Tether Car Racing

Announcer: Go behind the wheel and under the hood on everything automotive with High Speed Stuff from howstuffworks.com.

Scott Benjamin: Hi everybody and welcome back to the podcast. I'm Scott Benjamin, the auto editor at How Stuff Works. And with me is Ben. How are you doing, Ben?

Ben Bolin: Hey-o.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, okay, Ed Mcmahon there, huh? Very cool.

Ben Bolin: I am pleased. What's going on, man?

Scott Benjamin: I am - I say this sometimes, occasionally; maybe a little too often, but I'm excited about today's topic again.

Ben Bolin: Really?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. It's a racing topic.

Ben Bolin: Oh, that explains it.

Scott Benjamin: It's a racing topic, but miniature.

Ben Bolin: Miniature racing?

Scott Benjamin: Miniature racing. Not called racing; it's called tether car racing.

Ben Bolin: Oh, tether cars.

Scott Benjamin: Tether car racing, yep.

Ben Bolin: Okay, so give me a second here. Catch me up to speed. We've talked about racing before. We've talked about miniature cars, slot cars.

Scott Benjamin: Pinewood Derby cars.

Ben Bolin: Pinewood Derby cars. Tether cars though.

Scott Benjamin: Tether cars.

Ben Bolin: What are tether cars?

Scott Benjamin: As the name implies, they're tethered to something. Well, I'll fill you in on that in a minute, but tether is really something that - well, just like tether ball. The ball is tied to a string or rope or some type of -

Ben Bolin: Okay, so they're going in a circle around a central point?

Scott Benjamin: Correct. That's what a tether car basically is. It's a model car that goes around a central point.

Ben Bolin: Scott, my friend, you're making sense, but from the explanation you're giving me it smacks of a laymen's description. I think you're cutting out some details.

Scott Benjamin: It needs a lot more. Yeah, it needs a lot more and we'll - okay, let's just get into what these are really.

Ben Bolin: Okay.

Scott Benjamin: They're small cars. They've got two-cycle en gines. They are - well, two stroke engines. They're really, the small engines that are the same type that power model airplanes. They're real small with a glow plug. And usually, you fuel them with the Cox Fuel that comes in a box. I don't know if you remember those from a long time ago or not, but - and you have to spin the propeller with your hand to get it going. That's the kind of engine that I'm talking about. The cars are kind of a streamline vehicle. That's what they've evolved into. We'll talk about that in a minute, but they go in a circular path around a pole in the center and they're tethered to that pole with steel cable. And these things hit incredible speeds that we'll also talk about in a minute, but they're ridiculously fast cars. I had no idea that tether car racing was so cool until I just stumbled across this video - I don't know - it must have been about a month ago. I've been thinking about this for a while. You've watched it as well, right?

Ben Bolin: Yeah, I watched it when you told me about it. For our listeners: a lot of times, the way that we get geared up for this podcast - Scott or I, usually Scott, will find something really cool, and I'll have no idea what he's talking about because I guess that's sorta my job. And then we'll - he will show it to me and I have to admit I was very surprised by the - I don't wanna sound like I didn't expect much, but there was a lot more than I expected in terms of speed.

Scott Benjamin: It doesn't sound all that impressive when you say tether car because you're talking about a car that's attached to something.

Ben Bolin: It seems counterintuitive.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it really does. We should - let's talk about the beginnings of this sport. And we'll kinda work our way through, and I'm gonna kinda reveal some things along the way here that are gonna shock you.

Ben Bolin: You're gonna drop some gems?

Scott Benjamin: A few here and there because really, like you said, when you watch it, it's surprising how interesting this is.

Ben Bolin: Well, how long has it been around? Let's start there.

Scott Benjamin: Well, that's a good place to start because it started in - as far as I can tell - now all this information's coming from the - I guess the one and only source of information at this point: the AMRCA, which stands for American Miniature Racing Car Association, AMRCA. And you can find all of this information on their site. According to them, the sport began in 1937 on a vacant lot in LA, California.

Ben Bolin: That goes way back.

Scott Benjamin: Way back. And these were handmade models and the story, the lore, is that the first cars were actually built using model airplane engines that somebody had somehow modified and put it on a board with a couple wheels and found a way to make it drive the wheels. And that's kinda how this started. Now you gotta remember that - and this all makes sense. The evolution of this makes sense is that if you think about 1937, there were no radio controlled cars. They didn't have a radio controlled device that you could use to operate the vehicle and make it do figure eights or make it go in an oval or whatever you wanted to. If you had a car that was powered, it was gonna go in a straight line or it was going to follow a course that you would set in some way, a track of some kind. That's not much fun if you start up a car and it takes off and you have to change it a mile away. It may be a little bit of fun to watch and have somebody else catch it. So they had to tether these cars. And if you tether a car - if you think about this, you've got a tether which is rope or string or probably metal in this case because you got a heavy car. These cars were about - I think the original cars, they said, were about eight to ten pounds in weight. So they're pretty heavy. They're made of metal and a lot of rubber and -

Ben Bolin: Probably pretty big too.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, pretty big. And they looked like the racecars of the time, so they had that kind of Indy car look at the time, the open roadster type look. And if you tether a car, you don't wanna run along behind it because you're not gonna have a very fast car. It's only as fast as you can run. And these cars were - at the time, they were reaching about 40 miles per hour. You're not gonna follow that. So if you're holding a tether, it makes perfect sense that you can't go in an oval; you can't go in a figure eight. You can only go in a circle. And you can spin - you kind of - you stand in the center and you hold the tether in both hands and you let the car drive in a circle around you, a perfect circle around you. And it runs until it runs out of fuel or somebody shuts it down in some way. So the circular track makes sense and that's carried through to today of course. It's just an interesting thing. You can just see how it's progressed through the years. And by - that started in 1937 and by 1948, there were - they estimated around 2,500 to 3,000 people involved in this hobby, in this sport. And there were 440 tracks in the United States at one time.

Ben Bolin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: And I've never seen a track.

Ben Bolin: I have only seen them on the videos, man, honestly.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah. Do you know how many there are now?

Ben Bolin: No.

Scott Benjamin: Three.

Ben Bolin: There are only three?

Scott Benjamin: There are only three.

Ben Bolin: In the US or in the world?

Scott Benjamin: Three in the United States and there's a couple in Europe and one in Australia that I know of.

Ben Bolin: Wow.

Scott Benjamin: So going again, from 440 in the United States down to three. So if you live in California, I think the name of the track - it's in Whittier Narrows. Or in New York - I'm gonna mispronounce this.

Ben Bolin: All right.

Scott Benjamin: Wantagh, I think is how you say it: W - A - N - T - A - G - H. And if you live in Indiana, it's somewhere near Anderson. You'd be able to find the track, but those are the only three that are in the United States right now. And again, there's one in Germany that I know of and one in Australia.

Ben Bolin: Now if these are tracks and they're matching what I have in my head, which could be completely incorrect, it sounds like you're implying there are some races.

Scott Benjamin: There are races, yeah. There are races - one quick thing before we get past the tracks - and I promise you I'll get to the races right after that because that's unique as well. The track itself - I've got kind of a layout here of what the modern track includes. Now the guys aren't standing in the center spinning around with a tether in their hand anymore and there's a good reason for that. The cars have gotten smaller. In fact, the cars are now - I think they said that they are between two and six pounds, so six pounds: that's pretty heavy still.

Ben Bolin: Yeah, six pounds is pretty heavy.

Scott Benjamin: The length of the car is about a foot to maybe two-and-a-half feet long for the big ones. And they're kind of more of a streamliner shape at this point. But they are again, two pounds to six pounds. That's pretty heavy when you're talking about - here's one of the bombs I'm gonna drop - 200 miles per hour.

Ben Bolin: What?

Scott Benjamin: 200 miles per hour. These cars go 200 miles per hour. I'm not kidding. Not scale miles per hour. This is 200 miles per hour.

Ben Bolin: That's a pretty quick spin if you're spinning around in a circle.

Scott Benjamin: I tell you: watch the video. I say this over and over again. I was totally blown away by this 200 mile per hour thing because they start up and you see it kinda whizzing around the track. It's going pretty fast. By the time it hits top speed, you can barely see this thing moving. It goes around - it must have been several times a second and you're talking about a track that has a diameter of - I think it's 60 some feet, like 66 feet or 70 feet. Ridiculously fast. You wouldn't believe - and they sound really cool when they do it too. It's just kind of a buzzing noise. And it really - you can barely see the car when it's at top speed.

Ben Bolin: And it's like the tether, as it moves, almost becomes a continuous cone?

Scott Benjamin: Kinda. You don't even see the tether which is a real heavy steal cable. And I kinda got a little off track, but I'll get right back to it here. There's - they're now the - the person standing in the center of the ring is now replaced by a very heavy metal pole. And the reason that they had to do this is because you can imagine that holding a car on a metal tether and spinning it 200 miles per hour, there's no way you're gonna keep up with that. And - here's another bomb I'm gonna drop here - I gotta look in my notes - you know what G forces are, right?

Ben Bolin: Yes.

Scott Benjamin: Okay, so gravity it effects - the way it affects this vehicle - let's say the car weighs six pounds - let's say it weighs five pounds to make this easy. Five pounds, so let's say at one G it weighs five pounds. Is that right? Ah, whatever. As that grows, these things - let's say racers experience three or four Gs in the turns, something like that. That means if you weigh - your arm feels like it weighs ten pounds, it feels like it weighs 50 pounds or 60 pounds. These cars pull 91 Gs when they're at top speed.

Ben Bolin: So that would throw you like a - harder than a rodeo bull.

Scott Benjamin: 90 - that's right. I didn't expect that.

Ben Bolin: I mean that's -

Scott Benjamin: 91 Gs is what these cars pull when they're going 200 miles per hour. So imagine holding onto a car that now feels like it weighs about 500 pounds at the end of a string spinning at 200 miles per hour.

Ben Bolin: And let's insert where they're - imagine trying to hold on.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, there's just no way.

Ben Bolin: Yeah, you couldn't do it.

Scott Benjamin: There's no way. I'm sure it was hard enough to hold onto a car that was going 40 miles per hour when it weighed ten pounds. That's probably hard enough, but there's just no way that it's even physically possible at this point. So there's this real heavy duty pole that's now positioned at the center of a track in the very dead center. It's got a bearing attached to it and that's where the cable's attached. It's a real heavy metal cable. The cable goes out to concrete track, which is perfectly flat. And that's the circular track that you see on the outside ring. Now there's somebody - and there's a platform on top of that bearing on the pole, and the reason for that is that there has to be somebody in the center initially when this thing starts up. And there's two people that are involved in a race. Now we're getting to the races that you talked about.

Ben Bolin: Oh good.

Scott Benjamin: Two people that are in charge of this that are on the track during a race. One is called the horser and the horser is the guy that stands in the middle. And he's doing what it kinda sounds like: he's horsing the car up to speed. He's holding the cable.

Ben Bolin: He's pulling the tether, huh?

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, he's pulling the tether and he's really just kind of - all he's really doing is keeping it off the ground until the car gets up to speed because the cable will drag on the ground or will touch the ground until the car reaches - I think it's about 80 to 90 miles per hour. At that distance, the cable would just sag and hit the ground. So he has to hold the cable up in the air and walk around with the cable. Well, it's possible at this point. He's moving pretty quick at this point, but it's possible. He's got heavy gloves on and he's gotta be sure footed as well. Gotta make sure he doesn't trip because once this thing gets going -

Ben Bolin: It's going.

Scott Benjamin: - it would - well, I don't know. I don't kno w if it'd cut you in half or what. It seems like it would.

Ben Bolin: It would certainly - you would certainly notice the impact.

Scott Benjamin: I think you'd feel it. And there's one other guy involved, and he's the starter. And the starter pushes the cars to start them with a broomstick or something like that. And really, that's all it takes. Do you remember when I said that you had to start the plane motor by spinning the propeller?

Ben Bolin: Yeah.

Scott Benjamin: Same idea with the wheels on the car. You have to push start the cars.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it gives them a quick initial push with a broom and then he quickly gets out of the way.

Ben Bolin: How about this, man: you be the horser; I'll be the starter. We can switch if you want.

Scott Benjamin: Sure, danger; I'll take the dangerous road. But once he gets the car going - once the horser gets the car going up to speed, he judges when it's time to step up onto that platform. And then all he does is stand in that platform and hang onto that pole for dear life because he doesn't wanna be anywhere near that cable when the car is going as fast as it goes. So he's clutching the pole while he's standing on this small platform above the bearing so that the cable is spinning beneath him. Now the way the cars stop: they don't run out of fuel. I suppose that could happen, but the starter reaches into the track with a broom, the bottom part of the broom, the soft side and just barely touches the top of the car as it comes by, one of the many times it comes by; barely touches it and that triggers a fuel shut off. And that's how the car slows down and stops.

Ben Bolin: Wow that sounds like a pretty precise action.

Scott Benjamin: It is. It really is. And again, the horser has a dangerous position there. Both of them do because he has to - the starter has to get out of there in time because the car comes around really fast. And the horser's probably in the most danger at that point, I would say.

Ben Bolin: I would say the horser is - I think it's fair to say the person clinging to the pole while the tether is flying just under them.

Scott Benjamin: Now the 200 miles we were talking about, that 200 miles per hour, that's the top end cars. That's the 10CC cars. They progress all the way down to - I think its one-and-a-half CCs. I've gotta look at my notes here. Yeah, there's several classes of one, one-and-a-half, two-and-a-half, three-and-a-half and five. And then ten is kinda the big daddy. And the world record speed is held by an Australian right now. I just checked the site. It is held at 214.348 miles per hour. And the way they measure that - and this is the races that you talked about - the races are not more than one car on the track at a time. They're a single car. It's timed - it's an average speed rather of eight laps. So eight laps at full speed; the average speed of those eight laps is what they count. And these are all electronically scored. And at the tracks you'll see these big readouts of the car's speed so you can see it gaining every time that it goes around. And these things gain something like ten - it's right about ten miles per hour each lap that they go. But once they get up to speed, they maintain that speed. And eight laps - you'd be surprised how fast eight laps goes at that speed. Well, actually, you won't because you've seen it.

Ben Bolin: Yeah. I was thinking, "It went very quickly."

Scott Benjamin: Eight laps is a matter of seconds really.

Ben Bolin: Right. So I wonder - it makes you wonder how many vehicles would compete in a race just because I'm sure it could vary.

Scott Benjamin: Oh, well, that's the other - this is kind of a sad fact really.

Ben Bolin: What's that?

Scott Benjamin: Remember how I said that there were 2,500 to 3,000 members at a certain point in history back in the late '40s, I think?

Ben Bolin: Sure.

Scott Benjamin: Well, after World War II, the sport nearly went away. It was just about dead. There were very few - and that's when all the tracks went away, and that's when membership dropped for the AMRCA. Membership level right now of AMRCA is down to 150 members. So that's three tracks nationwide, 150 members and that's all.

Ben Bolin: So these folks are traveling - with 150 members, these folks must be traveling to each location.

Scott Benjamin: I think so. I think they do that. I'm sure that there are some that just only participate in their local events. There are others that travel to the worldwide events. There are - aside from national events, there are worldwide events. And that's where you get the Australians coming over to compete and the Germans. And we head over there to compete as well. So - we: like I'm part of the membership. Not yet, but hey. So the Americans travel to compete in these events as well. And I don't know. To me, it's sad that it's gone from 440 tracks down to three and that's it's gone from 3,000 members down to 150. And a lot of the members - not all of them, but a lot of them are elderly members that these guys are creating their own parts in their own machine shop and they're just fine tuning the cars for - they say it may take hours to get just a half-mile per hour gain on the track. And - but it's I guess, for the love of the sport. They're building their own parts; they're building their own cars. And it's really all about fine tuning, precision. I think it originally kind of attracted kind of engineers and people like that that were fascinated with this to begin with.

Ben Bolin: Yeah, I could see that.

Scott Benjamin: Man, I've said a lot about this, haven't I?

Ben Bolin: I think you've said some very interesting stuff about it, but I can't let you off the hook yet. Or we can't let each other off the hook until we say how someone could get started in this; if you wanna be No. 151.

Scott Benjamin: I say go ahead and do it. I think that's a great idea because clearly - to me, it's something that I'd hate to see go away. I would really like to see this last. And if you're able to participate in this or you wanna participate in this and - I gotta tell you: if you're in the area and you like this type of thing and you see this video of tether car racing, I think you'll wanna do it.

Ben Bolin: Go check it out.

Scott Benjamin: So the way to get a hold of them is to go to the AMRCA website which is again, American Miniature Racing Car Association and they've got membership information there. I don't know if there's any kind of fee involved. I'm just not sure, but again, contact that group directly and I'm sure that they could - they'd love to sign you up.

Ben Bolin: Awesome. And so all our listeners there, you heard it here. If you wanna learn about tether cars, go ahead and check that out. And before we close out, I guess we can do a piece of listener mail if you want.

Scott Benjamin: I'd love to.

Ben Bolin: All right, so check it out, Scott. Ken from Brownfield writes in and says, "Hi guys. Regarding your podcast about the James Dean Porsche and all the coincidences and strangeness surrounding his Porsche, keep in mind this quote: 'In a world of cause and effect, all coincidences become suspect." Ken also cites that he is not sure if he - if James Dean originated this quote or if he - okay, let me see. I'm sorry, Ken. He's not sure if James Dean originated this quote, but he heard it from his brother, Russ.

Scott Benjamin: Hum, okay. So he's saying this could be just a string of coincidences that were fabricated into this myth or this mythical thing. Yeah, which is - it's kind of an interesting idea. That's kind of my idea is I say that to me - you know me. I'm a skeptic.

Ben Bolin: Yeah, you took that personality test that said you were a skeptic.

Scott Benjamin: To me, I'm just a - I think he's right. I think it's just a series of unfortunate coincidences that have evolved into this - again, this car being a mythical object. And I don't know. I just don't know if I buy it yet. I've been thinking a lot about it recently though. And -

Oh yeah?

Scott Benjamin: Because I get listener mail that kinda trickles in about this here and there and people are either - they're saying, "Yeah, it's definitely cursed" or they're in my camp where they say, "I don't know. I'm not quite buying it yet." What do you think?

Ben Bolin: Yeah, I wanna believe it so much, but it's a very good point about our perspective makes a coincidence sometimes.

Scott Benjamin: Yeah, it's really - it depends on your viewpoint really.

Ben Bolin: Yeah. Well, thanks again for writing in, Ken. And again, to our listeners: we appreciate you lending us an ear. If you have any ideas about a future topic you'd like to learn more about, please send us an e-mail at highspeedstuff@howstuffworks.com.

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