The joy of spares

I have been into RC long enough to know that it’s often the cheapest part that ends your weekend early.  Grub screws, e-clips, and glow plugs are perfect examples of critical components that are easily overlooked.  There’s just nothing quite like packing up your gear, heading out to the beach for a day of racing your electric buggy, and instead sitting on your butt all day because you forgot to tighten your pinion gear.  Good luck finding that sucker in the sand.  Ah well, at least you’re at the beach.

Because I tend to learn all of my lessons the hard way, I have been stuck in situations exactly like the one above many, many times.  Thanks to the power of negative reinforcement (and a touch of paranoia), I now have a habit of buying parts I don’t need when I go to the hobby store, just because I don’t want to get caught without them.  Do you think twelve spare glow plugs is a bit excessive?  (I had to laugh when I went through my parts box last week and counted how many I actually had.)  On the positive side, my chance of getting stuck in the field without an extra plug is slightly less than finding Jimmy Hoffa.

Another favorite activity of mine is buying stock replacement parts on eBay.  There are quite a few sellers who disassemble new RTRs and sell them off piecemeal for a small profit.  The problem with buying from these sellers is that there’s no guarantee you’ll get the parts you want.  Even if you successfully place the winning bid, you’ll have to wait a while for your stuff.  The auctions take a few days to a week to end, and then shipping usually takes another week.  The advantage to this type of shopping, however, is the killer deals you’re likely to find; you can regularly expect savings of 50-80% off of retail price, including shipping.  Not bad.

The real trick to all of this is to shop ahead.  Figure out what’s most likely to break, and go place some bids.  At any given point in time, I have a full set of stock A-arms, shock towers, and knuckles for all of my rides.  I have extra pull-starts, suspension mounts, hinge pins, turnbuckles, shocks, and anything else that I was able to get a good deal on.  This sounds like a lot, but I view it as cheap insurance.  Plus, I haven’t spent any more than if I waited for something to break and then bought a replacement at full retail.  The true value of this, of course, lies in the fact that I rarely get stranded in the field any more.

When you drive like I do, it helps to have a miniature hobby shop in the trunk of your car.

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There’s no ways like sideways

A few years ago, I decided that RC drifting looked cool.  It was something RC related that I hadn’t tried yet, so I figured “Why not?”  My electric TC3 was more than suitable for the task, and a new role might help breathe some life back into it.

After a quick bit of research, I discovered that one of the best types of drift tire to use is simply 2” (52mm) ABS pipe stock.  I took a trip to the hardware store and laid down a hefty $1.21 for enough pipe to make seven full sets of tires.  Nice.  (When was the last time you paid $0.04 per tire?  Yeah, me either.)  A bit of playing around with the table saw in the garage produced decent results, and I mounted up a set of freshly cut tires on a spare set of rims.  I bolted up my new drift shoes, set the camber to zero degrees all around, and went for a slide.

Fast forward to the present day, and I’m still drifting.  I wouldn’t classify myself as a hard core drifter, but I certainly have a lot of fun getting sideways, and I do so regularly.   I make ABS tires for my friends, and we have a blast trying to nail down that elusive side-by-side drift that looks so cool when done right.  There’s something very Zen about hanging the rear out and achieving that perfect balance between steering and throttle.

To me, the best thing about drifting is that it’s a nice change of pace.  Wear and tear on the car is minimal; there simply isn’t enough speed involved for a crash to cause any real damage.  Maintenance consists of recharging the batteries and hitting the chassis with a quick blast of compressed air.  Running gear requirements are close to nonexistent.  Got an ancient ESC, junky stock servo, and a half-dead 27T stocker sitting around?  Perfect.
Another thing I like about having a drifter is that it makes a great backup.  It’s nice to know that I’ve got an alternate form of RC entertainment in case I “accidentally” thrash one of my other vehicles into oblivion.  I even like to bring my drifter with me when I go to the flying field with my heli.  It’s a great time-waster when I’m waiting for my turn to go up, charging my batteries, or pretending like I didn’t just crash and cut my flying day short.

If you haven’t tried drifting yet, I highly recommend that you give it a shot.  Convert an old ride that you already own, buy a new RTD (ready-to-drift), or pick up a beater on eBay as a project car.  You’ll be surprised how fun it is to get sideways.


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The connection between cars and helis

A lot of guys who are into RC cars and trucks are also into helis.  Why?  Well, as you might expect, I have some theories.

For starters, helis and cars really aren’t that different mechanically.  Both are made of screws, gears, bearings, linkages, ball links, pulleys, belts, etc.  In fact, the only fundamental parts-wise difference between the two is that helis have blades and cars have wheels.  Aside from that, at a glance you wouldn’t be able to tell a pile of heli parts from a pile of car parts.  Being a car guy who recently got into helis, I must say that there’s something very reassuring about all the mechanical bits involved in getting a heli into the air.  Except for a heli’s configuration and end result, it all feels very familiar.  It helps to be in one’s comfort zone.

Related to this first point, but in a slightly different category, is the upgrade factor.  A favorite pastime of many land-based RC enthusiasts is to upgrade their rides piece by piece until they are no longer the same machines they started with.  This exact same thing can be done with helis, and with nice results as well.  Never underestimate the power of bling.

Another reason helis might appeal to land-based RC enthusiasts is the difficulty factor.  Cars and trucks are a straightforward way to get into the hobby; I would guess that the vast majority of everyone’s first-ever RC had four wheels.  The sheer complexity of helicopters offers a nice challenge to those looking to step up to the “next level”.  I know that, despite my experience in RC, getting into the heli scene made me feel like a total newb all over again.  It’s a good feeling, and it makes you realize exactly how much you don’t know.

The only thing I have to figure out now is if I’d rather go flying or rock crawling after work tonight.  Hmmmmm.

Posted in Electric, General RC, Helicopters | Leave a comment

A mechanical fuse? Come again?

The topic today is not a new concept, but perhaps my lingo is.  First, let’s start off with a couple of definitions. defines a fuse as:

a protective device, used in an electric circuit, containing a conductor that melts under heat produced by an excess current

So, an electrical fuse protects the circuit in which it is contained by acting as a weak point when things go wrong.  Using this same logic, I’ll define a “mechanical fuse”:

a protective device, used in an RC vehicle, which is mechanically weaker in some aspect than the parts which surround it and will break first in the event of a crash

While it’s good to upgrade one’s RC with loads of super strong aluminum parts, it will never be unbreakable.  Using plastic parts in key locations can save damage to more expensive or harder-to-reach areas.  Let me illustrate the point with an example.  Let’s say that, during a particularly nasty crash with my monster truck, I break a knuckle.  (Hey, if you’re not breaking parts, then you’re not driving hard enough.)  I replace the knuckles with aluminum versions, and in my next crash I break an A-arm.  More aluminum parts, and the next thing I break are the suspension mounts.  Then the shock towers.  The next thing to go is perhaps the chassis.  See where this is going?  As stronger parts are added to the outer locations of my truck, the damage moves inwards during those crashes.  A broken knuckle can be fixed in the field relatively easily, but how about a cracked diff case?  If you replace everything with aluminum, then the parts that break (or bend) will start to get very expensive.

The solution, of course, lies in strategically locating the parts you don’t mind breaking.  For our monster truck example above, we could upgrade the knuckles, suspension mounts, and shock towers with aluminum, but use stock A-arms.  So, the next time the truck is pancaked off of a skate ramp, chances are the only thing we’ll need to replace is the plastic stuff.  Rock crawlers also need engineered weak points, but usually in the drive train.  These rigs are capable of such extreme torque that, in the event of a wedged-in wheel, continued goosing of the throttle will likely lead to an order for replacement parts.  While you want your drive train to be as strong as possible, it’s always easiest if the Achilles heel is somewhere outside a diff or tranny case.

This concept carries over to the world of RC flight as well.  The airplane guys had this figured out a long time ago and often use rubber bands to hold on wings, particularly on trainers.  For helis, a popular crash-resistant setup involves an all-aluminum head with plastic blade grips.  Some pilots also zip-tie their landing gear to the frame instead of using screws.

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Old school is cool.

I’ve been into this hobby for a while, and of course I’ve owned a bunch of RC stuff.  Historically speaking, I would tend to sell old vehicles prior to buying new ones.  This, of course, meant that my collection at any given point in time was rarely larger than two or three RC vehicles.  Buying the next hot ticket has always been a lot of fun, but selling off my old rides could sometimes be a little sad.

A few months back, I started putting together a spreadsheet of all the RCs I’ve ever owned.  (Yes, I’m a geek.  Don’t make fun of me.)  A friend of mine (we’ll call him “Red”… you know who you are) helped me refine this document by remembering names and recalling dates more accurately than I did.  When it was all done, I couldn’t believe how many vehicles were on the list.  So, without further ado, here is a 10-minute summary of my history in RC:

Vehicle:  Tamiya Wild One
Date Acquired:  1986
Notes:  I ran this for several years and then slowly cannibalized it for parts.  Of all my RCs, this is the one I really wish I had back.

Vehicle:  radio-controlled ball (unknown manufacturer)
Date Acquired:  1988/1989
Notes:  I don’t know who made it, but it was distributed by The Sharper Image.  It was the only truly amphibious RC I have ever owned… or heard of for that matter.  It was about ten inches across and worked great for rescuing stalled boats.  I don’t know what happened to it; I suspect it was accidentally thrown out during a garage cleaning session.

Vehicle:  Kyosho Optima
Date Acquired:  1988
Notes:  This car had its share of issues, but it sure was fun.  It was converted to on-road use (with a NASCAR body) and back to off-road several times.  Sadly, this one also eventually succumbed to cannibalization.

Vehicle:  Goldberg’s Gentle Lady
Date Acquired:  1989
Notes:  My first foray into the air.  I spent two weeks carefully building this glider, balancing it, and making it perfect.  Its first flight lasted ten seconds, followed by a week of rebuilding.  Its second (and last) flight was slightly shorter.  At least I was able to use the servos in one of my cars.

Vehicle:  Associated RC10
Date Acquired:  early 1990’s
Notes:  Yeah, baby.  My first Associated of many to follow.  I dyed the plastic parts black and ran this buggy like crazy.  I traded it for an RC10T.

Vehicle:  Associated RC10T
Date Acquired:  early 1990’s
Notes:  More stable and more fun than the buggy version.  This truck saw a lot of air time and a lot of broken A-arms.  Cannibalized for parts.

Vehicle:  CESA 1882 boat
Date Acquired:  early 1990’s
Notes:  My first boat – Red and I went in halves on this one.  Dual motors and triple batteries meant melted Tamiya plugs galore.  We rigged our own water cooling system which worked pretty darned well, thank you very much.  We sold it at the top of its game for a fairly decent price.

Vehicle:  Kyosho Nitro Viper
Date Acquired:  mid 1990’s
Notes:  My first nitro anything.  I’m sure my tuning skills were sorely lacking, but the engine wasn’t exactly what I’d call a model of reliability.  This is not a good quality in the boating world.  Using a mish-mash of spare parts, the hull was later converted to electric to serve as a rescue boat.  My ghetto-rigged gear drive sounded like a coffee grinder in the water.  The plastic hull disintegrated a year later as a result of its original exposure to nitro residue.

Vehicle:  Tamiya Hornet
Date Acquired:  mid 1990’s
Notes:  Barely in running condition, this classic was given to me by a friend.  We thought it would be fun to destroy it.  Stupid, stupid, stupid.  *bangs head on desk*

Vehicle:  Bolink Eliminator 10
Date Acquired:  mid 1990’s
Notes:  My first dedicated on-roader; I bought it used for super cheap.  It was extremely fast but hard to control on those dusty parking lot surfaces.  Cannibalized for parts.  (Have you noticed a trend yet?)

Vehicle:  Losi JrX Pro
Date Acquired:  mid 1990’s
Notes:  This was a fun one.  It was reasonably easy to drive for a 2wd buggy, and I bashed my money’s worth out of it for sure.  I sold it in 2002 for way too cheap.

Vehicle:  Ofna Pirate M1
Date Acquired:  1994
Notes:  It’s a good thing I like assembling kits, because that’s all I did with this one.  I never managed to scrape together the cash for radio gear and an engine, so I sold it back to the same store I bought it from a year later.  Oh well.

Vehicle:  Lanier Indicator .049 Trainer
Date Acquired:  1997
Notes:  My second nitro and second plane.  Strike two for both.  It is very unlikely that I’ll ever put together another balsa kit.  I sold the radio gear in 2002, and the rest is in a landfill somewhere.

Vehicle:  Kyosho HydroJet
Date Acquired:  late 1990’s
Notes:  My third and last boat.  Its only real drawback was a lack of power, but aside from that it was reasonably fun.  It was clean, reliable, and good-looking, but unfortunately it got boring rather quickly.  I sold it in 2002.  (Noticing another trend?)  I’m sure I’ll get another boat some day, probably a brushless LiPo setup.

Vehicle:  Associated T3
Date Acquired:  2001
Notes:  I bought this one for a bargain on eBay and enjoyed the heck out of it.  Like my RC10T, this truck saw more air than dirt.  I sold it in 2004 for almost the same price I paid for it.

Vehicle:  Ofna Ultra MBX
Date Acquired:  2001
Notes:  This car was a bad experience.  I had hoped that my third nitro would have been a charm, but instead it was a huge strike.  Knowing what I know now, I might have been able to actually keep the engine running.  At the time, however, wet-nursing the finicky power plant was an effort in futility for me.  There wasn’t much about this car that I liked, and I sold it ten months later.  It turned me off of nitro for five years.

Vehicle:  Associated TC3
Date Acquired:  2002
Notes:  This is arguably the best RC I have ever owned – I doubt I will ever sell it.  It has been a parking lot grip racer for most of its years, but I converted it into a drifter in 2006.  Some day, when parts are no longer available (or are prohibitively expensive), I will hang this car on my wall.

Vehicle:  Kyosho Mini-Z
Date Acquired:  2002
Notes:  Fun!  I even built a huge plywood track for it, but eventually ran out of room to store it – some lucky guy on craigslist has it now.  I sold the car in 2004.

Vehicle:  E-Flite Blade CX
Date Acquired:  2006
Notes:  My first helicopter and my first RC after a few years off from buying.  I have finally found success in the air.  Like my TC3, I will probably never get rid of it.  It’s great for those rainy days when you’re stuck in the house.

Vehicle:  Associated Nitro TC3
Date Acquired:  2006
Notes:  Wow, an engine that runs!  It tunes easy, runs great, and is plenty fast.  This car single-handedly restored my interest in nitro power.  It has taken over parking lot grip racing duty now that my electric TC3 is a drifter.

Vehicle:  Associated Monster GT
Date Acquired:  2006
Notes:  Well, well, it seems 2006 was a banner year.  I guess I was just making up for lost time.  Terrain?  What terrain?  This is a fun, tough truck that can power over or through just about anything.  The drive train is much more reliable with the forward-only conversion installed, but the two-speed is still a little picky.  It really is a blast to drive, though, and it can bash with the best of them.

Vehicle:  Align T-Rex 450 HDE
Date Acquired:  2007
Notes:  This little demon really gets my adrenaline going.  The crashes are definitely painful, but there’s nothing quite like successfully pulling off a new maneuver.  Along with the Blade CX, this RC is one of the few that’s fun to run solo.

Vehicle:  Associated GT2
Date Acquired:  2007
Notes:  Have you figured out yet that I’m an Associated fanboy?  It’s not that I don’t like other manufacturers… I just like the way Associated does things.  I’m finally having a good time with nitro, and this little truck is certainly doing its part.  I bought this vehicle with two purposes in mind:  First, it serves as an in-the-field backup for when the Monster GT decides to blow a part I don’t have a spare for.  Second, like my first two stadium trucks, I plan to jump this rig silly.  Skate parks and BMX tracks, here I come.

Vehicle:  Axial AX10 Scorpion
Date Acquired:  2007
Notes:  You already know all about this one from my last blog.  Go-go Gadget Crawler.

Posted in Bashing, Cars, Electric, General RC, Helicopters, Off-road, On-road, Trucks | Leave a comment

Can you dig it?

Yes, I have been bitten hard by the RC rock crawling bug.  I’ve been interested for a while, but I simply wasn’t in the mood to piece together a rig here and there with random parts from eBay and a handful of other websites.  Enter Axial’s AX10 Scorpion.  It’s a great deal, purpose built, well made, and everything comes in one box.  Add to all of that an extremely high coolness factor, and we have ourselves a winner.  I had one on preorder almost as soon as Tower Hobbies posted them on their website.

The AX10 has quickly become one of my favorite RCs.  I took it camping last month, along with a couple of nitro trucks and my T-Rex 450.  A friend of mine and fellow camp hooligan also brought a couple of his rides, so we had no less than six RC vehicles with us and a week to do nothing but run them all into the ground.  Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I did with the T-Rex, and most of the other vehicles suffered some sort of casualty at some point as well.  The real star of the show, however, was the Scorpion.  We had a blast hiking around, finding the best rocks, and picking out challenging lines for the crawler to tackle.  We’d take turns behind the wheel and act as spotters for each other, helping to find the best lines through the makeshift gates we set up.  The Axial was an instant hit with its ridiculously long run times, toughness, and incredible ability to defy gravity.  I am hooked.

Because I can never leave well enough alone, I am always trying to find ways to make my AX10 perform better.  So, like most of my other RCs, the Scorpion spends more time on my bench than it does in the field.  I have been wrestling with a dig setup for a couple weeks now, and I think I finally have it the way I like it.  The final part of the setup is what took me the longest: finding good spots for the shifter servo and the linkage.  The extreme flexibility of a crawler’s suspension really proved to be a challenge.  The action of the servo and linkage must be highly flexible, but at the same time the whole system must also be mechanically accurate enough to provide positive and reliable operation.  Now that it’s working, I’m really excited to see what the Scorpion can do.  With all the hop-ups and modifications I’ve made, it’s just about on par with a competition 2.2 rig.  All I have to do at this point is upgrade the driver.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time to hit the rocks.

Posted in Electric, Off-road, Trucks | Leave a comment

And so it begins.

I wouldn’t say this is my first attempt at a somewhat-daily blog, but perhaps my first official one. I always seem to have a lot to talk about when it comes to anything related to radio controlled anything, so I figured this might be a good outlet. With any luck, I might even get one or two readers.

I suppose my first entry should be about my background in the hobby and how I got started. After much begging and pleading with dear old Mom and Dad, I got my first RC car in 1985: a Tamiya Wild One. I was instantly hooked. I had at least as much fun assembling the kit as I did driving the finished product. It wasn’t all sunshine, flowers, and bunny rabbits, though – that car had issues. The transmission had problems, the hex drive shafts stripped out like crazy, and the trailing arm rear suspension ate replacement parts like candy… but I didn’t care. I ran that car into the ground and enjoyed every minute of it. The trailing arms tended to bend outwards over time, causing the drive shafts to skip in their sockets and wear even more quickly than normal. When I didn’t have money for spare parts, the work-around was simply to drive it around in reverse. The pulling action of the rear wheels tended to sort of draw the drive train together, enabling the car to work for a handful more runs before it completely and totally died. As you might expect, driving backwards became a specialty of mine. I’ve had many, many vehicles since then, most of them far superior in both reliability and performance, but none of them have quite captured the magic of that first ride.

For some of us, it can be difficult to remember what it was like to first get into the hobby. The highs are higher, but the lows are also lower. I recall the first time my differential let go; it was like my favorite pet had died. Okay, so I might be exaggerating a little, but it definitely sucked. Even after I figured out what the problem was, I didn’t really know how to fix it. Fortunately, the guys down at my local hobby shop helped me out and got me on the road again. Over time, I was eventually able to do more and more of my own repairs. It wasn’t long before I was willing to tackle any problem my Wild One could throw at me.

 Thinking about this makes me realize exactly how much I have learned about RC over the years. Nobody is born knowing this stuff – you have to acquire it bit by bit from spending time in the hobby. So, for all you experienced RC’ers out there, make sure to help a newb every once in a while. They’ll appreciate it and, years down the road, they’ll pass the knowledge on to someone else. Get on the internet or go to your local track, bash spot, flying field, or lake and help someone out. For all you newbs, make sure you ask questions. Remember, at one point everybody was in the same situation as you, whether they want you to know it or not. Try not to get frustrated, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. You’ll be glad you did, and your favorite RC will reward you by spending more time running and less time on the bench.

Posted in Bashing, Electric, General RC, Off-road | Leave a comment