OLINVILLE — It's a sunny afternoon and Bronx resident Kareem Richards, 20, is getting ready to race. He checks the wheels on his car — which is about 12 inches in length, and has bright green rims — and makes sure there’s juice in its battery. When he's satisfied, he sets the car down in the dirt and it's off with a zoom, leaving a cloud of dust and scattered pebbles in its wake.
Richards is one of dozens of people who frequent a small park of dirt and grass along Bronx Boulevard, near the overpass where Gun Hill Road crosses over the Bronx River, known to those who tend to it as Fort Knox. Hobbyists from all over the Bronx and beyond come here to race remote control cars, tiny vehicles that buzz in a loop around a homemade earthen racetrack.
“Me, I’m a rookie,” said Richards, who has been racing his two remote control cars at Fort Knox for about four years, carting them around in a wheeled suitcase. Right now, he’s practicing. In a few weeks, he’ll enter his first real race at the track, when over one hundred participants are expected to compete.
Fort Knox is maintained by a group of volunteer remote control car enthusiasts who spend their weekends shaping the dirt track with shovels and rakes, and who donated their own money to install a fence and a portable toilet at the park. They say it's the only outdoor, off-road remote control car track in New York City.
“This is it,” said Tom Baffer, 66, who helps organize the races.
While most of the action takes place at Fort Knox, the group’s unofficial clubhouse is Bruckner Hobbies, a hobby shop that Baffer owns on East Tremont Avenue in Schuylerville, on the other side of the Bronx. The shop sells remote control cars, airplanes and helicopters, along with their spare parts. It’s where the Fort Knox crowd goes to talk shop, or to repair their cars if they damage them on a jump or accidentally drive them through a puddle.
Baffer opened Bruckner Hobbies over 20 years ago. Though a wine salesman by day, he was always into car racing. Then he became a father to three sons who fell in love with the sport, too.
“The hobby shop is my hobby,” Baffer said.
Now, his sons help him run the shop, and also help organize the races at Fort Knox.
“I was going there when I was a little kid,” said one son, Dan Baffer, 32.
The races on Gun Hill Road started decades ago, Baffer said. At first, the city’s Parks Department tried to keep the car racers out of the space, but consented after they saw that the hobbyists' presence kept out other, less desirable activities.
“This used to be a real drug-infested park,” Baffer said.
The races petered out over the years as interest in the hobby waned, but picked back up again a few years ago. Now, it’s a hot destination for remote control car racers, who come from states all along the East Coast for the big races.
Baffer estimates there are about 25 people who regularly work on the track, which requires considerable amounts of maintenance, time and money to keep up. This year, the group asked local businesses to act as race sponsors as a way to raise money for supplies and maintenance. Baffer donates trophies from his shop to give to the winners.
“There are a whole bunch of us, we all chip in and help out,” said Ray Goytia, 52, a Fort Knox regular who says he owns so many remote control cars, he’s lost count. “It’s not easy. When we have a race, we get up at like 4, 5 in the morning. We have shovels, rakes, picks — we do whatever we can with what we have.”
Remote control cars can cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars. Some run on batteries and some run on an alcohol-based fuel called nitro. On the dirt track at Fort Knox, the cars can reach speeds of up to about 40 miles per hour, but on a flat indoor track, they can go as fast as 100 miles per hour. A computer system counts each car as it laps around the track.
The next big race at Fort Knox is scheduled for the first week in July, and the group expects a big turnout.
“People think it’s a kid thing, but it’s not — we get NYPD officers who race with us, narcotics detectives,” said Goytia. “People come from all over to sign up for the race. It’s a lot of fun.”