Posted: August 21, 2007 in Taste

I don’t usually think in terms of highbrow, middlebrow, and lowbrow, though I acknowledge those terms may mean something to others. (I also read a bit about “nobrow” recently, but that’s too far afield to discuss now.) For me, value comes more from instrinsic quality than from the category in which a cultural offering falls. It’s pure snobbery to believe that highbrow is by definition superior and lowbrow is slumming. My interests tend to skew toward high culture, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also like aspects of low culture. On the fun scale, tastes vary widely, and so much for the better.

Earlier this summer, I did something I would never have guessed I would do: I went to see a car race. I’d watched a few on TV as a kid, but I really never had any interest in attending as an adult. (Similarly, I can’t imagine ever going to a rodeo.) A coworker attended last season and kept telling the stories again and again, saying that it was just too much fun and had to be seen to be believed. However, this wasn’t just any car race; it was CrashFest. The Illiana Motor Speedway has held this event for a few years, and it’s grown quite popular. The drivers were mostly amateurs and the cars were often in questionable condition. The night began with a few warm-up races, some of which were straight gags. For instance, the Toll Road Rage Race was memorable. Drivers had to deposit tokens in barrels on every lap; the winner had the most successful drops. Another race was done in reverse gear. The real attractions, though, were the Figure 8 Schoolbus Race and the Trailer Race.

The Schoolbus Race was 25 laps by full-size school buses on a figure 8 circuit. The buses were no longer in service, and many entries were painted according to some theme. The Superman Bus with a long red cape and a telephone booth on top was funny as pure kitsch. Half the buses didn’t complete the event, suffering either mechanical failure, overturning, or crashing at some point. Tension mounted unbelievably as the crowd waited for the first impact at the intersection in the track — and make no mistake, folks were there to see crashes. The winner took a victory lap and tipped his vehicle over purposely — at bit of grandstanding that endeared him to the crowd. If it’s too difficult to imagine what a bunch of school buses racing around a figure 8 looks like, the video below shows the spectacle.

The Trailer Race was on the same figure 8 track but was a classic demolition derby. The winner was the last vehicle still running with its trailer in tow. Some trailers were mobile homes and campers; other trailers had motorcycles, outhouses, and boats atop them. As one would expect, the event was mayhem. Half of the vehicles were eliminated within the first ten minutes; the remaining few picked each other off slowly for another twenty minutes or so. The amount of debris strewn across the track was amazing.

All of this was well and good, of course. No driver was injured, the crowd was entertained, and if it wasn’t quite good, clean fun, it at least lacked any pretense. We were there to see shit get demolished — school buses, trailers, even a few cars in the warm-up events. It was pure spectacle in the same sense as the ancient Roman bread and circuses. Especially interesting is the fact that such unabashedly base entertainments were fully accesible to everyone in attendance. No highbrow snob could possibly watch and fail to have the same stupid grin plastered across his face, the same as I did, for the duration of the evening.

I’ll avoid making any classist remarks about the members of the crowd, but the term mob surely fits, though without the usual derrogatory connotation. Everyone got along and had fun and left entertained, which is what it was all about.

Addendum: I learned today that there are even demolition derbies using combines. The school bus race isn’t strictly a demolition derby, though the trailer race is. Reimagining the event with combines may be just too, too weird. Don’t they move in slow motion, sort of like steamrollers? It all begins to remind me of the spectacle in Steven Spielberg’s movie AI with the robots being ritualistically destroyed for the amusement of the mob.

  1. greywhitie says:

    “My interests tend to skew toward high culture, but that doesn’t mean that I don’t also like aspects of low culture.”

    brutus, that sentence above just goes against everything you’ve just written above the sentence.

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