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The Basics of Radio Controlled Cars

Updated on May 11, 2011
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Getting Started

The thrill of racing down the back straight. The whizz of high-performance motors in the air. The thrill of competition. All for a few hundred dollars.

Huh?

Yep, it's true. Radio controlled, or R/C, cars are an exciting way to get the thrill of racing and enjoy a tight-knit camaraderie without having to pony up to full-size racing. Radio controlled cars have probably never been more popular than they are now, and with good reason. Technology has been advancing at a rapid rate, and increasing availability of low-cost, easy-to-start-up options has never made getting into this thrilling and rewarding hobby easier. Follow me as I walk you through the basics of what you need to know about buying your first RC car, building it, maintaining it, and even how to make it big racing it. Yes, you can do that!

Side note: I'll focus on cars here, although be aware that all manner of vehicles that you can imagine are available!


Don't be confused
Don't be confused | Source

Choosing your first car

OK, so you're still with me. Let's get cracking, then! There are many things to consider when purchasing your first RC car:

  1. Your budget
  2. Your mechanical skill level
  3. Your patience
  4. Your environment
  5. Your end goals

I'll tackle these one at a time in order to make the process as clear as possible.


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Your budget

If you are new to this hobby, you may ask "how much does that cost?". Or, rather, how much could it cost? Well, I have news: the prices vary WILDLY. There are many options available for less that $150; also, there are cars that can easily eclipse $2000+. The world's your oyster on this one. A good rule of thumb to abide by is to set a limit for yourself based on the later criteria I stated above. That is to say, if you you only plan to bash around in your backyard, then $250-300 all in is a fair starting point.

Your mechanical skill level

This is where things get interesting. You see, there are two main power sources available for RC vehicles: nitro(which uses engines powered by a nitromethanol-based fuel) and electric (powered by batteries and motors.

It used to be that nitro vehicles were A) always more expensive and B) always faster, endstop. This is no longer true, now that battery and motor technology has evolved to the point that it has. In fact, you could argue that the roles have equalized or even reversed.

I've prepared a basic comparison chart to help you decide:

Nitro

  • Louder and more exciting (arguably)
  • Messier
  • Require more mechanical know-how
  • Tend to be pricier
  • Tend to be faster

 

Electric

  • Not messy
  • Quiet
  • Cheap
  • Not generally as fast as nitro
  • Easier to start with
  • Simple to use

 

Kits and Ready-to-Runs

As if your head wasn't spinning yet, there's a new variable to add: do you want to build it yourself or plug-and-play?

Of course, there are far more riffs on this theme, but I'll start simply with the top two categories.

Ready-to-Run, or RTRvehicles are those that basically require you to either fill up the tank or charge the battery and go for it. Note that electric RTRs are vastly more common than nitro RTRs, largely due to cost/complexity. RTRs have been steadily increasing in popularity over the years, and now make up the bulk of the market. They are often cheaper to get running initially, but they can actually end up being more expensive in the long term if you do choose to upgrade. However, for initial simplicity and ease of operation, they cannot be beat. To the right are some newcomers to the game: Electrix RC. They offer basic RTR vehicles like the Ruckus monster truck or the Boost buggy that have received decent reviews.

Kitsare essentially "do-it-yourself" RC cars. They arrive in bags and your job is to make a car out of the parts. While this sounds tedious, and it can be, it is very rewarding and allows you to know all about your car before it even turns a wheel. That way, when it breaks (not "if"), you will have all the tools on hand both physically (wrenches, e.g.) and mentally ("Where did that screw go again...?") to repair your baby and get it running quickly. Tamiya offers a wide range of kits at a good price to start with, although they often require the most work to get running. An important note for kits is that you get to choose whatever motors/batteries/engines/servos etc. that you want when you first start, which can save you money in the long run and make your car feel more like 'yours'.

 

Ah, to have an onroad car...
Ah, to have an onroad car... | Source

Your environment

No, I don't mean about nitro cars being more polluting (not specifically, anyway). Rather, I am referring to where you live. For example: if you live in a city where there are lots of parking lots and parks, pretty much any car will do it for you. If you live in the country with dirt roads, maybe an on-road car isn't the wisest choice.

Whaddaya wanna do?

As I mentioned above, you can do a wide range of things with your new RC car. Bashing (i.e. driving around for the heck of it) all the way up to professional racing are options. You can be any age to do either (some national champions are not even able to drive a full-sized car yet!), and you can start out with any goal in mind. Just in it for fun? You'll probably want to get a nice, reliable RTR to play around with for a while, which you can upgrade to your taste later on. Wanna race? Get a good high-end kit and go nuts with the parts. Just remember the phrase "How fast you want to go depends on how much you want to spend".

If your heart is set on racing, then there are a couple of authorities you should consult.  The first is ROAR and the second is IFMAR.  These are the governing bodies for RC racing in the world, and thus their word on rules is law.  They have strict limitations on the types/configurations of RC cars you can race, ad which classes they are eligible for.

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A note on scale

Another thing to think about is how big you want your car to be. Scales vary widely, ranging from 1/36th scale (about 6 inches long) all the way up to 1/5th scale bruisers (over 36 inches long!). Scale impacts virtually all aspects of buying your car. Small cars tend to be:

  • Cheaper
  • Fiddlier
  • Not as easy to race professionally (sometimes not at all)
  • Slower
  • More biased towards indoor-running
  • More likely to be electric

In contrast, larger vehicles are:

  • Typically more expensive
  • More likely to be powered by nitro (or even gasoline) engines
  • More expensive
  • More stable/easy to control
  • Faster (this is true up to a point; actually, 1/10th scale vehicles tend to be the fastest, in my experience)

Considering scale is vital if you want to maximize your enjoyment of the hobby.

The Literature

Believe it or not, there are even major magazines devoted to all things RC-car-related. In North America, there are two major ones to refer to: RC Driver and RC Car Action. Both of these magazines are great sources for how-tos and product information. Beyond the written word, simply see if you have a local hobby shop nearby! Talking to real people and asking questions is always the best approach.

Conclusion

Well, now you know. The world of RC cars is exciting and probably more in-depth than you could have ever imagined. I have tried to make you a little bit more aware about this fantastic hobby, and I hope it worked!

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