LAKEWOOD — Images of some of NASCAR’s top stars pop up on the video screen and invite players to join them in the driver’s seat.

“Neat pick,” driver Kevin Harvick says when you choose him. “Now let’s see what we can do to win you some money.”

Suddenly, engines are roaring and you’re seemingly teamed up with Harvick in a hard-fought race at Daytona International Speedway. You watch as Harvick’s car weaves through traffic, racking up points as it surges closer to the lead.

This may all seem like fun and games on some high-tech video player, but some serious money is involved. This is the future of casino gambling — an interactive slot machine that places you right in the middle of the action.

Before the NASCAR game and other slot machine prototypes make it to the casino floor, they must go through rigorous testing and certification. That work is done at Gaming Laboratories International, a rapidly growing slots lab in northern Ocean County that combines elements of a casino, a science center and a Boardwalk arcade.

About 1,000 slot machines at GLI sit in various states of disassembly as engineers, technicians and other experts tinker with them to make sure they work properly and live up to the hype.

“We are a clearinghouse for new technology,” said James Maida, GLI’s founder and president.

These days, slot machines feature sophisticated computer software, touch-screen technology, vivid graphics, video streaming and high-end sound systems. Adding to the excitement are bonus features and betting options that allow gamblers to win big jackpots. This continues the evolution of slot machines from crude devices controlled by mechanical reels to multimedia marvels that help casinos keep pace with the demands of the gambling public.

The NASCAR-themed slots are a way to appeal to a younger demographic. They allow players to select their favorite driver — such as Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson. The screen changes to show that driver’s team colors and branding. Although the NASCAR machine reflects the latest in interactive video technology, more realistic features may be added later to heighten the experience for slot players.

“In the future, we may sit down side-by-side with the driver,” Aliya Ahmed, a test engineer at GLI, said of further development possibilities.

The latest generation of slot machines allows players to do much more than gamble. They can use their machines to order drinks, make dinner reservations or buy show tickets. Maida envisions a time when slot machines will allow customers to take their photos and post them, as well as personal messages, on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter.

Slot machines connected to and controlled by a computer network have been slow to catch on in Atlantic City because of the cost. Known as server-based slots, they allow casinos to quickly change the themes and denominations on machines to appeal to different crowds.

For instance, the senior citizens who frequent the casinos midweek could play the penny slots, while the younger, bigger-spending crowds on weekend nights could be given higher denominations on the same machines through a simple software change.

“There could be nickel games on Wednesdays and more quarter games on Fridays,” Maida said.

As the head of GLI, Maida has seen the extraordinary development of slots and other electronic gambling devices. The next frontier is Internet and mobile gambling, giving people the ability to bet on casino games while using their home computers or hand-held devices such as smartphones and tablets.

GLI has capitalized on the spread of casino gambling worldwide. The development of Internet gambling and mobile gambling in the United States will be a platform for future growth at GLI. The company tests slot machines and other gambling devices for 500 gambling jurisdictions worldwide, including all of the Indian casino markets in the United States.

“If it can be created, we can test it,” GLI says in its promotional brochure.

Indeed, the company inspects and certifies an array of gambling devices — slot machines, Internet gambling, mobile gambling, casino management systems, lottery systems, pari-mutuel gambling, amusement games, charitable bingo and other forms of legal gambling.

That is pretty heady stuff for a company that was started by Maida with just $12,000 in capital. Maida first founded a company called JRM Enterprises in 1987. Two years later, he and partner Paul Magno merged JRM into Gaming Laboratories International.

“Our original facility was in Toms River,” Maida said. “We started in an 800-foot-square office with a little conference room and a front desk. It was just the two of us. Our third employee was hired a few months later.”

Now, GLI has 22 offices worldwide. The corporate headquarters in the Lakewood Business Park has twin office buildings with a combined 100,000 square feet of space, including the slots testing lab. GLI opened the first of its Lakewood buildings in 2002, adding the second 18 months later to accommodate its explosive growth.

“Little did we know that we would fill this building in 18 months,” Maida said.

GLI has 259 employees in New Jersey and another 287 split between its offices in Las Vegas and Denver. About 300 people are employed in 19 GLI offices outside the United States.

At a time when many companies are downsizing in the fragile economy, GLI is adding to its work force. Nearly 140 employees were hired in the past two years companywide in North America. Another hiring cycle between Jan. 1 and March 31 of this year will add 50 new employees, Maida said.

“We just think the time to hire is now,” he said. “We’re getting great talent. The technology is moving so fast that you just can’t sit still with the same employees.”

The privately owned GLI does not not release its revenue figures. However, Maida said the company has made a $16 million investment in New Jersey. GLI has an annual $20 million payroll for its New Jersey employees, who earn an average salary of about $60,000. GLI spent $400,000 to build a fitness center in its Lakewood headquarters to make the workplace more appealing.

“We’re just not this big, impersonal company,” Maida said. “We have over 800 employees globally, but we still have family values.”

GLI is one of three privately owned slots labs in the country, but it is the biggest by far. Interestingly, it currently does no testing for its home state because the New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement operates its own government slots testing lab for the Atlantic City casinos.

Maida, 50, and Magno, 53, both worked in the Division of Gaming Enforcement’s slots lab starting in the 1980s. Maida, an engineering graduate from Lehigh University in Pennsylvania, left the slots lab in 1987 to attend Rutgers University law school. While in law school, he came up with the idea to start his own slots lab. Maida’s partnership with Magno was the springboard for the company’s growth across the globe.

“We thought it would be a one-stop shop for suppliers and regulators to use a centrally located laboratory,” Maida said.

Maida now hopes to bring New Jersey under GLI’s umbrella. He wants to establish a partnership with the Division of Gaming Enforcement to test the Internet and mobile gambling devices that will be used in New Jersey. GLI already tests Internet gambling-compatible devices for markets outside the United States, including Spain, Denmark, Germany and Italy, Maida said.

Internet gambling is in its infancy in the United States, with New Jersey, Delaware and Nevada the only states so far to approve online wagering laws. Maida is eager for GLI to get a piece of the action.

“As I-gaming comes to New Jersey, we have the resources to step in and be helpful,” he said. “We think we have something to share there. We are excited about the possibility to help out in New Jersey.”

Mobile gambling, now in the testing phase in Atlantic City, will eventually allow gamblers to place casino bets on their hand-held devices while lounging at the pool, having dinner at a restaurant or relaxing in the privacy of their own hotel room. They will have to be on the casino property to play mobile gambling, but won’t necessarily have to be on the casino floor.

Internet gambling, expected to begin later this year after the state regulations are created, opens up casino-style gambling to all of New Jersey, not just in Atlantic City. As long as they are somewhere in New Jersey, gamblers will be able to bet on Atlantic City casino slot machines and table games using their home computers and electronic devices.

Contact Donald Wittkowski:

609-272-7258