It's five minutes 'til showtime and Phil Williams gathers his racers outside Slot Car Magic & Hobbies to brief them on tonight's rules and wish them good luck in the race.

"We're all going to have fun here tonight," he tells the crowd of about 30, who are illuminated by the glow of the festive string of lights in windows of the Parrott Street storefront in San Leandro. You almost expect to see a huddle and a chant but, instead, the racers just rub their hands together, ready to get started on the evening's event.

Racing miniature cars powered by electricity on a track with various curves is a hobby that's been around for years. But in some circles this is much more than a pastime.

"It's an addiction, really," says Oakland minister Ed Williams, 37, who brings his 9-year-old son, Brandon, to the San Leandro store on a regular basis to buy cars and test the store's 105-foot track.

"My son and I were looking for something to do," Williams begins, his eyes focused intently on a flat-screen TV panel that displays the results of the most recent race. He's placed third.

The minister tells a story about trying to get his son off the Internet, off the PlayStation and the Box, and using his hands and his mind in tangible way.

"This is inexpensive and it gives us a lot of quality time together," Williams says. They pick out the cars and the parts together. They fix them and give them flash together.


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They only have about a dozen cars, he adds.

All slot car racers start with "I only have ..." when they talk about how many cars they own, no matter whether that number is 20, 50 or 70. The racers are priced at about $50 to start, but costs can add up the fancier the cars get. Autos range from Ferraris and BMW McLaren F1 GTRs to classic International Scout trucks.

Store owner Phil Williams says his job started as his hobby. He would build slot cars and race them on a home-constructed track in his basement. Every once in a while, he'd have friends come over to compete and they'd light up the barbecue and have a racing party.

In the beginning, his wife had no idea what he was doing.

"Actually, when he first said he wanted to get slot cars, I didn't know what a slot car was," says Mary Williams, who currently helps run the business with her husband. By the way, Mary Williams can now change a mean tire or help you find the right one for your car.

A mechanic for United Airlines, Phil Williams' job outlook was bleak so he opened up the shop and has been selling cars and track time for about three years now. There are few tracks left in the Bay Area, with the recent closing of storefront tracks in Concord and Dublin.

Rent for space to hold a large track like his is usually too high to maintain business with such a small profit margin, Phil Williams says.

The operation works like this: for $5 Williams will let you test a car on his 1/32-scale track, the most common size race track, for 15 minutes. If you like a car and buy it, you get an hour free. On special race nights, $5 gets you a position in the race.

His "regular Eddies" -- guys and gals who come to the shop frequently to buy supplies -- often get free track time. He offers snacks and sodas, too.

It's nearly the same setup in Vallejo, where Eddie Long has operated three 1/24-scale tracks for nearly 10 years. Cars that are 1/24-scale are larger than 1/32-scale cars, about seven to eight inches long.

"This place is different than any other track because I run it and I'm nuts," says Long, who owns the building in Vallejo and does not have to worry about rent. "I run it like a bar with no booze. It's just a bunch of guys playing with cars."

Back in San Leandro the story is the same. Verbie Villadelgado, 28, is outnumbered by guys 29 to one but she doesn't care. She sees race night as a way to enjoy time with her boyfriend and his son, something they've been doing together for a little more than a year.

"These guys are fun," she says. "It's family time here."

Family time, yes, but guy time as well. Most of the men in the shop Friday night were there for their own entertainment.

"It keeps me out of the bars," says Treasure Island resident Darin Nelms, 43. He puts it even more bluntly saying, "my wife thinks it's dumb. She thinks I need to find something spiritual to do. This is already a spiritual thing. I worship the track of the slot car."

Reach Laura Casey at 925-952-2697 or lcasey@bayareanewsgroup.com.

Where to play

  • Public Bay Area Slot Car Race Tracks

    Homeroom Racing Cafe

    1521 Webster St., Alameda

    510-865-1575

    www.homeroomracingcafe.net

  • Slot Car Magic & Hobbies

    104 Parrott St., San Leandro

    510-357-8514

    www.slotcarmagic.com

  • Eddie's Slot Car World

    1021 Tennessee St., Vallejo

    707-552-9085

    www.geocities.com/eddies_slotcarworld

  • Slot Cars & Hobbies

    14910 Camden Ave., San Jose

    408-377-7760

    ONLINE

  • See the sights and sounds of a slot car race at Slot Car Magic & Hobbies at ContraCostaTimes.com