Train Racing Technology Spawns Novelty Layouts

Part 1 A New Kid on the Block

It all started very innocently. In the Fall of 1987 I was attending a monthly meeting of the San Fernando Valley Toy Train Club when one of the members wanted to show off an engine that he was going to race at our annual Cal Stewart train meet in Pasadena. As I recall, his locomotive was a blue Lionel 8769 Gas Turbine switcher that uses a DC can motor. He had added a bridge rectifier to allow it to run on AC power. Although the motor was spinning fast, the low gearing did not provide much speed. He made a couple of test runs and concluded that he was ready to race.

I had never seen the train races before, and I didn’t know what to expect. Our Cal Stewart races are drag races, with two parallel tracks that are slightly longer than ¼ scale mile. At the ¼ mile mark, an insulator is installed to kill power to the racing trains for


coasting to a stop after the speed run. The power is supplied to both tracks by a postwar ZW transformer. Both racing locomotives as aligned at the start mark, and then the AC input power to the ZW is switched on to energize the tracks. The first train to cross the ¼ mile mark wins.

Inspired by the demonstration at the Valley meeting, I decided to try my hand at building a racing entry. I didn’t see much hope for something with small wheels and low gearing, but the rectifier idea was interesting. I dug out an MPC 8902 steamer that most


folks would consider a piece of junk – a loco with a plastic body and a DC can motor. I figured the plastic would be light, and I could soup up the DC voltage source.

My first try was to add a full-wave rectifier so that the train would run on AC. Those DC motors are probably intended for 12 volts, but the ZW puts out about 20 volts AC. After accounting for the voltage drop through the rectifier, I was probably getting 18 volts to the motor.


Testing the racer became a problem because I didn’t have a straight stretch on my layout that came close to being a scale ¼ mile (27.5 feet.) As a result, I never see my racers make a full high-speed run until I get to the Cal Stewart race track.

Applying the old adage “If some is good, more is better!” I thought that I could boost the voltage to the motor by adding some capacitors across the output of the bridge. I proceeded to pack 10,000 microfarads of electrolytic capacitors into every available space under the locomotive’s shell. The capacitors charged up to near the peak voltage of the sinewave power input, adding about 40% more voltage. Now the poor little 12V motor was running on about 25 volts. And run it did indeed! On startup the wheels would spin, throwing off an impressive shower of sparks, and down the track it would fly. Again, I couldn’t run it very far, but things did look promising.

When Cal Stewart came around, I packed my racer into a shoulder bag and headed for the race track. I got there a bit late, and the races were already in progress. The little turbine didn’t stand a chance against the “fast” steamers that were vying for the top spot. The racing was fairly close, but they finally determined who was the fastest.

At this point I stepped up and asked if I could run my train against the winner. When I pulled out my little plastic MPC racer, I could feel the contempt for this piece of junk from the other competitors and maybe it was my imagination, but were they laughing up their sleeves? I put my racer down at the Start line, and the previous winner was placed on the other track. The official started the countdown – “Three, Two, One” – and the power switch was turned On.

The other train began to budge, but my train was so busy spinning its wheels and throwing sparks that it looked like it was just standing still. And then it started to move. Off it went in a big “whoosh”, shooting down the track at speeds nobody (including me) had ever seen before. There was a collective gasp from the crowd and a lot of “Holy $***”s were uttered. My racer crossed the finish line before the competitor was halfway down the track. It was no contest. When my racer reached the power cutoff point, it wasn’t ready to quit. The capacitors were fully charged, and they continued to supply the motor with current on the “dead” cool-down track. Fortunately, someone caught the racer before it shot off the end of the table.

We ran a couple more runs, and I did have some problems with the capacitors vibrating loose and dropping down out of the shell. I was declared the winner, and my prize was a gift certificate for some Gargraves track. It was a great day for me, and train racing at Cal Stewart would never be the same.

Part 2 Upping the Ante

There are four requirements for winning a drag race. In drag racing lingo, the first is a good launch or hole shot. The racer must start moving immediately with full power and not lose time with excessive wheel spin. In automobile drag racing, the initial “reaction time” or time between the green light and initial vehicle movement is measured in hundredths of a second. For train racing there is no human reaction time involved, but there can be delays in ramping up the voltage to the engine’s motor.

On the other hand, wheel spin or loss of traction can be a major factor with trains. Steel wheels on steel track have relatively poor traction. A common enhancement is to add rubber “traction tires” to the drive wheels. If all the drive wheels have traction tires, a supplementary set of wheels (or a sliding contactor) may be required to make electrical contact with the outer rails.

The second requirement is a fast top speed. Getting a good jump off the line won’t win a race if the other vehicle can pass you before reaching the finish line. The ultimate goal is to keep accelerating all the way down the track.

Our trains usually reach a maximum velocity partway down the track. When you manually turn a motor, the motor winding generates a voltage, which is known as “back EMF”, where EMF (ElectroMotive Force) is just a fancy word for voltage. The faster the motor spins, the greater the back EMF. As the EMF ramps up with speed, eventually the back EMF will become nearly equal to the applied voltage from the rails. When this happens, there is only a small difference in voltage across the windings of the motor, and the current through the motor falls off. The current in the armature windings is the true source of the magnetic power that creates torque in a motor, and when the current drops, so does the motor’s power.

Third is clean run without running out of bounds. For automobiles this means staying in your own lane and not weaving around. For our trains that means keeping all of the wheels on the rails. If you look back at the first photograph of this article, you will note that the racing tracks are not perfect straight lines. What appear to be innocent wiggles become serious obstacles to a high speed train. In extreme cases we have resorted to auxiliary guides that keep the racer pointed in the correct direction.

The fourth requirement is reliability. Racing usually puts excessive stress on most of the running gear, leading to premature failure. If the racing engine breaks down before the series of elimination and final races is complete, there will be no trophy today!

I needed help with my hole shot. I had one traction tire and three metal wheels driving the racer. Fortunately, the sparking on the wheels was creating mini craters, which actually worked to enhance traction. The single traction tire was also steering the locomotive to one side, causing derailments. Several races were won with my racer flying down the last part of the racetrack at an angle.

The simplest solution was to add a second traction tire opposite the existing tire. If I owned a metal lathe at the time, that would have been quite simple. As it was, I had to resort to using a Dremel grinder to cut a groove in the driver while the motor was spinning its wheels under power. The workmanship wasn’t beautiful, but the results were adequate. (By the way, the traction tires do need to be replaced periodically. They tend to wear and to craze, leading to thrown or broken tires.)

The second traction tire improved my launch. I still had two metal wheels providing electrical pickup with the outer rails.

Our next racing outing was the TTOS National Convention in Long Beach. Today the races are called Steve Marinkovich Memorial Train Races because Steve supervised the races for a number of years. Steve was a serious competitor who expected to win.

The racetrack is usually available to contestants prior to the race for testing and tuning their entries. Sometimes two competitors will have a mock race to get a feel for the level of competition. Steve and I made test runs, and Steve realized that he wasn’t winning.

The races (under Steve’s supervision) were supposed to start at the posted time, probably 1 p.m. My young boys and I showed up at the racetrack at the appropriate time, but there was no Steve! We waited and waited, and finally Steve showed up. He had gone off and rebuilt his racer with extra features, including traction tires, to try to match my speed. The world had to wait in the interim.

We raced, and indeed his racer was improved, but then his modifications began to fail and fall off. In the end, he lost.

I remember one run very vividly. My boys were assigned the job of catching my racer at the end of the track. Remember the charged up capacitors? Well, one time my boys missed, and the locomotive shot off the end of the track and hit the floor with the motor still cranking out power. The train scooted across the Convention Center floor, flying between the legs of people, with my boys in hot pursuit. They finally caught up with the runaway, but it was about 100 feet from the end of the table by then! I was very relieved. There would be no headlines in the newspaper “Innocent person injured by runaway racing train.” After that we worked out a catcher box with foam rubber cushioning. These trains were getting to be dangerous!

Part 3 More Power, Scotty!

Having helped my hole shot somewhat with the second traction tire, I now turned my attention to the top end speed. More voltage would mean more speed, but we were limited by the output of the ZW, and both racers got the same voltage anyway. One day I realized that my combination of full wave rectifier and filter capacitors could easily be turned into a circuit called a voltage doubler.


Rather that charging all the capacitors simultaneous to one maximum voltage, the doubler charges half the capacitors on the positive peak of the sinewave, and the other half on the negative half. The voltages of the two set of capacitors are added together to give a doubled output voltage.

My next realization was that I could easily have both circuits available. With the flip of a simple switch I could go from regular to doubler and back again!

This was the answer to my quest. I could convert the ZW’s 20 volts AC to a DC voltage of over 35 volts! I liked the idea, but I bet my little 12 volt motor was having nightmares! Once again, I couldn’t give this modification a real test at home. I could run the motor on the workbench, but I was risking blowing up the motor because there was no load or drag to slow it down.

My technique wasn’t the only solution to the top-end speed problem. Another method to increase the maximum speed is to reduce the back EMF by removing a few turns of wire from each of the motor armature’s coils. This technique is commonly used for Marx racing engines. At least one of my competitors was using this technique.

The next round of racing was not very satisfying. The drive wheels had so much power that they would climb off the rails. Several times my engine crossed the finish line sideways at a 30 degree angle.

I tried to keep the racer on the track by adding some weight. I eventually was running with a half-pound chunk of lead duct taped to the top of the shell. Needless to say, adding a half pound of dead weight was not an ideal solution.

Jack Rice, who started racing at Cal Stewart in the early ‘90’s, provided a simple solution. He added a forked guide to the front of his racer that straddled the center rail. This kept the racer pointed in the correct direction. I copied his idea, and that eliminated the lead weight.

Part 4 More Suction, Nurse!

Although I had lots of power and fairly good top speed, I still had a lot of wheelspin at the start. I needed a way to increase the traction between the drive wheels and the track. I knew from previous experience that adding weight wasn’t a good solution. If only I could increase the force of gravity….

I decided to try using magnetism as a substitute for gravity. I purchased some small rare-earth magnets that are very powerful for their size. I soon found that size matters, but even more important is the placement of the magnets. A small magnet very


CAUTION!! Powerful magnets can easily pinch your skin. Use care whenever a magnet is near a steel component or another magnet.


CAUTION!! Rare earth magnets can shatter and forcefully eject debris if they collide together. Wear eye protection.


close to the rail is just as effective as a much larger magnet working over a large gap. On the other hand, if a magnet actually touches a rail, the magnet locks tightly to the rail and acts like a dragging brake.

The magnets need to be very close to the rail, but still provide enough clearance to not hit any bumps in the track or flared ends at rail joints. All three rails can be used, but the center rail is a bit higher than the outer rails because of the insulation inserts that separate the center rail from the ties.

Testing the effectiveness of the magnets was a bit of a challenge. My first attempt was to simply try to lift the engine off a piece of steel track. This told me that I was getting some magnetic “grab”, but I couldn’t compare the effectiveness of various magnet placements.

My more scientific method was to attach a spring scale to a piece of inverted track and calibrate the scale to zero out the weight of the track. I then placed the inverted engine to be tested on the piece of track from below, holding the engine in one hand.


I first checked the weight of the engine on the scale, and then I pulled downward on the engine until I overcame the magnetic attraction. The spring scale readings allowed me to compare the weight of the engine to the amount of added magnetic downforce.

For the test shown above, the track weighed 1 Newton, the engine weighed 5 Newtons (1.1 pounds) and the magnetic force was 8 Newtons (1.8 pounds), more than the weight of the engine. From a traction standpoint, this 1 pound engine would have the traction equivalent to a 3 pound engine. I was picking up almost 2 pounds of downforce using magnets that weighed less than 1 ounce! This was much better than adding lead weights!

Note that the amount of steel in the track is one of the factors determining the amount of magnetic attraction. Lionel tinplate O gauge track has much more steel than O27 track. Nickel silver and stainless steel tracks don’t provide any magnetic attraction. Fortunately, our racing track is classic tinplate O gauge.

My testing on the relatively short straight sections of my layout showed a great improvement in initial acceleration. There was no wheel spin, and the engine looked like it was shot from a cannon. The Cal Stewart races gave the same result, with very impressive runs.

My racing technology had reached a development plateau. My biggest problem now was that the poor little 12 volt motor wasn’t lasting very long. The high RPMs and high surge currents meant replacing the motor every racing season or two, but the big boys at the drag strips have similar problems.

Part 5 My World is Turned Upside-Down

At this point my racing efforts got redirected into a new quest. With the help of Jon Zahornacky, I had developed a “super SC-2” capable of controlling up to 128 switches. My layout currently has 58 switches, and when I added up the cost of enough Lionel SC-2 boxes to do the job, I decided that I should design my own unit. Jon was kind enough to offer to assist me, and we collaborated on the design project to develop a Massive Switch Controller (MSC). The resulting SwitchMaster MSC met all of the design objectives.

I wanted to introduce SwitchMaster at the 200 TTOS/TCA Cal Stewart Train Show in Pasadena, but I felt that I needed something beside the new SwitchMaster hardware to attract traffic to my display table.

I had spent a lot of time with racing trains dangling upside-down for test purposes, but it never crossed my mind that maybe these trains could also run upside-down. Since I didn’t know of any reason why the idea wouldn’t work, I decided to apply power to an inverted track. Much to my awe, the engine was quite content to run forward and reverse while inverted.

I decided to build an inverted display using PVC pipe that would have a straight track on which the inverted engine could shuttle back and forth. The display would be high enough above the table that it would be easily visible to shoppers wandering down my aisle at Cal Stewart.


I added a magnetic reed switch at each end of the track to trigger a reversing circuit that would continuously shuttle the train back and forth.

The display was an outstanding success at Cal Stewart, but my effort was a marketing flop. Nobody was interested in SwitchMaster. They were all captivated by the sight of a train running upside down. I guess I should have taken Marketing 101.

The reactions of the spectators varied for quiet awe to raucous laughter. Everyone had questions, and most people thought that this was some kind of a really high tech concept. I kept my mouth shut that it was just a few magnets in the proper places.

Part 6 Going to the Wall

Like Don Quixote, I was started on a grand (and maybe futile) quest. The TTOS Southwestern Division was having an open house the next spring, and they invited me to display my inverted shuttle. I wasn’t satisfied to rest on my laurels. I started developing a new Novelty Layout that would one-up the shuttle.

I built a simple loop of track on a carpeted base. I began testing with the base on the floor, but I progressively lifted on side of the base up into the air to see what angle of operation I could achieve. I kept lifting and lifting until the base was completely vertical! I had a kinetic wall sculpture with the train sticking out from the wall, running around the layout – straight up one side, across the top, straight down and then across the bottom. It was a bit taxing on the poor little engine, but by now I was using Ready Made Toys BEEPS which had low gearing.

Since people felt that this should be difficult, I decided to humor them. I fastened a vibrator coil from an electric massager to the back of the layout base. The vibrations transferred to the sounding board base as a low hum, sounding very powerful. I also kludged together parts from a computer power supply and a TV picture tube driver to represent a Gravitonics Antigravity Generator. I even added a sign:


Gravitonics Antigravity Generator in Use

May disrupt cardiac pacemakers

The illusion was convincing. I remember one fellow who asked me what would happen if the power to the house failed. I replied “Gee, I didn’t consider that. Let’s see what happens.” I reached over and switched off the vibrator coil…. Nothing came crashing down. I shrugged my shoulders and the fellow went away happy.

A couple of people came up and asked if this was what they had read about in a recent magazine. I assured them there was no magazine coverage on this, but I did get the details of the article. It was an issue of Model Railroader.

On the way home, I stopped off and purchased a copy of the magazine. Sure enough, there was a product review about a new product that would run inverted trains on the ceiling. The product was for HO, and the review was very enthusiastic. I then noticed that it was the April issue – April Fool!! Apparently the folks who mentioned the article hadn’t caught the joke.

I wrote a letter to the editor of Model Railroader. I told him I had two good laughs from the article. The first laugh was regarding the product they reviewed. The second laugh was on them because I had already been publicly demonstrating inverted operation for six months! I didn’t get a reply.

Part 7 You’ve Got to be Flippin’ Crazy!!

The next Cal Stewart was now only 6 months away, and it was time for something new. If I could run trains both upside-down and vertical, what about everything in between? I began construction of a display that would feature not only moving trains, but also moving track. I constructed a rotating rotisserie-like oval that had separate loops of track on the two faces of the oval.


The design had several difficult aspects, including the motor and pivots for the oval, slip rings to feed power to the moving track, and a special train controller.

The job of the controller was to keep the layout balanced so that the load on the rotator motor would be moderate. With engines running on both faces of the loop, it would be possible that both engines would be on the same side of the loop simultaneously. I wanted to keep them on opposite sides to preserve some level of balance. I designed a digital controller that used four magnetic reed switches at the two axis point at the ends of each of the loops. The logic would detect the first train to arrive at the axis point, and it would hold that train until the train running on the other face also arrived at the axis point. It would then release the stopped train to continue around for another half circle, stopping whichever train arrived first at the other end.

Construction was not easy. The frame for the track loops had to match the geometry of the track exactly. The frame for supporting the loop and motor needed to be simple and portable. The controller was best implemented with a custom printed circuit board that required both circuit design and printed circuit board layout and fabrication.

Fortunately, fellow TTOS member Tom Meleck, a very good professional set and production designer, volunteered to help me create a very nice display. He sent me sketches for the display and designs for signage on the display. With his help, I was able to produce a very nice display.


The display was very popular at Cal Stewart. I didn’t have a good site from a foot traffic standpoint, but I was kept busy with visitors.

One visitor said that they had been putting up upside-down Christmas trees at their house for many years. That had all kind of ornaments, including live fish (with aerating tubes from the attic) and hamsters in cages. They had always felt that the tree deserved a train layout, but the layout would need to be inverted on the ceiling to fit in. He asked if I could build a ceiling layout. I said “Yes” and instructed him what kind of train set he needed to buy from the Cal Stewart tables.

An hour later he returned with an appropriate train set in hand. I took the set home and modified the train components to run upside down. I later found out that they did not put up the train that Christmas, and I have since lost track of the fellow.

Part 8 Santa, Am I Seeing Things?

After being challenged to provide a train for an upside-down Christmas tree, I decided to build my own upside-down tree and layout – sans the live fish. I built the train layout on a 4’ x 4’ sheet of ¼” Masonite. I used my old artificial tree, but I had to modify the base of the center pole so that it would not pull apart when the tree was upside down. I suspended the tree and layout with a single ¼” stud screwed into a ceiling joist.


After I had the tree and train up for a while, I called the local newspaper, and they ran a story with photo showing the setup. I eventually packed up the Christmas tree and put it away in the attic.

A few years later in 2009 I was once again trying to figure out what to take to Cal Stewart. I decided to display the upside down tree and train, but I had a serious problem figuring out how to support the display when there is no usable ceiling. (Cal Stewart is in a large convention center that has high ceilings.) I decided to build a gallows-like support that would hold the layout about 8’ off the ground.

I needed a rugged base to support the rigging and tree. I chose the old blue-carpeted “face of the wall” layout from Part 6 above because it had a heavy 2×4 frame and ¾” plywood sheet. As an added bonus, the base provided a second loop of track so that I could run trains above and below.


I added one enhancement over my living room version. I had purchased a rotating base for a Christmas tree a few years before during an after-Christmas close-out sale. I devised a way to mount the base to the layout and to couple the base of the tree to the rotator. The rotator included an internal slip ring assembly that feeds power to the tree lights. I also added some rings to securely hold the “branches” of the tree to the trunk. I also engineered a few extra gadgets that allowed me to transport and assemble the display without any help.

Part 8 Getting Loopy

Back in 2005 I had experimented with the concept of a vertical loop. I formed long pieces of O gauge track into an inside loop that was 5 ½’ in diameter. Bending tinplate track is no easy task, and I had to make special forms to use for the bending. Joining the track segments together with a smooth joint was yet another problem.


I added an outside hoop of ½” conduit pipe for support. Two stationary side posts with V-shaped ball bearing supports held the loop vertical. The bottom of the loop sat on a pulley driven by a gear reduction motor that provided rotation of the loop in either direction.

My initial testing was stymied by the vertical curvature of the track. Most locomotives do not have a lot of clearance at the front and rear. Even my BEEPs were dragging at both ends. I did get the loop to rotate, and I made a few trial runs, but I put the loop aside as needing substantial engineering before it was ready for use.

In 2010 I decided to revisit the vertical loop and use it for Cal Stewart. I fabricated new side supports and mounted the loop on the banquet table that I had previously used for the fancy tumbling display. Since the vertical loop sitting on the banquet table was too tall for the normal ceiling in a house, I had to fold up the legs of the table and substitute some concrete blocks for the legs.

I modified a BEEP chassis by seriously chamfering both ends to provide the required clearance. The BEEP shell would have required even more cutting, but I was unwilling to sacrifice a shell to this project. I decided to run just the chassis, but I added a small stuffed snowman as a passenger.

At first the Cal Stewart folks were only interested in displaying the inverted Christmas tree again. I told them that they would need to provide space for both the tree and the loop if they wanted the tree. As it turned out, there was plenty of space. The two novelty layouts were near the center of the hall, adjacent to a huge conventional Christmas tree that complemented my tree.

My displays got a lot of foot traffic, and they seemed to appeal to all ages of viewers. I think the adults had more of an appreciation for the difficulty involved, but everyone enjoyed the novelty.


Train racing has taken a back seat during most of the Novelty Layout years. For 2011 I hope to concentrate my effort on racing once again. At the current time I don’t have any Novelty Layout concepts hatching in the wings, but all it takes is one stroke of inspiration to start me on my next idea….

You will find videos of some of the Novelty Layouts mentioned above in other post on the menu item “Novelty Layouts”. I hope you enjoyed this history and those videos.

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