Episode 97: Deconstructing Muscle Car City


Doug Gordon: I’ve never been great at making and keeping New Year’s resolutions, so this year I’ve come up with one that should be easy to stick to: get outside more. 2023 is the year I want to go on more long walks and bike rides and really explore my city. And I don’t want a little thing like bad weather to stop me, which is why I’m glad I have a Cleverhood. My Cleverhood Rover Rain Cape is easy to put on whatever I’m wearing. It’s comfortable, it keeps me dry, and it eliminates any excuse I might have to stay inside on the couch. If you’re looking for help getting outside more, head on over to Cleverhood.com. Listeners of The War on Cars can receive 15 percent off anything in the Cleverhood store. Just enter code CLEVERNEWYEAR at checkout. Again, that’s Cleverhood.com, coupon code CLEVERNEWYEAR. Get outside and have a great 2023 with Cleverhood.

Aaron Naparstek: Welcome to The War on Cars. I’m Aaron Naparstek, the one who’s been subjecting you to two episodes worth of terrible muscle car noises.

Sarah Goodyear: [laughs] Hey, I—I think I’m recovering well.

Doug: I didn’t listen to those episodes with headphones on, so I was able to deal with it a little better.

Aaron: That was smart. That was smart. I’m basically traumatized from editing those.

Sarah: Yeah, I can imagine. Although you could also be completely desensitized and just be able to now go into the heart of a nuclear reactor or something like that. [laughs]

Aaron: Part of the—it’s part of the PTSD process, being desensitized. Anyways, today I’m joined by my co-hosts, Doug Gordon and Sarah Goodyear. And we’re actually gonna talk about the muscle car phenomenon and my various excursions into muscle car culture.

Sarah: Yeah, we are. And I’m really glad that you came back from muscle car culture so that we could talk about it.

Doug: Can I say that the most impressive thing about this was not that you inserted yourself into muscle car culture or that you went on a ride along with Denys in episode one, it’s that you stayed out till like two o’clock in the morning. Four o’clock in the morning?

Aaron: [laughs] Very late for me.

Doug: I can’t stay up that late. No.

Aaron: It was very late.

Sarah: And not only that, he stayed up in a traffic jam. Like, driving a car in a traffic jam.

Aaron: That was—that was questionable. That was questionable. Not to mention, like, getting constant messages on my phone via Instagram DM. And it was like the worst example of driving possible. I mean, which is part of the deal. It’s like, if you’re participating in that, you are the most distracted driver ever.

Sarah: Right. So yeah, you reported from the belly of the beast. And now we’re gonna talk about what you found.

Aaron: Yeah. So let’s catch up. In part one of the “Muscle Car City” series, we met a muscle car owner who calls himself Denys da Menace. And I had the chance to sort of drive along with him for a bit, go for a bit of a test ride in his Dodge Charger.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Aaron: Oh no! This is terrifying! This is like—this is like my nightmare.]

Aaron: Which was really, like, somewhat shocking, like, the amount of power that that thing—like, it felt, like, more like an amusement park ride than a car, yet it’s just sort of rolling around in the middle of the city. And then in part two, I actually got to join Denys and hundreds of other muscle cars in a gigantic car meet, which was billed as the biggest, wildest, craziest car meet of the summer in New York City. And keep in mind, this was 2021, so we were in a little bit of a different phase of the pandemic. This felt like part of the pandemic-era activity.

Doug: Yeah, there was a lot of release going on in that episode I felt, with people really blowing off steam.

Aaron: Yeah. And I do feel like that was a strong theme for me in the whole thing was this activity as a response to the pandemic.

Sarah: Right. It became background noise and background reality for a lot of New Yorkers to have these cars sort of whining away late at night. I can hear them on the BQE from my house, and I think a lot of people became aware of muscle cars in a new way in the pandemic because they were just racing around the streets. You could hear them, you could see them. It was kind of scary, and it was kind of part of the apocalyptic feeling that New York had was enhanced by the rise of the muscle cars.

Aaron: It was like the soundtrack.

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Doug: Yeah, for sure.

Aaron: So look, so I have been babbling a lot in both of these two last episodes so, like, I’m curious where you guys want to start. What’s interesting to you, or what comes up for you in this whole muscle car culture thing that I’ve been looking at for so long?

Doug: First of all, I gotta say Aaron, you did a fantastic job with both episodes, particularly in episode one with Denys. You know, I think there’s a risk of doing an episode like this where it feels like you’re going on safari, and you’re just this sort of like, you know, white, liberal, progressive Park Sloper bike advocate, safe streets advocate, sort of like the New York Times columnists, like, dropping into an Iowa diner.

Aaron: Fair, fair.

Doug: And exoticizing these people. And I don’t think you did that at all. I think Denys really is portrayed in the piece very sensitively. You asked a lot of great questions that didn’t let him off the hook, right? Didn’t excuse away his choices, and really tried to get a sense of, like, what it means to him. So I really applaud you for bringing that to it.

Aaron: Thanks. I mean, that’s really nice of you to say. I actually felt—a weird thing about this whole series for me was just like I actually didn’t feel like I was asking them very tough questions. Like, part of me just wanted to, like, be like, “You guys suck!” Like, I …

Doug: Yeah, but then there’d be no episode. I mean, I think you did a good job of saying, like, just—you have the mic. Tell me what you believe. I want to hear it, without, for our audience I hope, excusing it away. Yeah, it’s a balance. You couldn’t have gone in there guns blazing and said, like, “Come on, guys, this sucks. Stop it.” They wouldn’t have invited you to part two, much less part one.

Aaron: I know. That’s true.

Sarah: Yeah, but that thing about being invited is something that I thought a lot about when I was listening, because this is not an episode that I could have done. It wouldn’t have been an episode that I would have felt safe doing as a woman. And I think that the masculinity in it is very complex and poignant. And I thought a lot about what it means to be excluded from that masculinity and for that masculinity to be controlling our streets. And so, you know, that was a direction that my thinking went in again and again.

Aaron: Well, should we just start there? Because I mean, I feel like the main theme that came up was the way in which these muscle cars and this car club culture and the scene is really filling so many voids that we have in modern life. And in some ways, these voids were just exacerbated in the last two and a half years of pandemic life. So, you know, it’s like these guys are using their cars and their car clubs to sort of create an identity. Like, they’re rolling around the streets with Instagram handles on their cars. You know, it’s like, “Here’s who I am. I’m in my tricked out customized car.” The theme of community came up. It’s clearly—you know, the clubs are providing a type of community for people. People were very overt about that. But then also, like, what Sarah just noted, it seemed to me that the cars were somehow indicative of this real crisis of masculinity that’s underway. This was a way in which people are expressing their manliness.

Sarah: Mm-hmm.

Aaron: And that is so—I don’t know how you solve that one, you know?

Sarah: I don’t either. And I mean, I do think that there are so few ways for men to get together and engage in activity together, which is the easiest way to create friendships and alliances with other people, right, is to be doing something with them, to be making something with them. And I think by default, a lot of women who are tasked primarily or they end up doing a lot of the work of, quote unquote, “making the house, making the children,” and they’re doing that often in community with other women. And so it provides an opportunity for women to bond in shared activity and shared purpose, right? And so women have that built into their lives more.

Sarah: And I’m the mother of a son. He’s about to turn 21. And I saw him in his growing up, really looking for ways to find that kind of community with other young men. And he often struggled to find it. He played music, and that was great for him. And he played basketball. And pickup basketball, I think, has been a great way for people in New York City, for men in New York City to find each other and find friends, to find, you know, a fun time. And that’s kind of a time-honored thing, but there aren’t a lot of outlets like that. And then this outlet maps directly onto another outlet that men do have, which is video games and gaming together.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: Using Discord or Twitch or whatever, you know, in community, right? And then that sort of just transfers right onto the street. And I thought a lot about that too.

Aaron: And Denys was very clear about how, like, he went from video gaming straight to this car culture.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Denys da Menace: Me personally, before I had a car, I was playing Xbox every single day: after work, in the morning, Xbox for hours, hours, hours. And my mom hated it so much. Every time I come to home without doing the homework, I’m on the Xbox for hours. But as soon as I got the car, I told everybody on my Xbox, “I have no time for you.” I’m leaving work. I’m driving somewhere. There’s—I’m never home.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Aaron: What were you playing on that? Were you playing, like, Grand Theft Auto?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Denys da Menace: Grand Theft Auto, Call of Duty. Everything that—every shooting game there is I was there.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Aaron: There is an almost, like, video game-like aspect to this vehicle.]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Denys da Menace: This is the thing about the car clubs is we have our—our active real life car meets, but there’s a lot of—let’s say there’s a club, and then they’re making another Instagram that has a car club gaming channel. So they’re going on Grand Theft Auto and they’re making their cars on the game, and they’re having these car meets in the game. And they’re drifting and burnouts, everything on the Grand Theft Auto exactly how they do it in real life.]

Doug: You know, the thing that I really thought about along the lines, Aaron, of what you were saying too, is how intractable this problem is for men finding community. As Sarah said, you know, there’s these little bits here and there, but there isn’t the same sort of thing that we think about sometimes with women if we’re being rather binary about it. It’s not like Dennis lives in the middle of nowhere and there’s nothing to do. He lives in New York City, and there are actually lots of opportunities to meet people, to go drinking, to experience culture of any form, but they’ve chosen this. And I think that might speak more to the idea of a gender split in our politics and our societal problems than a rural/urban split that we sometimes talk about—or at least as much of a problem. And I don’t know how you solve that problem at all.

Sarah: I mean, I think part of it is that these cars literally make guys like Dennis feel seen and heard—literally—when they might otherwise feel that they’re just an invisible guy sort of flowing by in the current of New York, and nobody really knows who they are or anything. This car, I mean, there’s a—there’s a great moment where you are in a parking lot and this mother with her child …

Aaron: Oh yeah.

Sarah: … clocks the car. And you think that she’s gonna have one reaction to it.

Aaron: Yeah, I thought she was gonna yell at us because it was so loud and obnoxious and …

Sarah: Right. But instead she has a much more positive reaction, and she sees him, right? And she would never have seen him otherwise. And I think that is not to be underestimated. And even the noise that the cars make, I think in some way I guess I could look at it as a cry for help or whatever, right? Like, “Look at me. I exist, I matter.”

Doug: It’s peacocking. It’s peacocking.

Sarah: Yeah.

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: You know, one of the things that I thought a lot about throughout this because, you know, at the same time that I’m watching this sort of muscle car culture on Instagram and on our streets is you’re also seeing, you know, the car ads, like, come across your Twitter feed or on—if you watch sports, you know, on Sunday, you see these Dodge ads. And Dodge had this amazing campaign last year. It’s really what I saw as the height of this muscle car social media phenomenon. It was called their “Chief Donut Maker” campaign. Did you guys see that?

Doug: I did see this, yes.

Sarah: No I didn’t. I missed that.

Aaron: The “Chief Donut Maker” campaign was basically—it was like a reality TV show contest that Dodge ran. They had, like, 18 contestants, 12 contestants, something like that. And everybody was competing to become the chief donut maker, the chief donut officer for the Dodge Corporation. And you would actually get a salary. You’d be on payroll for a year. You’d get like 150,000 bucks a year or something like that.

Doug: And wait Aaron, we should say it’s not donuts like time to make the donuts, Dunkin’ Donuts.

Aaron: Oh, yes. Right.

Doug: Like, it’s people who are—donuts are spinning out in the parking lot or on the street, leaving skid marks in the middle of the road.

Aaron: Exactly. Which is this activity that these guys are doing around our cities.

Doug: Literally burning rubber.

Aaron: Yeah. Just sort of like destroying your tires within three minutes. So here’s a little bit of their car ad. The voice you’re gonna hear is Goldberg the professional wrestler.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, advertisement: We started with more than 170,000 applicants. We’re now down to the final two. Today, we will determine the winner of the sweetest gig ever, aka. The Chief Donut Maker.]

Doug: I think this campaign began shortly after Sarah and I went to the International Auto Show at the Javits Center.

Aaron: That’s right. Exactly. It was—it was, like, timed to coincide with that. This activity that people are participating in, it’s really not that much of a kind of grassroots, bottom-up organic thing. It really is in some ways being hyped up and driven by the automakers. Like, we do have these large corporate entities that are saying, like, “Hey, guys. Like, this is the cool thing to do with your Dodge product. Go out there and make a lot of noise through people’s neighborhoods, drive really fast in your incredibly dangerous 700-horsepower cars, spin donuts in the intersection or the parking lot. We’re all in on this together.”

Sarah: Yeah. And I think it’s worth saying, like, okay, yes, this is a way in which people create community and, you know, I want to respect that. It is also a really flagrant form of conspicuous consumption, the urban equivalent of rolling coal, right? Like, it’s this thing saying, “I literally am in a position where I can light money on fire, and that makes me a man.”

Doug: So Aaron, that was kind of the thing that a lot of our listeners brought up. I saw on social media some questions about this. I mean, so Denys does spend an obscene amount of money—at least from my point of view—on his car. And he talks a lot about having to pay for new tires and all the rest. And he does have sponsorships, but those sponsorships are not just like, here’s a new car every couple of years. Here’s a new set of tires every four weeks. He does—he just gets discounts. And I was really fascinated by this idea of how much money he really is spending. You know, he works at a bank, but he’s not a finance guy. He works at a bank. So he’s not making a million dollars a year and, you know, a $10 million bonus. He’s making 50 bucks an hour maybe, you know?

Aaron: Yeah. He’s not like a super wealthy investment banker.

Doug: Right.

Aaron: I don’t think. Yeah, he’s like the—you know, somebody who works at the table.

Doug: I was really fascinated by how much money he is spending on this conspicuous consumption. And, you know, what else that money could be used for that could build community and connect him to other people.

Aaron: So this issue of cost came up a lot, and I met another muscle car owner, a young guy named Carlos. So he’s in his early 20s, lives down in a part of Brooklyn called Coney Island, and he owns a Dodge Charger as well. And when I interviewed Carlos down at the Royal Posh Auto Spa, which is like where he goes to get his car wrapped and cleaned and everything else, the conversation inevitably just moved toward costs. Like, that seemed like the top thing on Carlos’s mind.

Carlos: So but the Charger is my daily driver. And so if that’s my daily driver, it’s kind of difficult because the gas is high right now. What is it, like, $3.68, $3.70 over here? So it’s kind of expensive as a—you know, every gallon. My car takes probably like what—used to be, like, 50 bucks, 40 bucks, $45 to fill up. Now it takes about, like, $60—$70 to fill it up. And the gas goes by like this. In city—in the city one full tank probably lasts me 120-130 miles, rather than if I took that on the highway it’s gonna last me about 400 miles, you know what I mean? Just because it’s the city, and it’s just difficult having a sports car in New York, you know what I mean?

Aaron: So this is definitely like—it’s an expensive hobby. It’s an expensive thing to own. Like, what do you get out of it? What does it do for you?

Carlos: It takes away depression. Take my mind off the pain, what I got going on at home, my problems. It’s just the way—you know, it just relaxes me. Hearing that motor roar, being behind the wheel, being able to do certain maneuvers. You know what I mean? Like, sometimes I get upset, you know what I mean? Instead of being mad at the world and just—I just go for a drive, you know what I mean? Hearing my car roar. Just going, switching lanes sometimes, you know what I mean? Safely, not too crazy, but doing what the car is made for, you know what I mean? Just driving the car I was made to be drove in.

Aaron: He’s talking about how his girlfriend is about to have a baby, like, any minute now and, like, he’s short of money. And I was kind of like, “Well, you know, do you ever think about, like, giving up the car? Like, you’d save a few bucks.”

Sarah: I mean, I think it’s interesting we talk about how expensive these things are, why would anyone want to spend that money on that? But you hear him say what it is worth to him, and it’s kind of like priceless, right? Because it gives him that feeling of agency, it gives him that feeling of freedom. He does experience those feelings in a life that clearly has a lot of other really negative feelings, and where home sounds like a place that’s stressful. It’s a way for him to get away from all that, and from his perspective, you can’t put a price on it.

Aaron: Yeah.

Sarah: I don’t know if this is the right place to do this, but I’ve been wanting to make a confession in regards to these episodes, which is that I used to own a muscle car.

Aaron: Really?

Doug: Wow!

Aaron: Whoa!

Sarah: And …

Aaron: What kind?

Sarah: It was a red 1973 Ford Mustang Grande with a black vinyl top.

Aaron: Wow.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: [laughs] You did not know that about me.

Doug: You’d think that would have come up in the first meeting.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: Seriously.

Sarah: Yeah, it was—I owned it in the late ’90s when I was living in Maine. And I bought it at a really terrible time in my life when I was married to a really insecure man. And I was very conscious of the fact that when he was driving that car, he felt better about himself. And then it was completely impractical, needless to say. We lived in Maine. I mean, you couldn’t even drive it half of the year.

Aaron: Yeah, it’s a terrible car for Maine, isn’t it?

Sarah: It’s a terrible car for Maine. But I will say that during the time we owned the car, we got divorced and it became like my daily car, because I lived in a place where I needed to have a car. And for a brief time it was the car I drove around all the time. And I felt like such a badass in that car.

Aaron: Huh.

Sarah: I felt really good when I was driving that thing. So I will say that I have felt that from the inside out. It is something that people—it turns people’s heads, they compliment you on it. They’re aroused by it, basically. It’s sexy. And I felt sexier when I was driving it. And that is my true confession.

Aaron: God. Wow, finally it comes out, four and a half years into The War on Cars podcast.

Sarah: Unbelievable. I did sell it, though.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: Okay?

Aaron: Sarah was held in the sway of car culture. Now we know.

Doug: What caused you to say, “I’m getting rid of this car?” Was it just that I don’t need it anymore? Or was there something more going on?

Sarah: It felt wrong to drive it, even at a time when I wasn’t really that conscious of—I mean, I was conscious of all the, you know, sort of bad things about what it did to the street and the air and everything, you know? But it was a long time ago. But it was just so clearly impractical. It was just so clearly self-destructive, really, in its impracticality. Like, I was never gonna be able to get myself out of the various holes that I was in, which I was in a bunch of holes at that time, financial and otherwise. And, like, it just became clear that the car was digging the holes deeper rather than getting me out of them with its rear wheel drives. So I did actually just say, like, this is stupid and I can convert it into cash. And my ex-husband was very upset when I sold it. [laughs] But yeah, I did—it just didn’t make any sense. And I realized it was just an illusion that I was driving around that was actually hurting me.

Doug: My confession that I once owned a 1991 Subaru Legacy doesn’t seem nearly as profound as all of that.

Sarah: [laughs]

Aaron: Well, what about the fact that I currently own a car while being a co-host? I mean, honestly, like, one of the reasons why, like, I sort of procrastinated on this episode for so long was because I was just like—you know, I was hoping Denys would give me a ride in his car, but in the end, he bailed. And so I had to, like, go pull my car out of the parking lot and go drive it around New York City. And I was just like, “Man, the listeners are gonna hate this. Like, we are gonna lose Patreon supporters off of this one.”

Doug: You know, I mean, this is maybe a topic for a separate episode, but I think it’s fine. I think we—you know, people who own cars, who are in favor of fewer people owning cars or cars having their proper place in our lives is like, that’s not a bad thing, you know? Not everybody has to be a vegan 100 percent of the time. If everybody ate less meat, the world would be a better place. So don’t worry about it.

Aaron: All right. I don’t think we lost any Patreon supporters either.

Doug: Well, not yet. [laughs] We’ll see how this episode does. You know, Aaron, I think the thing that really struck me about that clip that you played, something that Carlos said, which was the price of gas and how sensitive he was to price fluctuations, and how much—it would eventually go up even more than you said. But, you know, these guys are spending $50,000 on their cars and all the rest, and yet the price of gas going up by 10 cents, 25 cents, 50 cents was something that was really front of mind for them.

Aaron: You know, one of the real takeaways for me after attending the car meet was that if this scene can exist, if this form of social life can exist at this scale, then gas must be too cheap.

Doug: 100 percent.

Aaron: You know, like, if we can actually have maybe 500 cars, I mean, at least 350 cars rolling around the expressways of New York City just for fun for five hours a night on the weekend and these, like, gas-guzzling engines then, like, don’t complain to me about the price of gas, you know? It just seemed like …

Doug: A purely discretionary activity. Yeah.

Sarah: What’s interesting is when you say rolling around having fun, I mean, one of the things from episode two that really came through for me was that a lot of the time they’re not, like, even having fun. A lot of the time they really are stuck in traffic. And that is just incredible to me that they are willing to sit for hours and hours and hours in traffic, burning gas to get this very fleeting experience that they might—or that they’re just chasing it all night.

Aaron: Totally. And when you’re not sitting in traffic, you’re kind of having the experience of being at the end of a big sporting event or concert where you’re at the, you know, arena or the stadium and you’re trying to leave the gigantic parking lot and you’re just sitting in traffic, like, trying to get out of the parking lot. Like, that happened to me that night, like, four times, where I was just, like, in a giant parking lot, sitting in traffic for 15 minutes trying to, like, exit back onto the expressway. And everybody knows that feeling of just like, oh, this almost makes going to the concert not worth it. And that was the feeling of that night over and over again. It was so not fun.

Sarah: I’m sure that a lot of the listeners felt as I did, that one of the high points of episode two was your talk with Tony Touch.

Aaron: Oh yeah, he was the best.

Sarah: Tony was really able to talk about the beauty of the scene that he saw that night, and when he was talking about it, I kind of could see the beauty for a little bit too through his eyes.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tony Touch: But this is great for New York City. I mean, I know it’s crazy and it’s dangerous, but people need some version of, like, escapism. They have a lot of pent-up energy. So, you know, rather than turning to drugs or anything like that, look at this! How beautiful this looks right now! This is a Home Depot parking lot where people buy plumbing equipment for, you know—you know, but they just turn—look how beautiful some of these cars are! Like, these dudes probably live in their parents’ house, but they got nice cars. Like, this is cool. You gotta admire it. Just to know that there’s a community, and if anybody wants to understand the importance of right now in what we’re going through as a society, community is important.]

Aaron: Yeah, Tony was super interesting. By the way, I think it’s—people have asked, it was not Tony Touch, the famous Brooklyn DJ.

Sarah: Well, he literally uses the word “Beautiful.” Like, for him it’s beautiful and it’s healthy for New York, and it’s filling a need for the city. He’s not talking about the individuals having their needs filled. He’s talking about the city itself needs this.

Doug: And how transformative it is. He’s talking about how it’s a Home Depot parking lot where you can just buy ordinary plumbing supplies, and once a week or however often this meetup happens, it is transformed into a place of magic. There was something really poetic about that, I thought.

Aaron: Yeah. And I think there was this sense that this car club scene, it was sort of turning a Home Depot parking lot into something like a nightclub. You know, nightclubs were closed. You know, you couldn’t go to a nightclub, you couldn’t go to a bar, you couldn’t go to a house party. And so I don’t know, instead of, like, dressing up in your nice clothes, you would sort of just, like, put your car on and go to the Home Depot parking lot. Like, the people who were there, the crowd was—I mean, people were mostly in their 20s. It was just a very diverse crowd of young people participating in this from all over the city, all over the New York metro region. And it did feel like, okay, like, this is the social life. And I gotta say, there’s one car club account that really captures this, I think, and it’s this car club called the Brooklyn Hemi Boyz, which Denys used to be part of. The guy who runs that account, he kind of has a tagline, he has like a mantra, and it’s every video that he posts on Instagram, it’s like, “We outside. We outside. We outside.” Here, here, like, you can listen to it yourself.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Instagram: That’s what I’m talkin’ about, that Brooklyn Hemi Boyz shit. We outside. We outside. We outside! We outside! Yo, we outside!]

Aaron: But it’s just like, you know, this was a time when you—like, actually authorities were telling you you’re not allowed to go outside.

Sarah: Right. And I mean, of course, we love to see a parking lot transformed into a community space, right?

Doug: [laughs] Yes. This is its own form of tactical urbanism in a really strange way. The cars are in on the tactical urbanism.

Sarah: But the problem is that, okay, so if you are trying to make cars happy and give them a place to frolic …

Aaron: [laughs]

Sarah: … I suppose that a Home Depot parking lot is an excellent venue for that. So let’s talk a little bit about the police strategy.

Aaron: Yeah, the authorities’ response.

Doug: Yeah.

Sarah: They’re not letting the cars frolic in their natural habitat. They’re then forcing them back out again. Well, you can explain, Aaron, what happened.

Aaron: That was what was so strikingly weird, the policing strategy around this stuff. So it’s like, you would be in a Home Depot parking lot in a pretty remote section of the Bronx, literally tucked between two highways, you know? And there was a neighborhood, you know, not so far away, and you were definitely annoying those people, I’m sure. But for the most part, this is a very remote Home Depot. Guys are spinning. The second they start spinning, the cops who were just sort of hanging out on the sidelines turn on their lights and it’s like, okay, time to go. That’s—it’s time to go. It’s time to take these now pretty intoxicated, dangerous drivers and just force them all back out onto neighborhood streets and then local expressways where they then inevitably—like, they cause a crash. Like, I’m pretty sure I saw one of the—you know, I went through a crash that was probably caused by our guys. So maybe it wouldn’t be so bad to just, like, let them have a Home Depot parking lot at two in the morning.

Doug: That was gonna be my question, though. I think—I wonder how much of the fun and excitement of this is that it is, you know, from the cops point of view, illegal. Like, if the cops said, “Okay, cool. We’re gonna close down this parking lot. You guys can all come on this date at this time. We’ll let you do it.” Would anybody show up? Is part of the fun that it is a bit dangerous if not illegal? It goes back to, I think, what Sarah was saying of, like, you’re doing this thing, you’re presenting yourself to the world, you’re powerful, you’re strong, you’re making a statement. And one of those statements is: screw the law. Like, I wonder if that is part of it, that if you could sanction this in some way, that it would lose its appeal.

Aaron: I mean, that was my other interpretation of “We outside,” was not just like, “Okay, we’re outside during the pandemic. You can’t stop us.” It was also like, “We’re outsiders, we’re outlaws. We’re—we’re running from the cops.” And that was very—it seemed very overtly part of the fun of the evening is like the sort of cops and robbers chase, and where nobody gets arrested unless you’re on a dirt bike. Like, people on bikes got arrested, on ATVs, or their vehicles got seized. But the car people, nothing really happens to them. They’re just—it’s cops and robbers. They’re just being chased.

Sarah: Yeah. And also, let’s say that this is what Dodge is selling. Dodge is selling not only horsepower, sexy street profile, they’re also selling the idea that you are an outsider, a renegade, a person who will drive your car over the speed limit. Just by definition the car is designed to just blast the speed limit into smithereens, right. And all of their advertising is playing up this sort of edgy, roguish, outsider, semi-illegal profile. I mean, that’s what they’re selling.

Doug: Yeah, I was thinking the advertising and marketing piece of it, Sarah, you remember when we went to the auto show and I spoke to the Dodge rep, and he was talking about this car that when he drives it, he can be stopped at a light and even someone in a Honda Civic will pull up next to him and want to race him.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dodge representative: All right. I’ll tell you every time I drive one, I’m always getting people looking at me or trying to race me, even though I’m just trying to go out for a cruise, right?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Doug: [laughs]]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Dodge representative: I’m not just talking, like, Mustang or Camaro owners, even a guy in a Honda Civic might pull up and thinks he wants to—you know?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Doug: He’s probably not gonna beat you. Yeah, yeah, yeah.]

Doug: But then the other piece of it is they are specifically marketing their cars in a way that promotes racing. They believe that the image that the car projects, and yet they sort of absolve themselves of any responsibility for it. Like, there’s a reason they’re spending this much money on advertising. They wouldn’t do it if they didn’t think it worked.

Aaron: Right. You know, and that goes straight to the top of these companies. There’s a lot of amazing video of the CEO of Dodge, this guy, Tim Kuniskis, talking about his vision for what—you know, what Dodge is, what it means as a brand and the kinds of products that they’re putting out. And, you know, for all of their claims that they’re not encouraging this kind of dangerous driving behavior, it’s very much baked into the CEO’s own vision for the company and its products.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Tim Kuniskis: We have a core group of people inside our company that are passionate drag racers. And when we were kids, we were growing up, myself included, you know, we would take our cars to the drag strip. And these weren’t nice cars. You know, these were cars that we were lucky that they didn’t break while we were there because we had no way to get home. This car that we’re bringing to market is the car that we dreamed about having when we were kids. We got the opportunity to bring it to market now.]

Aaron: So these guys, they’re so proud of, like, breaking the rules on how fast a street legal car is allowed to go. Like, their Hellcat, or one of their, you know, brands goes over 200 miles per hour. And this is just a consumer product that they are selling to just normal people who can afford it, and then, like, encouraging the use of that product in this very dangerous way. And I guess I keep coming back—like, you can be critical of these guys, you know, who are out in the street, but it’s just like the auto industry is so bad. Like, these are basically weapons. These are weapons of mass destruction that they’re just happily putting on streets, giving to anybody to use.

Doug: Well, I’m struck by something that he said in that statement, and it ties back to I think what Sarah brought up, is this idea of manhood. He’s talking about when we were boys, when we were kids, this is what we dreamed about. And now this is something that we have that’s even beyond that wildest dream. But, like, some dreams you have as a kid, you don’t actually get to do. Like, I dreamed of being an astronaut, and it would be really weird if I went out and bought a space shuttle and parked it in the street. Like it’s—you know, childhood dreams sometimes need to die in that way. I think it’s great for adults to act like kids and enjoy stupid movies and, like, just be silly and have fun, but not in harmful ways, I guess. And I don’t know, I think that boyhood piece, that never growing up and that, you know, rule-breaking piece of it, it’s just intractable. You cannot separate it from this toxic masculinity.

Sarah: Right. I mean, like, the good side of masculinity is the side that grows up and then takes that energy and testosterone and harnesses it to a purpose that will not kill people, but rather save them from being killed. And this seems to—by encouraging the situation where you just get to drive around on your Hot Wheels track in the real world is extremely destructive.

Doug: Aaron, can I ask you, did they—they name their cars, they have Instagram handles. And that’s sort of the premise of your first episode, following these cars on Instagram. Do they have gendered names for the cars? Do they see like a ship that the car is a girl, is a woman?

Aaron: Hmm. That’s a good question. I guess I didn’t really see much of that. But I will say, like, as far as the gendered stuff goes, an interesting side note on that is there are a fair number of muscle car gender reveal parties on Instagram. So there was one young muscle car owner, he has a red Chevy Camaro. His name is Inferno Rob. And Rob had a new baby last year, and to reveal the gender was by placing some sort of canister beneath the rear wheel of the Chevy Camaro. And then Rob revved it like crazy, and then the canister blew up and it was blue. Blue smoke came out and mixed with burning tire rubber and noxious exhaust smoke.

Sarah: I hope the woman who had been carrying this baby didn’t breathe too much of that while she was pregnant. [laughs]

Aaron: I do know from subsequent Instagram posts that they did have a baby boy, looks healthy, and is already driving around in his own little tiny plastic Chevy Camaro. Literally like a little electric car with, like, a one year old. Like, this kid is, like, too young to even be in, like, a bike seat, probably.

Doug: Isn’t that kind of funny that I think that, you know, sometimes bike activists get accused of, like, brainwashing their kids. My kids have spoken at community board meetings, you know, in favor of bike parking corrals and that kind of stuff. And then the NIMBYs in the room are like, “These kids were just coached by their parents about what to say.” I’m like, “Do you understand how cars are marketed to children?”

Sarah: Speaking of toys, have you guys caught the new Hess truck commercial?

Aaron: No. You mean Hess the gas station, the oil company?

Sarah: Yeah. And, you know, they have those Christmas trucks.

Doug: Right. So we should probably tell our listeners, because not everyone may be familiar with this, it might be a regional thing. Hess, the oil company—which actually no longer has gas stations, I think they’re purely a refining company—they in 1964 released a toy truck that you could pick up at their gas stations, and every year it’s become a Christmas tradition. They released a new model Hess truck toy, and you can buy it now online. My son has a collection going back to age two. I have a Hess truck from when I was a kid. My mom bought them for me and still buys them for my son.

Aaron: We had a Hess gas station on our corner, so our kids were always getting Hess trucks.

Doug: And they have a new one this year. And …

Sarah: But let’s play that little ad, and Doug, maybe you could tell us what we’re seeing.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Hess ad: [singing] The Hess truck’s back and it’s better than ever. Racing hot rods this year, the Hess truck’s here!]

Doug: All right. So we’re seeing a flatbed truck, and two hot rods get off with Santa getting the keys. And they’re off, racing through a kind of stereotypical Christmas village. Looks like maybe Whoville or something like that, through a barn with reindeer in it, and skidding to the end of the race course and the finish line.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Hess ad: A tradition each year, the Hess truck’s here!]

Doug: And if you don’t recognize that song, that is sung to the tune of “My Boyfriend’s Back.”

Sarah: Right. And the hot rods that are on the flatbed truck, which is this year’s fun Hess treat, which does look pretty fun I have to admit, you know, they’re 1950s-style hot rods with flames on the side, and the whole thing has a kind of a slightly MAGA-ish …

Doug: Make the Hess truck great again?

Sarah: Exactly. And the scene that they’re going through, the village that they’re going through is like this idyllic New England, mountainous, perfect snow-covered village that’s so peaceful with twinkling Christmas lights and whatever. And then they’re just, like, blasting their hot rods right through it. And, like, it’s like a video game.

Doug: Yeah, I love it. I’m sure people have seen the meme of, you know, this kind of smart, walkable, mixed use urbanism is illegal to build in most American cities. That is what we’re seeing in this ad. And these guys are just like blitzing through, you know, pun intended of—you know, it’s Santa in the driver’s seat, and just racing through tearing up this town.

Aaron: Yeah, I feel like the auto industry guys are very overt about the muscle car being a kind of a throwback, and there’s a piece of nostalgia and, you know, Make America Great Again, very much embedded in the—in the whole phenomenon.

Sarah: When gas flowed like water.

Aaron: [laughs] Yeah. When it was less than a dollar a gallon.

Sarah: Yeah.

Aaron: So where do we kind of land on all this? What—what do we take away from the muscle car city phenomenon?

Sarah: I mean, for me personally, it was a really difficult tension between the empathy and compassion that I felt for Denys and the other drivers, understanding that they are getting something really important. And I want to have empathy with them, and I want to be compassionate and understand what they’re getting out of this, but the negative effects on other people in the city around them are just so profound that we can’t dismiss those, right? So trying to find a way of holding both of those truths at the same time and moving forward, informed by both of those truths is incredibly difficult. But I think that it’s really important, both pieces of it: the empathy and also the awareness of the negative externalities of this hobby.

Doug: I mean, for me, I think a lot of it comes down to issues we talk about on The War on Cars all the time, which is space and how we use it, and how you can prevent the kind of bad uses from taking over that space. And that ties a lot back to masculinity, which I think a lot of masculinity is devoted to taking up a lot of space and making your presence known in it. And so I think a lot of the solutions wind up being narrowing roads, not building giant parking lots in cities. Of course, you run the risk then of pushing this activity to communities that are less equipped to deal with it, that will bear the brunt. I mean, they’re already bearing the brunt of a lot of these meetups. You know, they’re happening near expressways, near lower-income neighborhoods. They’re not happening in the middle of Greenwich Village. So I think it kind of gets to the heart of a lot of the issues we always talk about: space and how we use it.

Aaron: Yeah. And I kind of feel like my—my take away from this was some version of #BanCars, you know?

Doug: Yeah.

Aaron: And not necessarily all cars, but cars that have 700-horsepower motors? Ban ’em! You know, cars that can go 203 miles per hour should not be street legal. Like, period. And, you know, we have authorities in the world, we have a National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and people who, you know, their job is to regulate cars. And my question is why these cars are being allowed to be produced as consumer products? It makes no sense for—you know, as products that are supposed to be used for personal mobility, it just doesn’t make sense to have them out on the street. So yeah, it’s like, yes, we have these car clubs, they’re providing an important purpose for the people who participate in them. But, you know, a lot of that purpose could also be satisfied through, like, a bowling club. [laughs]

Sarah: Yeah. I mean, that’s, yeah, not as thrilling, but I think you’re absolutely right. And we’ve talked many times about the technology is available to, you know, have speed governors to limit speeds on city streets in ways that can’t be gamed. And, you know, that’s the direction we need to be moving in. And sadly, this is a hobby that belongs on the dustheap of history.

Aaron: That’s it for part three of “Muscle Car City.” Thanks for listening. As always, we will put links to things we talked about in the show notes.

Doug: Please support The War on Cars on Patreon. We really appreciate everyone’s support so far. Go to TheWaronCars.org, click “Support Us” and enlist today starting at just $3 per month. You will get access to exclusive bonus content and we will send you stickers.

Sarah: And you can check out The War on Cars store for t-shirts, mugs, stickers and other great merchandise. Special thanks to our friends at Cleverhood. For 15 percent off the best rain capes and anoraks, use coupon code CLEVERNEWYEAR when you checkout.

Doug: Thanks very much to our top Patreon supporters: Charley Gee of Human Powered Law in Portland, Oregon, the law office of Vaccaro and White in New York City, Virginia Baker, James Doyle, Martin Mignon and Mark Hedlund.

Sarah: This episode was recorded by Josh Wilcox at the Brooklyn Podcasting Studio. It was edited by Ali Lemer. Our music is by Nathaniel Goodyear. Our logo is by Dani Finkel of Crucial D Designs. I’m Sarah Goodyear.

Aaron: I’m Aaron Naparstek.

Doug: I’m Doug Gordon. And this is The War on Cars.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Aaron: Oh, no! This is fucking terrifying!]