ALAMEDA -- At some point in our lives, many of us fantasized of buzzing along in our own Maserati, Ferrari or Alfa Romeo. And depending on our generation, we fancied ourselves on par with Michael Schumacher, Alain Prost, Jackie Stewart and other racing greats.
The plain reality is that motor sports are expensive endeavors and even a dependable family car stretches most budgets to the max. Moreover, even fewer have the talent to become top-level race drivers.
But lovers of motor sports need not despair. Those with neither the money nor talent to race the big cars always have a place to get their auto racing fix.
Popular in the 1960s, slot cars -- those electrically-controll- ed miniature vehicles that buzz along on interconnected segments made to look like actual racetracks -- are making a comeback. And a key meeting point for Bay Area slot car buffs is the Homeroom Racing Café, located at 1305 Park St.
"Before actually opening here, I bought an AFX track for home," HRC owner Harry Velez said. "There, we were just playing around and not thinking about making a track (for a business). But when we thought about moving it here, we did some research on the Internet and, after taking notes, we decided we could do this."
Velez and his wife, Arista, actually run adjoining businesses with help from their three children. Those wishing to race their slot cars enter through the door of HRC's sister business at 1307 Park St., House Royale Cuisine (also known as HRC), where Arista cooks up authentic Thai cuisine.
"She's a farm girl (from Thailand)," Harry Velez said of his wife. "She learned by cooking every single day with her mom for the farmhands. The food is excellent -- and I'm a picky eater."
House Royale Cuisine has walls adorned with art that one might expect at a Thai eatery. Upon crossing over to the Homeroom Racing Café, the theme changes. There, the décor includes checkered flags and other historic racing themes, including framed photos of cars and posters for both the 1958 and 1959 Monaco Grands Prix.
Photos of drivers and other celebrities, such as Elvis Presley (reportedly a big slot car buff) add to the retro feel. A taste for history might come naturally for Velez; in addition to a slot car connection that dates to the 1960s, he is retired from the U.S. Park Police, one of the oldest federal agencies, organized under President George Washington in 1791.
The happenings on the plastic track bring back more memories, especially for those who played as kids years ago. As always, the cars zip along the grooves, around hairpin turns and through long straightaways. Mishaps occur frequently, too, as cars fly and tumble off the track at regular intervals.
Such scenes serve as a kind of metaphor for the Homeroom Racing Café itself, which overcame some early challenges upon moving into the site of the former Chili Bowl restaurant in 2006.
"My wife was twisting my arm to open a restaurant," Velez said. "Our intent was to was to move into the Chili Bowl, but that was more involved than we thought it would be."
To obtain the property lease, the Velezes had to agree to take both the 1305 and 1307 locations. And instead of first opening the restaurant, as originally planned, the Velezes started with the Homeroom Racing Café while renovations took place next door.
Still, good times were to be had. As originally configured, the racetrack ran from the front of the shop to the back. Further renovations led to a temporary relocation to Webster Street. Nowadays, with more area dedicated to restaurant seating, the track is limited to a still-spacious area at the back of the shop. But the slot car enthusiasts who patronize the place do not seem to mind.
"We can accommodate six people at a time (to race cars)," Velez said. "We have our regulars that come every day."
For the most part, slot car racing replicates European-style racing (think Formula One, 24 hours of Le Mans, etc.), and many of the Homeroom Racing Café's customers represent this demographic.
"I get a bunch of Europeans who filter in here," Velez said. "They've been exposed to it, appreciate it. Here in the U.S., people aren't as attuned to it."
Then there are folks much like Velez who got turned on to the sport many years ago, long before the advent of video games.
"There's a generation gap," Velez said, "but there are older people who are introducing it to younger kids. On weekends, it's usually adults bringing in kids."
And once again, those adults can relive the days when they envisioned themselves as a pseudo-A.J. Foyt or Mario Andretti in an expensive race car.
"To me, it's like finding you're a kid again," Velez said.
And fancying ourselves as driving champions.
The Homeroom Racing Café and House Royale Cuisine are open from 11:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. Wednesday to Sunday. For slot car enthusiasts, the cost is $5 for every 15-minute session or 30 minutes if they bring their own car. Call 510-865-6257 or 510-938-4642. Check out the website at http://www.houseroyalecuisine.com.