Nitro powered RC cars have enthralled hobbyists for decades with their explosive speed and signature exhaust noises. However, recent years have seen electric models take over in popularity. This has left many wondering – is nitro RC dying?
This in-depth guide examines the current state of nitro RC and whether it still has a place in the hobby going forward. We’ll cover:
- The history and highlights of nitro RC cars
- Nitro vs electric – key differences explained
- The decline in nitro over the past decade
- Why electric is dominating today’s market
- The remaining benefits unique to nitro
- Customizing and upgrading nitro models
- The rising cost of nitromethane fuel
- Predictions for the future of nitro RC
Let’s dive in and explore the factors at play in the nitro RC market.
Table of Contents
A Brief History of Nitro Powered RC Cars
Nitro has been powering radio controlled cars since the early days of the hobby in the 1960s and 70s. Some key events in the history of nitro RC include:
- 1960s – First nitro engines adapted from the airplane RC market. Begin displacing electric motors.
- 1970s – Nitro engines improve in power and efficiency. Become the prime choice for competitive racers.
- 1980s – Nitro trucks gain popularity. Brands like Tamiya, Kyosho, and Team Losi lead the market.
- 1990s – 2-stroke nitro engines continue advancing. RC racing leagues thrive on nitro competition.
- 2000s – Nitro remains king but electric brushless systems begin taking over.
- 2010s – Rapid rise of electric. Nitro fades from mainstream but retains loyal fan base.
For decades, nitro reigned supreme for its raw power and iconic engine sounds. But the last 20 years have seen electric RC grow increasingly dominant. Does nitro still have a place in today’s hobby?
Nitro RC Cars vs Electric – Key Differences
To understand the shift between power sources, let’s compare the key attributes between nitro and electric RC cars:
- Powered by combustion engines running on nitromethane fuel
- Engines have more power compared to early electric systems
- Long 30-45+ minute run times per tank
- Iconic engine sounds add realism
- Higher maintenance engine needs tuning and cleaning
- Performance sensitive to weather conditions
- Expensive consumable fuel around $25 per quart
- Powered by batteries and brushless motors
- Virtually no maintenance required
- Convenient 5-20 minute run times per charge
- Very fast acceleration and top speeds
- Silent operation without exhaust noise
- More consistent performance in any weather
- Rechargeable batteries last for years
While opinions differ, most would agree today’s electric models match or exceed nitro in speed and power. Maintenance-free operation gives electrics an ease-of-use advantage as well. But nothing sounds quite like a nitro engine at full throttle!
The Gradual Decline of Nitro Popularity
In the early 2000s, nitro engines still had noticeable power benefits over early electric brushless systems. But electrics advanced rapidly over 10-15 years while nitro plateaued. Here are some key factors in nitro’s decline:
- Electric speed advances – Brushless motors and LiPo batteries now match or exceed nitro acceleration and speeds.
- Low maintenance – Convenience of plug-and-play electric operation appeals to most users.
- Weather resistance – Electrics perform consistently regardless of temps or humidity. Nitro needs tuning for conditions.
- Noise restrictions – Many areas now prohibit loud nitro engines on public tracks and trails.
- Cost savings – Rechargeable batteries are cheaper long-term than disposable nitro fuel.
While nitro engines retain loyal fans, most newcomers are choosing hassle-free electric power today. Even hardcore nitro bashers have been converting their models over to electric for the usability benefits.
Why Electric RC Cars Have Taken Over
In recent years electrics have clearly dominated the RC market, taking over 80% or more of new vehicle sales. What factors made brushless systems the power of choice?
Advantages of Electric RC Cars
- Virtually zero maintenance required – no tuning needed
- Instant throttle response and ultra quick acceleration
- Higher top speeds compared to nitro engines
- Rechargeable LiPo battery provides 30+ minutes of drive time
- Consistent performance in any weather or conditions
- Much lower sound levels for public areas
- Electric systems are less expensive and easier for beginners
- Integrated ESC allows programmable throttle and brake curves
Besides raw performance, electrics are simply much easier and less intimidating for newcomers to the hobby. Plug-and-play operation lowers the barrier to entry. While nitro remains popular with old school hobbyists, most newer users gravitate toward electric for good reason.
The Remaining Benefits of Nitro RC Cars
While electric models have overtaken nitro’s market share, nitro engines do still offer some unique advantages:
Pros of Nitro RC Cars
- Nothing sounds quite like a nitro engine screaming at full throttle
- Long run times up to 45 minutes per tank
- Working on nitro engines provides hands-on tinkering experience
- Nitro allows experiencing realistic exhaust scents and sounds
- Engines produce noticeable powerband across RPM range
- Cool visible glow plugs and flywheel in see-through engines
- Nostalgia factor attracts old school hobbyists
The sights, sounds, and tinkering experience of nitro remain compelling factors. There is an undeniable cool factor seeing an engine under the hood rather than a boring electric motor. The throwback feel keeps nitro going strong with longtime devotees to the hobby.
Customizing and Upgrading Nitro RC Cars
Part of the appeal of nitro for gearheads is the ability to customize and upgrade the engines for more power. Common nitro hop-ups include:
- Engine swaps – Installing higher performance engines from OS, Picco, Team Orion.
- Porting – Carefully modifying the shape of ports in the engine for better airflow.
- Polishing – Smoothing internal engine surfaces reduces friction and heat.
- Bearings – Reducing friction with ceramic bearings instead of bushings.
- Head shimming – Adjusting cylinder head clearance for maximum compression.
- Aftermarket exhaust – Tuned exhaust header and pipe improves efficiency.
- Clutch upgrades – Helps transfer engine power to drivetrain under load.
- NOS fuel – Small direct injection of nitrous oxide briefly boosts power.
Just like gearheads with full size cars, nitro RC owners love to tinker under the hood to eke out every ounce of power from their engines. This engine tuning experience simply isn’t possible with sealed electric motors.
The Rising Cost of Nitromethane Fuel
Another challenge facing nitro RC is the steadily rising cost of nitromethane fuel. Nitro engines run on blended fuel containing 20-30% nitromethane, methanol, and lubricating oils.
Some factors contributing to increasing nitromethane costs:
- Limited specialty chemical production, primarily for RC industry
- Higher demand from growing Asian nitro RC market
- Higher raw material costs for producing nitromethane
- Weak dollar vs currencies like Chinese yuan further increase pricing
- Lack of suitable alternative oxidizer compounds to replace nitro
With nitromethane prices rising, a day at the track can become very pricey:
At .20 to .40 fl oz per minute fuel burn rates, a full gallon may only last 10-15 hours of driving. This equates to over $5 per hour in fuel costs alone. Higher costs make electric power even more appealing.
Predictions for the Future of Nitro RC
Given the market forces at play, what does the future look like for nitro powered RC cars? Here are some predictions:
- Nitro becomes a niche hobby – It retains devotees but fades from mainstream popularity.
- Racing leagues transition electric – Only vintage categories stay nitro. Most competitive racing shifts electric.
- Backyard bashing remains strong – Casual hobbyists still appreciate nitro benefits without cost pressures.
- Big name brands discontinue nitro cars – Smaller cottage brands retain nitro focus. Used models keep some in the game.
- Niche hobby shops continue nitro support – General retailers stop, but nitro specialty stores have strong future.
- Engines keep improving incrementally – But development slows without mainstream demand driving innovation.
- Prices creep higher over time – Rising costs gradually force budget-minded users to electric.
While its heyday has passed, nitro is far from dead. Dedicated fans worldwide will keep the engines firing for decades to come. Just don’t expect your local big box retailer to stock nitro models and fuel going forward.
Should You Start With a Nitro RC Car?
Given their dwindling popularity, is choosing a nitro model still a smart idea for newcomers to RC cars? Here are some things to consider:
When Nitro RC Makes Sense for Beginners
- You are drawn to the engine tinkering experience over just driving
- The sights, sounds and smells of nitro provide a nostalgic appeal
- You have an experienced mentor to teach tuning and maintenance
- Your budget allows accommodating rising long-term fuel costs
When Electric May Be a Better Initial Choice
- You prioritize convenience and ease of use
- Noise restrictions limit where you can run nitro
- You want minimal maintenance time after each run
- Fast acceleration and speeds are more fun than engine sounds
While personal preference and budget allow either path, most newcomers today will likely have more fun starting with user-friendly electric power. Consider trying both at your local track or hobby shop to determine which provides the experience you’re after.
Key Takeaways on the Future of Nitro RC
Some important points to remember when assessing the current state of nitro powered RC:
- Nitro car sales are declining rapidly in favor of electric models
- Maintenance-free electrics match/exceed power of traditional nitro engines
- High nitromethane fuel costs make electric more economical long-term
- Nitro retains benefits of iconic engine sounds, long runtimes, and DIY tuning
- Availability and support for nitro is diminishing outside specialty retailers
- For most newcomers, electric provides a better starting experience with less hassle
- While past its peak, nitro should retain a passionate niche hobbyist base for years to come
The ring of a 2-stroke engine on an RC track stirs nostalgia for hobbyists who lived through nitro’s glory days. While electric now dominates for most drivers, nothing fully replaces the raw thrill and sound that only nitro provides.
Wrapping Up – Is Nitro RC Dying?
In the end, is nitro RC dying? The data clearly shows its mainstream popularity fading rapidly compared to electric. But it would be premature to call time of death on nitro completely.
While electric models have taken over the majority of the market, nitro engines retain a uniqueness that ensures their survival into the foreseeable future. There are simply aspects of nitro RC that electrics cannot fully replicate or replace.
Dedicated fans willing to pay for premium fuel and deal with added maintenance will keep nitro running strong, albeit as a more niche segment of the RC car market. Local clubs, niche hobby shops, and loyalists handing down their passion for nitro to the next generation will keep the engines firing for decades to come.
So for those who live for the sights, sounds, and hands-on tinkering that only nitro provides, fear not. The demise of nitro has been greatly exaggerated. The pungent aroma of nitro RC exhaust now joins that of full-size muscle cars – sustained by purists as a cherished pastime rather than mainstream norm. But sustained nonetheless.
So while not as popular as the newfangled electric models, reports of nitro’s death have been greatly exaggerated. For old school RC hobbyists who live for the sights, sounds and tinkering nitro uniquely provides, the future remains bright. Nitro on!