When the American dream of the open road meets traffic

The clip has a strange dreamlike feel to it. We watch, or so it seems, from behind the windshield of a race car as it drives through the streets of downtown Chicago under a benevolent blue sky. There are no other cars on the road. There are no buses. There are no cyclists. There are no pedestrians. There are no other people at all. The race car zips, revs and roars, never stopping at a traffic light. Somehow, the public roads of downtown Chicago have been transformed into a private playground for its invisible driver — and, by extension, the viewers at home.

This is a terrible video posted by “NASCAR on NBC” on their Twitter account to promote the upcoming milestone. Next summer, for the first time, NASCAR Cup races – the league’s flagship event series – will be held on public streets instead of on a track, just like Formula 1 with its historic Grand Prix on the streets of Monaco. The clip depicts the proposed Chicago course, allowing fans to analyze its characteristics: turns, directness, passing opportunities. Obviously, the hope is that this mental exercise will be more exciting, or at least attractively novel, with real city streets involved.

It’s not a bad bet. United States car culture is inseparable from the concept of the open road, a place where you can put the pedal to the floor and drive forward, free, master of your own destiny. Sometimes this fixation is revealed (and subsequently reinforced) in advertisements that show cars driving down empty roads in the middle of nowhere. But you can see the same obsession with car ads set in cities—although cities are largely removed from the functions that define real-life city driving. Often, these cities seem to consist of just a destination—a cute little bistro, a lively club—with a conveniently located, hassle-free parking spot right out front; The rest of the urban landscape is reduced to a meaningless, low-friction background for single-car travel. These ads don’t have potholes or delivery trucks double parked in a row. They don’t have poorly designed road signs or drivers who don’t follow them. They may mirror a few other cars, but there will certainly be no jamming, no honking, no fences or road rage. The disconnect between these ads and reality, I’ve long suspected, is one small part of why driving in the real world is so arduous: We’re constantly reminded of what our cars can do in a world without obstacles or limitations. Instead, we move through traffic and feel our blood pressure rise steadily.

But we dream of liberation. Hence the continued popularity of car chases in professional racing and action movies, and racing video games, which often simulate competitions on the streets of real cities. Back in 2004, players of the NASCAR-branded video game “Chase for the Cup” were already racing from their homes in Chicago. Cracking remote salt flats is a powerful fantasy, but logistically, it’s reasonably achievable. Hitting triple-digit speeds on urban streets? Now we dream.

for some, The surreal early days of the pandemic created the right conditions for car-based fantasies to come true. As the nation’s roads suddenly cleared of much traffic, speed enthusiasts broke records for the “Cannonball Run” challenge, with drivers covering the coast-to-coast New York-Los Angeles route in less than 26 hours. Drag racing and stunt driving on public roads have grown in cities across the country. Some participants posted videos of their adventures online, creating a visual subgenre that both testified to and reinforced the need for speed in the real world.

At the same time, NASCAR was retreating from the physical world. Since 2010, the organization, hoping to capitalize on the e-sports boom, has run a virtual racing league in partnership with iRacing called eNASCAR. After the 2020-21 NASCAR Cup was canceled due to the pandemic, the league introduced a new series in which real NASCAR drivers — their schedules suddenly free — raced virtually on digital eNASCAR tracks. Most of these tracks were meticulous recreations of the actual tracks that the drivers were already scheduled to race at that season. But one new course has been added: Street Circuit in Chicago. In fact, next year’s real Chicago race will likely follow the same route as last year’s virtual one. At some point, when you watch the course preview video posted on Twitter, you’ll realize that it’s unreal not only because the urban streets are empty, but because they’re digitally generated. By the way – if not – there are also many areas of friction present in car ads.

The disconnect between ads and reality may be one small part of why driving in the real world feels so laborious.

Importing NASCAR into a video game in Chicago is one thing. Importing a video game into a real city would be another. While tourists from around the world enjoy the excitement of the race, access to the city center will be restricted, and not just on race day; Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office estimates the delay will last two weeks. The high-decibel screeching of racing cars echoes through the traffic-choked city. And everyone watching – in person and on screens – will get another strong suggestion that the point is for cars to go as fast as possible, the streets simply exist to facilitate that endeavour. Several studies in Australia have shown that traffic accidents and fatalities jump dramatically in the vicinity of public roads used for Formula 1 events around the time of the race.

Although congestion has returned to the streets of our cities, they are still suffering from the early pandemic’s release of motor vehicle id. In fact, the same week NASCAR announced the course, the Chicago City Council passed new measures aimed at cracking down on street racing in the city, vowing to use social media videos as evidence to track down drivers and impound their cars. The crossover is an iconic car culture writ large, always bucking the rules of the road while celebrating the car’s power to break them.

The day the Chicago race was announced, legendary NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace drove his trademark red, white, and yellow Toyota around downtown doing publicity shots. It was difficult to watch the end product, for the simple reason that watching a car – even a very famous, extremely high performance car – in Chicago traffic with respect for the law and fellow drivers is extremely boring. Local transport helicopters took more footage, but this only confirmed the fundamental stupidity of the drive. No one would mistake it for a video game. It is not like self-determination or power. Thrills accumulate at an average rate of zero minutes. Wallace’s ride is exactly what it sounds like: driving. One of many cars driving through afternoon traffic. You know the feeling. You wish the other cars weren’t there, and you’re vaguely aware that all the drivers around you are thinking the exact same thing: if everyone else had gone, I’d eventually pass. If I could go as fast as I wanted, unfettered by rules or the needs of others – then I would be free.

Source photos: Quinn Harris/Getty Images; Scott Olson/Getty Images; Christian Horz/EyeEm/Getty Images; Simon McGill/Getty Images.

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