This is the first in a series of posts on Teapot Racing. This post covers some basics of RC vehicles, mostly, cars and trucks, not including tanks (tanks, while highly suited to Teapot Racing, are kind of a separate animal). I will do a separate post on RC Tanks later.
RC vehicles generally fall into two categories:
- Toy-Grade – Toy-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in places like Toys"R"Us, Target, and Walmart. Toy-Grade RC vehicles are pretty much always Ready-to-Run (RTR), meaning you have everything in the box to make it work with the exception of household batteries (batteries not included). Toy-Grade RC vehicles are almost always relatively inexpensive (under $60, but can go up into the $100 range). Generally, they cannot be upgraded nor repaired when broken.
- Hobby-Grade – Hobby-Grade RC vehicles are what you find in brick-and-mortar and online hobby stores. Hobby-Grade RC vehicles are sometimes packaged as RTR as an enticement to newbies, a box that has the vehicle, the radio controller, batteries, battery charger, etc., so you are good to go. However, most Hobby-Grade vehicles and accessories are sold separately, so you can mix and match the vehicle and the radio etc. to get exactly what you want. Hobby-Grade vehicles start between about $120 and $250 and can run into the thousands of dollars. Hobby-Grade are generally way better quality. Upgrades can be made with relative ease, new bodies, more powerful motors and batteries, different tires, suspension, and even the gearing in the transmission can be changed. Also, if you break something, you can almost always find replacement parts.
Toy-GradeJust because an RC vehicle is Toy-Grade, that doesn't mean that it is not relatively fast or ill-suited to Teapot Racing. My teapot racer above is Toy-Grade. The host vehicle is the following, from Amazon with free shipping for about $40.
|Three King 1/18th 4 WD Monster Crawler Truck|
The big issue with Toy-Grade RC vehicles is they only do one or two things well, and the cheaper ones, not even that. In the case of my car, it climbed quite well. It was made to drive well on dirt, over small rocks, and go up and down rough terrain. Make precise turns, driving slowly and smoothly, not so much. Other vehicles might be really good at spinning in circles in place, but be next to impossible to turn just a little bit.
The biggest issue with almost any Toy-Grade vehicle is control. Most Toy-Grade vehicles do not have the ability to make subtle changes. Forward is full-speed forward. Reverse is full-speed reverse. Turning is all the way right, all the way left, or no turn at all. If you want to go slow you need to tap the forward and reverse. Similarly, to turn just a little would involve tapping left and right.
Now, I did say most Toy-Grade vehicles work this way. In my research, I ran into two Toy-Grade vehicles that did not have this issue. They had what is called Digital Proportional Control or something similar, meaning if you push the control a little bit, they would act accordingly, i.e., push the forward control a little bit, and it goes forward slow, rather than nothing, nothing, full speed. Unfortunately, I don't think either is being produced anymore. The two vehicles are:
- Air Hogs Hypertrax – Fast, lots of power, and tank tracks, it turns on a dime and the tank tracks would have no problem with any obstacle on the Teapot Racing course. At $35 retail, this would be the perfect parent vehicle. Just one problem, try to find one for $35. New in the box, on ebay and Amazon, you're looking at a $150 plus. You can find the car with no radio for about $20 on ebay, which makes me suspect that people bought them to get a Hobby-Grade radio for about half of what it was worth.
- Tonka XT Ricochet Stunt Pro – With four oversized tires and Digital Proportional Control for both speed and steering, this would be perfect as well. Again, just try to find one. Now the Tonka XT Ricochet Stunt Pro is not to be confused with its smaller sibling, the Tonka XT Ricochet Trickster (no Digital Proportional Control) but still readily available. Again, you can find the Tonka XT Ricochet Stunt Pro at wildly inflated prices or vehicle without the radio at a reasonable price.
There may be others out there that are available with Digital Proportional Control, but I haven't found any.
If you're on a budget, you may have no other option than Toy-Grade. Just know going in that if it breaks and you can't fix it with duct tape and zip ties, you're done. Bring your broken toy into the Hobby shop, and they are going to laugh at you. Bring a broken toy with a teapot attached to it back to Toys"R"Us, they're going to go, whoa, cool, and then laugh at you.
My best advice is to do your research before you buy. Read the Amazon reviews. Stay away from anything that someone said broke quickly. There are also a lot of video reviews out there. If you find a reviewer you like, check to see if they have more reviews. You might be able to get more of an apples to apples review on two models you are trying to decide between. Vehicles with tank treads are probably a good call, but most tank-tread vehicles come with things you don't need, guns that shoot Nerf darts or Airsoft bbs, spy cameras, or lasers to have tank battles with your buddies. In any case, you are paying for stuff that does nothing to help your Teapot Racer get through the course. As I said earlier, I will do a separate post dedicated to tanks.
- Readily available in toy aisle of local big box stores
- RTR, so everything you need is in the box
- Most don't handle well at low speeds or turn precisely
- Handling gets worse when you add weight, a teapot for instance
- May not be able to fix it if it breaks
Hobby-GradeHobby-Grade is a whole 'nother ball game. I won't say that components are infinitely upgradable. Presumably, there are a finite number of parts for any vehicle, but trust me there are a lot. Want to go faster? More powerful motors and batteries. Want to climb better in the dirt? Maybe some sand tires or lower gears in the transmission for more torque. Don't like the way your radio works, change it, though that may require a new receiver on the car. The newer radios can even download software upgrades. Want better handling, put on stiffer shocks. Break something, go to the Hobby Store, they might have the parts in stock and you're back up. Not in stock, order it and have it in a couple of days.
Of course, all of this comes at a price. These things all add up quickly. You might want to go with one of the RTR packages. That way you get everything you need at a somewhat reasonable price. Just make sure you know what you are getting. If something seems way cheap, there's probably a reason. Maybe the car is running on AA batteries rather than more powerful rechargables. Ask about the radio, is it Digital Proportional Control? They will know what you're talking about. The guy in the Walmart toy department, not so much.
Is there good news here? Well, maybe. Hobby Grade RC has been around forever, and there are tons of them out there. You might already know someone who's into it. Maybe they can lend you one for a couple of weeks. Or sell one of their old ones. They turn up at garage sales, thrift shops, and swap meets, not to mention craigslist and ebay. If possible, verify that it works, and the radio does what it's supposed to. If it isn't running, make sure it is as complete as possible, look around for things like extra batteries and the charger. Buy the car and radio and miss the charger lying next to it, you may be paying $50 for a replacement. If it's obviously broken, don't worry too much, it probably can be fixed.
Be wary if it looks more like the husk of a vehicle than complete. Sure, you should be able to find the parts to get it going, but all those parts add up. That's the mistake I made. I found the car to the right that was only $20, but I'm going to be in pretty deep to get it going. The same guy had a non-matching radio for another $20. The guy at the Hobby Shop was able to get it talking to the car with a new crystal and receiver for another $30. Still, I think it will be a kick-ass little car for about $120 that is way way better than a low end new one.
So how do you tell a Hobby-Grade vehicle from a Toy-Grade one? Well, if you look at it and it looks like you could break it with your bare hands, it's not Hobby-Grade. Hobby-Grade vehicles can be crazy fast and often crash, so they are built tough. Hobby-Grade people are always messing with their stuff, so they want to be able to take off the car body easily. Hobby-Grade cars will usually have tiny cotter pins or some other way to take off the body. Toy-Grade will usually use tiny screws. Look at the shock absorbers. Often Hobby-Grade will have oil-filled shocks. If you can see oily residue on the shocks, that should be Hobby-Grade. Look for manufacturer names, like Hasbro and Mattel (Toy-Grade) vs. Traxxas and Losi (Hobby-Grade).
A few more notes:
- Some RC cars run with gas or nitro-powered engines rather than electric motors. These can be insanely fast, but since most Steampunk cons are held in hotels, I can't imagine that there are many hotels wanting you running unlicensed combustion engines on the premises. If it looks like it has a tiny motorcycle engine in it, instead of an electric motor, you probably don't want that.
- RC aircraft run on different sets of frequencies, so if you find a second-hand radios with names that include words like air and flight, steer clear.
- If you go Hobby-Grade, try to find a good hobby shop for parts and support, some place where you feel comfortable and where they don't make you feel like an idiot for asking stupid questions.
Regarding the last point, if you're in San Diego, I highly recommend, Krazy Kevin's RC Hobby in Chula Vista. Kevin spent an hour and a half getting my nonmatching radio to talk to my car. They specialize in ground vehicles and have been around for about 20 years. When I told him about Steampunk and Teapot Racing, his first question was, why not use a steam engine. I looked at him like he was crazy, but he said you can get little tiny steam-engines and in theory, you should be able to make power an RC car. I gotta talk to this guy some more.
- Way better control since most have Digital Proportional Control
- More power and better suspension to handle the weight of the teapot
- Upgradable and parts when broken can be replaced
- Way expensive
- Not necessarily RTR; may need to mix and match parts
- Possibly, way more than you need; do you really need a teapot that goes 40 mph