I am the electron, the distant particle. Sometimes I know where I am, sometimes I know where I am going, but never do I know both. I look back and see where I was. This time I covered 1,600 miles in sixty-six hours, from Ohio to Indiana to Ontario and back, racing, partying, making videos, lulled to dullness by the long road, sneaking out with the morning light and never really sleeping. This is not On The Road: this is Two-Lane Blacktop. We cannot learn about ourselves; there is no “there” there. But we can learn about this Buick, this uneasy inheritor of a tarnished nobility.
I step from my Town Car into this 2011 LaCrosse. It has 261 miles on the odometer. First impressions: it feels insubstantial. As Michael Karesh noted in his review, it feels and looks smaller than it is. Hard to believe it’s bigger than a Malibu. The extra space is used for a swoopy interpretation of the only interior design idea GM has had in the past decade. CTS, LaCrosse, Cruze… it’s all the same sausage in different widths. Control efforts are trivial, the leather feels like plastic, the brakes are no more trustworthy than a Panther’s. At least the 3.6L V6 is strong in the current Japanese/German rev-it-up mode.
Down the road we go to Putnam Park, site of the last NASA Great Lakes enduro of the year. It’s a three-hour race, and I will be driving the second half of it in the “Pakistan Express” #787 Civic Si. At the green flag, I watch my co-driver, Brian Makse, take the lead in a sixteen-car field and hold it for an hour. Looks good, but there’s a problem. Our transponder has died. The crew chief, Sam Myers, radios Brian. Extend the lead, we need at least a lap to swap transponders. When Brian comes in, we have perhaps forty seconds to swap it. Sam and Rob Demorest, the first mechanic, make the swap in about ninety frantic seconds while the Civic wobbles over Sam’s head.
Brian’s back out. A Miata hits the wall hard a few laps later, scattering haybales and black-flagging the race for twenty minutes. Brian works to get back on the lead lap, and then it’s my turn. During the driver change, two critical things happen. The first thing is obvious: there’s a fuel spill, leading to my being called back for a five-minute pitlane penalty while the competition whizzes by lap after lap. The second thing isn’t quite as obvious at first: my earplugs didn’t seat.
On track the unmuffled Civic is painfully loud, In my confusion, I’m immediately passed by two competitors, dropping us to seventh place. I can’t think, can’t see, my laps are pathetic, I’m losing time. Now the car is starting to pop out of fourth gear every time there’s a cornering load. The view out the windshield looks fuzzy. I think about quitting and am looking for the radio button when my eyes fall on the Traqmate race computer strapped to the dashboard. Oh, what the hell.
I switch the Traqmate on and cycle it to “qualifying mode”. In this mode, it tells me in real time if I’m improving my lap time or screwing it up. My first lap is 1:26.0. Not good for Putnam in this class. My next one is 1:25.4. Then 1:25.1. I can’t hear anything now. My head is numb. I’m feeling for grip as the other cars start to come backwards at me. I’m holding the car in gear around some of the turns, one-handing it like a hero. Woo-hoo!
Sam knows he has to scream into the radio and it makes him laconic: “GOOD JOB YOU ARE FASTEST CAR ON TRACK.” Really? We’re in the “E3” class. There are Porsche 911s and American Iron cars out there. The Traqmate says 1:23.1. I later find out that Brian was in the high 1:22s on fresh tires, but for now all I know is that there’s no more. I run to the end, passing my way back up to fourth in the next sixty minutes, five feet at a time, making the small improvements and the tough passes, waving at a TTAC reader who is running a Porsche 944 in our class and who was really the most courteous guy on-track all day.
I cross the line, get out of the car, take a photo with Sam, who has put me in so many safe, well-prepared cars in the past few years. Although Sam looks like a bouncer in a rough bar, he’s actually a track-record-holding driver who gave up his race career to focus on his family. There are few men whom I respect more.
No time to chat: it’s time to drive to Toronto to shoot a video on the Infiniti M56 for another publication. 638 miles. My head thrums softly in the LaCrosse, my vision is fuzzy, the border guard asks me if I’ve been drinking. I don’t remember all of the trip but before I know it I’m putting on a tie, practicing my lines. I drive at seventy miles per hour eighteen inches behind the camera truck, covering the brake with my left foot, repeating the same loop for three hours as the camera moves. There’s no zoom in top-end cameras, apparently. We do “zooms” by coordinating our driving. Nerve-wracking.
Now I’m in line outside the Kool Haus in Toronto, standing in line for three hours, waiting for the Miike Snow concert. The woman with me is china-doll perfect, Eastern European, willfully alternative in style and outfit. “Are you okay?” she says.
“You haven’t heard anything I’ve said.” And I only hear the roar in my head, louder and louder, like the sea coming in.
One in the morning and Miike Snow is pounding bass in this converted warehouse. Everybody is in motion. I have earplugs in now, trying to let my head recover. My little friend is screaming, jumping. She was born the year I received my professional cycling license. Louder and louder, like the thunder blowing towards my home in the summer.
She has a friend. “You said it was an old man car,” the friend says.
“It is. It’s a Buick.”
“Buicks are fun.”
“Oh yeah, I used to have one, when I drove. But I only had my license for a year.” The bar is closing. I could be asleep in the hotel half an hour from now. China doll smile. “You’re coming back with us, right?”
“Of course.” There are paintings lining the room where she plays piano for us at three in the morning, banging through a dozen Amanda Palmer songs, a classically trained pianist taking her anger out on the instrument, splendid, beautiful, her left hand hitting the bass side harder and harder, louder and louder, like the inevitability of conquest and surrender.
And then it’s daylight and I am sneaking out, a massive canvas with me, she said hours ago I should take it, I will not wake her to confirm. She sleeps like a perfect china doll now, her friend curled up on another bed down the hall. There’s an inch to spare in the Buick’s back seat on either side of the painting.
Back to the hotel, shower, dress, say the lines, repeat the lines, watch the blocking. Five minutes of video takes three days, you know. The M56 is a Japanese Buick, the same but different. The interior and exterior are weirdly reminiscent of the LaCrosse. The radio tunes the same way. Turn up XM channel 80, remember the night that is not separated by sleep.
Then it’s the afternoon and I am crossing the border again. The guard looks at the painting in the back seat. “Why?” he asks.
“Why not?” I say, and he waves me towards Buffalo. Now it is dark and I am settled into the Buick, we are heading in the same direction. It’s fast enough, it’s economical enough, and if it isn’t desirable that’s okay, the Lexus ES isn’t desirable to anyone and it sells, sells, sells. In the gas station the attendant says, “Why are you wearing earplugs?” I put them in days ago. Maybe. That was somebody else. I take them out and the world rushes in.
I run from the counter, surrounded by the noise, stereo chatter, flushing toilets, people arguing, towards the Buick, open the door, jump in headfirst, slam it shut behind me. We are quiet on the American road. However briefly, I know where I am.