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Miniature Thrills

by Lisa Gay

A blur of pinks, blues, reds and yellows speeds around a dirt track as squealing tires release dust clouds into the night sky. Radio-control buggies angle around a tight corner, then launch up a ramp for a few seconds of airtime before landing back down on to the dusty track.

Not all the cars make the jump—track volunteers scramble to rescue overturned buggies.

“Enough? One more round?” shouts one participant as the cars cross the finish line. “Oh … it just died…” he murmurs, as his buggy comes to a sudden halt.

This is the Doha R/C Club, a mixed group of expats of various ages and skill levels with one passion in common: radio-controlled (R/C) vehicles. While they are serious about their hobby, they are also incredibly welcoming to R/C newbies. But it’s not all shop talk about their latest vehicle upgrades—members are just as likely to chat about their families. The Doha R/C Club includes roughly twenty members, with about ten who regularly show up for Friday meet-ups at the Aspire Zone R/C Race Track.

A grown-up hobby

When you were a kid, you probably picked up a radio-controlled car and raced your friends on the sidewalk (much to the annoyance of your neighbours, no doubt). Children still race with R/C cars, but this common toy now has a more grown-up edge to it. Professional gear can cost upwards of QR 3,500, although most models are significantly cheaper.

Hobbyists can choose among a wide range of vehicles: cars, buggies, drones, planes and even miniature naval ships. Everything a beginner might need can be found in Doha, but connoisseurs often order upgrades from abroad. A key exception is the importation of drones and other aircraft, which is prohibited without permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Drones are openly sold in local shops, but it is illegal to fly them without arranging a permit with the CAA. Doing so could result in having your gear confiscated by the authorities.

Gear up

Start off with a ready-to-run vehicle that comes with everything you need for racing, says Doha R/C Club regular Abul Ashraff. At most, you’ll need to buy batteries or a charger separately. A decent selection can be found at The Hobby Land and Speed Marine stores. A basic understanding of mechanics will still come in handy as you’ll need to perform regular maintenance—but don’t panic, these procedures should be outlined in your manual.

Serious enthusiasts or the mechanically minded will often purchase car kits that can be customised and upgraded. These kits require patience to put together; additional parts and accessories to complete the vehicle might need to be purchased separately. Though challenging for beginners, kits can be an excellent learning experience for teens that already have some familiarity with engineering and robotics.

Like race cars and buggies, model planes are available in ready-to-fly versions as well as kits. Hobby Land offers everything from propeller planes and helicopters to large-scale model jets that boast wingspans of nearly 250 cm.

Electric and “nitro”—a mix of nitromethane and other gases—are the most common power sources for R/C cars and planes. Electric is the obvious choice for newbies and children, as fuel-powered R/C vehicles can potentially catch fire. The downside of electric cars is the time it takes to charge them—though once you’ve powered up, you’re ready to go. Nitro appeals to those who love the handling of a real car, but it requires more maintenance. You also won’t be able to use these rather noisy (and smelly) vehicles anywhere but on an official race track or airfield.

As with any new hobby, it’s often best to start by purchasing used or cheap vehicles—one member of the Doha R/C Club readily admits that he got his first (of many) R/C car from a dumpster. There are also plenty of secondhand vehicles and accessories on sale on the Facebook group Qatar RC Truck Fans Club.

Where to play

Doha R/C enthusiasts are particularly lucky to have a professional race car track available to them at Aspire Zone. “It’s a proper, world-class track,” says Ashraff. Charging stations are easily available on the track, and hobbyists can race well into the evening hours thanks to nighttime lighting. R/C groups are also free to set up their own computer system for competitive races.

The Aspire Zone R/C Race Track boasts a paved course for on-road cars and another track for off-road buggies. Both feature sharp corners and the off-road track challenges racers with plenty of bumps and ramps. On straight stretches, R/C cars can top out at speeds of 70-80 kph.

It’s not uncommon for R/C enthusiasts to head for the dunes for some off-road fun, but R/C flyers should stick to the Qatar R/C Sports Center Airport, located roughly 50 km north of Doha in Umm Thinitin.

Though it’s not hard to find empty stretches of desert perfect for flying, model aviation is currently a legal grey area: flying drones—which could be interpreted to include any remotely piloted aerial system—is illegal without permission from the CAA.

You can apply for a permit to fly R/C planes by contacting the Qatar R/C Sports Center. They will issue official permits valid for one year for those who are 14 and older and have enrolled in their training courses or passed an examination. Permits cost QR 500 and are valid for one year, after which they can be renewed for QR 250.

If you are interested in flying with other hobbyists, contact Lanu Tzudir at The Hobby Land. He can add you to relevant groups on WhatsApp and keep you updated on events organised by the shop.

R/C boats are a less common sight in Doha, but they offer more family-friendly possibilities. Begin with toy boats in your compound swimming pool, then once you gain confidence, start racing the waves off The Pearl or Corniche.

Learn through play

At the moment, the R/C scene is male dominated: “We see mostly fathers and sons flying together,” notes Hussein Mohamed of the Qatar R/C Sports Center. Ashraff admits his daughters have zero interest in racing—but hopefully, with the increased emphasis on STEM skills for all, more girls will be tempted to try R/C sports.

After all, there are clear benefits for children interested in racing cars and operating model aircraft. The most obvious are developing hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. But perhaps a surprising benefit is an increased understanding of mechanics. R/C enthusiasts often have a well-stocked toolkit to tweak and improve their vehicle’s performance, and increasing efficiency and troubleshooting problems is as much a part of the game as learning how to take a hairpin turn.

Doha Family Tips

  • The Aspire Zone R/C Race Track is located on Umm Suwayya Street, across the street from Aspire Park. The tracks are open Thursday–Saturday, 16:00–23:00 and cost QR 25/vehicle. On-site facilities include power strips, nighttime lighting, volunteer assistance and bathrooms
  • Just off exit 54 on the North Road, Qatar R/C Sports Center Airport in Umm Thinitin is open daily from 06:00–20:00. Contact them to obtain the required flying permit for drones +974 4427-3131
  • Doha R/C Club organises competitive races every other Friday at the Aspire Zone track. Meet-ups and practices are held on non-race Fridays. Contact them via their Facebook page if you’d like to check out a race: Doha R/C Club – (DRCC) Aspire Race Track
  • Qatar RC Truck Fans Club is an active buy and sell group on Facebook. It’s also a useful resource for meet-ups and other R/C-related events
  • The Hobby Land specialises in R/C aerial vehicles, but they have a good selection of R/C cars as well. Find them on Al Rayyan Al Ateek Street, opposite Al Rayyan Park. thehobbyland.com
  • The Speed Marine has two locations that stock R/C cars. The Al Gharaffa branch is located on Thani Bin Jassim Street, opposite Al Gharaffa Market; the Salwa Road branch is near Doha Central Market
  • The Professional Hobbies shop offers a wide selection of R/C vehicles. Find them on Salwa Road near the Philippine International School Qatar

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