There was a time not long ago when "fancy" electronic finish lines and starting gates were somewhat rare. But over the past several years, that market has seen a lot of growth as more and more folks join our favorite hobby.
Most of the products I have reviewed are intended for the diecast racing community, whether that's finish lines, starting gates, or other track parts. However, the latest product I got the honor to review is a little different. Yes, it's a starting gate...and a finish line...and it's fancy, but the target audience isn't necessarily racers like us. But that doesn't mean we can't, in typical DIY fashion, turn it into something usable and awesome.
A few weeks ago, Alex from PlayRobotics reached out wondering if their Smart Race Track project kit would be of interest to the diecast racing crowd. I took one look at their kit and saw a finish line: check, starting gate: check, electronic wonders: check....so Yes! I was happy to review it and see what it has to offer the community.
However, since this item isn't exactly made for us, this review is going to be a little bit different. As its intentions are for a greater good, I'm going to give both a Fair and Unfair review of the Smart Race Track kit from PlayRobotics.
PlayRobotics Smart Race Track
- Has all the parts you need to make a fancy finish line and starting gate
- How-to programming lessons are well made and easy to follow
- Easily expandable and upgradeable
- No soldering necessary (even if you customize)
- Can run off battery pack or wall adapter
- Not as convenient as kits aimed for the competitive diecast racing market
- Starting gate is standalone, not meant for track integration
- Finish line sensors are in an awkward position, possibly prone to uneven readings
Visit the PlayRobotics website or join them on Facebook for more details and news about the kit and to make a purchase.
The Fair Review
The Smart Race Track kit has been made with education in mind. It's a STEM kit intended for teen-ish kids looking to learn about programming and entry-level engineering. But here's the thing...if it's a great tool for kids to learn electronics, it can be great for us older kids too! And after a few weeks playing with this kit, I can say that while it might not be "competitive ready" out of the box, it has all the parts and teaching you need to make something really fantastic.
The kit has everything you need in terms of parts and it doesn't require any soldering or extra work. All you need to provide is a laptop. The main unit comes pre-assembled and ready to go. It's made up of an Arduino mini-computer, an LCD screen, tree lights, and a servo motor that controls the 2-lane starting gate. It also comes with a sensor finish line and number displays for showing winning lanes and times. All the guts come screwed onto the PlayRobotics' 3D-printed base and is a good solid build. It looks a little "naked" but this isn't intended to be a black box where you don't see the magic happening. This kit is about showing you that magic AND teaching you how & why it works.
PlayRobotics has made great online step-by-step lessons guiding you through the process of programming the computer to tell it what to do. The only heavy lifting you have to do is connecting the unit to your laptop so you can program the thing, but the guide makes this a breeze as well.
The online lessons and videos are free regardless if you buy the kit or not, and while they're very much made for use with the Smart Race Track kit, it's all Programming 101 type stuff that is applicable no matter what type of computer you've got. A big chunk of the value here is in the lessons so they're worth checking out even if you're only mildly interested in programming.
I know for most of us, computer programming is black magic. If you choose to build your own finish line with brains, you're finding some code and copying it...without exactly knowing what does what and why. The Smart Race Track helps you to understand why things are happening and how. Being able to program your own electronics can be extremely powerful and opens you up to lots of great ideas.
By all rights, you can put the kit together, hook it up to your laptop, and have everything working within a half hour. Lights will flash, gates will drop, and cars will roll. There's fun here but make no mistake that the Smart Race Track is an educational product, plain and simple. It's a great kit to introduce how to make hardware and software work together...and in this case, it's wrapped up in a fun Hot Wheels race track theme. It's well put together and will teach almost anyone how to make it work.
The Unfair Review
This is the review you're probably most interested in reading, but I must make it clear that this is an unfair review of the Smart Race Track kit. It's unfair because the kit isn't intended for the competitive diecast racing crowd. It's not catering to folks looking to make their race tracks more impressive or to make their YouTube channel more entertaining.
It'd be like reviewing a broom and saying it sucks as a boat oar. Of course it does, it's not meant to be a boat oar, but that doesn't mean it can't be used as one. And that's how the Smart Race Track kit is for competitive diecast racing. It's got all the right parts but it just wasn't made with our type of racing in mind.
If you're looking for a start/finish line that is convenient and ready to add to your race track when it arrives on your doorstep, this kit won't do that for you. This kit is about learning and customizing, not about convenience.
The base unit is intended to stand on its own and not be added to an existing track. The starting gate is a release gate connected to the servo motor and it works well, but there is a flat section before the orange track connects to the main unit. This creates a lot of extra bumps and kills some momentum before the cars even hit the open road.
The starting stand itself also isn't very high so you have to put it on a table or something to get enough height for your orange track to create the downhill you need. Conveniently enough, the kit does come with 12-feet of orange track so you have something to start with.
The finish line uses IR sensors as the trigger but rather than being above/below the track, they're pointing out horizontally across the track, one for each lane. In my completely unscientific testing, it did seem that some castings tripped the sensor sooner than others due to their body profile. We're talking a really small difference but a difference nonetheless. However, the side sensors do allow for the finish line to be really minimal without all the extra bulk of some other finish lines.
The segmented displays on the finish line are also nice to see. They're barebones like the rest of the kit but the digits show up great. The main base also has an LCD screen that can show two rows of text. And because you program the computer yourself, you can make any of the displays show whatever information you want. You can show track times, lane winners...you can even make it say "ready, set, go!" if you want.
On the "bonus" side of things, the Smart Race Track kit has a light tree and a speaker, so you can make the lights go and add a few beeps & boops if you want. PlayRobotics already offers an upgrade kit with some extra functions, and one of the included lessons shows you how to make a remote start...all great extras that are pretty easy to add. None of it is too critical to most of our racing but it's nice to have some creative options and be able to expand.
It would also be remiss of me not to mention that PlayRobotics is always working to improve this kit and updates their product often to make sure customers get the latest version. They even make their 3D model files available to customers so they can have the latest parts, assuming they have access to a 3D printer. Just a week after I got my kit, Alex sent me a file so I could print out an updated part.
Complete but not convenient
At the end of the day, this kit comes with a lot but this isn't a great solution if you're looking for convenience. You can't add this to your track and start racing right away. But what this kit is, is a wonderful bundle of parts that will let you make the start/finish line you've always wanted.
You can take apart the pre-assembled bits (they even include a screwdriver) and you'll have a great list of parts. And better yet, there shouldn't be any soldering or extra electronics work getting in your way. You might need to get a few extra cables depending on your track design but even then it should be rather plug-n-play. This kit gives you a great starting point allowing you to work backwards and learn. I know I'm much happier to take apart something that I know already works in order to figure out how it does so...and then mod it as I need.
I have plans to rebuild my drag strip this winter and I'll be building it with all the parts from the PlayRobotics kit in mind. The computer, the sensors, the screen...I'll move them where I need them and connect it all together...or combine them with other parts. It's something I've always wanted to do for my track but I never had confidence in picking out the right components. This kit solves that problem. And I don't mind putting in a little leg work to make up the rest into something that suits my needs.
The Smart Race Track kit from Playrobotics is an interesting product when considering the competitive diecast racing community. It's not something made directly for us at all, and I wouldn't have thought to check educational STEM kits when looking for race track kits and accessories.
I want to thank Alex and PlayRobotics for providing me with the Smart Race Track kit to review and share with you. There's definitely an audience for this kit in our community. PlayRobotics saves you some trouble and gives you all the parts in a convenient package that already works. It's a fun kit that can be turned into something great and teach you something along the way.
Visit the PlayRobotics website or join them on Facebook for more details and news about the kit and how to place an order.
And if you do get a Smart Race Track kit and add it to your track, share your photos here at RLD and with PlayRobotics on Facebook. It's always great to see how people use accessories to build their track...it inspires all of us.