Phil’s Raceway & Hobbies in McDonald is tailored to a very specific clientele. It is a shrine to a particular pastime whose heyday was arguably the late 1970s, a time when young people had to travel to an arcade in order to play video games and the eight-track tape player was king.
At the time, many an American youth was engrossed by slot cars, the electric-powered hobby vehicle that sped across plastic raceways snaking through living rooms all across the country to the amusement of eager children and teenagers. Now, it is the mission of one local man to keep that spark of excitement alive.
“I just wanted someplace that kids could come and have something to do that wasn’t video games,” owner Phil LaQuatra said. “I’ve been racing slot cars since high school, and it’s a really neat way to spend some free time.”
H.O. slot car racing has been around since the 1960s. LaQuatra has been a fanatic of the sport for almost as long and has set up his shop on McDonald Street as an emporium for all things racing.
LaQuatra, 57, said he isn’t motivated by profits; rather, he sometimes finds it hard to make ends meet. But his dedication to his favorite pastime comes out of an appreciation for what the sport has done for him.
“When I was in seventh grade, I started hanging out with the wrong guys and getting into trouble,” LaQuatra said. “My shop teacher told me to go to the lunchroom after school one day.
“When I got there, I opened up the door and there must have been 25 to 30 kids racing on a bent oval that he built. I’ve been racing ever since.”
LaQuatra said he has a natural tendency toward mechanical objects. He has been racing and building the two-inch plastic cars and tracks they travel across ever since.
Slot car racing is a term used to describe any type of competition between electric-powered cars propelled along a grooved track. A metal peg fits in a metal-lined slot in the track, creating a direct-current connection of about 18 volts that activates a small engine in the body of the car. A simple gear rotates wheels covered in a spongy coating to give them extra traction. Helping to keep the car grounded are two small magnets that adhere to the track.
A large number of trophies are on display along the far end of the “pit tables” at Phil’s Raceway. Many of them are from Phil’s many regional and national tournament appearances, but a growing number come from his two children, Anna and Phil Jr., who both have taken up the sport.
“It’s hard to keep the car on the track, to control it,” said “Lil’ Phil,” 12. “If you hold the trigger down a certain way, the car will fly off the track. You’ve got to keep a steady pace and learn to drive.”
Although he started racing at age 2, the younger LaQuatra said it took him until he was 10 or 11 before he considered himself a professional. He said his favorite awards were several “youngest racer” trophies he won by placing in various events.
“There were a couple of older guys in their 30s who went against him at one of the races in Indianapolis,” the elder Phil said. “They kept saying, ‘Take it easy on us kid.’”
His sister, 16, also has been active on the slot car circuit.
“My favorite thing is when I know I’m actually in the game,” Anna said. “You get that feeling, like, ‘I know I can win this.’ And then you end up winning by one lap.”
Slot car competitions have taken the LaQuatra family all across the United States. The shop in McDonald and the multiple winding tracks that are housed inside also have hosted events.
In addition to offering race time to patrons in exchange for a small daily fee, the establishment offers cars for sale. These can be made at one of the multiple “pit tables” using provided equipment under the guidance of LaQuatra, or purchased ready-to-go. The shop also offers models, toys and other racing equipment and memorabilia.
LaQuatra said people from the age of 2 to 102 have enjoyed spending time at his hobby shop. He loves hosting birthday parties and children’s sports teams, but also has had groups of senior citizens come in to try out his tracks.
“I just do this because I love the sport,” LaQuatra said. “Slot car racing has given me a lot through the years, so I just wanted to give something back.”