Engineer and auto racing enthusiast builds a track and memories
Standing next to his father, a young, wide-eyed Dave Anderson watched as several cars, vying for the lead, skidded around the curve of a dirt track through beams of light and floating dust. One car spun out, smashing into the wall. The curved fence sheltered fans from flying debris. His father leaned down to explain the difficulty in driving so fast and close to other cars without losing control. Dave didn’t know it at the time, but he was getting a physics lesson from an expert. His father, Carl David Anderson, received the 1936 Nobel Prize in Physics for his discovery of the positron, the electron’s antimatter counterpart.
“When I was a young child, I did not know my father as a scholar, scientist, and Nobel laureate. His favorite sport was auto racing, and going to the races was my favorite thing to do with him. I could hardly wait until the next time we went,” Dave says.
Dave and his dad enjoyed many races together—dirt oval races and Sunday afternoon jalopy races. “It’s what I got stuck on as a little kid. I’m still having trouble getting unstuck,” Dave jokes. His wife, Melanie, can attest to that: “Our first date was at a car race, and we’ve been going ever since.”
Dave is passing on to his own son and grandchildren his passion for the squealing-tire, smoking-brakes drama of the race track—but not exactly in the way he experienced it in 1950s California. This kind of racing involves fast cars and flying dirt, but there’s no need for a crash helmet.
A Shared Tradition
“Having a son was my excuse to play. We needed a hobby,” Dave says. At age two, his son David held the controller and began learning to race the small but fast cars. At age five the boy raced against adults. “We began to see that he loved it over team sports,” Melanie explains.
Six years ago, after Dave retired from aerospace engineering and astronomy research, the Andersons moved from California to Walburg.
After settling into their new home, Dave began thinking about building the ultimate track in his backyard—this time an elaborate replica of an authentic Saturday night dirt oval racetrack on a one-tenth scale, with an off-road track in the center. He modeled it after big tracks he frequented as a kid—the best he could imagine. “The remote control cars are so realistic, but the tracks aren’t. I wanted to build a realistic track with lights, crash wall, and a fence. I like realism everywhere,” Dave explains.
Dave began digging up grass to make room for just the right dirt, realistic walls, and fences. He designed the walls and hired a contractor to pour high ribbon curb to hold the dirt while also functioning as a crash wall. The rest, he scratched out himself.
“[Remote control] cars are expensive. If you crash into the wall, you may be out hundreds of dollars, so I made real energy-absorbing crash walls,” Dave says.
The next challenge came with finding the perfect dirt. “To a racing fanatic, dirt means high quality clay. I ordered samples until I found the right mix,” Dave explains. He even made a track preparation attachment for his tractor to scratch up the dirt and allow water to seep inside. “It makes the dirt sticky and uniform.”
Finally, he scoured the Internet, searching for realistic fencing. He ended up with 330 feet of vinyl-coated, small-mesh chain link fencing that could be ordered in custom widths. He also found fence posts that could be bent at the top and strung with multiple cables—just like at the big tracks.
A Legacy of Fun
For the Andersons, the new track revved up race day in a big way. “Our children and their families come over on Sundays to race,” Melanie says. The private track is primarily for his children and grandchildren, but Dave has hosted a few races for some local remote control car enthusiasts.
“Remote control racing looks easy, but it’s really hard to do. The cars are skidding at 30 miles per hour in order to turn. There are gearboxes shifting, differentials, and brakes,” Dave says. To put it into perspective, it’s the equivalent of a big car skidding around a curve at over 100 miles per hour. The laws of physics cannot be violated on any size track, as Dave’s father used to remind him, and it takes great skill to avoid crashing. “It was obvious to me that when my father watched the races, he saw them as a spectator did but with an additional understanding and appreciation for the physics involved.”
The Andersons have a penchant for all forms of auto racing and continue in their attempts to defy the laws of physics. Dave’s son went on to become the California state champion in remote control racing, and today he’s a NASCAR crew chief on the local level. “He’s even built a [remote control] track in his backyard for his kids. He followed in his dad’s footsteps, and my dear daughter-in-law allowed it,” Melanie says.
“By scratching, digging, thinking, and imagining, man has laboriously and slowly uncovered many of nature’s mysteries and secrets, most of them beautiful, and all of them well hidden.”
-Carl David Anderson