It seemed a good idea at the time. Buying ready-to-run, off-road, radio-controlled cars for your kids are a great way to stop them staring at the TV screen all day, or complaining that they’re bored. So how come you’re pulling your hair out?
All right, it’s not really that bad. But having hard little objects whizzing around your ankles can make you anxious. And yes, it’s lovely that the kids are happy, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a bit of peace and quiet?
We have the solution to your problem: help the kids to build a racetrack in the back garden!
If you have a patio, that’s an ideal surface for racing radio-controlled cars. You could build a few ramps by propping up pieces of plywood on bricks; and obstacles can be strategically placed for an exercise in precision driving.
The rough and tough kind of RC vehicles – the ones with huge wheels and sophisticated suspension – can manage really well on grass, so the same obstacles and ramps can be used on the lawn. There’s no end of fun to be had, creating makeshift racetracks for RC cars. The best bit about this idea, of course, is that it’s not happening under your feet!
But how about building a racetrack that’s more permanent. If you’ve got a few square metres of rough ground that can be dedicated to RC car racing, the whole family can make this racetrack into a grand project – an engineering triumph, an artistic masterpiece, a local tourist attraction…
… Sorry, I got carried away.
Preparation of the site – the hardest bit
A level surface is good, but in the interests of drainage, a bit of a gradient is even better. The whole area must be cleared of vegetation, such as shrubs, weeds, and roots, and then the remaining grass can be killed off by dousing them with very hot salt water. Alternatively, you could use vinegar, bleach, or one of the many commercial herbicides that can be bought at hardware shops and garden centres.
Using a spade, and a pick-axe if you have one, break up the soil so that it is pliant and manageable. If your ground is particularly hard to manage, or if you can’t face doing the whole job by hand, consider renting a rotavator for the day. Adding clay to the soil will improve its capacity to be sculpted, as clay holds its shape better than top soil does.
For an outdoor track, drainage is of paramount importance. For this reason, an outdoor track must be built on the ground, and not in an excavated hollow. Adding sand to the soil is another great way to help with drainage.
Creating a firm surface – the second hardest bit
When your site is cleared, and your soil has been chopped up, it’s time to tamp the soil down into a firm bed; tightly packed soil not only provides a smoother surface (which means faster cars), but it’s more impervious to water. Once you’ve built your racetrack, it will need to be maintained, so you might consider buying a tamper specifically for this purpose. A good quality tamper can be bought for around £40, but take care not to choose one that’s too heavy; it’s a long, arduous job!
Another way to tamp the soil is to stamp it down with your feet. When the soil is packed down hard, wet it, and tamp it down again. Repeat these steps a few times in order to create a really firm surface.
Getting creative – the fun bit
The next step is to plan your course and mark it out with string or paint. Take your car for a test drive around the marked course and see if it feels right. Make adjustments where you need to, until you’re happy with it.
For lane dividers, you’re going to need quite a lot of flexible PVC drain pipe. It is easy enough to buy, but with a bit of luck, you might be able to get hold of some second-hand pipe.
Use 300 mm hairpin garden stakes and nylon cable ties to secure the pipe in place, following the guidelines you made with paint or string. Ensure that any loose ends go with the flow of the traffic, and not against it.
Now for some jumps. Lay some pieces of 2×2 timber across the track, cover them with clay-rich soil, and sculpt your ramps. Tamp down the soil, wet it, tamp it … you know the routine by now. For movable ramps, simply use pieces of timber and make the length of the flat top at least one and a half times the length of the biggest vehicle that will be using the track.
Once your track is built, the site needs to be protected from flooding, plant growth, and animal vandalism. Covering the area with a tarpaulin sheet will help with all of this, but the soil needs to be treated, every now and again, with some salt or bleach, in order to kill off any new plant life. The harder and smoother the surface, the faster your cars will go, so your track maintenance routine should include regular wetting and tamping of the soil to keep it firm and in shape.
The racetrack described in this article is, of course, just a narrow vision of the possibilities that are open to you when building your own off-road RC track. But hopefully it will get you thinking. So, use your imagination to create something truly special!
And remember, one of the biggest benefits of building a track outside is that you can sneak out and play without waking up the kids!