Originally created 07/29/01

Drivers compete by remote



AIKEN - One after another, the nearly 2-foot long buggies ripped their treads off the red clay and soared.

They returned to the ground seconds later and hit the straightaway at speeds near 40 mph.

Car No. 88 was driven by 11-year-old Brandon Wilson in the novice race, one of 37 heats at the sixth annual Watermelon Classic in New Ellenton this weekend.

Since the Classic began, it has become the largest premier remote control off-road race on the East Coast, according to organizers.

Run by the Atomic Racers Club, with the help of a race club from Savannah, the event's reputation has spread West, drawing competitors from California and Colorado.

"Every year, this race has grown," Bill Jackson, one of the organizers, said Saturday.

"We had to put a limit on the entries this year and had to turn a whole bunch of people down."

Brandon is in a family of racers. He's been racing cars off and on for about a year with his aunt Sandra Toy.

Brandon watched Friday from the driver's box high above the track at the Westinghouse Savannah River Co.'s Operations Recreation Association Site.

He ran down to the track to check on his car after it sputtered to a stop mid-race. The car was out of commission until repairs could be made.

After the race, Brandon and Ms. Toy walked back to her trailer and tent, where Ms. Toy's father tweaks and tunes the family's cars.

Denise Toy, 14, raced to the tent to tell her mother she finished sixth out of seven. She finished five laps in the five minutes allotted.

Brandon barely completed three laps.

The technical aspects of the nearly 400-foot track that winds into turns and two mammoth jumps are hard to conquer. Electric cars last only about six to seven minutes.

But the faster gasoline-powered cars, the largest class in this year's event, squeal for 45 minutes. Horsepower can go as high as three and rpms can spike at 40,000. At pit stops, crews make any of 130 adjustments on a car.

"It's pretty much a free-for-all out there," Ms. Toy said. "You just try not to intentionally tear up somebody else's truck. You just try to be as courteous as you can."

The cars are built to withstand damage. Some cost as much as $7,000, but a basic kit can be bought for about $250.

But this isn't a kit from your local toy store.

Atlanta resident and racer John Oden learned that lesson. His mother had bought his oldest son a remote control car, and they took it out to a track near his house. It never made it over the first jump.

Mr. Oden schooled himself on the differences in the cars, from low-end to high-end. This weekend, he brought his youngest son to the races to spend some time with him, he said.

"It's something other than baiting a hook and going fishing," he says.

Mr. Oden was one of more than 300 people who attended the races.

Ken Johnson, also from Atlanta, sat along the backstretch Friday trying to explain the intensity and strategy of remote control racing.

"Your antenna will start shaking. You get nervous," he said. "You got to use the bathroom before every race. Like me. It will play on your nerves."

The driver's concentration can be shattered by things other than nerves, such as Mr. Jackson's voice coming through the loud speaker.

From his perch on the second flight of a makeshift building that towers over the track, he called the lap-by-lap results.

Whatever the results, seasoned racers know how to handle their emotions and that there is always another race tomorrow.

"It's not all about going out and seeing who is the fastest. It's all up here," says racer Lamont Turner from North Augusta, pointing to his forehead.

If you go

The Watermelon Classic continues today, and the final race will determine the big winners.

The races will be at Westinghouse Savannah River Co.'s Operations Recreation Association Site beginning at 8 a.m. and will run until about 6 p.m.

For more information about local remote control races, e-mail Bill Jackson at jackson@ifx.net.

Staff writer Lisa Lohr contributed to this article

Reach Matthew Boedy at (803) 648-1395 or mboedy@augusta.com.