George Reynoso was shopping with his wife and 1-year-old son at the Toys R Us store in Atwater Village when he came across Mattel Inc.'s new Hot Wheels racetrack, the Fireball.

Reynoso was intrigued by the 21-inch-high track, which is spherically shaped with sections looping around, upside down and crisscrossing with other sections. This creates nine "crash zones" where the tiny die-cast metal cars collide.

Cars routinely ricochet off the track, which got Reynoso, along with other parents, wondering how safe the contraption is for small children. "It seems pretty dangerous, like it could take somebody's eye out," he said.

El Segundo-based Mattel can expect more such scrutiny this holiday season with the Fireball. The track, which retails for $39.99, has made it onto several of the top 10 toy lists that consumer and trade magazines publish each Christmas. And anticipating demand well beyond the normal volume for its popular Hot Wheels offerings, Mattel has manufactured several hundred thousand additional tracks.

Last year, Mattel's comparable Hot Wheels track, the Volcano, was completely sold out leaving the toymaker unable to fill additional orders in time for the holidays.

"Our fall track set for Hot Wheels is always one of the big sellers at Christmas," said Mattel spokeswoman Sara Rosales.

Mattel's Boys Entertainment division, of which Hot Wheels is a major component, generated 24 percent of the $5 billion in companywide revenues for the year ended Dec. 31, 2000. Much of that comes in the all-important holiday season.

As for the Fireball track's safety, Rosales noted that each track comes with transparent safety shields and a safety net that can be placed over the track, like a shower cap.

"We've given parents the option of either the safety net or guards. It's now up to them to make sure the product is put together in the way we have recommended for safety," she said.

But nowhere on the product's box is there any mention of the safety guards or net. None of the five product shots on the box shows a safety net or guards in place.

The one safety-related message is in small type, tucked in the lower right-hand corner of the box.

Terri Bartlett, a spokeswoman for the Toy Industry Association in New York, said parents should consider the "characteristic" of their child before buying the Fireball.

"If you have a passive child that will play within safe limits, that's one thing, but if you have a child who is somewhat aggressive or pushes the limits, this may not be the best toy for them," she said.

Ken Giles, spokesman at the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, said the agency is "aware of cars flying off racetracks," but that no consumer complaints have been reported.

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