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July - September 1997


Japanese people of all ages, from nursery school on up, are going wild over battery-powered model racecars known as mini-4WDs. Mini-4WDs (also called "Mini Yonku") are the biggest-selling type of model in Japan. Fans like the racy look of these hot rods. They also like the way that just a little tinkering can make a big difference in the speed of the cars.

The mini-4WD craze has been sparked by a comic strip about model racecars. As soon as a model car is featured in the comic strip, the model becomes a big-selling item in stores.

So why are these model racecars so popular? Well, for one thing, people enjoy building or remodeling their very own car with their own hands. There are about 500 kinds of cars to choose from, and they sell for as little as ¥600 (about US$5.00). About 200 special parts are also available, so you can upgrade your racecar to make it just the way you want it. There are powerful motors, gears, bearings, and other parts. These upgrade parts sell for about ¥100, or less than a dollar each. It's easy for anyone to build a mini-4WD. Not many parts are needed, and all of the parts are the snap-together kind. When kids find parts that make their cars go fast or look good, they like to show the parts off to their friends.

Fans appreciate the racy look of the mini-4WDs. But what they really like is the fast action of mini-4WD races. The races are held every weekend in places all around Japan, and a total of over 300,000 people compete each year. Every summer, the Japanese national mini-4WD championships are held. The championships include a variety of events, such as time trials, tournaments, and drag races.

Kids who race mini-4WDs rebuild their cars to adapt to the special features of each racetrack. They put rebuilds on top of rebuilds to create their own, most powerful original machines. No two cars are alike. A kid might carve away part of his or her car's body to make it faster, or change the gearing to achieve the desired performance. Like real Formula 1 racers, kids who race mini-4WDs even learn to calculate wind resistance and take various mechanical factors into account. So mini-4WD racing teaches kids a lot about science. And because mini-4WD racing is something that kids and their parents often do together, it also encourages good communication between generations.

Kids enjoy mini-4WD racing as much as they enjoy home video games. Mini-4WD racing not only gives kids the pleasure of building their own car with their own hands; it's also a great way to make friends. These are pleasures you can't get from staring at a screen and working a joystick. We are living in a world where more and more things are becoming digital and computerized. Mini-4WD racing offers people a different way to enjoy themselves. It looks as though these model racecars will continue to be popular in Japan for a long time to come.

Photo: (Top) The model cars look very sporty; (middle) mini-4WD tournaments attract big crowds; (above) ready to start off a race. (Tamiya Plastic Model Co.)