of the package.
The good news is that I’m pretty quick on the uptake, so I started to figure out the changes pretty fast. The bad news is that 13 years is a long time to not pay attention to a thing. It didn’t take me very long at all to realize that all of my equipment was completely and totally out of date. That actually kind of made me sad, since my equipment was in really good shape. The old 410-M5 and 610-RV were still working perfectly. My old race batteries were still discharging at about the 5 minute, 30 second mark.
I took the RS4-MT and the RS4 out to my cul-du-sac and ran a few batteries through them on Easter Sunday. Everything worked great except for the bit where the receiver in the RS4 was glitching out and I drove it into a rock while attempting a close cut on a drift maneuver. The slide broke both rear body posts. Everything else was fine, but it’s kind of hard to drive a car when the body is hanging off to the side. This handicap was exacerbated by the fact that one of my front posts was held together by strapping tape.
My battery training instincts were so strong that I pulled the battery out of my RS4 as soon as I realized I wasn’t going to be running it for a while, put the battery into my RS4-MT, and ran out the rest of its charge. Old habits die hard, I suppose.
It turned out that none of that mattered. My 410-M5 and 610-RV were no longer relevant. My Reedy 17 turn and Onyx 14 turn double motors were slow. My Ni-Cads were race-ready but no longer race worthy. Even my Futaba Sport radios were more than a little behind the times. My two newest cars had been discontinued for at least a decade, too.
In truth some of my equipment was out of date when I retired from racing. The two ESCs were already several years out of date. Several of my batteries were already pretty old, too, and had been relegated to “practice pack” status. It didn’t really matter, though, as the state of the art in the world of R/C cars didn’t really advance all that much between 1992 and 2000. So when I pulled my stuff out of the basement on Easter Sunday I expected to find out that it was old. The thing that surprised me was when I found out that it had been completely eclipsed by subsequent developments.
Imagine that you were a total gearhead in the ‘70s and ‘80s. You were a Chevy person and totally invested in the war with Ford. But then, for whatever reason, you put your love of cars away for a couple decades and started taking the subway everywhere. Then one day in early 2013 you decided to renew your license and get your old Impala up and running again, fully expecting to wow all the kids at the local track.
So you do exactly that. Except what you find is that the kids are now kicking your ass with their Subaru WRX STis and Honda Civic Sis and only the old timers seem to care about Mustangs, Corvettes, and making fun of Mopar.
That’s pretty much where I found myself the Wednesday after Easter. Ni-Cad batteries were actually two generations behind. NiMH batteries had come and gone and the new power was coming from LiPos. Brushless motors had replaced the old brushed cans. The difference boiled down to more power delivered more quickly with significantly longer run times. It also meant that there were new players in the market. Novak and Tekin were still making speed controls, but there was a new kid by the name of Castle Creations. There were several new manufacturers of batteries I’d never heard of, too.
The biggest change, though, was both the easiest to understand and the hardest to digest. Traxxas is now the biggest player in the car market. I knew a couple guys who ran Traxxas cars back in the day. They weren’t good cars by any stretch of the imagination. Traxxas was what you got if you couldn’t afford or didn’t know to buy Associated or Losi kits. Now, though, Traxxas is everywhere.
There’s a very good reason why Traxxas is now the top dog: innovation. It’s not necessarily that they’ve been innovating on a technological level, although there’s some of that. I’m told that they single-handedly invented an entire off-road class. They also brought waterproof electric cars to the market. Mostly, though, they did what no one was doing in the ‘90s: they figured out that the best way to grow is to cater to the casual R/C driver who just wants to buy a fast car and have it work out of the box. They also figured out that allowing that casual dabbler to trade in some of the equipment for better equipment later is a pretty good way to keep them coming back for more.
That set of innovations actually made me pretty sad. Almost everything I saw was a ready to run car in a box. Aside from my Kyosho Raider I built my cars. If I got one that was already built it was because I got it used from someone else. That was a major part of the experience. I still know almost every inch of my RS4 and RS4-MT because I put everything on those cars together. I took pride in being able to say that. They weren’t just R/C cars. They were my R/C cars. That’s part of the reason why they followed me to Texas and back and I was able to pull them out after 13 years and run them down my street as if I’d never put them away.
It’s now possible to buy cars that go 70 or even 100 MPH right out of the box. I suppose that’s fantastic from a marketing perspective. I suppose it’s snobbish and elitist to complain about how the kids these days just don’t understand.
I also know that while I was at the hobby shop I saw several people walk in and ask to have someone else fix stuff that was so basic I would have been embarrassed to ask about in public. There’s nothing wrong with asking for help, don’t get me wrong. There is something wrong with not even bothering to try to figure out why something isn’t working. It seemed to me that the hobby was headed in that direction, at least judging by what I was seeing.
I can’t fathom letting other people do my work like that. Since I pulled my old stuff out less than two weeks ago I switched out the plugs on six batteries and four ESCs. I installed new motors and electronics on two trucks. I rebuilt the shocks and put new wheels and tires on my RS4-MT. It’s pretty badass.
I honestly can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want the pleasure and satisfaction of looking at their car and saying, “I made that. I fixed that. It’s mine.” It seemed I was the only one. I was starting to despair, too.
Then the good news arrived.
We ran Ni-Cad batteries back in the day and had to “train” them. Races lasted five minutes, so the ideal run time was just a bit over five minutes. We would run the batteries for just over five minutes and then hook them up to discharge lights, which we made ourselves by soldering six to ten automotive bulbs together in series.
It was easy to tell who had the system down. We’d put the batteries in our cars, then put the transponders in and put the body on. Then we’d wave the car across the finish line to check in for the race and walk over to the start line and wait until the last possible moment to turn the car on and run over to the drivers’ stand.
My final set of race batteries was a triple set of Trinity 1700 Ni-Cads running Panasonic cells. They were expensive batteries when I got them at the tail-end of the ‘90s. I took damn good care of them, including making sure I stored them properly even when I stopped racing for over a decade. It’s a testament to the quality of the batteries and my understanding of how to take care of them that they still worked exactly as they were supposed to in March of 2013.
I found a new set of RS4 Pro 2 body posts on Amazon and ordered them. When they came the comparative quality of the Pro 2 posts compared to the RS4 Sport posts was blatantly obvious. So part of the problem was HPI’s fault. I’m pretty sure that the Pro 2 posts wouldn’t have broken if I’d done the same exact thing with them installed.
Interestingly enough, though, everyone who’s seen my RS4-MT and knew what it was had the exact same reaction: “Oh, I used to have one of those. It was a great car.”
Yes. Yes it was. Yes it is.
I also discovered that there’s a really good reason why I was never particularly good at soldering: I had a soldering iron that was way too good.
I wanted a good, quality soldering iron with a pistol grip and a trigger. So I got the best one I could get, a beast of a Weller iron that did 200 watts. I always used great gobs of solder because the solder seemed to evaporate off the tip of my iron and never seemed to stick properly. The tip was also a really wide chisel design. I finally got frustrated by this last weekend and headed to the hardware store to see if I could find a soldering iron with a narrower tip.
I noticed that soldering irons actually had numbers attached to them. The soldering irons that were listed as “standard grade” were 25 watt units capable of up to 750 degree heat. The “medium grade units had a few more watts and went up to 900 degrees. I don’t know how hot my soldering iron got, but, again, 200 watts. Rosin core solder, by the by, has a melting temperature of about 460 degrees, depending.
Part of the problem is that I was using the 200w gun wrong. You’re not supposed to hold the trigger down and deliver constant heat. It has so much power because you’re supposed to pull the trigger, heat it up all quick-like, then hit your spot and release the trigger. I was applying constant heat, which is stupid as fuck.
Part of the problem, though, is that my tip was way wider than the area I was working with more often than not. That made precision deployment rather difficult. Long story short, I got a cheap, small soldering iron that’s way better for my style and application and it’s amazing how much better I got at soldering.