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Car talk II: The James Brown School of Driving

October 2, 2009

It was Friday afternoon and I'd finished classes with my usual end-of-week ambivalence: tired from the grind, wired for the weekend.

Then when I started the car, I had another ambivalence, this one about things vehicular.

I was driving a 2009 Mustang, a rental I'd inherited from my brother for the week, since he needed my car to shlep his kayak.

Because he was leaving on Saturday, this was my last day with the Mustang. Intellectually, I understood it perfectly. But emotionally I was having trouble accepting it, the trouble being centered in my right foot, which was now teasing the accelerator with small pokes and pushes, as I watched the tachometer needle swing back and forth.

Plain and simple, the car had been designed for speed. Yeah, sure, you could drive it slowly, but the car wouldn't be happy about it. At slow speeds it kept up a low, throaty growl, but what it really wanted was to roar.

Cruising at 55, everything about the car - the rpm's, the sound, the amount of space between the floor and the accelerator - was about half what it should've been, and the car knew this. And so did I.

Don't forget, I came of age in the '50s and '60s, back when the V-8 was God, and He spoke directly to man through roaring lake pipes. Big Daddy Roth and Don Gartlitts were his high priests, the J.C. Whitney catalogue was the bible, and darn near every American male between 14 and 40 was a true believer, including me.

My family may have always driven what were loftily labeled "Economy Cars," but it didn't stop me from thinking big and sleekand fast.

Stocks, dragsters, Formula I's, sports cars, customized jalopies you name 'em and I loved 'em. Also, I spoke Gearhead fluently, too, rapping with the best of them about dual quads, progressive linkage, three on the tree, four on the floor, moon spinner hubs and the rest.

Also, I couldn't resist the notion of speed any more than I could owning a fully chromed mill, though I never experienced either. It was, I always figured, just a phase I went through as a callow lad, a phase long buried in my past. Or at least it was buried till the Mustang resurrected it.

So there I was, about to pull out of the PSC parking lot, with my last chance to put pedal to the metaland I was giving it up.

Advice from the ether

I turned on the radio - a satellite deal with about 10,000 stations, hooked up to a sound system that could play Madison Square Garden. It was tuned to Soul Power. I paid no attention to the song playing till some of the lyrics nailed me between the running lights: It was the Temptations singing "Losing you."

Yep, that's me, I thought, a Dopey loser - allowing myself to lose a childhood dream of Speed Unimagined.

But ultimately, that was the right thing: Highballing my way up the Harrietstown Road at breakneck speed might've been a great thrillbut it would also have been selfish, dangerous and downright nuts. Forget about killing myself - I'd be a menace to every living thing in the area - except the ones in high-flying planes.

I turned off the radio and mulled over my sad predicament for a while. Finally, I let out a huge sigh, put the car in gear and turned the radio back on.

Suddenly a voice of pure grit and gravel shouted out, "Hit it and quit it! Hit it and quit it! Hit it and quit it!"

It wasn't the voice of God, but it was the voice of the Godfather - of Soul, that is - James Brown. And at that moment he was speaking directly to me.

"That's it!" I said, my internal dome light going on, "Hit it and quit it!"

Energized and enlightened, I cruised through the rest of the campus, windows down, tunes turned up, my face lit with a smile I knew could only be called "enigmatic."

As I pulled to a stop at the "T" on Route 86, I checked around me. No cars to the left, no cars to the right, no cars in back, no cars in frontand best of all, no students or faculty milling around - potential witnesses to the once-in-a-lifetime act about to take place.

Since the car had an automatic transmission (a "slushbox" as we used to contemptuously refer to them), it'd require expert handling for a perfect hit-it-and-quit run. Did I have the skill? It was a question there was only one way to answer.

With my left foot, I pushed the brake down as far as it could go, and held it. Then I started revving the accelerator - hitting higher RPM's each time. Finally, I held it at a steady 6000 and waitedone second two seconds three seconds

The engine howled, the steering wheel shook, the brakes barely held against the strain.

Then I popped the brake.

Suddenly I was in an Einsteinian cocoon: The car stood still, time stood still, my heart stood still.

Then the tach hit red line, and with the ear-splitting squeal of tires on tarmac, the car tore off, leaving behind a fifty-foot strip on the road and a thick black cloud of oxidized rubber in the air.

My heart jack-hammered my chest, my pulse pounded in my ears.

The air rushed in, making me squint as I checked the speedometer.

"Yeah, baby!" I yelled. "Ye -"

And that's as far as I got before the speedometer hit 60 and I took my foot off the accelerator.

The car coasted, barely slowing at first. I exhaled a huge whoosh and suddenly realized I'd been holding my breath the whole time.

I took a couple of big gulps of air and my pulse slowed, as did the Mustang, and when I got to Easy Street Hill, the car was holding at 40, the legal limit for the hill.

The whole 0-to-60 rush had lasted less than eight seconds, but it probably took two years off the life of the tires and at least that much off mine.

It was something I'm sure the rental company wouldn't have appreciated at all.

It was also something that couldn't have pleased me more.



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