ALAMEDA -- On a quiet Sunday evening, several diners enjoy a Thai meal at House Royale Cuisine. Walk into the adjoining room, and the scene changes. The business name, too. And at the back of the Homeroom Racing Café, three young men -- Nate Crane and his friends, brothers Jan and Aran Kaspar -- are having a blast.
Considered by some a relic the past, slot car racing has enjoyed a popular resurgence in recent times, as these three attest while plying their passion to the fullest.
"It's fun," Crane said.
"It's got finesse, it's got technique. It brings you back to your childhood," Jan Kaspar added.
On the track in front of them, three cars go buzzing along, slowing some around curves and accelerating down long straightaways. Typical to the pastime, the cars often come flying out of their grooves, many times crashing into the cars next to them. And each time this happens, the player springs from his controls, runs over to put his car back on the track, then races back to the controls to catch his car up with those of the others.
Or at least until the next wreck happens. In the 15 minutes allotted them to play, Crane and the Kaspars get a decent amount of physical activity fetching wayward cars. Unlike video games, slot car racing isn't exactly a passive pastime. And it generates plenty of excitement among its enthusiasts.
Crane added a special twist by bringing his own car, a replica 1988 Porsche 911 Turbo.
"It's a model car with a brass chassis," he said. "There's a sub-genre of slot car racers who make their own cars. It was popular among people in the '60s to build their own cars."
A majority of the Homeroom Racing Café's clientele are old enough to have enjoyed slot car racing's heyday that decade. Crane, at 32, and Jan and Aran Kaspar, 27 and 21, respectively, are younger than most enthusiasts. Still, they have much in common with their slot car-racing elders.
Though located on Park Street, what the Homeroom Racing Café offers isn't only an Alameda endeavor. Crane and the Kaspars came from their Oakland homes to enjoy their pastime. Others come from even longer distances.
"People will actually travel here to eat," said Harry Velez, owner of House Royale Cuisine and Homeroom Racing Café. "We have people coming from San Jose, San Mateo and other places. It's a day trip for them. There are other Thai restaurants, but we have our niche that likes it the way it is."
Slot car racing, much like the Formula One and European road racing it's patterned after, traditionally has been a male-oriented pursuit. But times have changed, especially for young folks just getting introduced to the sport. "On weekends, at minimum, it's the same (number of boys and girls playing)," Velez said. "The mother or dad is bringing in the girls as much as the boys."
And as newcomers find out -- and veterans attest -- it takes some skill to keep a car running smoothly on the track.
"It's got a lot more technique than meets the eye," Aran Kaspar said.
Most of us never will get anywhere close to an actual race car. In that sense, slot car racing might be the ultimate fantasy sport.
"If you have a passion for motorsports, it's a way to be involved without spending a lot of money ... the cars, fuel, insurance," Crane said. "And it's less (physically) risky. Instead of spending millions, you spend maybe $30 (for a car)."
The trio's 15 minutes are up, and Jan Kaspar cannot contain his excitement.
"That seven-second lap, I was stoked about," he said. "That's my fastest yet."
Slot car racing. Safe. Fun. A pastime that goes back decades for some, and an endeavor brand new to others. And they can all enjoy it together at the Homeroom Racing Café on Park Street.