Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Petrolheads: Our Love Affair With the Car

Ever since I played on the remains of my maternal grandfather's one-and-only car back in the 1960s, I've been fascinated by cars and driving. My grandfather owned a Model T Ford that, once it was no longer viable for the road, he had turned into a tractor to work his land. By the time I got to it, it was a rusting hulk that sat on my uncle's property. We kids used to hop on the old seat and pretend we were driving anywhere but there.

Though I've had a life-long love affair with cars, I've actually never, technically, owned one. Both cars my wife and I have owned have been in her name. So it goes. Yet, I love the idea of the freedom that a car gives you; I love the speed and I love to drive fast. Just not as fast or as well as Nelson Monteiro (more on him in a second). Unfortunately, living in the city, with the congestion, incompetent drivers, irriating stoplights and unrealistic speed limits, it's taken much of the joy out it for me. So, I live vicariously through a long-running, very politically incorrect BBC series called Top Gear (BBC Canada, Monday through Friday at 9 pm -- repeats of the 2002 through 2009 seasons; new shows, Saturdays 9pm). The show has been on TV for almost 33 years (with a one-year break between 2001 and 2002 when it was reconfigured into its current format). The show, hosted by three archetypes (Jeremy Clarkson, the tall, paunchy, man/boy; James May, the long-haired, intellectual, musician who's nickname is Captain Slow due to his, by the show's standards, unwillingness to drive fast; and Richard Hamilton, sort of the 'cute Beatle' of the show who's nickname is The Hampster because he's not as tall as the oafish Clarkson), is pretty basic. Using humour of a decidedly 'laddish' variety, they start most episodes by showcasing some sort of super car (usually an Audi, Maserati, Jaguar, Ferrari, Porsche, you get the idea) on their track. All three are skilled drivers, with Clarkson being the best, Hamilton the most reckless and May, well, his nickname is Captain Slow for a reason. Clarkson or Hamilton almost always take on this part of the show. They race around the track while they discuss a 'fast car's' strengths or weaknesses. There's usually a lot of speed, lots of spins, tons of smoke and a bunch of silly showing off.

After that set up, we find ourselves in the studio with a large, standing audience who surround the lads. They then set up that week's challenge. It could be, oh, proving that the most indestructible vehicle ever is a 1989 Toyota pick-up truck (the things they do to this poor, but mighty truck is unbelievable, yet after every 'frontal assault,' including dropping it from a height of 200+ feet from atop a highrise that is being demolished, the vehicle is started again and again and still manages to move. They were so impressed by this truck's resilience that to this day it appears in the background on a pedestal of honour - the episode is viewable on youtube -- address at end). Or they set the rules for a challenge, such as prove it's faster to drive a really fast car from a town outside of London to Zurich, Switzerland than it is to fly there (two teams -- with usually Clarkson driving and the other two using the other modes -- start out from that little town with most of May and Hamilton's time taken up with actually getting to the airport using anything BUT a car -- they usually lose). This challenge usually lasts the entire program, broken up with various bits such as news and putting one celebrity per week into a 'reasonably priced car' and seeing who is the fastest racing around the Top Gear track (there's a big board that lists the previous celebrities' times -- Simon Cowell was one name near the top).

Then there's The Stig. The Stig is a disguised racing car driver who always appears in a white racing suit, gloves and a helmut with a mirrored visor so he/she cannot be identified. Supposedly, The Stig really is a current racing car driver, but his/her identity is the show's big secret -- perhaps for insurance reasons. The Stig serves two purposes on the show. One, he will normally race the 'fast car' around the track after it's either been praised or slagged to see how fast it really can handle the twists and turns. And two (which we only hear about, but never see), is to give the various celebrities lessons before their solo around the track on how to handle the track at as high a rate of speed as possible without killing themselves or flipping the car. It is for this last reason that the final corner is called 'Gambon' in honour of the actor Michael Gambon (Dumbledore in the later Harry Potter films) who when he took his turn had his car up on two wheels when he did that final turn (not a good idea).

The fans of this show, which includes myself, are called petrolheads. We as a group are hated by the crunchy-granola set because we insist on gloriously burning fossil fuels (the show always makes fun of electric cars because they are notoriously slow and diesel, well, just cuz). I do care deeply about the environment and do whatever I can, but this is my one admitted blind spot. Which brings me back a LOOOONG time later to Nelson Monteiro (pictured above in his version of The Stig).

Nelson is my first cousin by marriage and he's an up-and-coming race car driver. His father, my uncle-in-law, Yvonn Monteiro was the family's original petrolhead (pictured at right, advising Nelson before a race). He raced in his youth and even had the chance to race in one of the Toronto Molson Indy's pre-race races some years ago (one of his greatest moments behind a wheel, he says). This past weekend, Nelson was racing his 1992 Acura Integra, that he and his dad have lovingly turned into a sturdy/worthy race car, at Mosport, one of Canada's premier permanent race tracks. Yvonn asked me a couple of weeks ago it I'd like to come and watch Nelson race in the GT-5 series at the Canada Day Grand Prix of Ontario. I jumped at the chance, and this last Saturday found myself part of the pit crew...Well, not really, Yvonn was the only one allowed in the pit, but er, um, I put a tire on (badly/laughably because these tires had two sets of lug holes beside each other and if you didn't line 'em up properly the tire wouldn't go on -- I finally managed it about one minute after I started) and filled it with fuel between races. If I'd really been in the pit I would have had my ass fired. Didn't matter, I loved every second of it.

Nelson is a young, fantastic, dedicated driver who to my eyes is fearless and very skillful on the track. In this race, 6 GT series race all at once, meaning there were 40 cars on the track each time. I watched Nelson's three races as he powered around corners, caught up and passed his opponents and generally showed he was the real deal. His second race was, I think, the most exciting to watch as he came from behind to overtake his main competitor, Victor Simone in a 1995 Nissan 200SX (he also beat a 1995 Porsche 944S). The races were 20 minutes and about 12 laps each. I actually found my heart racing on more than one occasion during this second race. Each time Nelson roared past (at speeds up to 190 km) he got closer and then finally passed Simone. It was like watching a suspense film because you would see them zip past for about 10 seconds or less and then you'd have to wait and wait for the next fly by to see where he was. He won the second race handily, and came second in his final race. We were all convinced, based on accumulated times, that he came first overall, because the winner of the last race had come fourth in races one and two. For some idiotic reason (and this isn't because Nelson's my cousin), the winner of the last race, regardless of how he/she did in the other two, finished first when the podium was announced. The question in all our minds this past Saturday was 'then what exactly is the purpose of the first two races if it's not decided by accumulated time?'

Regardless, it was my real Top Gear moment where I felt/heard the roar of the engines, got involved in Nelson's endeavours/victories and generally had the time of my life. I am a petrolhead. I'm not the greatest driver in the world, and sometimes I can be as sloppy as everybody else (it comes from indifference because there is so little fun to be had driving in Toronto), but man oh man, when you take a curve in the road just right and at good speed without once touching your brakes while everybody else is crawling, there's nothing like it.

On the way back from Mosport, with Yvonn driving (an exceptionally skilled driver himself), we took the backroads back to Toronto, but I'll keep to myself some of the speeds we occasionally got up to on some of the corners. However, throughout the journey I couldn't keep a gigantic smile off my face.

Top Gear: How To Kill a Toyota Pick-up

-- David Churchill is a film critic and writer. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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