Speed(racing): Ecstasy And Fascination

It is about the "Brickyard"; about the brand-new Mercedes-Benz built motor, about turbo chargers, horsepower, and, of course, speed. It speaks of Fittipaldi, Andretti, Penske, "Little Al." It is also about a certain "young 45-year-old lady" by the name of Lyn St. James who, although she defeated Mansel (last year's Indy Car Champion) in the time trials, will not out-drive him in the real race (the opinion of TV commentators).

Car racing is, perhaps, the first cybernetic sport. Not the machine by itself, nor the man (what about St. James?). Their purely cyber-biotic relationship is what counts on the speedway (called "The Brickyard"). Horsepower alone would not do it, nor the torque of the engine. Man (woman?) alone either. The combination of both, mechanic gear (the car) and the human ability of the driver, is what makes the sport.

But do not get confused: speed racing is, above all, pure speed. That is the essence of the sport. Through time trials, drivers qualify for a race. Consider, for example, the Indy 500, where the "average speed" over four laps qualifies them to participate in the race. So one of the first "events" of the 500 are the time trials, which determine not only the qualifiers, but also the position at the starting-line.

In time trials, this cyber-speed essence of race driving can be grasped in its full implosion. A lone car cruises through the speedway at "blazing speed." Average speed: 222.453 miles per hour (mph). The second racer beats the original time by one single mile per hour. The question here is: What does one mile per hour matter when the "average" speed is well beyond the 200 mph? In the heart of the sport, the fraction is everything. But in relation to other referents (like middle class everyday life), it is irrelevant. Even for the immediate dangerousness of the sport, that of the crash, one mile per hour does not make an accident less dangerous. Less painful? Probably, if it means that the faster the speed, the higher the probability of sudden death. But the real fascination of the sport, and certainly of the time trials, does not reside in the fraction. The fascination of cyber-speed has to do with the possibility of the pure and empty object: the ecstasy of the sole car in the speedway.

How do fans grasp the difference between 222 and 223 mph? That is not the point. The fascination of pure speed crystallizes in that enticing instant where car and its (cyber-) driver reach the point of ecstasy. What counts is the constant movement, the sound, the scanner vision of the oval speedway, that moment where the racing car never reaches any point at all, but only "lives" for the single purpose of speed-ecstasy. So when a T.V. interviewer asks "Little Al" about his pace setting average speed of over 228 mph, he completely misses the point(lessness) of cyber-driving.

The same could be said of the now stylish and noir-ish world of computers and video game simulations. Five years ago, the standard speed for a micro-processor installed in any personal computer was something like 8 mhz. A very abstract figure for the general public, except for those already submerged in the world of computers (simulations). Nowadays it is 66 mhz, with the possibility of 100 mhz, if the user acquires the newly introduced Pentium micro-processor. For the conventional "operator," none of this is necessary. However, every ad campaign by the computer industry is aimed at those same users. So we now have, as a standard, the 486/33 mhz speed. The same applies for video games, where the speed of the game itself is everything.

All is related to the fascination with speed, rather than functionality. After all, what "function" does an Indy car with 1,000 horsepower have in American everyday life? What does the instantaneous retrieval of information have to do with functionality in the strict sense of the term, when information is always there?

Why this persistence of speed in the contemporary trash-culture of America? Why this fascination? Perhaps the fascination with speed and the ecstasy it produces is more and more linked with the actual state of affairs of the "social." Indeed, it is a mirrored reflection of the end of the (modern) social space, maybe in favor of the fourth order of simulacra or, better yet, an incandescent push for the de-realization of hyper-modernity. Here, the fascination for speed is a "cynical sign," in the sense that Kroker and others has attributed to the phrase: on one hand, speed as the fascist possibility of the fourth order of social simulation, that of the hologram, where even the margins (of alterity) are produced by pan-capitalism. Or maybe something different: the fascination with speed hard-drives the simulacra to its own extremes. As Baudrillard writes, even when fascination produces the pure object, it also contributes to the general "circumstance" of inertia.

For example, how far can they go in a racetrack without overlapping (in a dangerous way) the boundaries of the simulacrum that have been settled by themselves. Ayrton Senna's death can be seen as paradigmatic in this sense, as well as the whole virtuality of the Formula One Circuit. Every year we hear the same complaints, about the "lack of safety" of the circuit. In the same race where Senna crashed and died, another racer also went terminal during a crash in the practice runs. A week later, yet another driver collided with a containment wall in practice. The constant push for excellence in order to satisfy the insatiable appetite of audience, the fans (i.e., the mass), every day, minute or second, jeopardizes the whole simulacrum of speed and speed racing.

But these are the (cynical) dynamics of the politics of speed in hyper-modernity: the implosion of the (modern) social, where pan-capitalism tries to push the reality effect into a closed circuit of technological simulation ? while at the same time, the constant thrust of the system promoted by the consumption drives of the masses forces pan-capitalism to its outer limits, sometimes as a way of re-inventing itself, or maybe just as a way of storming into its own enchanted disappearance.

Javier Santiago-Lucerna is a graduate student in the Social Psychology Program at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras Campus. He is currently researching popular music and the dynamics of social implosion.