Sunday, June 14, 2009

Pluralism in America and our Love of the Automobile

During the past 20 years, the term "pluralism" has been used to describe the wide variety of belief systems in America and the notion that tolerance among groups should take place. It seems that this thinking has taken hold, as even among Evangelical Protestants, who should believe that Jesus is the only way to salvation, some 57% actually think that that are various paths to eternal life. Certainly those who have taught and promoted this notion have an agenda well beyond places of worship, as they have instilled the idea that there are many religious and secular "Americas." This intellectual movement has contributed to the recent loss of a common set of values that are shared by all people living in the United States. We have increasingly become a fragmented society, one in which each subgroup is free to pursue their own lifestyle. In sum, we no longer have a moral consensus, and we are free to go off in many divergent directions, so long as others are not hurt in the process.

In The Automobile and American Life, I equate America's love of the automobile with a religious impulse, using a quote from theologian Martin Marty, who described his observations after visiting the 1958 Chicago Auto show:
"No one, I imagine, escapes the authentic involvement with this gathering symbol of our pervasive materialism. But the 50th annual Auto Show, it seems to me, gives the lie to surveys ... and to motivation researchers who suggest that at the root of America's disproportionate reverence for automobility there is something profoundly sexual. Few people give ultimate devotion to sex; their really ultimate devotion goes to religions like this one."
What has emerged in our own time is a fragmentation of the automobile love affair, and this is best illustrated by the great variety of groups representing different segments of race, class, and gender, who continue to pursue a hobby that can be more powerful than traditional religion. It is not so much that our love affair with the automobile has ended, but that it has taken on various forms, some more publicized and understood than others.

We begin with NASCAR fans, and the NASCAR way of life.
During the 1990s, NASCAR exploded on the American scene. Once confined to the Southeastern United States, NASCAR became a national sport, with highly-paid drivers, a large and increasingly diverse fan base, extravagant sponsors and broad media coverage. And money was everywhere.

For example, during the 1990s, sponsorship contributions rose 7 percent annually. By 1998 more than 50 companies invested more than $10 million each year. Top sponsors included Phillip-Morris, Anheuser-Busch, Coca-Cola, General Motors, PepsiCo, AT&T, RJR Nabisco, and McDonalds. New sponsors in sectors with little direct connection to the automobile business – fast food, home supplies, detergents – became commonplace.

Consequently, top drivers like Dale Earnhart and Jeff Gordon earned more than $10 million a year, and successful crew chiefs $300,000 to $500,000. Ultimately, the money was due to the fact that NASCAR was highly adaptable to television, and thus it was media executives rather than the auto industry that were now calling the shots in this business.

The 1990s also witnessed the rise of a new generation of NASCAR drivers. Heroes from the 1960s and 1970s, including Richard Petty, Bobby Allison, Cale Yarborough, David Pearson, and Buddy Baker gave way to Jeff Gordon, Dale Jarrett, Ernie Ervin, Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff and Ward Burton, Ricky Craven, Johnny Benson, and Jeremy Mayfield. Symbolically, Richard Petty’s 1992 “Fan Appreciation Tour” ended winless. Petty's last race in Atlanta found him running his final laps at half speed, the consequence of an earlier crash.

New owners were also a part of the NASCAR scene during the 1990s. Included were stars from other sports, including NFL coach Joe Gibbs, and the NBA’s Julius Erving and Brad Daugherty. With new tracks located near Fort Worth, Texas and Fontana, California, NASCAR was seemingly being transformed in virtually every possible way.

Perhaps the most dramatic event of the 1990s was NASCAR’s coming to the legendary Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the inaugural Brickyard 400 in 1995. With NASCAR founder Bill France and long-time Indy track owner Tony Hulman now dead, their successors could bury long-term differences and realize the potential of such an event in terms of media coverage and fan enthusiasm. Thus, on August 6, 1995, Jeff Gordon won the inaugural 160-lap event in front of 300,000 fans.

There are the Concours d'Elegance folks, almost always white, upper middle class or better, well-heeled and often pretentious.


This celebration was orchestrated largely by Baby Boomers, although automobile collecting has a long history, particularly among the elite, who beginning after WWII had assembled collections of Olympian vehicles. But the hobby was now broadened to include many middle class collectors. Boomers reached middle age by the 1980s, and their high levels of disposable income allowed for indulgence into a rather expensive hobby, which created a demand for automobiles that were the object of a generation's desire when they were too young to either drive them or own them. This demand had parallels in Europe, although there the desire for mid-market marques was for the most part quite different. The hobby, which has become a big business, is exemplified by the Barrett-Jackson auctions, held several times a year in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Palm Beach, Florida. The demand for muscle cars, prototypes, customized roadsters and hot rods, and select foreign classics and exotics has been quite strong, with expected market volatility from time to time. On a level above Barrett-Jackson are concours events that attract a generally higher-class clientele; the most publicized of these events take place at Pebble Beach, California; Amelia Island, Florida; and Meadowbrook, in Michigan.

There are the Friday night Cruise-in followers, perhaps the most heterogeneous of all of these automobile hobbyist groups, meeting in parking lots that often feature 50s and 60s rock and roll music. Here young, old, families, black and white, all co-mingle on warm summer nights all over America.


In addition to the classic car and classic street rod and hot rod hobbyists, a number of whom we might want to label as “Rolex” car people, several other significant car subcultures have emerged in recent times, each with its own distinctive ethnic and generational members. In the Latino communities of Southern California, “Low-Riders” have become so significant that a special exhibit was dedicated to them at the Peterson Museum in 2005. Low-Rider culture was first institutionalized with Low Rider Magazine in 1978. The Low-Rider was often a Chevrolet that had been tricked out with special hydraulically-operated shocks to shake the car rhythmically. With powerful sound systems and brilliantly decorated and painted bodies, the Low-Rider reflects values associated with the Hispanic Community, especially family and community.


It is interesting to note, however, that a new automobile subculture emerged over the past 15 years despite the relative inability of owners to work on cars, and that is centered on Tuners. The Tuners are a new generation of Americans obsessed with speed. The Tuner drives a high revving, four-cylinder automobile with front wheel drive and conspicuous exhaust outlet, referred to by some as a “fart can.” In these cars, nitrous oxide is used as an auxiliary oxidant when called on – NOS – that gives Tuners an extra burst of speed. To give an imperfect definition, a Tuner is an automotive enthusiast who enjoys modifying a modern compact vehicle both cosmetically and mechanically. It is an effort to display creativity, innovation, and individualism. The car of choice has been the Japanese model – Acura, Honda, Nissan, or Mazda – although some Fords have also been modified. Typically, tuners are young – 87 percent are under the age of 30 – and are about 4 to 1 male to female. Further, they are ethnically diverse according to a 2003 study, as some 42 percent are White, 29 percent Asian, 16 percent Hispanic, and 8 percent African-American. According to Alan Paradise, for Tuners “the car becomes a guiding force for their lifestyle, rather than merely a means of transportation.” The Tuner car world is diverse, but can generally be divided into five primary groups: street, strip, sport, show, and sound.

Tuner culture was well portrayed in The Fast and the Furious, a film loosely based on an magazine article about street clubs that race Japanese cars late at night. It is a depiction of the world of street racing. The film stars Vin Diesel as Domenic Toretto, the leader of a street gang who is under suspicion of stealing expensive electronic equipment. Paul Walker plays an undercover FBI officer (Brian O’Conner) who attempts to find out who exactly is stealing the equipment, while falling for Domenic’s younger sister played by Jordana Brewster. A sequel to Fast and Furious appeared in 2003, entitled 2 Fast 2 Furious. Set in Miami, Officer O’Conner, stripped of his badge, is recruited to infiltrate the Miami street racing circuit in an effort to redeem himself. It was a bad movie with well-worn plot lines and semi-plausible scenarios. But the movie is all about the cars, and the cars deliver with literal flying colors. They look cool. The film featured fast-paced scenes with quick-cutting standard shots, and a frenetic tempo to boot. Hip-hop music was played throughout this mediocre at best but entertaining for the X‑generation film.


Finally, amongst African-Americans, there are the "Pimp My Ride" folks, those young men who can't buy wheels big enough and who thrive on hip-hop music that older people like myself can't stand but that young white chicks can't get enough of.

From Kayne West, "Diamonds from Sierra Leone:"
I remember I couldn't afford a Ford Escort or even a four-track recorder
so its only right that I let the top drop on a drop-top Porsche
- its for yourself that's important
If a stripper named Porscha and u get tips from many men
Then your fat friend her nickname is Minivan

In all of these cases, I cannot stress enough the primal forces that exist in individuals who celebrate and connect with their rides in contemporary America.

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