RC racing popularity in Lee, Collier, Charlotte zips up, fueled by COVID-19 and the economy

Speed freaks love their hobby as radio-controlled vehicles can blast down a defined…

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RC racing popularity grows in Southwest Florida

RC enthusiasts can usually be found ]Sundays at makeshift drag strips in Lee, Collier or Charlotte counties or at events across the state or country.

Michael Braun, Fort Myers News-Press

A parade of gaudily colored, unmanned vehicles screamed down Three Oaks Parkway near Fort Myers on Sunday, racing over slick, black, tire marks laid down by other car enthusiasts.

But the dragsters weren’t endangering anybody; these are radio-controlled vehicles, one-tenth scale and tethered to a hand-held radio-controller.

And don’t let their small size fool you, they can still blast down a defined course, some hitting speeds up to 110 mph. 

“It’s big time,” said Dan Ragsdale of Cape Coral about what is commonly called R/C racing. “It’s really gotten big.”

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The souped-up vehicles are scale models of real or imagined cars, trucks, dragsters and other plastic-bodied vehicles.

Rich Font of Lehigh Acres said two years ago he was about the only one racing along Three Oaks.

“Not any more,” he said. “This is the most popular thing out there right now.” Font also operates an RC racing track in Punta Gorda near the airport.

Ragsdale was joined by several dozen R/C enthusiasts many who can be found Sundays at makeshift drag strips in Lee, Collier or Charlotte counties or at events across the state or country.

Most were members of the 239 NPRC Drag Racing Club, which sponsored Sunday’s special event called “Beat the Heat” or one of several other clubs in South and Southwest Florida. Like 239, most have their own social media presence that advertises meets, swaps, advice and friendship.

The 239 members alternate racing between Lee and Collier counties, spreading the wealth for racers from both areas.

“A lot of guys do this professionally,” Ragsdale said. “They drive around to different states for cash days.”

They can come away with enough winnings to keep them going, he said.

For Mike Heysteck of Cape Coral, the draw is as much about the camaraderie as it is the actual racing.

“It is pretty different from real (race) cars,” he said. “What’s different from (real) drag racing? Every guy will help you out.”

Ragsdale added: “There are plenty of guys here with experience and know how. They are always willing to help the new guys out … or the old guys like me.”

Ragsdale, a retired shop supervisor from the Lee County Board of Education and former real drag racer, said COVID-19 helped boost popularity of the outside pursuit.

“It’s also the economy,” he added. “People have the money to buy.”

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Juan Diaz, a member of an R/C racing “team” called G4B — short for Gone For Broke — and a 239 member, said it was combined COVID/economy that made participation blow up in at least one class of racing, called street eliminator.

“Everybody says it’s the most realistic class,” Diaz said. “You have suspension work, rubber tires … you gotta know how to tune it.”

Diaz comes from Lake Placid to join in the racing, which he’s been doing for 20 years. Gas engines were the norm then, he said, but in the interim electric, battery-powered motors have taken over almost completely.

Just like in full-scale, drag racing, the plastic vehicles’ flesh-and-blood controllers are corralled at a starting line using a “Christmas tree,” a post with a series of yellow, green and red lights.

The lights give a “ready, set, go” countdown, prompting the participants to zoom down the course. Vehicles activate an electric eye that helps denote the winner, records times or shows who might have jumped the light and been disqualified.

Those times are important. Racers tweak tires, engines, controllers and just about anything else they can to coax a few more inches-per-second out of their models.

That’s because the fastest times also spell out who ends up in the money.

The 239 club got its own tree after having to jury-rig one or pay for a group that had a tree to come in. Sunday was the debut event for the tree, which Ragsdale said cost around $3,000 and was paid for via a gofundme account.

Like Heysteck, Ragsdale likes the spirit of a shared hobby.

“I do it because it’s something to do and it’s fun,” he said “And you get to meet different people.”

Those taking part, be it racing, working on their vehicles, selling parts and services or just watching, are as diverse as you can get. 

“We’ll have guys from Miami down here,” Diaz said. “We’ll have guys from all over the place — Orlando, Tampa. Everybody gets together to have fun.”

Morgan and Justin McFarlin come down from Tampa often for the races. She is one of several women participating.

“I give them (the men) a hard time, ” she laughed, but, so far, she hasn’t won any races since she only recently transformed from selling R/C supplies to racing. “This is only my second race,” she said Sunday.

The couple, racing for about two years, sells R/C racing products via their DTA brand.

“We got into it by watching racing videos on YouTube,” Justin McFarlin said. “I learned a lot on the internet.”

The competition is fierce and comes in different categories: 13/5 (denotes engine size) or street eliminator (any engine size) and there are side races that can be any class.

“There’s a bunch of classes. They just started an open box class,” Diaz said. Open box are stock cars raced right out of the boxes they were purchased in.

Speed also is linked to the classes. Diaz said the 13/5 class runs from 37 to 45 mph , street eliminator runs to 75 mph and there is a less common, 1/10 touring class that can hit speeds of 110 mph.

Sunday, a club member used a leaf-blower to sweep the asphalt and the new tree was set up on Three Oaks, north of Alico Road, where the parkway dead-ends into a canal.

Practice runs were conducted, a “drivers” meeting held, rules discussed, fees paid … and the race was on.

The usual and avowed “fastest racer”? That would be club stalwart Chance Simes.

Simes has been racing for three years and got into it working at a hobby shop. He puts a lot of time and energy in getting even better.

“Lots of time,” Simes said. “I spend hours in making it better.”

The popularity of this hobby/sport is evidenced by larger meets across the U.S. from Miami to Las Vegas. The Las Vegas event, called “King of the Streets” has had purses for those who claim top prizes of up to $35,000.

“Chance (Simes) goes to Miami,” Ragsdale said. “They do well for themselves, first or second place, up to $800 – $900.”

Locally, entry fees are affordable, usually a $15 track fee and a $20 per car per class fee. Winners can recoup some but they enjoy the fellowship, competition and light banter even more.

The cost of the cars, though, can be a whole other issue.

Heysteck, who competed as a large-scale drag racer, said the smaller version is easier on the wallet.

“This is a lot cheaper,” he said. “And a lot less work.” He said he started racing the smaller-scale vehicles after seeing it on the internet.

“I thought, ‘this is cool, I gotta check it out’,” he said. 

The low point for getting into the game is $100 to $500, but it can climb precipitously.

Thin plastic shells are the norm, usually starting around $10 and heading to the hundreds.

For the chassis, plastic is ubiquitous but getting more popular are carbon fiber chassis that can cost into the hundreds with composite versions running up to $1,400.

Diaz, who just purchased an air-conditioned and tricked-out workshop on wheels he brings to meets, has built several carbon fiber chassis, fabricating them from sheets of the material.

The carbon fiber ones are light and faster, hence the popularity, Diaz explained.

“A couple guys out here are running them (his chassis),” he said.

The group has had no issues with police or sheriff’s offices with a patrol unit sometimes just slowly driving by to check them out.

Sometimes spectators drive by, literally. Sunday one woman drove right through the race course, clipping but luckily not breaking an electrical connector, and another spun smoky “donuts” with a souped-up real car at the end of the track.

But, the only real problem they see is possibly a little ways off.

“I don’t know what we’ll do when they start building down here,” Ragsdale said about the Three Oaks industrial park location where construction recently picked up. “We’ll just have to find somewhere else.”

Connect with breaking news reporter Michael Braun: MichaelBraunNP (Facebook)@MichaelBraunNP (Twitter) or mbraun@news-press.com.

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