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Contestants in Germany’s Recorder Race call on old cassette Walkmans to power their wheels

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Dept.: You Built What?!
Tech: Cassette-motor racers
Cost: $125
Time: Four weeks
Practical | | | | | Popcorn

Sure, the latest iPod might hold a million songs and play for 60 days, but before ditching their cassette players for one, Anne Bergner and Axel Schmid first want to know: How fast can it cover 49 feet?

A couple years ago, while tinkering with an old Walkman, the Munich designers discovered that the cassette-player motor was ideal for driving a miniature car. The gears started churning, and after a few calls and e-mails to fellow tape buffs, the Recorder Race was born. On July 12, 2003, 180 people gathered in an old sports-club gym in Munich to watch 23 tape-player-powered vehicles compete for the title of "Record Champion." Racecar builders included designers, engineers, DJs, musicians, students--the sort who would still know where their Walkmans were buried. The organizers awarded only half of a racer´s total score based on speed (achieved in most cases with a light chassis and low-friction force transfer); the other half comes from the car´s grandezza--a word that translates loosely from the Italian as "panache"--as judged by an international panel of design luminaries.

In December 2004, 230 folks returned to Munich for the second annual event. Among the newcomers were Nicolas Henn and Oliver Jandousek, college students from the town of Aachen. Their car, the MediaGenerations-Racer, was crowned Record Champion 2004 for its zippy 6.05-second completion of the 49-foot drag (40 seconds ahead of the slowest entrant)--and the undeniable grandezza of representing three generations of music in the vehicle´s design. Parts from records, tapes and CDs make the MG-Racer go; Batmobile-style fins from German techno LPs and a turntable arm as the dragster´s nose (from Henn´s other life as a DJ) make it sing.