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A Conversation with Mike Smalley Jr.

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When commuting to his job as a chef, or checking out as many rock shows as he can, West Mifflin native Mike Smalley drives an unassuming red Chevy Cavalier. But in his off-hours, he's the master of two "crawlers" -- custom-built remote-controlled trucks that specialize in covering rugged terrain -- named "Anubis" and "Prometheus." Smalley is a member of Western Pennsylvania Crawlers, a local hobbyist group that holds off-road competitions. The next event, held in Ohiopyle, is scheduled for Aug. 19; a state championship will be held in Eastern Pennsylvania Aug. 26.

How'd you get into this hobby?

I had a couple [remote-controlled cars] when I was younger. Everyone in my neighborhood had the nice ones, and I had the cheap little Tyco jobs from Toys "R" Us or Children's Palace, if anyone remembers Children's Palace. Now I can go into it like a big kid and get whatever the heck I want.

So, how much do you spend?

Well, this one here is about $1,000. I went all out on it: It took me about two years to collect all the parts. No companies really have kits for these yet, so everybody's truck is really customized.

You can't be afraid to buy something nice, something that's going to be durable and that you can upgrade. I mean, I bought a Losi Mini-T for about $70 -- all plastic, nothing to it. I ended up buying all-aluminum parts, a carbon-fiber chassis. It started with me buying a set of bearings, and from there, it's cost about $1,200. And it's a shelf queen: I've only driven it on carpet.

How'd you learn to do all this?

Online and just improvising. I bought a $40 drill press at Big Lots, and a $40 drill press makes a lot of stuff. I've learned so much being into this, about electronics, batteries, the way things operate, different metals. I can weld aluminum now.

Have you ever thought of using these skills for more real-world stuff? Like building a race of remote-controlled super-robots to conquer the world?

You know what? Some of the stuff that you see on the [online hobbyist] forums is really advanced. I try to keep up on it, but it doesn't interest me that much. I'm in it for the fun.

Is the fun building the cars, or racing them?

A little bit of both. It's also just the quirky people you meet. Online, everybody talks trash on everyone else: "Your truck is never going to work, that design ain't going to get you up over the hill ..."

[Smalley steers the car over a set of rocks beside a stream.] The way these things move -- it's like they're crawling, not driving, over the rocks. They're like little spider monkeys.

Yeah, see the articulation there? The back wheels are pretty much parallel, while the front wheels are all twisted. You don't want that one wheel to fall down into a hole. In a competition, you get points deducted for backing up. If I flipped a car, and it landed right-side-up, that's perfectly legal. But if I have to touch it, that's minus points too.

Um. Now it looks like your front wheels aren't moving at all.

Yeah, that's not good. See, I cracked a knuckle [joining the axle to the wheel]. I'll go home and fix the axle -- take about an hour.

So you got about 10 minutes of driving time, and now you'll spend an hour fixing your axle?

Yeah, this one [Prometheus] has seen a lot of action. This might not have happened if the axle was newer. I learned a lot from building this first one about durability -- the way things break and hold together. The newer one [Anubis] won't break, though: It's pretty much bulletproof.

Have you tried shooting it?

No. But we've thought about that: taking a paintball gun and trying to drive through it with the faster trucks.

Anyway, Anubis is more of a trail rig. I take my niece and nephew to South Park and we'll just walk the trail with it for a couple hours.

People are usually walking dogs and stuff on those trails; how do they react when they see this thing?

Dogs aren't necessarily bothered by it, but there are horses in South Park, and they can get spooked. But people -- they take pictures, I have tons of questions about it. Especially with the other one, because of its capability on the rocks. People are like, "I can't believe it's doing that." They're used to seeing stuff they can buy at Toys "R" Us --

-- and you wouldn't use one of those for a speed bump.

Yeah, exactly. ... There's one kit you buy for the axles, and some of the hardware like the screws and so forth, and chuck the rest on a pile.

Has doing this made you a better driver?

No, I've always been pretty good. I want a nice Dodge truck someday. Until then, this is what I've got to do.

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