To most of us, the idea of Amazon, Google or DHL radio-controlled drones flying over our rooftops and landing in our front yards to deliver packages might seem like something out of The Jetsons (or if you’re a bit younger, Star Trek: The Next Generation), but to a growing group of R/C enthusiasts—it’s about time.
R/C planes, cars and boats have been around for quite a while. In fact, the first R/C vehicle, a boat, was used by the famous inventor Nikola Tesla to amaze audiences in the late 1890s. Tesla’s boat was designed by “The Father of Radio Control,” John Hays Hammond, Jr., and by today’s standards was very crudely made.
Today’s hobbyists can hand-build their own aircraft or vehicles or buy them premade and ready to operate right out of the box. The invention of the transistor and small electric-powered servos have made steering cars, adjusting rudders on planes and boats and controlling the speed of an R/C motor so responsive that it’s almost like you’re on the highway, in the sky or on the water.
“Radio-control is as popular as ever,” says Rob Stevely of Rob’s Hobby World in Ocala. “Even though, when it comes to the younger generation, it has to compete with new, time-consuming electronic technologies like iPhones, it is still growing in popularity. The new electric motors are becoming more and more powerful and light, and they are very low maintenance… this makes the hobby simple, easy and fast. All you have to do is charge up the battery and you are ready to go.”
Stevely says the latest high-efficiency brushless motors powered by LiPo (lithium-ion polymer) batteries being used in planes, cars, boats and, most recently, trains are now as fast and powerful as the combustion engines that run on either nitromethane or gasoline (which usually powers the engines used in bigger planes).
Even though battery-powered R/C vehicles have been around for a while, the commercial production of the LiPo battery in the 1990s revolutionized the industry. LiPo batteries are high-voltage, lightweight, can store large amounts of energy in a small space and can be formed into almost any shape. This makes them perfect for any electric-motorized R/C vehicle. As production has increased, they have become cheaper and more popular, and hobby-store owners like Stevely see them as the future of the R/C industry.
“The new technology is making the sport of R/Cing easier and more accessible to everyone,” he says. “For a couple hundred bucks, you can be flying, boating or driving as soon as you leave the store. Of course, serious hobbyists can spend thousands, but it really doesn’t cost a lot to get started, and it’s pure fun.”
Flying the Friendly Skies
The high-pitched whine of small engines and the smell of burned nitromethane and gasoline exhaust fill the air. The smell is exhilarating, bringing back memories of string-flying my Cox Stuka model airplane with its classic Babe Bee .049 engine in my backyard… many, many years ago.
But these planes aren’t tethered to strings, and they certainly don’t look like the little black Stuka that sat comfortably on my dresser top. These are scale-model R/C planes and helicopters that are similar to the real thing in almost every respect.
They brandish awesome-looking two- or four-stroke glow engines, gas powered two-stroke engines, jet engines and the new wave of brushless electric motors. What they all have in common is that they are fast and nimble.
The boys, girls, men and women who fly R/C aircraft can be found almost anywhere there is enough room to take off and maneuver Marion’s blue skies, but they tend to congregate at the small airfields that can be found in various parts of the county.
“Here at the Ocala Flying Model Club, we have 280 members,” says member and flying instructor Jim Stroud. “Our field is located on 200 acres of the Florida Greenway that the club leases from the state. The club has been together since the 1980s, and about 10 years ago, we paved a 48-foot by 600-foot runway. The field is open from 7:30am until dusk each day, and the public is welcome to come out and watch the members fly their aircraft anytime they want. All that is required to apply for membership is an AMA (Academy of Model Aeronautics) membership that provides insurance coverage in case of an accident.”
Stroud says he began flying R/C planes in the 1990s when his then-13-year-old son, Jason, decided to take up the hobby.
“What’s funny is that Jason became good at flying and then became my instructor,” he says. “I had always wanted to be a pilot but was turned down due to poor eyesight, and radio-controlled flying instantly made me feel like I was up there. We have a lot of members who are ex-pilots and can no longer fly like they used to, and now they are flying R/C planes.”
Stroud has 15 planes with his favorite being a 1949 Taylorcraft. He says it costs most people approximately $200 to purchase the needed equipment to get started in R/C flying, but some avid hobbyists may spend as much as $20,000 on a single plane.
There is no physical limit as to the dimensions of R/C aircraft, but they cannot exceed 55 pounds in weight. Airfields and clubs limit the amount of noise caused by the combustion engines and require mufflers on every plane. Stroud says that electric motors are becoming increasingly popular and that aircraft using these types of motors are virtually silent except for the whir of the propeller.
The airfield is located on Southeast 110th Street approximately two-and-a-half miles east of I-75.
When most of us think of model trains, we envision an engine with two or three cars attached “chugging” slowly around a small track. The transformer is plugged into the wall, wires run to the track and the excited young “engineer” turns a small knob to make the engine go faster or slower. Once again, times have changed.
New model train layouts can cover hundreds or sometimes even thousands of square feet and include things like magnetic knuckle couplers, multiple branch lines, slip switches, staging yards and, best of all, these amazingly realistic models can now be radio-controlled.
Frank Graham, a member of the Ocala Stud Club Horsing Around with Trains group says that not only are R/C model train layouts simpler to use, they are the wave of the future.
“We have about 24 club members and around a third of them use R/C control,” he says. “I use it on my layout, and I think that pretty soon everybody will be using it. It allows different people to run different trains on the same track at the same time. Each train can go at whatever speed it chooses, and it adds to the realism of model railroading.”
Once again, the LiPo battery has made it all possible. The ability to use a smaller battery and still have ample power has allowed model train enthusiasts to modify their engines to accept DC power. Although some train enthusiasts prefer the larger G-scale trains when adapting to R/C, at least one Japanese company has produced Z-scale trains with that capability. Z-scale train engines are less than two inches long.
“With LiPo batteries, it takes anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours to charge them depending on how depleted they are, and you can run a train continuously for about four hours on one charge,” Graham says. “That is so much simpler and easier than using an electrified track. It eliminates a lot of the work that used to come with keeping the track very clean.”
Graham says the only drawback to a remote train system is that it is distance-limited. If there are obstacles between the engine and the transmitter, the two can lose contact at distances greater than 100-or-so feet away.
“But that is the only drawback I can see, and even that is being addressed. The new 2.4GHz transmitters are now capable of controlling a train 300 to 400 feet away. I have 350 linear feet of track in my layout, and I have no problems at all.”
Trains and all the supplies needed to build your own R/C rail layout can be bought at any local R/C supply store. Not every store keeps them in stock, but they can be ordered and quickly delivered.
Behind the Wheel: Racing and Crawling
Although they specialize in R/C cars and trucks, Newred Hobbies, located in the heart of Ocala, provides everything an R/C hobbyist might want or need, including planes, helicopters, quads, boats, submarines and trains. In addition to selling R/C products, Newred’s owner, Melanie Hitchcock, has built several off-road tracks designed to challenge even the most experienced car and truck hobbyists.
“Melanie owns the shop, and I help handle the day-to-day operations,” explains her husband, Tom. We offer one of the very few indoor off-road dirt tracks in the state. The clay, BMX-style track is housed inside our 7,000-square-foot warehouse. It’s 120 feet long, 50 feet wide and has 10-foot-wide lanes. It has 30-foot jumps, straightaways and tight turns that are found on BMX tracks. Our outside track is an off-road, dirt, oval, banked track designed much like a NASCAR track, and we now also have a large rock-crawler/scaler track available for truck crawling. We try to offer a bit of something for everyone.”
Tom says off-road tracks are made of dirt or clay and on-road tracks are usually surfaced with asphalt. Due to the high speeds attained by the cars and trucks (some run between 50 and 80mph), tires tend to wear out very quickly on on-road tracks, so in order to save hobbyists money, they have gone exclusively to dirt tracks where tires last much longer.
At Newred, business is booming, and the Hitchcocks say they see nothing but a bright future for R/C car and truck racing and crawling.
“A lot of people have no idea just how popular racing and crawling is today,” Tom says. “It’s almost like a secret society. We may have an event and two or three hundred spectators may show up. We’re a block back off the main highway, and I think if we were closer and people were more aware of us, there would be even more.”
Tom attributes the popularity of model car and truck racing to the new battery and motor designs.
“There’s no doubt about it, the LiPo batteries are what make these new electric cars and trucks so great. They are very low maintenance and easy to use,” says Tom. “A few years ago, the batteries lasted about five minutes, and then you had to charge them for three or four hours; now you can run your vehicle continuously for more than an hour and be fully charged up in 30 minutes. And also, the new electric motors are just as powerful as the nitro-powered ones.”
John and Robin Feola own Rotors, Rudders & Wheels (RRW), an R/C supply store and track complex located adjacent to the Market of Marion, which is located on Hwy 441 just south of Belleview.
According to John, when it comes to R/C cars, he and his wife, Robin, are just a couple of kids at heart.
“We started when we were both in grade school, and I’m 62 and still love it,” he says, his voice tinged with excitement. “We started with planes and cars and even launched rockets… I guess it just sort of carried over into adulthood. It’s something we both have loved for a long time, and now we enjoy it as a business.”
RRW specializes in rock crawling and rock racing.
“We used to keep all types of R/C vehicles in stock, but we decided to focus our business almost exclusively on crawling and climbing,” John says. “We primarily sell Axial trucks powered with electric motors designed just for rock crawling, trail running and rock racing. We have three courses here: a 1:1 course for Jeep use, a U4RC-sanctioned rock racing track and a very long rock crawling course called ‘The Krawl Zone.’ We are also in the process of building a mud drag pit for mudding competitions.”
John says that rock crawling and racing is not just becoming increasingly popular locally but worldwide. The U4RC sanctioning body is located in California, and courses are springing up all across the country. The sport is especially popular in Europe.
“We are enjoying great success here, and this is just the tip of the iceberg,” John says. “We are looking forward to a very, very successful future.”
Both Newred and RRW say that local supply stores, even though business is great, are taking a hard hit from online sales… many times from the very distributors who supply their inventory of products.
“Price-wise it’s hard to compete with online stores that offer free shipping and have no sales tax,” says Tom. “But we still keep our prices competitive, and the thing we offer that they don’t is that we are here when our customers need help. We feel the most important part of our business is to educate our customers. We want them to get the best price, but we also want them to know a quality product that will last from a cheaper one that will quickly go by the wayside. We pass along our knowledge of the products we offer and hopefully save them money in the long run. This is why we would hope people would see they get so much more when they do business locally. Saving a little bit of money initially doesn’t always pay off in the long run for them. When they buy from a local shop, they are buying our knowledge of their specific needs and the fact that we are here for them every day.”
Newred Racing Schedule
Thursday: registration 5:30pm, racing 7pm
Saturday: registration noon, racing 1pm
First Sunday of each month: registration noon, racing 1pm
Second and fourth Sunday of each month
Registration noon, racing 1pm
Third Sunday of each month
Daily, weekly and monthly track rentals are available.
RRW Racing Schedule
Dec. 7: Krawl Zone Competition
Registration 9-10am, competition 11am
Dec. 20: Saturday Night Christmas Krawl
Times to be announced
An Axial SCX10 Jeep Wrangler G6 Falken Edition will be raffled during the event.
Rock racing track rental $5 per day.
Krawl Zone course rental $5 per day.