When Michael Sehgal wasn’t using his design engineering expertise to help make movies in Hollywood or travel the world to set up software he helped create, he dreamed of opening a hobby store complete with indoor tracks for racing remote-controlled and slot cars.
His dream included a design for what he calls a destination store.
“The whole idea is creating a place where people can come to utilize products that are inexpensive and learn and share and grow and socialize and all that kind of stuff,” Sehgal said. “I wanted a place that my kids would like.”
Tracks Hobbies and R/C Raceway on Todd Drive at the Beltline on Madison’s South Side is Sehgal’s dream come true.
The retail side of the store that opened about 18 months ago is chock full of remote-controlled cars, trucks, motorcycles, planes, drones and boats of all shapes and sizes. Some pricier versions cost $500 and up but others can be purchased for as little as $50.
There also is a repair shop and thousands of parts for sale to ensure the precious devices can get rolling again after they crash, sink or just plain wear out.
Walk to the back of the store and you’ll find two world-class indoor Formula One-style race tracks. The biggest is used mostly to race Mini-Z — or 1/27 scale replicas of — McLarens, Porsches and other hot cars and includes driver stands and pits.
There are few stores like it outside of the Midwest’s biggest cities. “That’s because I modeled it after the stores I visited in cities around the world with populations of more than a million people,” says Sehgal.
The track draws dozens of people of all ages every Friday, Saturday and Sunday to practice, race and tinker with their toys. The success of the track also caught the attention of the international Mini-Z racing league. It is holding its North American championship at Tracks in April.
Dan Spransy, of Fitchburg, brings his six children with him to Tracks just about every weekend. “Two or three of them will race with me and the rest of them just hang out with their friends,” says Spransy, one of the best racers at Tracks. “They look forward to coming here.”
It’s also becoming a hot destination for birthday parties where kids are taught how to build motorized slot cars and then race them.
The 45-year-old Sehgal loves seeing entire families showing up and kids and adults often competing against, and with, each other. He says three generations of one family race at Tracks and the two-person team that won an endurance race there recently was captained by a 12-year-old girl.
“What we are finding is kids’ natural video-game playing skills translate over to this a little bit better than adults would like,” a smiling Sehgal says. “So they’re very competitive because of their motor skills. Their ability to race Mario Kart online on Nintendo dramatically helps their ability to navigate these cars on the track.”
But the adults racing against the children actually love it, according to Sehgal.
“It’s a very family-oriented environment and there’s a lot of knowledge sharing. It’s a developmental environment,” he said. “So many of our fastest adult racers also have kids that race here. I think they appreciate both instructing and advising newcomers as well as the competition.”
Racing is educational
Science classes from local schools as well as Cub Scout and Boy Scout troops are booking time at Tracks. That touches Sehgal’s heart because his skills and love for engineering and design were generated from his interest in remote-controlled cars while growing up in Madison and Los Angeles.
“So we’re very STEM-focused here, promoting science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” he said. “Professors of STEM-focused programs as well as teachers and heads of companies ask me, ‘How do we engage kids and get them interested in engineering?’ I tell them places like this store.
“I tell them that you’re not going to become a NASA flight engineer if you haven’t first flown a model rocket. You’ve got to fly model rockets and you’ve got to build model rockets and then you can start building bigger rockets and do all that stuff. Here, you don’t just show up because you’ve been playing video games. You’ve got to get hands on. You’ve got to get mechanical and that’s what this stuff is. It’s the mechanics of building this (car) and the physics of trying to keep it on the track.”
When Sehgal was growing up, he split time between living with his mother in Madison and father in Los Angeles. He and his brother, Mark, journeyed to many racetracks for remote-controlled cars around L.A. and they became interested in the mechanics of their cars.
Sehgal graduated from Madison La Follette — he met his wife, Amber, there — and attended UW-Madison before he headed back to L.A. and graduated from a design school there. His first job was in the movie business and he says he worked on the Spider-Man, Shrek, Charlie’s Angels and Madagascar movie series. He started out in animation and modeling and then trained artists and programmers.
After that, Sehgal worked in the corporate world building programs for studying computer-aided design all over the world. His programs also were used to certify professors teaching high-end software design for the architecture, engineering and entertainment industries.
His last job before opening Tracks was for a video game development company where he says he traveled about 250,000 miles a year. “I was home about 20, 30 days a year,” he said. “I wanted to be home and to be a part of my children’s lives.”
Word of mouth
Sehgal isn’t traveling, but keeping the store vibrant and successful is hard work, he says.
He knew the retail side of the business would be difficult but he has been surprised at the lack of buzz created by marketing the store on TV, radio and print.
“We’ve learned that word of mouth is primarily how our type of business grows,” he said. “We’ve grown because people have had a positive, rewarding experience here.
“I thought if we could put more marketing dollars in, we could have a bigger thing, but people just don’t know what a remote-control car is. When they come in here, their experience with remote-control cars is usually a toy that worked for a week and then they threw it in the garbage.”
There are more than 200 registered racers at Tracks. That’s impressive considering that most are racing Mini-Z-scale vehicles.
“We can’t believe how well (Mike) is doing here,” said Chris Oleson, of Madison, who races Mini-Zs at Tracks. “The number of new drivers that are showing up here is unprecedented compared to the 10-scale tracks.”
Sehgal’s decision to make his store a destination for Mini-Z racing was a gamble because it was a bit of an unknown in this area. Previous stores and tracks in the area focused on 1/10 scale or larger cars, buggies and trucks because of their versatility. “You can play with them outside around here,” he said.
But the bigger-scale racers are much more expensive. They range in cost anywhere from $300 to $3,000 while the Mini-Z cars start around $150 and run on AAA batteries, according to Sehgal.
Plus, the chassis of the Mini-Zs are expandable for a variety of different styles from Formula One racers to Volkswagen Beetles and they are a blast to drive, he says. But winning on the race track depends more on driving skills and how the car is set up, which is similar to real race-car driving.
“So you tell parents they can spend upwards of $1,500 to have a competitive vehicle (at a larger scale) or start at $200 and have a highly competitive, race-ready (Mini-Z). That’s a significant difference,” Sehgal said. “That was on my mind when I was thinking about opening this store.”