Update – I’m not alone in seeing the haunting parallels between human behaviors in the midst of the global warming crisis and Nevil Shute’s On the Beach. Here’s another perspective from Lit Hub. Will reading dystopian fiction inspire different behaviors?
Last August, I spent a Saturday evening watching the drag races at Portland International Raceway. Locals call it PIR. It’s difficult to explain the appeal of drag races. They can be boring and exhilarating. The boredom involves the long waits between races as the track is prepped, and two drivers queue up, waiting for the clock to tick down to zero. The exhilaration occurs when the lights flash from red to green and the drivers peel out in a horrendous cloud of engine noise and toxic waste, burning tires and spewing smoke, as they tear along a straightaway for less than 10 seconds.
In the face of fossil-fuel fed change, it seems like the final hurrah, the last gasp of another time, when we didn’t worry about global warming, when working class guys could buy homes for their families. For ten seconds time is suspended as all attention focuses on the trajectory of two competing vehicles. Then the race is over, and the spectators await the next heat.
This was my second visit to the drag races in Portland. Before that my auto racing experiences were limited to two classic car races at Laguna Seca, and one demolition derby at the Yolo County Fairgrounds in California. Few of my friends are aware that I’ve done this. I imagine that several would consider it low-brow entertainment. Although my nature-loving friends drive cars, none has expressed any interest in automobiles, beyond their utilitarian value. If cars are discussed, it’s only to comment on the problems they create: road congestion, a scarcity of parking, or the apology for relying on a car to fill transportation needs. Auto races would never be found among even their casual interests.
I’ve never explained my interest in cars because it’s incongruous with the many identities I’ve claimed for myself over the years. These days I tend to regard myself as a liberal and environmentalist, but I grew up in California, where the car culture prevailed. I also had a father who scorned paying anyone to do work he could do himself. We were barely middle class; thus, he repaired our cars. From him I learned how to replace spark plugs, set the points, and time the engine on our 1967 Mustang. I could help because my hands were small enough to reach under an exhaust manifold to remove a spark plug. I understood brakes and master cylinders, coils and alternators, universal joints, and wheel bearings. It was useful knowledge.
In early adulthood, I had a room mate who reworked auto bodies. I tuned-up my first car, an old Volkswagon, and regularly cleaned the fouled spark plug on a failing cylinder before I eventually replaced the engine. I made my living working blue-collar jobs, and hobbled along taking classes at the community college, vaguely dreaming of the affluence of middle class life. When it arrived, I stopped repairing my own car. That said, I’ve never stopped respecting the ingenuity and mechanical know-how required to repair or build a high-performance car.
I sat in the bleachers at PIR on a summer evening and felt a peculiar sense of familiarity, to be among people for whom car repair is commonplace. Some may have appreciated the skill that goes into fitting out a car for drag racing. I also felt an inexplicable sadness. I recalled Nevil Shute’s 1957 novel, On the Beach. The story follows a cluster of characters managing their lives in Australia as the planet is slowly overcome by the radiation unleashed during a global nuclear war. When faced with the end of human civilization, they retain their sanity by pretending that the end is not near. They plant vegetable gardens whose produce they will never eat. They imagine the world in the Northern Hemisphere as they had always known it, even after all human life has ceased. One character fulfills his dream of restoring and driving a high-performance race car.
That’s how I felt watching the drags. As the sun set and the track lights came on, I observed spectators, families sharing happy moments with their kids, drinking beers and eating hot dogs. I watched a trio of teens, chattering, wearing similar black hoodies and jeans. One girl boasted that she would ask a racer if she could ride with him during one of his runs. The other girls ribbed her, hinting that she lacked the nerve. It was an ordinary summer evening, reminding me of my youth, cruising North Belmont in Fresno with my cousin, crammed into her friend’s car as we fulfilled a summer ritual. It was the stuff depicted in George Lucas’ American Graffiti.
The admission was cheap at nine dollars a car. And the roar of the engines was great. It was a joyous spectacle. Near the pits, the cars queued up, inching forward with engines rumbling, the cars surging like stallions straining at the bit as drivers awaited their ten-second opportunity to test their mastery. Had they tuned the carburetor just right? Would they jump the light, or wait too long to accelerate, release the clutch and spin their tires sufficiently to burn a stinking cloud of rubber that would increase their traction? There is a logic to this seeming madness, a moment in time when skill and mechanical craft merge.
It all sounds idiotic, doesn’t it? I doubt that few at PIR pondered the symbolism of the drag races. Nor did they consider the environmental impact of their hobby – no more so than they or others ponder the carbon footprints of the children they bring to life. A drag race is an easy mark for environmentalists, an obvious target in the war on carbon-based industries. But that’s too easy, just as it’s easy to be critical of rock climbers or backpackers who travel great distances to appreciate wild nature in some distant locale. Is it inherently more correct to hammer pitons into El Capitan?
That’s a distorted comparison, I know. I can’t argue for the merits of either activity. But on that August evening, I watched the cars and felt the roar of the engines. My nostrils burned from the stink of hydrocarbons and I pondered the lunacy of humans who pumped a noxious viscous goo from the earth, goo formed eons ago during an epoch when the planet was warmer and different creatures prevailed. And as crazy as it sounds, I experienced a peculiar delight at the perspicacity and skill of the drivers.
Yes, the world is sliding toward irrevocable environmental change, and the sensibility at play at PIR figures in that change. I see this paradox, yet I still admire those people who can dismantle and repair an engine, or adjust a carburetor, or replace a set of brakes, and drive a fast car on an August night, seemingly locked in another time.