refocus on e;ciency and safety. New car performance decreased,
and once again the tinkerer was king.
So it’s not really the American auto industry being celebrated
at Speed Week; it’s a countertradition of automotive ingenuity,
the do-it-yourself spirit that underlies every American mythology—pilgrims heading for the New World, pioneers settling
the West, geeks building Facebook. Every night, after the Salt
closes, the parking lot at the Wendover Nugget becomes a celebration of hot rod culture. People line up classic cars from the
’20s through the ’50s, hoods open to show o= their engines, salt
artfully splattered on their fenders. Cocktail waitresses glide over
the asphalt taking orders, and a steady stream of admirers circulates, some dressed in ’50s-style clothes. It’s like American Graffiti,
only the cruising car nuts are middle-aged men, and the cars are
museum pieces. In the Nugget’s neon glow, it’s clear that the
gasoline-powered automobile has already peaked. And since alternative-fuel vehicles have failed to arouse that American spirit
of invention, nostalgia has replaced innovation.
ON TUESDAY, several guys in the food tent are badmouthing
“We ran him out of the state of Tennessee,” one says.
“I figured out global warming,” another declares. “It’s Al
Gore running his mouth. All that hot air.”
A rusted Model A drives up; the owner has chalked “Rust is
Rite” on the side. One of the Gore-bashers notices me transcrib-
ing their conversation, but before he can ask me about it, I point
to the car.
“What’s this about?” I ask him. “These cars that look like junkyard jalopies at an event that’s all about speed and performance?”
The man eyes the Ford.
“This is where it all began,” he says. “The guys who came
back from World War II . . .” He stops, overtaken by a wave of
emotion. His lip actually quivers.
“The men who came back from World War II, they put a man
on the moon. We owe them so much. They started it all. It’s a
tribute,” he manages to say.
After breakfast, Bob and I arrive at the pits to find that the
Triplets have failed Tech again. First the inspectors made them
shorten the yoke. But when they did that, the inspectors sent
them back to install a horizontal bar on it.
“They are very cooperative, but also very . . . Anyway, they do
their job,” writes Frank on the Triplets’ blog.
IN THE 1970S, publishers released one screed after another
bewailing car culture and internal combustion. Whether the solution was electric cars, steam-powered cars, natural-gas cars,
or even replacing cars with public transit, the authors seemed
“An automobile worker once had reason to be proud of what
came o= that assembly line,” wrote Nicholas von Ho=man in the
Los Angeles Times; “the car was the symbol of the American social
genius. Now it’s a sign of our idiocy.”
We all know how ’70s idealism gave way to ’80s material-
ism; hence Madonna and the SUV. But where are we now? The
EV1, the Prius, the waiting list for the plug-in hybrid Volt: every
shred of evidence suggests that Americans will buy alternative
cars, Americans want alternative cars. The technology has been
around as long as the car itself. The first gasoline-electric hybrid
was introduced in 1900. And I got excited about buying a Prius?
Sure it’s innovative, but it’s not nearly innovative enough. That’s
why I call it The Hummer: to keep myself from thinking it’s a
Through the exhaust-tinged air over the former Lake
Bonneville, I’m starting to see the hallmarks of cognitive dissonance. Hot rod culture—in fact, American automobility
itself— idealizes individualism and creative independence: cue
the montage of lone visionaries banging out groundbreaking
gadgets in basements. But the Greatest Generation didn’t win
World War II by dint of individual genius. America didn’t build
the bomb in a basement. America didn’t even build the Model T
in a basement. The auto industry we have today — like the railroad network that preceded it, like the space program, like every
great national accomplishment that supposedly exemplifies our
spirit of independence— is the product not of individualism at
all, but of massive amounts of teamwork, broad coordination,
and huge investments of both public and private money. A new
transportation economy is going to require the same. We’re not
going to get sustainable transportation by throwing out a few tax
breaks, coughing up some platitudes about American ingenuity, and leaning back while the consumer does the right thing.