Round three of the very popular JConcepts Supercup series brought us to the very historic Lake Park track located in Tampa Florida. In case you are a newbie or haven’t been involved with RC for decades I’ll give you a brief history of this place. When I got into RC as a 13 year old kid Lake part had already made its mark in the history books hosting the Winter Champs annually with huge turnouts selling out. This was before the days of 10 classes to make 120 drivers convert to 400 entries, the classes were Stock Buggy, Mod Buggy, Stock Truck, Mod Truck, and Mod 4wd and drivers were limited to two classes and capped at 400 entries. With no lack of competition in any class the A Main was a very huge accomplishment and pretty much gave you a place in the history books. I remember being obsessed with the Team Associated RC Racing videos documenting the A Mains of all the big races that year. With the Winter Champs in Lake Park being the most dialed track I can remember from the videos. Everyone in the off road scene would talk about the high grip blue groove tracks in Florida and I was fascinated. Between the handful of skateboard videos I had and the Associated videos my parents VCR was pretty much always occupied. The main highlights to me were Masami Hirosaka’s blistering pace as he dominated 4wd, Huge Team Associated vs. Team Losi battles that everyone in the industry had a close eye on. Also speedcontroler battles between Novak, Tekin , and LRP came into play. The tire game was also getting underway with factory drivers getting sought after prototype tires and trying to get a grip on the fast changing track conditions. Many RC legends stamped their mark into history at this track such as Matt Francis, Cliff Lett, Barry Baker, Teemu Leino, Masami Hirosaka, Mark Pavidas, Rick Hohwart, Jay Halsey to name a few. Lake Park is also the location where many of the most popular Florida drivers got their first dose of exposure, such as a 9 year old JR Mitch who would shake up the A-Mains driving a Associated buggy and a Traxxas Stadium Truck. A young Ruffy Rios would always be in the mix battling for titles at the Winter Champs. Rob Michael, Paul Wynn, Ryan Eckert, and Jason Ruona are a few more industry veterans that spent time out at Lake Park during the infant stages of their careers.
Personally I kept a close eye on the Winter Champs for years but I had never got a chance to drive on the track until Friday afternoon of last week. I must say after 23 years of anticipation I was not disappointed with the track or the experience. Ryan, Leon, and Pete worked hard to prepare the track for the event and maintained it throughout both days.
With the mains in the books the feel trackside was good. Everybody had fun racing on a great layout with friends and good weather. With so much cool history at Lake Park I wanted to ask old school off road racer Ruffy Rios about how things have changed over the years and what their thoughts on the past, present, and future of racing here in the sunshine state and beyond.
First RC Car-Tamiya Frog
TJ-Can you give us your sponsor list from the beginning to now?
RR-My first sponsors in the beginning when I first started racing my RC10’s were Tem Raskin’s Magnum Motors and Central Florida Hobbies. From there, my sponsor list kept growing when I then started racing with Team Pit Stop. The next big sponsor jump at the next stage of my racing was when I was at the US Nationals in Savannah GA. After the qualifying rounds, I was approached by Gene Hustings of Associated Electrics and Mike Reedy after Gene recorded me doing well in my qualifiers. Gene and Mike asked me if I would like to become part of Team Associated and Reedy with a full sponsorship. Much of this was thanks to Buddy McTureus I am sure who put in a good word for me. Imagine my excitement at this opportunity, and after some more discussions, of course I said Yes!
While being part of the team, obviously then came help from Novak which eventually changed into the LRP sponsorship when most of the team switched to run LRP’s products. Proline then started helping me quite a bit with tires. So my major sponsors became Associated Electrics, Reedy Modifieds, LRP Electronics and Proline for a time and after a few years and becoming more well known around the racing circuit, then other sponsors came on board as well. One year I was approached by Composite Craft for a job offer to join their design team for RC aftermarket products. My job would be to try and develop RC Off-road products made from carbon fiber. Composite Craft were the leaders back then in the carbon fiber product lines for on-road vehicles. While working for Composite Craft, RPM then started sending me products to test and design products around and sponsored me with most anything from their product lines. Then through connections made with Composite Craft, I got a full sponsorship with Kyosho and OS to run for my 4WD 1/10 scale off-road buggy, and also for 1/8th I would start running nitro buggy for them. More years passed and one year I was offered a job to work for Mugen out of NY which used to be their distribution office. I took the job with Mugen and since they were competitors to Kyosho in 1/8 nitro, I had to leave my relationship with Kyosho, but I kept my on-going relationship with AE/Reedy until I retired from racing altogether…a hiatus which lasted 15 years. In that time I worked for military simulation and training companies designing the latest simulators for our military’s training.\
TJ-What year was it when you retired?
RR-I know it was before the year 2000, it may have been 1998 or 1999, I think.
TJ-You’re back now, 15 years later. What are your current sponsors at this moment?
RR-Right now its Superior Hobbies, Trinity and Space Coast R/C are my current sponsors now.
TJ- What was your biggest win in RC? Or the one that has the most meaning to you?
RR-The one that stands out in my memories the most was the first time I won the Puerto Rico National Championships in both 2wd stock and 2wd modified. The other big memory is when I repeated winning at the Puerto Rico National Championships for five years in a row. I know some people think it’s a small island but it was a pretty big deal back then and a very hard race to win. The first inaugural year they held the Nationals, it was a big release off of my shoulders after all the hard work, winning the stock and modified 2wd buggy classes. Then to win it again the next year, and then the next year was just fantastic for me. One year, I was behind the curve due to being sick during the event and struggled in qualifying. I didn’t get a lot of practice in on the track it was being held on, and I felt like I was actually the underdog here in this situation. I had qualified third but somehow in the mains, I managed to pull it off and won them both again! I basically moved away from the island before the next Nationals, and was undefeated for 5 years straight there. Those were some very good memories I shall always cherish.
The next fond memory I have is when I won the Florida State Championships. It was just a big deal for me to win it when I was still living on the island of Puerto Rico, and traveling back and forth from Florida to race, each year.
Another big one was the first time I qualified in the A-Main at a major event here in the continental United States, which was the Winter Championships, a race that had more of a World Championship type of flair than a US race would, since we had many of the Worlds finest racers join us each year in Florida for that event.
TJ- I’ve seen some of your RC collection. How many cars do you still have?
RR- Approximately 32 cars, some are in a transitional state of being restored to near new again.
TJ- Lets switch gears, currently who would you say is the fastest racer is in the country?
RR-Fastest in the country? I would have to say at present, it would be Dakotah Phend. That kid is just ultra fast.
TJ-Who would you say is the fastest of all time?
RR- Fastest of all time would have to be Masami Hirosaka. I’ve been able to witness him driving and have even been in some qualifiers with him, and even when his cars look slow in the old videos, he is actually flying for the given track situation at that time. The way he was able to get around the track much faster than most everyone else was unbelievable and an experience not easily forgotten by anyone able to witness it first hand.
TJ-What is the biggest difference between the old days of racing and now?
RR- A couple of the biggest things that come to mind right away are things like the current technology helps quite a bit. The things like brushless motors, lipo batteries and 2.4Ghz fast radios are huge nowadays. The speed controllers are much smoother in both power and braking. The radio systems are better because you’re less prone to getting glitches or hits from someone turning on their radio equipment.
Given that though, in the past you really had to learn to tune your cars. there was no internet or setup sheets, etc.. to help or guide you. You had to learn to tune your car, otherwise you’d be behind the curve when it came to racing. If you waited for the latest racing magazine, you were already at least 6 months behind the current racing curve since it took time to get these to be published. You had to buy books, or go to the library and learn about suspension dynamics and setup, which is what most of us old school racers had to do. Now days, the current trend seems to depend “too much” on posted setups versus learning how to tune their own cars. Most cars are very good now which seems to lead to people just building them to someone’s setup and racing it without much knowledge on what or how to change it to get it to do what you want it to. So it seems the trend now is to copy somebody else’s car setup or they’ll just download one and hope for it to be good for their track. The problem is, in off-road racing the surface and conditions are always changing and dynamic. So it’s sometimes funny to see somebody asking around the internet for a set up from across the country, from a guy who probably drives completely different than they would, and then expect the car to do just as well with the same tires from a track that’s maybe 10,000 miles away from the track that they are racing on that weekend, and with a completely different surface. I do feel that the setup sheets are a valuable tool, when used correctly. For example, I don’t mind looking at a setup but not to put it on my car. I look at it mainly to see what the track conditions were like (watching videos of where they ran this setup also helps to determine the track conditions), and to see what this racer was doing to make his car handle the way he needed to achieve a good result. I look at everything from the gearing used, to the tires and suspension to the conditions he put down to see what he was up against and why he made these decisions. It also helps to do the same for 2 to 3 others from different teams at that same event and analyze what they were all doing to get the results they wanted under the given track conditions. Everything they all do is like a bread crumb trail of clues. I study them, but not necessarily to follow them to the letter or even to use most times, but I like to look at what they did to achieve the results they got. Sometimes the author of the set up sheet will put notes regarding the conditions and what was happening at the track, and this helps even more. I think that’s where you can get the most value now-a-days with just a click of your mouse; but blindly copying a setup from someone across the country, with a different skill level and under different track conditions, can possibly get you in real trouble unless you’re actually that person, and are racing at that particular track.
TJ-When I go to the track I see you showing the way and passing on knowledge to many racers. Who are the racers that helped you when you got involved in the 80’s?
RR-To be completely honest, back in the days when I started into RC Off-road racing there really were no good racers near me that were knowledgeable. There just wasn’t anybody like this on the island that I knew of or heard of. There was a small group that had started racing, and when I approached them to ask questions so that I could learn the “way”, I quickly recognized that they were just throwing ideas out to the wind and that the information was not good or correct. This may have been due to my motocross racing background from earlier years and limited knowledge of suspensions, tires, shocks, etc… These guys did not really seem to understand car suspension dynamics. So I just allowed them to say whatever they thought to hear them and right away realized, “I’m going to have to take this upon myself”. So I had to learn what I needed for racing RC cars on my own at first. I learned everything from the ground up, reading many books and publications available at that time. Around after 3 to 6 months of applying myself and learning while practicing on my own make-shift track, I then went to my first racing event was very happy to win the event by a large margin to boot. First I would analyze the track and see what it could support power and tire wise; I then decided to run my stock motored 2wd RC10 in the Open Modified Class (since stock was more like a novice at this event). The open modified class was a mix of 2WD and 4WD buggies all racing together… this was standard back in the very old days. I ended up doing quite well at this first race event and survived from being taken out lap after lap, and ended up winning by a margin of over 5 laps to the 2nd place 4wd buggy. I was the only 2WD buggy registered to race in the Open Modified Buggy Class that day, and I got strange looks from so many racers and spectators as they were trying to figure out how I had done this since all of them were running 4WD cars with modified motors and 7 -cell NiCad packs while I ran a 6-cell Sanyo pack and 27 turn Reedy stock motor and on such a rough terrain circuit! I quickly discovered that it was not much fun just racing and winning most every race I went to if there wasn’t somebody to make me have to step up my own game for a close race; so I then started my own group of racers at my own hand-made track, so that we could have a place to develop a good group of racer with good knowledge, and then those guys could then also help me help more and more people. It started out as just a small group, then I actually started getting more people and we would teach them. I just taught them everything I knew and how to set up their cars, shocks, tires, motors, weight distribution, etc…, and even gave them tips on what they should do on different parts of the track to be faster which helped make the group stronger and stronger. From that day on I always tried to be the guy who would try to help others with better information and help for their cars, to help try and build up the hobby and competition.
TJ- You essentially created your own competition?
RR- Exactly! And in doing so I created the biggest competition I would ever have in all of those big races and national events we competed in on the island. My biggest competition always turned out to be my own group of guys. It was cool when we would go all over the island to races; some races we were actually invited to as a challenge from one group to another racing group. Back then I was working and managing a small company called Right-On Screen Printers located in San Juan, owned by a Mr. Steve Harris. We used to do all the screen printing needs for the PR High School Athletic Alliance and the schools within it. This gave us lots of work from all of the surrounding private schools for shirts, hats, booster shirts, athletic jerseys, etc.. Well since our group was becoming well know, we decided to call ourselves “Team Radical” and I made us a cool logo which I then printed onto our T-Shirts and car stickers. We were the 1st on the island to go all out like this to look more professional and it gave everyone a sense of belonging to something strong. So these tracks would send out an invitation to us to go and compete on their home track, and we would go over there and regularly win almost every race category. This was because our group was basically at a different driving level and also better at setting up our suspensions. We were also keen on reading the track conditions without ever putting a car on those tracks, just from watching the locals practice. I had taught my group of guys to watch and find the fastest of the locals, and see what he was doing to be the fastest (we each had stop watches to time racers once we saw the guy who was fast). We would just watch the guys practice and we knew exactly what we needed to do to win the race. These were techniques I used to use when going to a different unfamiliar motocross track and I found it to be the fastest way to acclimate myself to a new surface and layout. Our group started out as 8 guys but due to economics, jobs, relationships and other situations, we ended up with a core group of 4 guys after some time. Our group became very well known over the whole island and we were all extremely competitive. I taught them everything I could, and they, in turn when they would discover something and became more and more proficient they would teach the rest of us of what they discovered. We became faster as a group and ended up being each other’s biggest competition. So strong that we would go to other tracks and it sometimes felt like we were just cherry picking. So it’s funny to me, because I get asked a lot how was it like when I was a newbie and looked up to others, but I really never had that. It was just different being right there at the beginning of it all. It’s hard for me to identify with that because there was nobody to look up to on the island. I ended up having to be that guy that helped teach the others.
It was tough in the beginning because basically I had to just take it upon myself to then try and set the mark; and what started out as just a little group thing ended up being pretty huge for us. We had an organization eventually that formed as a result of ROAR, and one year they bestowed upon me, before I left the island for good, a large plaque that had every track record, fastest lap record, most laps ever turned, most wins in each class, etc… and this was for every track on the island within that organization. This was the first time they had ever done that, and it was a great surprise and honor for me to accept. Great memories of my early beginnings on the island of Puerto Rico racing RC cars!
TJ- What advice would you give to someone just starting out or thinking about getting into racing?
RR- The advice I would offer for somebody wanting to get into R/C Racing is to get a good quality car that has great parts support to your local area and the best information you’re going to get for this will come from their local racetracks. Talk with the people that are already fast there, find out what they are using, what they recommend, etc… feel free to ask questions. Then get together with a really knowledgeable hobby shop, like Superior Hobbies in Orlando, Florida. I’m not just saying that due to this interview, the people there are very knowledgeable racers and they can help a new person immensely. Good hobby shop personnel will steer you in the right direction of what kit to buy, that’s got great parts support and easy to work on. After you get your first car, build it, get the electronics setup properly, then it’s a matter of just practice, practice, and more practice. Try not to focus on things like trying to get sponsored, since that is not the reason you got into the hobby to begin with. The reason you really get into the hobby is for the fun and the competition.
Get your car as easy as you can to drive, but responsive, and just apply yourself with as much track time as possible. There is no substitute for track time. Try not to lose your patience and try to finish every practice well. During races you have to “be there” at the end of the 5 minute race to be able to do accomplish anything. If you crash and break alot from crashing, you won’t be there at the end of the race, when it matters. Try not to drive any faster than you have to and let the other guys try to catch you. There are a lot of different driving techniques that can help, a new up and comer; but the best is try and be as consistent on your laps as possible without crashing. So you need a good base car that has good parts availability, a good supplier, a great hobby shop with great information, and always be open to learning everything you can. Don’t act or pretend like you know everything, and feel free to ask questions to your fellow racers and those that are fast as most everyone is willing to help where they can. So I think if you absorb everything when somebody’s trying to help you that’s knowledgeable, and apply it, you will go a lot further than if someone just says “change this and change that” but yet you have no idea why they are making you change things.