NASCAR drivers race 400 miles on Sundays, and we marvel at how dangerous, demanding and competitive their sport is. But I have long suspected that a more dangerous, demanding and competitive motor sport is simply driving to and from work every weekday in America. So I resolved to race 404 miles from New York City to Baltimore and back last Wednesday, one of the hottest days of the year, and thus answer the question: Which is the more formidable field—the professionals at Daytona International Speedway or the cell-toting, road-raging, drunk-driving, mascara-applying field on the New Jersey Turnpike? Gentleman, start your engine.
10:57 a.m.—Warming up with middle-finger calisthenics, I depart the Avis garage at Broadway and 76th in a gold Pontiac Grand Am that is fully loaded with cup holder, change tray and rear spoiler. (To raise the stakes, I have blithely declined all insurance.)
11:01 a.m.—At Broadway and 72nd, I fall in behind a woman, driving a green Town & Country van, who accelerates at a yellow light and then, thinking better of it, abruptly locks up her brakes. I jump on my brake pedal with both feet, like Bobby Thomson on the plate at the Polo Grounds, but it's too late: I have tapped the woman's bumper, to which is bolted—not insignificantly—a New Jersey plate. Four blocks and four minutes removed from the Avis lot, I have already traded paint.
11:14 a.m.—Having traveled about 20 blocks on Ninth Avenue with his left turn signal on, the driver of a teal Chevy Beretta hangs, from the lane to the left of me, a sudden right, in front of me. I lay on the horn, but it cannot be heard over his car's arena-ready sound system, the bass of which has the Beretta throbbing like a human heart.
12:08 p.m.—On the New Jersey Turnpike, I am flushed from the passing lane—at 80 mph—by a rust-encrusted Chevy Impala held together entirely by bumper stickers, the most memorable of which is HORN BROKE—WATCH FOR FINGER.
1:15 p.m.—I pit at Wendy's, where the drive-through attendant informs me that for an additional 20 cents, I can "Biggie-size" my already enormous beverage, and, for 20 cents more than that, the boys from local Ladder Company Number 7 will snake a fire hose down my throat and pump—at three tons of pressure per square inch—7,000 gallons of Diet Coke directly into my bladder. ( America's fondness for ever larger beverages will force me, throughout the day, to make hourly visits to the kind of service-station restrooms in which a prudent man operates everything—doorknob, faucet handles, toilet flush—with his shoe sole.)
3:01 p.m.—MAX-level air conditioning has the interior temperature of the Grand Am resembling that of a refrigerated boxcar. Still, I notice beneath each armpit of my polo shirt semicircles of sweat the size of watermelon wedges. My hands, in the 10-2 position, are rigor-mortised to the steering wheel. My heart is beating the opening drum riff of Wipeout. Jeff Gordon—in Turn 2 at Talladega—never has to slalom around a flatbed truck shedding its payload of sewer pipe. I do, though, on I-95, outside Baltimore, so I decide to take a 23-hour pit stop and stay the night in a Baltimore hotel.
2:34 p.m.—I am back on the road, driving blindly behind a Ford Excursion, an SUV so preposterously large that its driver requires a sea captain's license. This automotive absurdity completely eclipses the sun, to say nothing of all road signs. (The epic size of the Excursion, one can reasonably surmise, is in inverse relation to the size of its driver's Johnson.)
4:19 p.m.—The deejay on 104.5 FM says, "Be careful out there today, drivers, it's turning into a very big day for road rage." I am, at the moment, on the Schuylkill Expressway (known to Philadelphians as the "Sure-Kill") behind a hearselike Chrysler PT Cruiser with the Pennsylvania vanity plate GRYM RPR. That is only appropriate, as last year there were 41,800 deaths on U.S. roadways.
5:13 p.m.—At the height of rush hour I reach the mouth of the Lincoln Tunnel, where 10 eastbound lanes suddenly bottleneck down to two, and drivers studiously avoid eye contact while refusing to yield an inch of roadway to their fellow motorists.