December 6, 2006 - It's past 8 o'clock on Friday night and Richard Lake is scrambling, car in hand, out of the cold warehouse and into the warm pro shop in search of emergency parts.
The Oro Valley resident is scurrying to get his remote-controlled racer in top form between heats at the indoor track located at Competition Hobbies, 3930 W. Costco Drive. Lake is among the 50-plus hobbyists who gathered in this over-sized garage on Dec. 1 to meticulously and tirelessly tweak and race their cars in the name of speed.
This particular evening is open to the public and for most in attendance a mere tune-up for the 4th Annual Southwest Indoor Grand Prix, which will be held at the Marana hobby shop Dec. 9th and 10th.
After walking through the overcrowded pro shop - loaded to the ceilings with everything from remote control cars, airplanes and anything else a hobbyist could possible need or dream up - and out the back door into indoor arena, all it takes is one look around the massive garage and it's evident that this isn't your father's indoor racetrack.
"It's like a full time racecar just a tenth of the size," said Lake, 35, who has been racing remote controlled cars since getting hooked on the hobby at the age of 11. "It all started as a hobby."
What separates the four-year-old Competition Hobbies from the smattering of other hobby retailers found throughout Southern Arizona is the shop's indoor-track - the only one of its kind the United States.
Where most indoor tracks are adapted out of former warehouses, shop owner Quaid Simek took a different approach with Competition Hobbies, designing and constructing the building specifically for racing.
"A lot of these guys that are here tonight are spoiled, totally spoiled," laughs Competition Hobbies manager Steve Martin. The track's inhabitants are an eclectic mix of fathers and sons and hardcore gear heads.
Once inside, hobbyists have two options for racing: the 100-by-62- foot dirt course or the 90-by-50-foot carpet track. It took more than 900 tons of Arizona clay and sand to create the track and "about 1,800 trips through the doors with my backhoe," said Wahl, who changes the courses' layout every four to five months.
Separating each course is a driver's stand where car operators get a bird's eye view of each track. Racers are broken down into several categories based on car types and experience. They start with the novice level and a car that looks and acts like a NASCAR speedster. From there it's up to stockcars - either a buggy or truck frame - before moving on to the modified level.
It's the modified racers - which essentially is the equivalent of a pro level - that will take part in this weekend's Grand Prix. Between 150 and 200 Racers from throughout the United States are expected to attend Competition Hobbies' fourth annual Grand Prix, shuttling in from California to Florida.
"Some of these drivers are so precise it's phenomenal," said Martin. "It takes a lot of skill. Some of these guys start out when they're really young and some of these guys are old timers. You get it from 8 to 80 and everything in between."
Despite being considered a hobby, there is significant money to be made as a professional racer. Those who travel the racing circuit as a full-time profession - guys such as Phoenix's Ryan Mayfield, 20 - can potentially earn upward of six-figures a year.
"He can take anything, whether it be a buggy or truck, and just make it look like it's nothing," said Lake of Mayfield. "He's easily in the top-five in the world, top-three in the States. He gets paid to race and probably making $80,000 to $90,000 a year (through winnings and sponsorships).
The same as NASCAR, Lake and Mayfield are teammates racing for team Pro-Match, a Lake Havasu-based battery company. Whereas Mayfield travels the country, Lake will hit the racing trail only five or six times a year-opting mostly to compete in Arizona.
The track at Competition Hobbies isn't reserved for professional drivers - but it does take some money to get started in the hobby. A quality car will run the hobbyist between $250 and $300 dollars. After that, parts and maintenance become the major money factors.
"Once you've got the major components, staying in the hobby is relatively the parts that you break," said Lake, while sitting at one of the many work stations set up with electricity for the drivers.
With the holiday season rapidly barreling down, Competition Hobbies is entering its busiest time of year. A remote controlled car can be the perfect holiday gift, said Martin.
For those just starting out, Competition Hobbies offers open racing on Friday and Saturday nights.
"I tell parents they have two choices: their kid can come in here and spend $20 to $40 to race or when they're 16 they can go out and crash your car," he said.