getting started with nitro-powered radio controlled cars

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getting started with nitro-powered radio controlled cars


Mention radio controlled cars to most people and their eyes will happily glaze over, remembering a time when they were kids, having fun with a battery-powered car that would go anywhere until it was rammed into a tree trunk and smashed to smithereens. Now that we have a little more disposable income, it's tempting to return to radio controlled cars but do it bigger, better and faster than when we were in short trousers.

While there are now some very respectable battery-powered radio controlled (or R/C) cars about, they're still rather limited regarding range. If you really want a vehicle that will be hugely quick, intoxicatingly noisy and allow all sorts of tuning options, the only way to go is a nitro-powered vehicle. These feature a proper engine that runs on fuel (typically containing between 16 and 25 per cent nitro content) available from many hobby shops. Use a decent filler bottle and it shouldn't be too messy, but the exhaust pipes will produce blue smoke just like a real car and dust and oil will adhere to the side of your vehicle, requiring a quick wipe to keep clean.

We've been trying a range of models from market leaders HPI Racing ( including a Savage Monster Truck and a BMW M3 Touring car. Their website is probably a good place to start if, like us, you're new to the whole R/C industry. For comparison however, we also checked out Mirage Racing ( and borrowed a Lightning2 Pro, a kind of cross between race car and monster truck that provides the best of both.

It takes a little effort and maintenance to keep these cars running but the rewards are well worth it. Whereas electric cars require several battery packs to be charged to achieve a running time of 30-60 minutes, a nitro car merely requires another squirt of fuel every 5-10 minutes. Commercially available engines range in power from 1.2 to 2.5bhp, which may not sound much but in fact offer blistering performance.

The next choice you'll need to make is whether to choose a track car or an off-road chassis. Track models are exhiliratingly rapid and have razor-sharp handling, but are a little more fragile than a tough off roader and therefore less suitable to the beginner. Despite being designed for use on smooth tarmac, these cars tend to have four-wheel drive for traction and the upper specification cars can be real handfuls. Some R/C enthusiasts have also started perfecting the art of 'drifting', the practice of cornering with large degrees of tail-happiness. Although this is very fashionable, you'll need to get to grips with a standard car before you graduate to this demanding level of driving.

Off-road models feature big tyres, long shock absorbers and the ability to drive almost everywhere. They're often a little less stable when making sharp manoeuvres on tarmac and can end up on their roof - just like a real off-road vehicle! Get one on the dirt and you'll have huge fun. After getting the basics under your belt, you'll soon start constructing jumps and other terrain features to test the cars on. We jumped one car off a ten-foot high bank without doing any damage, although this may have been taking things to extremes. The only terrain where these vehicles struggle is in long grass, which can get wrapped around revolving parts.

There's a whole range of manufacturers who will sell R/C models in various forms from a full ready-to-run basis (which in fact is probably around 98 per cent assembled) to a super sport kit that will require a good deal of construction on your part. If you're just getting into R/C driving, we'd recommend a ready-to-run model. Of these, some will come with a clear, unprepared body shell that you can cut and then emblazon with decals and paint, whereas others will be pre cut, stickered and painted. The other key option that is offered is the choice of a pull-start, much like you'd get on a lawnmower or brush cutter, or the rather more civilised roto starter, which involves pushing a battery powered rotating prod up the car's posterior to spark it into life. Formula One teams use a not dissimilar system to spark up their cars.

Browse a top manufacturer like HPI Racing's brochure and any true petrolhead will soon get a little excited at the choice available. Vehicles such as the RTR Nitro RS4 3 Evo might have an astonishingly clumsy name but they're pretty nimble on track. We tested one fitted with a BMW M3 GTR body, which was absolutely stunningly detailed, right down to the wheels and the sponsor's stack decals on the flanks. Able to reach a top speed of over 45mph, this equates to a scale speed in excess of 400mph. That's shifting. If you don't fancy the BMW body, this model can also be fitted with a Dodge Viper GTS, a Porsche 911 Turbo or a Lotus Elise body. As the bodies can easily be clipped on and off, it's even possible to buy the car and order the other bodies that can be changed at whim.

If that isn't enough to whet your appetite, there's a full array of Savage monster trucks and Lightning racing buggies also included. One thing that puts off the less mechanically minded is the complexity of nitro powered kits. In our next instalment we'll take a look at the few simple set up and maintenance procedures you'll need to undertake to get your nitro-powered R/C car running like a dream. Even I could do it, and this is coming from someone who is utterly bamboozled by even the simplest DIY tasks. Being a big kid has rarely been so appealing.