PRINT May 1989


The definite emphasis in the 911 Turbo is somehow military. It’s a focused application of necessary force to a precise objective.

—Daniel Charles Ross, in Motor Trend, December 1988, on the Porsche 911 Turbo

AUTO RACING IS A quintessentially capitalist cultural product. In the West, mechanized speed has been a spectacle from its beginning—all the Western industrialized countries began to race cars as soon as the invention of the internal combustion engine, quietly accepting the idea of competing for money to the point of possible death. The first country to hold a car race was France. The same nation saw its Paris taxicabs used as army transports to the front during World War I, in an image not only of the ever-narrowing gap between civilian and military affairs, but also of the lasting ligature between automotion and warfare. It was also in France—two centuries earlier, in 1690—that Denis Papin had considered whether the violent expansion of gases involved in the ignition of gunpowder might be used to drive a piston in a cylinder; the same idea lay behind the later, more successful experiments that led to the invention of the internal combustion engine. What is generally considered the first automobile, a steam-driven vehicle designed and built by Nicolas-Joseph Cugnot in 1769, was actually an artillery carriage, designed, of course, for military use.

The racing car is one of a series of acceleration devices (horse and saddle, automobile, aeroplane) that work as extensions of and prostheses for the human body, quickening its speed. The development of the car, a technological supplement to the body, is comparable to the invention of the stirrup, which revolutionized warfare because it increased the rider’s control over the mount, taking full advantage of the artificial acceleration of human speed that the horse (vehicle) could provide. Horse and rider became an integral organism. So, today, the coupling of pilot and jet fighter constitutes a cybernetic unit within which the human body dissolves, leaving the intangible human mind and will as the motivators of a body of metal.

Speed, not wealth, is the essence of power. There is inherent vulnerability in slowly gathering information, developing products, finding markets, struggling with competitors, facing political moves, fighting wars. The harnessing and training of horses, the building of chariots, the laying of roads—all techniques to accelerate movement—were early essential elements in the consolidation of economic and military power. Taxes had to be collected, enemy incursions and domestic unrest to be swiftly quelled. In the preindustrial age, speed sat on the back of the horse, a valuable commodity; in our postindustrial society, speed is delivered by technology. It is still expensive. The cost of a vehicle is proportional to its performance. Speed is dear partly because it is difficult to produce, but also because it is a tool of power, to be kept out of the hands of the majority. The wide distribution of power is a contradiction in terms; for power to manifest itself, it must be exclusive.

Nowhere is the cultural sacralization of acceleration more vividly demonstrated than in the U.S., and nothing in the U.S. better exemplifies it than the explosion of speed and money that constitutes the Indianapolis 500 race, held every spring in Speedway, Indiana. The giant Indy track runs 2 1/2 miles of blacktop. Totally self-contained, like an aircraft carrier moored in the middle of a city, it is raced only once a year. The 500-mile event is bare of the aristocratic trappings of the European grand prix. This is a ritual of the purest order: a sacrament of blood and courage enacted in speed, and anointed by the patriotic necrology of the Memorial Day weekend. A week before the race is Armed Forces Weekend; tanks and helicopters are displayed in the track’s infield. Families in shorts mill about, and the kids are allowed to sit in the cockpits of the military vehicles while racing cars whirl around in their final qualifying attempts.

The quasi-circular shape of the course links it with such atavistic spaces of sacrifice as the Roman coliseum or the Iberian bull ring, circles associated with the cult of Helios, the sun. The orbiting cars also suggest the possibility of infinite travel without actual departure, a mythic, synchronic model of time. On race day, after prayers and the singing of the national anthem, up to four hundred thousand spectators gather to watch 33 men (a woman has driven only once) compress 500 miles of driving into 2 1/2-to-3 hours of extreme sun-drenched intensity. The sun is absolute; rainfall postpones the race. During the contest, the intense late-May heat seems symbiotically fed by the sun and the combustive engines on the track.

Karl von Clausewitz, the Prussian general and theoretician, believed that there is no inherent restraint in the absolute exercise of force that constitutes war. The tendency of war, from the flint ax to the atomic missile, is to become pure, to become a process of total elimination. Fighting is easier to start than to stop, and its only natural end is the exhaustion of the resources, both inert and alive (human), that sustain it. What prevents warfare from spiraling into absolute paroxysm is its role as an extension of politics (Clausewitz’s “political relations by other means”). And sports function quite similarly. Politics are implicit in the rules of the game: peace is declared beforehand, to take place after 60 minutes, 90 minutes, 50 laps, 15 rounds. In Indianapolis the end of the contest between the 33 helmeted heroes is decided not by attrition, as would have been normal in the Roman circus, but by distance: once the first driver passes the 500-mile mark, everything stops. That the race is designed as spectacle also suggests a certain code: death and trauma may occur on the track, but are forbidden to reach out into the stands. Between mile 1 and mile 500, the drivers’ deeds are performed within the visual field of the four hundred thousand spectators—not counting the worldwide millions watching on live television. From a similarly protected vantage, the wives and relatives of 19th-century British officers sometimes watched them fight in the Crimea, and Washingtonians picnicked to view raging battles during the Civil War.

On the far side of competition, where it borders on war, there is no DMZ; one just fades seamlessly into the other. And, if you think about it, the rules are the same for both: the little guy must always try harder. The big guy has more troops, more matériel, more reserves. To win against those advantages, the little guy must have a trick, an equalizer, a nuke.

Chrysler was small, and management was unwilling to devote much of the corporate kitty to racing. So, like a band of basement bomb makers, the race-group staffers took to building nukes. The 426 Hemi was a nuke. With little warning, Chrysler dropped it on the 1964 Daytona 500–enabling Junior Johnson to top 170 mph and set a new qualifying record.

–Patrick Bedard, in Car and Driver, December 1988, on the 1969 Dodge Charger Daytona

In a political race, in a corporate adventure, in a military campaign, as in a car race, everything costs money, and every participant and/or beneficiary has to pay for the shot at the jackpot. In market economies this is so deeply ingrained in the culture that its citizens can assimilate the transitions from political jockeying to economic wrestling to military action with considerable psychological ease. Until recently, on the other hand, communist countries had no auto racing; the idea of competing for money to the point of possible death being alien to them. In 1987, however, Hungary, probably the most liberalized country in the communist bloc, held its first Formula One grand prix, and it has managed to keep the race on the calendar as a regular fixture. According to rumor, Gorbachev’s new Soviet Union is applying to hold a Formula One race of its own in Moscow. Behind the Iron Curtain, speed was once the monopoly of the Mig. Now it becomes more democratic, becomes a spectacle.

Back in the West, democracy has become a high-stakes arena in which everybody has to fend for themselves. The effect is to transform success into virtue: winning—financially, physically, militarily—becomes the spectacle, the epic metaphor, that we need for catharsis. In a technomilitary society, the unprocessed human body looks like a slower, weaker, imperfect version of a racing machine. The body must be worked out and tuned up to perfection; and it must be prosthetically amplified and accelerated—must be encased in a fast car. If the task gets too hard, one can live vicariously through the deeds of the professionals. One can cheer the soldiers on their way to the front.

Francesc Torres