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Businessman places bet on racing comeback

August 21, 2003|by RICHARD F. BELISLE

waynesboro@herald-mail.com

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - Keith Grossnickle is betting his pocketbook on a hunch that slot-car racing is going to make a comeback.

Grossnickle, 43, last month opened the Amazing Plastic Scale Model Shop, the fulfillment of a life-long dream.

Walk into the store at 123 Walnut St. - at one time the building housed a bowling alley and a roller rink - and it's a typical hobby shop. It's also handicapped accessible.

Boxes of plastic models - an arsenal of planes, ships, tanks and automobiles in scale - abound in the front section of the store. Plastic airplanes hang from the ceiling. Display cases hold models of all kinds. Racks and shelves offer plastic cement, paints, decals, and "aftermarket" parts that modelers can buy to personalize their creations.

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A realist, Grossnickle knew he couldn't make a go with models alone.

"The numbers don't crunch," he said. "I've been in retail all my life. I worked for years as a sales manager for a Hagerstown auto dealership. Now I supervise 11 McDonald's restaurants. I know retail and I know I'd have to sell a whole lot of plastic in this shop. There are a lot of hobby shops in the area."

Grossnickle's mantra is get a hunch, play a hunch. He's banking that slot-car racing is on the rebound.

He invested in three large slotted race tracks in the main part of the store. The eight-lane tracks run from 120 feet to 155 feet. He's also setting up a slot-car drag strip along one side.

The small electric-powered cars ride a slot around the track. They are controlled by their drivers with hand-held devices. A fast car in the hands of a seasoned controller can turn into a blur as it wheels around the track.

"The world's record is less than 1.6 seconds around a 155-foot track," Grossnickle said.

"Slot car racing was immensely popular in the 1960s," he said. "Hagerstown had two commercial tracks."

Steve Okeefe, 52, of Greencastle, started slot-car racing when he was 12. "I've been doing this for 40 years," he said.

He remembers his first car, a Monogram-made Porsche. It cost $9.95. A similar car today would cost nearly $50.

"They go a lot faster today," Okeefe said.

He showed a scratch-built racer that he put together from a brass plate that he fashioned into the frame, piano wire and a gear-driven motor that he bought.

Building cars is a big part of the hobby.

Josh Jones, 12, built his from a rental car that he bought and souped-up. A rubber band transfers power from the motor to the wheels rather than gears.

"I changed the tires, the axle and put in new wiring," he said. He also replaced the small plastic blade that keeps the car in the slot and the braided copper contact points that pick up the electricity in the track.

"It's faster than when it was a rental car," Jones said.

He said the hobby is becoming more popular with kids. "It's fun, you get to race and it's cheaper than remote-control cars."

Grossnickle sells cars and car kits. He also rents cars and hand-held controllers. He holds racing seminars and stages competitions.

Track time costs $6 an hour. Racing is $10 an hour but half of that goes into prize money, he said.

Grossnickle said business is picking up. "Summer is the slowest time, but we have 10 to 15 people racing on weekends," he said.

Women, too, are getting into the hobby, he said. "The first car I sold was to a woman," he said.

He has been building plastic scale models of planes and ships since he was a boy. His first was a replica of a B-17 bomber. The kit cost less than $2. He pulled a box holding the same plane off a shelf. Its price tag was $28.

Many of his customers, adults and kids, have won regional and national competitions with their models, he said. A display case up front showcases some of the winners.

A grand opening for the shop will be held next month, Grossnickle said.

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