My great grandfather raced cars. Not the way cars are raced today. He raced the slowest cars. The slowest car wins kind of races. The last car to cross the finish line wins kind of races.
My great grandfather was an engineer from England. After his father died, his mother remarried, but he and his brother had problems with the new husband so they left for Canada. His brother didn’t like it and eventually went back to England, but my great grandfather got a job with the Guanica Central Sugar Company, in 1909, the third biggest in the world. Guanica Central sent him first to Puerto Rico, where he met and married my great grandmother, then to Haiti then to the Dominican Republic, and then he quit and opened a car shop in Puerto Rico.
My great grandmother was a psychic, played Ouija, traveled only in sail boats, no steamships for her, and every time she got pregnant she would take a sail boat back to Puerto Rico to give birth and then go back to her husband.
But this is about my great grandfather and the cars he raced. His license in Puerto Rico was number 621. That means there were 620 drivers in Puerto Rico when he picked up his license. That’s 620 possible clients for his shop. I suspect many of those 620 were also automobile enthusiasts, mechanics.
In those days and for the group of mechanics my great grandfather hung out with, how you went was more important than how fast you went. So my great grandfather and his friends would slow race.
Most of the race revolved around working on the engine, working on it until it was perfect. Unfortunately I know hardly anything about cars, otherwise here you would get a description of the specifics of how my great grandfather worked on a car before the races… instead I’ll mention things like balancing the pistons, and filing the plugs, and shaving the wheels, things that I’ve made up in my mind about what a mechanic might do, things that to a real mechanic probably sound like gibberish. But that’s how I picture it. A little bit like a British Burt Munro in Puerto Rico, but instead of trying to make his Indian go fast, he was trying to make his Model T go slow. Because the last one to cross the finish line would win.
I’ll say it again because it’s such an awesome concept: the last one to cross the finish line wins. Now, the trick is that your car can’t die or stop along the way. If your car stops moving forward, you are disqualified. If the engine stops, you are disqualified. So it was all about the engine and how slow it could run without puttering out. I imagine these are the secret races that mechanics still hold during their secret mechanic meetings, right next door to all the comedians telling each other the Aristocrats joke, right next door to the pedal steel players convention.
You don’t need a lot of room to do a slow race, but you need enough room for it to take a while. But not so long that the race takes too much time away from adjusting your engine. No 60 second pit stops here. Fine tuning that engine was their meat and potatoes. Tweaking it until the idle is just perfect, purring like a cat, moving imperceptibly forward, imperceptibly to the untrained eye. Not to the mechanics, of course. The mechanics listen and hear when an idle stops advancing, they taste the oil and can tell how slow the engine will go before it stops, they read the history of a car in it’s exhaust.
My great grandfather and his friend mechanics would then line up the cars, and start the engines. Then, instead of getting in the driver’s seat as one would expect a driver to do, they would stand next to the car and with one hand on the wheel they would gently guide the car as it moved forward, walking it as it where in their slow forward march. Some mechanics would make subtle adjustments to decrease momentum, some would correct the course to maintain inertia. All would calculate minuscule movements of their machine, but for the most part they would let the machines do their job, inch by slow inch. How slow can one go?
I’m sure in the sweltering heat of the Puerto Rican day, these races must have seemed like the slowest of motion mirages, all the mechanics dressed in their white linen suits, and straw hats, gentlemen guiding futuristic self propelled machines the way one may guide an old lady to cross the street.
Following on my great grandfather’s footsteps, my grandfather also loved the sounds of cars. During his courtship of my grandmother, he expressed his love and affection by making adjustments to the muffler and sending secret messages with his accelerator as he drove around her house at night. From her bedroom, my young grandmother fell in love as she listened to my grandfathers’ driving around the block serenades.
My grandfather’s three children did not hear the cars. One of them went into horse racing, another one into journalism and my mom into a life of exploration and family. One of my first cousins, however, did hear the car call and has been playing with cars since he was a toddler, from Tonkas to Big Wheels, to Hot Wheels, to go-carts, to stealing his father’s car at twelve, to late night drag racing in empty highways, to selling high end custom cars, driving them, fixing them, beat ups, muscle cars, compacts, trucks, racing cars – cars. He can sit there and just listen to an engine, and like my great grandfather, hear a symphony.
Now listen to this here. It’s a recording of the idle of a 35 year old, 1973 Toyota Celica with something like 40k miles in it, and then the idle of an 18 year old, 1990 Jeep Wrangler, with about 200k miles in it. The idles go back and forth. What do you hear?
When I was a little kid, my mother took me to the car races. The sound of a hundred engines revving up was so loud and horrible to me that I just cried and we left before the race even started. When I got home I put on side one of the Beatles, Yesterday and Today – the first track, “Drive My Car”.