SI Vault
April 11, 2005
The first time I drive the car it feels like rage, apocalypse in every cylinder, pistons hammering hot and remorseless as hell's forge, the manifold ravenous, roaring for air and explosives, belts shrieking, crankshaft screaming threats, spinning off metal shavings like a lathe, the oil tortured, a black ruin of subatomic corruption boiling in the spattered bowel, rods, valves, lifters and springs flying apart, colliding and crashing back, the relentless cycling a hundred times a second, sickle on scythe, shrapnel clattering in the dark, anxious to fail, to escape, blazing, on razor wings, and the exhaust thundering fire and stench and the mourning blast of Armageddon--
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April 11, 2005

Bad, Brutal Fun

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This despite the fact that the cars are engineered to ensure that they can't do anything but turn left. They even sit cockeyed on the frame. The right side of the car rides higher on the springs than the left side, and the rear rides higher than the front. Seen from behind, at rest on pit road, the cars all sit tilted from the high right rear to the low left front, rakish as Sinatra's hat brim. At speed, then, with centrifugal force at work on them, they should want to dive smoothly into a left turn and then ride level all the way around its banked radius. No one seems to have explained this to the car, though.

Hard as I try to let the car have its head, it isn't very interested in carving neatly into the turns. Depending on my speed, it either plunges for the infield--Yikes!--or spits the bit and bolts for the wall, lubdub. You really steer the car with the throttle. The car's comic book geometry makes it incredibly sensitive to speed, but horsing that laughable wheel around only seems to make it angry. The constant corrections required to track through the turns are hardest on your arms, your shoulders and your patience. The only thing harder to drive is our motor home.

THAT I have any unassigned higher brain RAM left to even consider the efficiency with which the car handles comes as something of a surprise to me. On the sixth lap, coming down the backstretch at 140 or so, I notice something else. It doesn't feel like I'm going very fast. This is at least in part because I'm getting used to it. But it also has to do with being 15 feet away from another car going exactly the same speed. If I were out here alone at 140 or 145, I'd be screaming as if I'd been scalded, but tucked in behind Chad, my eyes focused on the back of his car, the speed feels apt, proportional, manageable; no worse than going 60 in moderate traffic on the interstate. Only by stealing a peripheral look at the palm trees stuttering past do I have any real sense of how fast I'm going.

I have no sensation of turning individual laps, either, no sense of a discrete 1-2-3-ness. Rather, it feels as if we're running along a continuous infinite surface, an immense, hypnotic M´┐Żbius strip, along which at intervals recur the same flagman and palm trees and tents and buildings. It's hard to describe, but it feels like one long, seamless process rather than a series of divisible events. And it feels good.

This is the feeling I paid for when I signed up for the class. The Maximum Dads, too. This is the feeling you're trying for when you mash the accelerator at a suburban stoplight or when you're running two dozen clicks past legal on the interstate. This is the feeling they're selling you in those car commercials and in all those video games. It is the feeling of disembodied, concentrated velocity, velocity without consequence, speed freedom--you with your foot to the floor outrunning whatever it is that's after you. You are pure sensation, heart in your throat, internal gyro spinning at the base of your spine; deafened by speed and nearly blinded by it, your vision tunneling down to nothing, your immediate future rushing at you very clearly for a change, as if seen out of the long, hard dark of a shotgun barrel. You are empty--happily, peacefully empty--of everything but the present moment.

Thus, way out past that initial panic, and past the breathless effort of working the car, and way out past the novelty and specificity of driving this car on this lap at this track on this day in this year, lies a few seconds' worth of near-transcendence.

Not that you've shucked self-awareness exactly, or overcome your own piddling and loathsome consciousness. The banal monologue always running in your American head, about your next chicken dinner or the erratic pendulum of your self-esteem or why in the world is Oprah reading Anna Karenina, is still whispering, but it's drowned out by the engine noise and the pounding in your ears. Wrestle that snarling mother-effer around the track long enough and you'll drive yourself, if only briefly, to Walden Pond.

It is a version of the experience described ad nauseam on television by adrenaline junkies and extreme-sport thrill-seekers--skydivers, BASE jumpers, free climbers, contestants on Fear Factor--in which your squalid little life is briefly reduced to its most primitive psychomotor essentials, and your struggle for personal fulfillment and human dignity is at last made meaningful by endeavoring to soil your fire suit without actually killing yourself. The ennobling effects of recreational terror. An entire industry within our mighty national entertainment complex has been built around it. Extreme sports, extreme theme parks, extreme cruises, extreme fabrics for your extreme technical outerwear, extreme soft drinks. When did they start building climbing walls at the mall?

Only by tugging hard on the trouser cuffs of the infinite can we feel truly alive, the squids and grinders and big-wave surfers tell us; the rest of life is just an unhealthy accretion of errand-running, wage-earning and summers at band camp. The proximity of calamity is what scrubs that callus off your spirit; danger exfoliates your soul.

The quality of your life can only really be measured against the imminence of your death. A philosophy, I'd guess, at which most combat soldiers can only snicker. Before they punch you out.

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