Three Experienced Slot Car Racers Walk Into iHobby and Test Digital Systems
by Kerry Davis
While looking around at iHobby 2008 in Chicago, Kevin Kosir, Roberto Smaldone and I had an idea. None of us had much, if any, experience with digital slot car systems and with all the main manufacturers there; Carrera, Ninco, Scalextric and SCX, there was no better time to test them head to head. I have been a model railroader as well as a slot car racer for as long as I can remember and have used model train digital systems for many years. Model railroading has the National Model Railroad Association (NMRA), but the scale slot car industry has no such “sanctioning body”. One of the best things the NMRA does is to set standards, including digital standards, so a “decoder” or “chip” from any manufacturer will work on the system of any other manufacturer. I understand that, other than Ninco, the slot car manufacturers do the vast majority of their business in their country of origin, so standardizing with each other is not a priority. Each system, of course, has advantages and disadvantages, with real and perceived issues discussed at length in the Slot Car Illustrated Digital Forum. Just like the consumer analog sets, the controllers are basic, the lap counters can be inconsistent and cars may not do exactly as expected due to the control signals being transmitted through the track rails and potentially intermittent braid contact. Ninco has positioned itself as more of an enthusiast’s system than the others, but, with the possible exception of the Carrera Digital 124 system, none of them is legally allowed to provide enough amperage for more than a few cars to run properly and not steal power from each other, even with extra power packs. For clubs and very experienced, hard core North American racers, like the 3 of us, who have raced all manner of slot vehicles and are used to $200+ controllers, truck battery-like power supplies and computer controlled timing and scoring to 0.001s, Slot.it’s oXigen is likely the only one worth considering. If you just want a fun time racing a buddy or two on the living room rug, read on…
Scalextric Sport Digital (SSD) Versions
There is an updated (3rd) generation due soon as Scalextric’s original offering was apparently too complicated for their target market of consumers, so they stripped it down to its current form, which we used at iHobby. The second generation only supports 2 lanes, 4 drivers, has no speed/brake settings, no fuel load element. The new (3rd) Generation should support 6 drivers and will have a variety of modes, complexity and features, but does not mention fuel programs.
Carrera has the largest, widest track, so they decided to not support more than 2 lanes.
SCX uses a mechanical system where a pin in the guide is lowered on the car with a solenoid to activate lane changers, which could be susceptible to wear. Ninco uses a dead strip, while Carrera and Scalextric use photo optic setups activated by LEDs in the undersides of the cars. Carrera has the longest switch tracks, taking 2 full sections, only on straights, while the other three manufacturers have switches in one length of track and on corners. We stalled on the dead spots over switches a lot less with the Carrera track than any of the others, but Carrera had a banked oval set up whereas the others had more complicated layouts. Designing the track properly with the lane changers in braking zones rather than full speed sections and avoiding outside-to-inside corner lane changers will help.
As far as we could tell, Scalextric is the only one allowing you to run either direction across the power base. This means ovals will run clockwise, unrealistic for NASCAR ovals, unless you put the control section on the inside and run the wires under the track. This means reaching across the track to program Ninco and SCX and reading the display upside down. Carrera can be programmed using only the controller and has wireless controllers which could overcome this issue, with one caveat... they use IR technology (like a TV remote) which is line of sight. Roberto pointed out that blocking your opponent’s signal would be really easy.
I don’t particularly like any of the controllers that come with the sets. Carrera uses the thumb plunger, which was the least awkward in my large hands, but some find it tiring and less precise.
Carrera Digital 132 and 124
Drivers & Lanes
Carrera, Scalextric (3rd Gen,) and SCX can support up to 6 drivers, while Ninco provides room for 8.
Ninco’s system will time a race and then give you less time to complete the same number of laps the next time. SCX is able to run a safety car or two, but Carrera will allow “ghost” or “jammer” cars to a maximum of 8 cars on the track. We were told at the Carrera booth, that the ghost cars have very interesting programming. They will change lanes on their own every 1.5 laps or so, but if you bump draft or hassle them, they will change lanes to get out of your way. They will even pit for fuel on the same schedule as everyone else in the race you have programmed. We had a lot of fun racing against the Carrera ghost cars, trying to get around them and stay out of their way. When we asked about ghost cars at the Scalextric booth, we were told “you could put a rubber band around a controller”.
Chips and Conversion
Ninco is the only manufacturer whose chip or “decoder” can be installed with only some soldering and no other alterations. Scalextric has the smallest chip, but a hole needs to be drilled in the chassis to mount the LED that operates the switches on non-SSD-ready cars. Newer Slot.it cars are manufactured with a hole in the chassis for this purpose. Carrera’s chips are a bit larger, but they are smaller than they used to be and are backwards compatible with their original problematic digital system. Converting cars to SCX is another matter entirely. It requires the installation of their special guide which lowers to operate the switches. For non-sidewinder cars, new front wheels and uprights are necessary as well because the chip and solenoid mechanism has to go between the front wheels. This makes front-motored cars impossible to use on SCX…
SCX the Digital System
Installation work can be avoided fairly easily with all the systems. All the manufacturers offer cars that are digital-ready or equipped. Each one, except Ninco, makes NASCAR and Formula 1 cars that are digital-ready or equipped.
Features & Accessories
All the manufacturers have pit lanes, adjustable power for different skill levels (except Scalextric) as well as timing and scoring, etc. With the fuel systems, all except Scalextric will cause the cars to sputter and slow down if you don’t pit in time. Ninco has a wireless scoring pylon but SCX has the most gadgets overall.
SCX the Digital System
Carrera Digital 132 and Digital 124:
Scalextric Sport Digital (SSD):
SCX the digital system:
If you have the chance, the best thing you can do is try as many as possible. See if the controllers and car selection will work for you and which features and accessories you like. Your choice will depend on your intended uses, local racers and which cars you like to race. All of the manufacturers support their products through their respective North American distributors. I even found SCX tech videos on YouTube. Questions can be asked and most likely answered in the Slot Car Illustrated Digital Forum as well.
SCI Article: Carrera Digital Racing By Jeremy Dunning