Friday, November 4, 2016

Beginner's Guide to Teapot Racing 2 – Tanks, Perfect Solution, Sort of

Meet El Guapo, a Teapot Racer made on a tank
roughly the size of a Hot Wheels car
What, you may ask, is Teapot Racing? Simply put, it is mounting a teapot on and Remote Control (RC) vehicle and racing it on an obstacle course. This is the second in a series of posts on Teapot Racing. The last post talked about the difference between Toy-Grade and Hobby-Grade vehicles. In short, you have two basic types of RC vehicle (these also apply to tanks):
  • Toy-Grade –  Toy-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in places like Toys"R"Us, Target, and Walmart. Toy-Grade RC vehicles have the main advantage of being inexpensive. They can also be underpowered, but the better Toy-Grade cars can have the opposite problem, too much power for their own good. The biggest problem with Toy-Grade vehicles is lack of control.
  • Hobby-Grade – Hobby-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in brick-and-mortar and online hobby stores. Hobby-Grade RC vehicles can be extremely expensive, but what you get for that extra money is both power and precise control. Hobby-grade tanks tend to be even more expensive than conventional vehicles and are probably going to be harder to find secondhand.
If you haven't done so, you might want to check out my RC Basics post here.

I was first exposed to Teapot Racing at Gaslight Gathering this year, so I'm not really an expert, but I figured I could share what I learned making my first Teapot Racers. At Gaslight, there were only six cars competing. My car turned in the second fastest time, but also had the dubious distinction of being the only car to drive off the stage. I kind of suck at driving the things. As we were leaving the event, Madame Askew, who officiated mentioned that RC tanks tend to do well in Teapot Racing.

Having done it only once I could immediately see where she was coming from. A big part of the fun of making a teapot racer is making it look the part, but ultimately you are going to need to drive the thing, and driving means navigating the course. You're going to need to navigate two types of obstacle at a minimum:

  • Ramps – Figure on at least two ramps. These will usually be a wide slanted one that you drive up and down and make a U-turn on and two straight ramps of the same height placed end-to-end (up one side and down the other), possibly with a small gap between them that you need to jump.
  • Slalom – These are obstacles placed on the ground that you need to drive between. 
The ramp is probably going to be made of 3/4 inch plywood, which means there is going to a bump where the plywood meets the floor. You're Teapot Racer needs to get up that as well as the slope of the ramp itself. At Gaslight Gathering, the course was set up on the outdoor stage, about 12 feet by 24 feet, I'm guessing. The slalom was four obstacles placed about 30 inches apart and offset by about 6 inches. My Teapot Racer (based on a Toy-Grade RC four wheeler) had to back up and go forward several times to make it. This is also where I drove off the stage, but that is mostly due to me being a doofus driving an RC car. 

In theory, a tank should account for both of these types of obstacle well. Tank tracks climb quite well. In fact, they should be able to drive over just about anything and handle ramps with ease. Also, the way tanks turn is turn is by switching the direction of the tracks on opposite sides of the vehicle.  They should be able to rotate in a circle without moving forward or back, perfect for even the tightest slalom.

In practice, it's a bit more complicated. First off with tanks, you still have the issue with Toy-Grade vs. Hobby-Grade. Now, if Hobby-Grade cars are expensive, Hobby-Grade tanks are real expensive, and because they are so expensive there are less of them around, both in the local hobby store and secondhand. I went to two different hobby shops recently. One specialized in ground vehicles, and they didn't have any tanks. The other carried ground vehicles, planes, helicopters, and drones. They had two tanks that looked like they were barely better than Toy-Grade. The people working couldn't tell you anything about them beyond what was written in the box.

That leaves Toy-Grade tanks. A big problem is that tanks almost always come with other stuff besides what make it go. This one fires airsoft bbs:

This one fires Nerf darts:

This one fires lasers:

This one has a spycam. I think this is real big among the upskirt crowd. I'm sure Donald Trump has dozens of these running around every time he hosts a beauty pageant:

Not to mention construction vehicles:

If you're a hacker, you can buy the tracks and build yourself from this tank chassis:

Finally, this one you can drive in the water and literally turns into a boat. Oddly, this is one of the better options.

There may be cars that have tank controls that would be good options as well. Unfortunately, I haven't found any being made right now, beyond really tiny ones.

What makes tanks so well suited to Teapot Racing? Tank tracks, obviously. But also tank controls, provided they use true tank controls, two up-down joysticks/switches that control the left and right tracks separately. 

  • ↑ – Forward
  • ↓↓ – Reverse
  • [Left track neutral right track up– Turn right
  • [Right track neutral left track up– Turn left
  • ↑↓ – Spin right
  • ↑ – Spin left

Some Toy-Grade tanks have a hybrid controls.

  • Forward and Reverse on the same control
  • Left and Right on the same control
On the surface this might seem simpler, but it could be problematic. If you have the ability to move one track at a time, that might make it easier to turn just a little because only the track on the one side is doing anything (the other track is doing nothing). But if the turn control always does both tracks in opposite directions, that could make it harder to turn only slightly. For example, say the tank has a powerful motor, this means that spin would be spin in circles way fast, making it next to impossible to spin just a quarter or and eighth of a turn.

Want a demo. The Teapot Racer at beginning of this post can show what I'm talking about. It is surprisingly fast for its size. Control. Not so much. It's just too powerful for it's own good.

I really wasn't being serious with this. I was mostly wanted to get proof of concept, that I could carve something that looked like a teapot out of Styrofoam (this was my second attempt). This brings me to another issue with tanks, tank tracks fall off, especially on Toy-Grade tanks. Aside from the above, being overpowered, it throws off the tracks on just about any surface but tile, hardwood, and similar surfaces.

What follows is a cross section of is currently available and my best guess as to how I think it would perform (1 to 5 stars) based online reviews and videos. This is far from an exhaustive list. There are a ton of tanks out there. The biggest issue I have is finding a review or video of the model you're looking at. I've provided links for ordering and videos of what they look like in action:

  • GoolRC 777-215 Tank-7 Mini RC Tiger Tank R/C Toy with 49MHz Transmitter  – This is what I used for the mini Teapot Racer above. Its big problem is lack of control and throwing off its tracks. I give it two stars, mostly because it is cute. It probably deserves just one star. **

  • iPlay RC Battling Tanks -Set of 2 Full Size Infrared Radio Remote Control Battle Tanks - RC Tanks – This comes as a set of two tanks that work out to about $20 apiece. They just seem to be slow and underpowered to me. Plus as a set of two, if they don't work out well, you have two worthless tanks instead of one. I'll give this two stars as a much more realistic option over the GoolRC Mini Tiger above. **

  • Tamiya Remote Controller Kit 2 – This is the same chassis as the build your own above but sold as a kit with a grabber arm. There should be a cheaper version without the arm, but I couldn't find it when writing this when I know I found it a couple of weeks ago. You could build without the arm. No idea how well it runs on non-smooth surfaces. It does seem pretty underpowered to me. Also a wired remote seems lame to me. I'll give it two and a half stars because it should be easy to attach a teapot to, provided it's built without the grabber arm. ** 1/2

  • Tamiya Remote Control Rescue Crawler – This probably deserves two stars, but the extra tank tracks are way cool. Still, I have no idea how you would attach a teapot, because the arms would get in the way. Again, drawbacks are it doesn't seem very powerful and it has a wired remote. The super cool design pushes it up a notch. ***

On the last two, you may run across a number tank chassis kits, with or without motors. The big problem is getting a remote control to talk to a tank chassis.

Finally, I'm going to do three more, which I think are the best options:
  • Sided armored off-road crawler All-terrain four-wheel drive high-speed remote control toy car with lights, Blue – At $30, this is my personal top pick, but this may be my own bias, because it is the only one beside the tiny Tiger tank above that I have actually driven. The small flat design should be relatively easy to build a platform on for your teapot. It's not super fast or powerful. On the racer I'm making, I'm doing my best to keep the weight down with a tiny aluminum teapot and balsa wood platform, so the lack of power should be less of a problem. It is fairly easy to control, and it doesn't seem to have enough power to throw the tracks off. ****

  • New Bright 1:14 Race Car Fast Forward Green - Badzilla – This also appears to be the same thing as a New Bright Trak Attak, that I found at Walmart in store for about the same price. This is a lot faster than the Side armored off-road  crawler. I think it does have a tendency to throw off the tracks, but I think you have to push it real hard, so I don't think that is going to be an issue. I'm giving it the same four stars as the Side armored one because the body might be an issue when you get down to attaching the teapot. It should have enough power that weight would be less of a concern. ****

  • Air Hogs, Thunder Trax RC Vehicle, 2.4 GHZ – This might be your best bet. I think that Air Hogs is one of the top names in Toy-Grade RC. This one is fast, has plenty of power, and you can drive it into the water, where it turns into a boat, kind of a useless on a Teapot Racer, but still. This is the most expensive of these last three and you should be able to find them anywhere. I saw one in Target yesterday for $65. Also this is likely to be cheaper come Black Friday. It doesn't have true tank controls, but still seems to be fairly precise. Not sure how you would attach a teapot, but it has the power to carry it. I read a number of reviews and no one mentioned throwing the tracks. This should rock and roll, just wish it wasn't a boat. **** 1/2

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