When the American Dream of the Open Road Hits Traffic

The clip has the uncanny feel of a dream. We’re watching, or so it seems, from behind the windshield of a racecar as it zooms through the streets of downtown Chicago under a benevolent blue sky. There are no other cars on the road. No buses. No cyclists. No pedestrians. No other people at all. The racecar zips along, revving and roaring, never stopping for a traffic light. Somehow, the public roads of Chicago’s downtown have been transformed into a private playground for its invisible driver — and, by extension, for viewers at home.

This eerie video was posted by the “NASCAR on NBC” Twitter account to promote an upcoming milestone. Next summer, for the first time ever, a race in the NASCAR Cup — the league’s flagship event series — will be held on public streets instead of on a track, just like Formula 1 racing with its storied Grand Prix through the streets of Monaco. The clip previews the proposed Chicago course, letting fans analyze its features: the turns, the straightaways, the passing opportunities. The hope, clearly, is that this mental exercise will be more thrilling, or at least appealingly 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 surge forward, free, master of your own fate. Sometimes this fixation manifests itself in (and is then perpetuated by) commercials that show cars powering down empty roads in the middle of nowhere. But you can also spot the same obsession in car ads set in cities — albeit cities largely stripped of the very features that, in real life, define city driving. Often, these cities seem to consist only of a destination — a cute little bistro, a lively club — with a conveniently placed, no-hassle parking spot right out front; the rest of the urban landscape is reduced to a meaningless, low-friction backdrop for a single car journey. These ads don’t have potholes or delivery trucks double-parked in turn lanes. They don’t have poorly designed traffic signs or drivers who fail to follow them. They may depict a few other cars, but there will certainly be no gridlock, no honking, no fender benders or road rage. The disconnect between these advertisements and reality is, I’ve long suspected, one small part of why real-world driving feels like such a chore: We are constantly reminded what our cars are capable of, in a world free of obstructions and constraints. Instead we’re pushing through traffic, feeling our blood pressure tick steadily upward.

But we dream of breaking free. Hence the enduring popularity of professional racing and action-movie car chases and racing video games, which often simulate contests on the streets of real cities. Way back in 2004, players of the NASCAR-branded video game “Chase for the Cup” were already speeding through Chicago from the comfort of their homes. Tearing across remote salt flats is a powerful fantasy, but from a logistical standpoint, it’s a reasonably attainable one. Hitting triple-digit speeds on urban streets? Now we’re dreaming.

For some, the surreal early days of the pandemic created the right conditions for making car-based fantasies real. With the nation’s roads suddenly emptied of much of their traffic, speed enthusiasts kept breaking records for the “Cannonball Run” challenge, a coast-to-coast, N.Y.C.-to-L.A. path drivers were suddenly covering in less than 26 hours. Cities around the nation experienced increases in drag racing and stunt driving on public roads. Some participants posted videos of their adventures online, creating a visual subgenre that simultaneously testified to and stoked the need for real-world speed.

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 called off because of the pandemic, the league introduced a new series in which real NASCAR drivers — their schedules suddenly free — would race virtually, on eNASCAR’s digital tracks. Most of those tracks were meticulous re-creations of the real ones drivers had already been scheduled to race that season. But one new course had been added: a street circuit in Chicago. In fact, next year’s real Chicago race will most likely follow the same route as last year’s virtual one. At some point, as you watch the course-preview video posted on Twitter, you will realize it feels unreal not just because the urban streets are empty but because they’re digitally generated. Incidentally — or not — so too are many of the frictionless locations featured in car commercials.

Importing NASCAR into a video-game Chicago is one thing. Importing the video game into the real city will be another. While tourists from around the world enjoy the thrill of the race, access to downtown streets will be curtailed, and not just on race day; Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office estimated that the disruption would last for two weeks. The high-decibel scream of racecars will echo through the traffic-snarled city. And everyone watching — in person and on screens — will get another high-powered suggestion that the point of cars is going as fast as possible, with streets existing simply to facilitate that endeavor. A few studies, conducted in Australia, found that road accidents and deaths jumped dramatically in the vicinity of public roads used for Formula 1 events around the time that a race took place.

Even as our cities’ streets have had congestion return, they continue to be plagued by the early pandemic’s unleashing of the automotive id. In fact, the same week of the NASCAR course announcement, Chicago’s City Council passed new measures intended to crack down on street racing in the city, pledging to use social-media videos as evidence to find drivers and impound their cars. The juxtaposition is emblematic of car culture writ large, which always nods to the rules of the road, while simultaneously celebrating the automobile’s power to break them.

The day the Chicago race was announced, the celebrity NASCAR driver Bubba Wallace drove around downtown in his trademark red, white and yellow Toyota, generating promotional footage. The final product was hard to watch all the way through, for the simple reason that watching a car — even an extremely famous, extremely high-performance car — move through Chicago traffic with respect for the law and fellow drivers is exceedingly boring. Local traffic helicopters captured more footage, but it only confirmed the drive’s fundamental dullness. No one would confuse it for a video game. It doesn’t look like self-determination or power. The thrills pile up at an average rate of zero per minute. Wallace’s outing looks exactly like what it is: driving. One car among many, trudging through midday traffic. You know the feeling. You’re wishing the other cars weren’t there, and you’re vaguely aware that every driver around you is thinking the exact same thing: If only all the others were gone, then I’d finally get moving. If only I could go as fast as I want to, unbound by rules or the needs of others — then I’d be free.

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

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