There’s a lot to be said for driving fast. You arrive at your destination earlier, clean out your engine and help keep corporations like Exxon profitable by wasting gas.
It’s also exhilarating.
Nothing puts an edge on life like racing through a school zone at 87 mph. In fact, if it weren’t for policemen, pedestrians and potholes, I’d drive everywhere at 75 to 150 mph—even faster, if my car and conditions allowed it.
I don’t know where my need for speed comes from, but it might be genetic. My Grandfather Bryant was infamously maniacal behind the wheel, and he owned a classic red-on-black Austin Healy sports car to prove it. It was one of the finest sports cars ever made, a compact, low-slung beauty that looked like a well-muscled panther stretched out into a full sprint even when it was sitting still in the driveway.
One of my earliest childhood memories is of riding in that car’s undersized rear seats with my brother when a lead-footed driver tried to jam his racing-green Jaguar up Grandpa’s tailpipe on London’s M1 Highway. Grandpa considered it a personal insult, and muttering (cursing?), shoved the pedal to the metal, shifting through the gears like Mario Andretti determinedly trying to win 1969’s Indianapolis 500. The Jaguar bravely kept pace for a few seconds, but when Grandpa topped 100 mph and kept accelerating like a rocket, it quickly fell far behind, just another notch on Grandpa’s steering wheel.
My Grandmother thought Grandpa was a grand prix for driving so fast. I still remember seeing her sitting rigidly, her hands clenched tightly around the black leather straps of her purse, her jaw clenched in fear and anger as we accelerated. But my brother and I were thrilled, and laughed out loud as we watched the bright red needle on the Healy’s speedometer sweep through its arc until we were cutting through the air like a bullet (or perhaps I should say Bullitt). Never mind that we weren’t wearing seat belts—the Healy didn’t have rear seat belts—or that we could’ve blown a tire and died in a fiery mass of twisted steel; we were young, and like Grandpa, didn’t give our mortality a thought.
I couldn’t wait to drive myself, and I got behind the wheel about a year before I was supposed to, when I was only 15 years old. That was an exciting day, too, mostly because it started with grand theft auto and ended in a rollover accident.
- The Volkswagen squareback, though slow, rolls extremely well when your best friend pulls the emergency brake on a dirt road while you’re doing 50 mph.
Late that night, my best friend, Chip, decided he wanted to take his father’s Volkswagen Squareback for a drive. He didn’t have the keys, but I knew how to hotwire the ignition switch—a skill I acquired while serving hard time in Attica on a trumped-up racketeering charge related to a childhood lemonade-stand scandal.* Prison’s a great place to learn skills that’ll keep you from having to get a real job. Anyway, we pushed the car out of the garage, rolled it down a hill so we wouldn’t wake up anybody important, and were gone in 60 seconds.
Eventually, of course, I convinced Chip to let me drive. It wasn’t a fast car, but we were doing about 50 mph on a winding dirt road in a hilly area of Colorado Springs called the Austin Bluffs when he panicked and pulled the parking brake. With the rear wheels locked, the car swerved uncontrollably, and we rolled down a hill, landing upside down and hanging in our seat belts.
Neither of us was hurt, and we roared with laughter until it dawned on us that we were in huge trouble.
After tipping the car back onto its wheels, I crossed the wires under the dash one final time and we drove home in mortified silence, carefully observing the accepted rules of the road.
Chip desperately tried to explain away the car’s dents by saying he’d accidentally dropped some luggage onto it while cleaning out the garage’s loft. But his dad wasn’t an idiot and didn’t buy a word of it, grounding him for six months. Chip covered for me, and my own parents didn’t find out about the wreck until I told them about it some 25 years later. Naturally, they were shocked and displeased. But I refused to let them ground me or take away my car keys. It was partly on principal—I’m sure the statute of limitations had expired by then—and partly because I needed to drive to work to support my family.
Perhaps because I didn’t have to face any consequences for my wrongdoing, I learned nothing from my early excursion down thunder road except that it’s never a good idea to engage the parking brake when you’re tearing up the dirt in a car you stole from your best friend’s dad. Everything else, including attempting to break the sound barrier on four wheels, still seemed perfectly acceptable to me. So it wasn’t totally surprising when, within weeks of receiving my highly coveted driver’s license, I also received my first speeding ticket.
I blame my parents for that one.
- I know. It’s cool. It’s a ’67 Dodge Coronet, and it was my first car. I don’t know how fast it was because the speedometer only went to 140 mph. After that, you were on your own.
When I was 16 or 17 years old, dear old mom and dad made the mistake of giving me a used 1967 Dodge Coronet 440, a stylistic precursor to the more popular Dodge Charger, which is considered a masterpiece of American automotive styling. For my money, the Coronet was better-looking and equally hot. It featured a four-barrel carburetor, eight cylinders, 375 horsepower, and enough torque to accelerate to 60 mph in less than 8 seconds, and to least 140 mph within a minute or two. Even though it was nearly 10 years old at the time and had a crumpled left front fender and torn faux black leather seats, it was still a thoroughbred—what gearheads affectionately call a muscle car.
I loved that car and immediately customized it by ripping out its worn black carpet and removing the hood so that I could hear and see the engine better. Then I took it out for a quick spin on the two-lane blacktop.
Too quick, as it turned out, for Sheriff Buford T. Justice, who clocked me doing nearly 70 mph in a 30 mph zone. When the lawman asked me why I was driving so fast, I instantly recalled a story my father told me about how he’d once avoided a ticket by telling the officer he was trying to recharge a dying battery. I lied and repeated the story, the cop frowned skeptically, and I was promptly summoned and fined in full.
Thanks for the advice, pop.
Duly reprimanded, I should’ve slowed down from that point on, at least a bit. But I was young, and I didn’t. I was still years away from reaching the vanishing point in my unofficial racing career.
*Author’s note: The reference to Attica is patently false. I creatively added it to boost the story’s chances of being sold for a small fortune to a leading movie producer like Steven Spielberg, Ridley Scott or Roger Corman, director of such classic car-chase movies as Grand Theft Auto and Eat My Dust. The plain truth is that my father was a professional electrician and international jewel thief who taught me how to hotwire his getaway cars.
This is my fourth entry for the fourth day of 30 Days of Writing. It’s a competitive blogging meme that’s been rigged by Nicky the Shoes and Feline Mike over at We Work For Cheese, which is the Internet’s best-read blog, or would be if it was. Please visit them to read their posts, and to find a linky thingy to all the other participants in today’s extravaganza. Most of them don’t write book-length posts like me and they’re much funnier, which means you can read them without risking passing out and hitting your head on your desk.