Miscellaneous Ramblings

The Carless Generation

Charles Moore - 2010.12.15 - Tip Jar

Thanks to the Internet and texting, we're seeing a generation grow up that sees the automobile as something it can generally do without. Who would have imagined that the personal computing revolution would lead us here?

NASCAR officials and television network moguls are lamenting the paradoxical fact that despite the closest and most exciting post-season championship series in the Chase's 12-year history - with three drivers separated by just 46 points having the championship within reach going into the final race - fewer people have been showing up at the tracks or tuning in to watch on TV.

This is a far cry from half a dozen years ago, when America's premier motor racing series bragged about being the fastest-growing spectator sport on the planet.

Several theories have been floated as to why the precipitous falloff in fan interest. The recession, of course, has played a major role in the decline, and the fact that Jimmy Johnson, who must be credited as one of the great driving talents in NASCAR history, had won back-to-back Chase championships four years in a row and was favored among the three drivers with the championship within reach entering the November 23 Chase finale.

The oddsmakers were right. Johnson pulled out an unprecedented fifth championship in a row with his second-place finish in the Ford 400 at Homestead, Florida, an outcome that must've elicited a loud chorus of groans from NASCAR's promoters and TV network execs.

Nothing Stock About NASCAR

Those factors have almost certainly contributed to NASCAR's contretemps, but as an auto racing aficionado for nearly 50 years, I have some additional theories. First, the cars have become much less interesting for technology-oriented fans like me. The first-ever NASCAR race that registered in my consciousness was won by an up-and-coming young driver named Richard Petty, driving a 1963 Plymouth Fury that had originally rolled off a Chrysler assembly line, a race car that - other than the numbers painted on and roll cage welded in - was the spitting image of similar models many fans would've driven to the races. In those days, NASCAR racers truly were "stock cars" and racing directly related to what you could buy in dealer showrooms. However, by the late 1980s, NASCAR stockers, so-called, had pretty much morphed into silhouette racers, with virtually no substantive or even aesthetic resemblance to cars a race fan could buy for a daily driver.

Then three years ago, NASCAR imposed its "Car Of Tomorrow", completing the transformation of competing cars into pure spec-racers with a central steering station - the only vestiges distinguishing a "Chevy" from a "Ford" from a "Toyota" are faux radiator grille and headlamp decals pasted on the front of blobby, cookie-cutter, COT fiberglass body shells. Small wonder individual cars are more commonly referred to merely by their numbers these days, since distinctions among among purported brand nameplates are pure marketing hype.

With no credible crossover between actual consumer products of the various participating manufacturers left, at least ones that have any real relevance to the auto-buying public other than fandom and partisanship, NASCAR has degenerated more and more into being a cult of celebrity, a major focus being rivalries and feuds (whether real or contrived) among the drivers, leaving little to attract real car people. In its present status, NASCAR has been unflatteringly described as "professional wrestling on wheels," and there's more than a little truth in that assessment.

My suggestion for NASCAR would be a return to its roots as a race series based on actual stock cars that people can buy at local dealerships, albeit with considerable latitude for performance modifications and, of course, for driver safety, but with real stock model sheet metal and no proportional distortions, and front wheel drive if that's what the consumer is offered. Racing might then return to its erstwhile rationale of improving the breed.

However, aside from boring cars, another major factor's in play likely contributing to NASCAR's popularity decline. Last summer, the Washington Post reported that only about 30% of 16-year-olds today even bother to get driver's licenses - US teen license-holders peaked at 12 million in 1978, when late Baby Boomers were also in their late teens, and now number fewer than 10 million.*

A Rite of Passage

When I was 16, getting one's license was a virtually universal rite of passage. I took my driving test six days after I turned 16, and few of my friends waited much longer. In those days, virtually every other male teenager I knew was a car fan, or at least pretended to be one. Anyone who wasn't or didn't risked being regarded as a bit odd - not necessarily ostracized, but definitely self-excluded from much of the conversation, in those days conducted face-to-face (often in cars while cruising or parked on the strip) or by landline telephone, and centering largely on two topics - cars and girls (in no particular order). Most of our social life was conducted while cruising in, parked in, in, or otherwise around cars.

If you've ever seen George Lucas's 1973 flick American Graffiti - which received a Best Picture Academy Award nomination and which the US Library of Congress has declared culturally significant and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry - it provides a dramatized but commendably accurate depiction of teen car and cruising culture in the 1960s. If you've never seen it, and especially if you're under 30, I encourage you to rent a copy. It'll help you understand what I'm talking about.

The Carless Generation

Today most young people live in urban environments and learn to live without cars, conducting their social lives on the Internet and via smartphones. The "greenwashing" kids these days are universally subjected to in the education systems also indubitably creates an element of anti-car peer pressure among young people, although The Truth About Cars website editor and publisher Edward Niedermeyer - a self-professed car nut who discusses automobiles seven days a week, but doesn't own a car - suggests that that's usually more of an after-the-fact justification for carlessness than a first principle.

The Earth Policy Institute's Lester Brown observes that most young people live in urban society today and learn to live without cars, conducting their social lives on the Internet and smartphones, not in cars.

Niedermeyer notes that over the past century or so, America's youth have gravitated toward the automobile as a vehicle (both actually and metaphorically) of personal freedom, "an escape pod from the world of adult responsibilities and a way to connect with other young people." However, he observes that for today's carless generations, dominant values have been stood on their proverbial heads. There's even a semi-organized car-free movement in North America, sort of like ethical vegetarianism.

Niedermeyer observes:

"If a young person does buy a car, it's almost always because they need it for their job. Though debt, insurance, maintenance, and speeding tickets are the real-life downsides of auto ownership, the crucial issue in the uncooling of cars is the image of car ownership as a complex of obligations, all of which add up to less freedom. The ascendancy of the Internet clearly played a role in this dynamic as well. Thanks to computers, Internet, and cell phones, kids are more connected to each other and the world around them than ever before . . . the younger generations boast gearheads who can go toe-to-toe with any of the last 50 years. But they're an increasingly marginalized crowd. Cars have largely lost their masculine mystique, making cars which rely on an appeal to manliness seem outdated, desperate and, well, old-fashioned."

Holdouts in an Internet World

Too true, although there are indeed some holdouts in the under-30 (or is it 40?) crowd, and reportedly still some vitality in youth car-culture here and there - in California, for example. One of my daughters is a consummate car-freak and hotrodder, although she would vigorously protest that "manliness" doesn't have to be part of the equation. She can more than hold her own in any serious conversation among gearheads.

However, my other daughter, an academic now in her mid/late 20s, has never even bothered to take her driver's test. With few exceptions, real car people I know are grizzled and gray-bearded middle-aged boomers like me (or older). Not an auspicious outlook for the future of hotrodding or NASCAR, unless they - and the car culture community in general - can find a way to make themselves relevant and attractive again to a critical mass of younger fans.

Frankly, I feel sorry for the kids. I like computers and work on the Internet, but there's no way I would swap a youth spent immersed in the real world of car culture for the virtual world of texting, tweeting, and Facebook social networking.

Or as forum poster "boilerman10" commented on the Daily Kos, the Gen. Ys have never heard the roar of a type 1 Hemi DeSoto or Chrysler pre-1958, never heard or saw a flathead Ford super-modified doing over 130 miles per hour on a half mile track and then backing down for the curve and reaccelerating. "That sound is incredible...." Gen. Y "never saw how Chevrolet revolutionized hot rodding with the 283 and 327 engines. I am so glad I lived during that time. Poor Gen. Y."

I agree. It's sad, and it makes me appreciate all the more how good we had it.

* US cars sales hit peaks of over 11 million units in 1973, 1978, and 1986 and have generally declined since then. The number was about half that in 2009. Truck sales also had peaks in 1973 and 1977, also peaking at 9.75 million in 2004. Truck sales in 2009 were just over half that figure. Overall car and truck sales were just 10.6 million in 2009, the lowest figure since 1970 despite the government's Cash for Clunkers program (which actually increased the percentage of Japanese cars on America's roads as 690,000 cars were scrapped).

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Charles Moore has been a freelance journalist since 1987 and began writing for Mac websites in May 1998. His The Road Warrior column was a regular feature on MacOpinion, he is news editor at Applelinks.com and a columnist at MacPrices.net. If you find his articles helpful, please consider making a donation to his tip jar.

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