By Will Grandbois
Sopris Sun Staff Writer
For the first and potentially only time, the “Stokes Speedway” will be open to the public on Feb. 4 for a special Carbondale Clay Center fundraiser.
Sponsored by the Stokes family, Carbondale Clay Center, Amoré Realty and Marble Distillery, the event runs from 4 to 7 p.m. at Blue Creek Ranch (3220 CR 100, just down the way from Catherine Store) and gives locals a chance to race slot cars on the track that took Jim Stokes more than two years to build. There’s also a petting zoo with miniature goats, a donkey and a pig, as well as a fire pit with s’mores and a winter coat drive. It’s intended for ages 5 and up with attentive parental supervision required. Advanced tickets are required (call 963-2529) and run $25 per family or $15 for a solo adult. Grownups who want a little more track time can stick around ’til 9 p.m. by joining the racer club for $50.
“I’m really excited for the community to see this place and incredibly grateful to Jim for opening it up,” said Clay Center Director Angela Bruno. “I feel like anyone who walks through the door is going to be blown away and inspired. There are so many layers of talent at work. You could stare at it for hours and still see something new.”
Stoking the creative spark
It’s an event a decade in the making for Stokes, a lifelong creator but a relative newcomer to the slot car hobby. Already a woodworker when he moved to the area to raise a family in 1992, he ran across his first car at a hobby shop.
“It’s just sort of brought me back to being a kid,” he said. “I like the combination of design and engineering, and cars sort of epitomize that.”
By the time he moved to his current home off Catherine Store Road 13 years ago, he had some practice in building tracks, but the newest speedway is something of a magnum opus. The loops are optimized to be both challenging and fun to drive, with intricately rendered spectators, mountains and more. Underneath it all is a network of wiring that is a marvel unto itself.
“Each track has become increasingly detailed layered and more involved,” he observed. “I’m very patient, and it always gives me something to think about.”
There’s also the matter of the ever expanding collection of around 900 slot cars, which idle on rows of shelves around the rim of the room. About half have actually run the track. It’s tough on cars that are often surprisingly valuable, and the record setters rarely hold their top spot for long before entropy retires them. Racers on Saturday will have a smaller pool of about a dozen cars to select from, each of which has their own advantages and disadvantages.
“Every car is different and each lane is different,” Stokes noted.
Folks who want some insight into how the whole space came together can also duck next door into the train room. A work in progress, the track runs through nearly complete Colorado scenes complete with wildlife and rock climbers, through various stages of building and painting, and winds through a city that hasn’t been built yet. It’s also the project that led Stokes toward the Clay Center.
With his vision declining, he was already wondering about other outlets for his creative spark when he began working with plaster to create the backdrops for the train room. He realized that clay might offer the medium he was looking for.
“It’s very tactile,” he recalled. “I love the feeling of sticking my hands in the mud.”
He soon became part of the family at the Clay Center, where he found a community of like-minded creators. Eventually, he became comfortable enough to share his masterpiece with Angela and her crew. The response was overwhelmingly positive, and he began to view his work in a new light.
“I never really thought of it as art until very recently,” he said.
It was Stokes who suggested the idea of a fundraiser at the Speedway. It’s a big thing to offer, and requires tremendous trust in attendees to be respectful of a fairly delicate space with years of hard work behind it. It’s not without its benefits, though.
“It’s been this shift from private enjoyment to deciding to share it with others,” he said. “It’s given me a new spark to focus on aspects I wouldn’t have thought about.”
Published in The Sopris Sun on February 2, 2017.