RC racing isn’t what it was about 10 years ago. Then, tracks were popping up in shopping malls, suburban shopping plazas, in the back room of bowling alleys, next door to arcades, and in reclaimed retail space everywhere. But since 2016, the closure of many tracks has rocked the RC racing world. This has left RC car owners with limited options and venues for racing. The answer to this turn of events is that many RC racers are now building their own track.
How do I build my own RC track? You build your own RC track using prefabricated kits or using materials you have on hand that you repurpose for the project. The building technique varies by type of the race course – flat, banked, with jumps, symmetrical, asymmetrical, indoor, outdoor, and other types are all possibilities.
The primary benefit of building your own RC racing track is that you can make it whatever you want it to be. While there are some steps and essential procedures you need to do in the early going, there will be a point where you can let your imagination be your guide.
The Indoor Track
The benefit of an indoor RC racing track should be fairly obvious. You’re not controlled by the weather, either in the construction phase or the racing phase. Secondly, you generally have access to power outlets for charging stations, lights, and electric devices pertinent to the track or events held there.
The downside to having an indoor track is the size. In many cases, you’ll have to make concessions in the size, depending on the size of the room or area the track is going to be built-in. There are other considerations, like easy access to the room, what are you giving up in order to have that room, and whether the room is comfortable.
If you are wanting to make a large indoor track it will normally cost you quite a bit as you will either have to rent a building for the purpose or build/repurpose a building that you own.
Indoor Track – Preplanning
One of the first decisions you’ll have to make is the type of surface for the cars to race on. The first one listed is gray ozite, the most popular material. The others are listed in no particular order.
- Gray Ozite carpeting
- Rubber floor mats
- Foam floor mats
Gray ozite carpeting is the surface of choice for most RC race tracks. It’s the carpet you see on automobile floor mats. It provides great traction for the RC cars, yet cleans up easily and doesn’t shred. You can use it for the whole layout or just for the part the cars will travel on. If you don’t use it for the entire layout, you can use green indoor-outdoor carpeting for the non-driving areas.
For a portable track, leave the carpet untacked so that you can roll it up when you’re done with it for the day. For a permanent installation, you can glue the carpet to a hard surface. Just remember – it’s easier to do than to undo so make sure you have everything in the right place before gluing.
Rubber is another great surface, providing even better traction than gray ozite. However, it’s quite a bit more expensive. It’s also more durable than gray ozite, but the jury’s still out on whether the extra cost works out to any advantage in the long run.
Foam mats can be bought as squares, rectangles, or as interlocking squares. They’re inexpensive, durable and provide good traction. The interlocking squares can be taken apart and stacked, but over time the interlocking tabs break off and leave gaps in the surface.
Find a Location for Your Track
The first tip here is, you’re gonna need a bigger space. Almost without fail, the first places you consider for your track will be too small. A space of 20 square feet would be a good starting point, but less than that, your cars are going to be making a lot of laps in a small space, and it will soon get very tedious.
It also has to be a place that won’t be needed for anything else, especially if you’re going for the permanent installation option. An unfinished basement that’s likely to remain unfinished would be an excellent place to build your first track.
If you want to keep your track portable, you have the option of taking your track to community centers, church recreation centers, school gyms, or you might be able to reserve space in public meeting areas. Business owners might be willing to allow you to set up, especially if there’s something in it for them.
Design Your Track
This will be a balance of physics and imagination, and tilting the scales too much in one direction can lead to either ho-hum or oh no! If you don’t have a strong concept in mind, look at other tracks and take note of what you like and how you could apply the idea to your design.
Do you want a flat racing surface or one with banked turns? Think about how you would accomplish that. Make your lanes wide enough to accommodate 1:8 cars, unless you know for certain you won’t ever have that size running on the track. If you can handle 1:8, you can handle anything smaller.
How many cars will race at once? Allow space for each car, plus a little extra. A starting point for an indoor RC track would be 24 feet long, by 12 feet wide, with a three-foot-wide racing surface.
Prepare the Surface
Roll the carpet or the rubber mats out over the area you’ve selected for your track. If you’re using interlocking foam tiles, put them together over the area. Mark your intended route with easily removable tape (masking tape) or mark it lightly with an erasable marker.
There are bound to be some places where that turn you drew out on paper looks too sharp in reality, or the banked section has nowhere to go once the cars come off the embankment. The key is not to fall in love with your design to the extent that you ignore common sense principles of physics.
Install Lane Dividers and Side Rails
It’s easy to think of the RC track in terms of the old slot car track, where the cars stayed in the slot (or were supposed to). RC cars can go anywhere they (owners) want, and it’s crucial to maintain track decorum with lane dividers.
The materials you use for lane dividers can range from PVC pipe or even drain pipe, but remember that the lane dividers have to follow the track, so if you have a complicated double curve, you’re going to have trouble bending the PVC to follow it. Swimming pool noodles or rubber garden hose might be better options.
The lane dividers need to be tall enough to prevent “jump-overs,” but you won’t be able to prevent all of them.
Side rails are easily made from 1×4 boards nailed at a right angle to a 2×4. Lay those along either side of a section of the straightaway. Don’t fasten them down permanently, but do support them with a wedge on the backside that will prevent the side rail from shifting during racing.
For a real motocross feel, you need jumps. But as with the lane widths, consider the cars most likely to be running on your track. Some cars aren’t made to go airborne, and the landings can be hard on them. Shorter, simpler jumps might be the best idea if you’re not sure who will be racing and how.
Jumps can be made by using a board with a block or brick under it to provide an upward angle. The board is placed under the carpet, and the carpet smoothed down all around it for consistency.
You can be much more elaborate, with custom paint jobs, scenery, obstacles, and lights, but essentially, you’re ready to race. Take your car for the first track test.
When the big promoters lay out an indoor RC racing track in a big gym or civic center, they probably have elevated driver platforms that allow the drivers to look down on the track. You might not be able to do that with your track, but you do need to think about where the drivers will stand.
Your drivers area should be set up so that no one has a better view of the track than anyone else. If you can provide an elevated platform that’s safe, that’s great. But remember, these folks will be watching their cars and not their steps, and it would be easy to step off a platform in the heat of a race.
Take it Outside
Building an outdoors RC track can be the coolest thing you ever did. It doesn’t have to be expensive, and you don’t have to sacrifice your entire backyard to do it. The advantage with an outdoor RC track is that you can make it as big as you want (with a few rational limitations). Building jumps and dips is just a matter of using a shovel, and the racing is raw, dirty and exhilarating.
Think of the greatest dirt track you’ve ever seen. It could be sanctioned race track, or a temporary course laid out in a stadium or a field behind somebody’s warehouse. You can replicate that course in your backyard RC track. If you have the room, you can make a 1:8 replica of the real-life course. That way, the distances and scale between the track and the cars is roughly the same.
Glean ideas from other RC tracks you’ve seen, either in person or online. Pinterest has some ideas (and they don’t involve recipes). Obviously you’ll want to check out RC websites or magazines for inspiration.
Once you’ve settled on a design, draw it out on paper and put the dimensions on the drawing. Test-walk those dimensions in the backyard and make sure it will work. It’s almost certain that some things will have to be revised.
The notion of racing on real dirt sounds like fun. Except that you don’t want real dirt. Real dirt is complicated; it gets wet and stays wet for a long time, washes off into gullies, and blows away in the wind. You should use clay for the track surface. Clay is available in granular form, in bulk or mixed with soil. Clay is very popular with landscapers and ballfield managers for its water-shedding properties, so it should be easy to find at lawn and garden shops or box stores.
You could simply dig down 3-4 inches to get down to the compacted soil under the top layer, but you’d then have to do something with the removed topsoil. That is a lot of work, with the main benefit being money savings (probably $75 or less). Most track builders would probably rather spend the money to get bags of clay, which can be spread out in any manner they want.
Drainage, Drainage, Drainage
The biggest mistake backyard DIYers make is ignoring the principles of drainage. Too much digging creates new low places for the water to run to. Too little, and water will continue to follow the same path it always has, which may or may not be what you want.
You can dig drainage ditches around the course or put a bed of gravel below the course itself to allow the water to filter down. How much time and effort you put into drainage will determine how elaborate your drainage is. Simply making the course higher than the surrounding areas will ensure your course stays dry the majority of the time.
There is no one-plan-fits-all solution to achieving the desired drainage. Observe what the water does during rain storms, and do whatever it takes to redirect it if needed. Also remember that with water drainage, NO solution is permanent. Water will do what it wants to do, despite your efforts to tame it. The key is to delay the inevitable for as long as possible.
Outline the Course
Dig the outline of your race course, remembering not to gouge out a low place that will trap water. Soil that is removed can be used for banking for curves or as a berm to divert water coming from uphill.
While you can make your course as difficult as you like, don’t forget that the track is a racetrack, not an obstacle course. Make your turns challenging but skip the “dead man’s curve” hazards. The curves and other challenging portions of the track should be difficult enough to cause wipeouts by inattentive drivers, but manageable for those who are locked in on their driving.
This is also the time to create jumps, in this case, ramps of banked-up dirt. You can gain inspiration by watching motocross events on TV or in person, but when building your track and trying to emulate the ramps and jumps you’ve seen, remember that moderation is the key. Your jumps should be no longer than 1.5 times the length of the cars.
Lanes should be the width of the cars times the number of cars you want racing at once (four should be the maximum). Go slightly wider than this final number, but don’t give them too much room. The spirit of competition amps up when the cars are in close proximity.
The best material to use for lane dividers is PVC pipe, schedule 40 (white). Lay the pipe out evenly, with the sections parallel to each other. Secure the pipe to the ground with 12-inch metal stakes, driven all the way into the soil.
It may seem counterproductive, but as you work, occasionally wet the soil down with a garden hose. The reason for this is that while you move about, kneel, walk, etc. in the area; you are tamping the soil down to a solid base.
We can’t stress the importance of drainage enough. As you spray the race track area with water, pay close attention to where it runs. If it cuts a hasty path through the middle of your course, you will have problems after a heavy rainstorm. If it pools up in one section, it will become a spot that will remain wet when everything else is dry.
Smooth out problem areas and add water again to make sure you fixed the problem. And keep in mind the old rule of thumb for landscapers – if it was a problem area once, it will be a problem area again.
You’ve made a place for the cars. Now you need a place for the drivers. The best way to determine where that place needs to be is to test it out yourself. It needs to be a place that offers a line of sight between the driver and car at all times.
If there are places where the car disappears – even for a second – you should fix them. Either move the driver area to a better vantage point or make changes to the trouble spot. This is not a time for blind curves.
If your track gets used a lot, you can expect a lot of disruption to its layout. Drivers can wallow out an area in the soil where they stand; cars can create holes and dips in the soil as they spin their wheels gaining traction or land after mounting a jump. Rainstorms can wash away jumps or embankments. Areas that aren’t supposed to get stepped on can get stepped on.
During the fall, you’ll have to contend with leaves. And anytime during the year, branches and debris can collect on the track.
If the track is going to be dormant for a couple of weeks or longer, you could cover it with tarps or plastic ground cover.
Want to learn more and see how it is done? Check out the video below.
Ultimately how you build your new track is in your hands. I would recommend building a track that can be added to in the future so you could make a mega-track if you choose! One way to ensure you have plenty of room for changes in the future is to not build the track in tight to walls (if indoors) or close to buildings or obstacles (if outdoors).
Having the freedom to change the track whenever you get the urge will not only help you keep the track fresh but will also keep the other racers wanting to come back for more!