Last week, a team of self-promotional morons set off to break the existing coast-to-coast driven speed record. My colleague and fellow Hemmings editor Jeff Koch recently wrote about the media response. I’m here for the counterpoint, which is to say I think the general consensus of the automotive media, Car and Driver included, is correct. The coast-to-coast speed record is irrelevant, highly dangerous, and something best left to the past.
What changed in the five decades since C/D first championed the Cannonball Baker Sea-to-Shining Sea Memorial Trophy Dash? Pretty much everything, really, but as a society we are far more sensitive to death and injury than we used to be. Nothing illustrates this better than where racing is today, faster but safer than ever before. In 1971 if you said NASCAR drivers should have full-face helmets, anti-whiplash devices, full racing seats and safety harnesses, and energy-absorbing walls, you’d be told all that stuff would make the racing unappealing. Even if NASCAR’s recent decline is due to a lack of danger (it arguably isn’t), nobody in good conscience would argue for less safety.
As a Gen-X’er, I well know that the generation before mine changed their raison d’etre from “let’s get high” to “Just Say No” as soon as they had kids of their own. I saw how the free love of the ‘70s created a backlash for the next generation, who were afraid to engage with their partners without a sheath of latex to separate them. So seeing this particular turnaround shouldn’t be shocking to me. But it is.
Both the war on drugs and the safe sex movement were based in part on fear-mongering and a lack of information. But the motivations – the devastation wrought from the global drug trade and the AIDS epidemic – were genuine. That’s the thing about nostalgia – you remember the good stuff. But that’s the simple view. In today’s world we have to look at the full picture of the past, warts and all, without glossing over the ugliness.
And so no, driving as fast as possible across the country is no longer acceptable behavior, especially at the speeds required to break the current record. It wasn’t acceptable before COVID-19, although that makes the recent record just a little more appalling. When did things change? I’m not sure, but it wasn’t any time recently. Looking back, Alex Roy’s 2006 record run was probably a bad idea. More recent runs prove very little and get more and more dangerous as speeds increase. Modern safety equipment, technology, and tires can’t change reaction times or the random dangers that appear on public roads. In fact, it probably wasn’t acceptable even during the ‘70s. 1972 saw the highest number of road deaths in the United States. A flat-out coast-to-coast road race, in retrospect, seems to be a particularly poor decision in light of that figure.
Which isn’t to say we can’t look back fondly on the good parts of the past. The Cannonball was cool, in part because nobody died, but it’s not cool today. We have all grown up, and our publications reflect that maturity. Car and Driver hasn’t lost all its irreverence – the Geo Metro beater challenge is a good recent example of the shenanigan spirit – but, like most of us, C/D is no longer on board with the idea of willful endangerment of innocent bystanders.
And, actually, you can still have fun in cars. There is more performance, accessible to a wider range of driving abilities and budgets, than could ever be imagined in the 1970s. You can buy a 760-horsepower Mustang that is pretty hard to crash while leaving a Cars and Coffee. Similarly, you can order marijuana directly to your door or swipe right for any level of consensual loving. Speed, drugs, and sex are still dangerous, but we’re a lot more honest about those dangers and how to handle them. I dare say we’ve matured. Pretending otherwise is the equivalent of the “You’ve changed, man.” party guy at a 20-year high school reunion, trapped in a self-imposed prison of sentimentality.