What is it about automobile racing that I love so much?

I've never owned, built, or raced a real hot rod or a muscle car. I've never watched an entire Indy 500 and I've actually tried to avoid NASCAR.

My race influences are Hot Wheels, banana-seat bicycles, SSP Racers, slot cars, skate boards, Speed Racer, and an album of hot rod music that I've been unable to track down because I don't remember it's name or any of the songs or performers on it, but I remember the cover, and if I ever see it again, it's mine... it had the sounds of revving engines and other car sounds between the songs. Good stuff.

As I mull it over a bit, I'm beginning to realize there's a primal 'something' about racing. Quick and skillful mobility is probably our first greatest cumulative asset as human beings. When it comes to the fight or flight reaction, flight isn't much good if it's not successful, therefore, outrunning or outsmarting a predator is probably the handiest and oldest skill that we have, because such competitions were truly the difference between life and death.

Racing taps that primal instinct, turning it from life-and-death struggle into competitive entertainment and a display of prowess. In today's racing world, that prowess isn't limited to the speed and skill of the individual racers; it takes the skill of engineers, mechanics, pit bosses, and even the people behind the office desks to get into the winner's circle.

As ever, since prehistory up to the closed oval tracks of our present day, there's still the chance that something could go wrong; from an errant piece of timber tripping up the next meal of a sabre-toothed tiger to blown tires and pit delays; no matter how controlled the arrangement becomes, there's still the chance something could go wrong.

I've been looking forward to the upcoming Speed Racer film for some time. I haven't been this excited about a new movie since the original Star Wars first hit theaters.

I grew up playing with all sorts of toy cars but even as a small child I knew there were no better cars than Hot Wheels. Sure, Matchbox cars looked more realistic. But, realism is for replicas not for racing!

Another company once tried to knock Hot Wheels off the top spot with a brand called "Johnny Lightning". Johnny Lightning cars (JL, for short) were fast, and my brother had one that could beat some of my Hot Wheels, but there were a few problems with the line. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but I'm pretty certain that the 'lane' of a JL track was wider than that of a Hot Wheels track. I also remember two-lane track segments which were probably meant to speed up assembly time of dual straightaways for impatient kids, but that's beside the point. The wider lanes of JL track allowed them to make slightly wider cars, though they didn't always design their cars to 'fill' the lanes. If memory serves, most JL cars would not fit on Hot Wheels tracks and many Hot Wheels cars had too much room on a JL track, allowing them to bounce side to side. Naturally, bouncing side-to-side down a track isn't going to give you a good race.

My connection to facsimile racing is as old as I can remember. Even now, as an adult, when playing with tracks on the floor is too hard on my knees to consider doing, I still collect a few Hot Wheels cars. I'm no completist in this endeavor. I don't care about 'Treasure Hunt" cars or classic "Red Line" collector's items. I just want the cool cars.

I'll buy versions of real cars, I'll buy fantasy cars, I'll buy versions of customs and hot rods, even those silly blimps. I don't generally spend time playing with them though. As I said, the tracks and floor based play would be too tough on my knees. But thanks to modern electronics I have a compact and exhilarating alternative. Video games! I have a PS2 and a slew of original Playstation games including "Hot Wheels Turbo Racing" which features digital versions of some of the best Hot Wheels cars ever on digital tracks, performing jumps and loops and crazy stunts the way only Hot Wheels and Speed Racer ever could. Speed Racer and Hot Wheels are the perfect match of all perfect matches if there ever was a perfect match.

I also have a "Speed Racer" game made for the original Playstation, but frankly, that game sucks. Sure, you get all the Mach 5 gadgets and fitting courses on which to use them, but the courses are barely a worthy challenge. "Hot Wheels Turbo Racing" has thus far proven to be the ultimate in Speed Racer-esque craziness.

A close second to "Hot Wheels Turbo Racing" is the physics-defying wonder called "Beetle Adventure Racing" for the Nintendo 64. This game includes only the New Volkswagen Beetle in a variety of racing configurations that must be unlocked through gameplay. The tracks are crazy with jumps and hidden shortcuts and all the great race locales found in the Speed Racer cartoon... There's 'Coventry Cove', a peaceful and quaint village thrown into chaos by turbo VW Beetles roaring through the streets. 'Mount Mayhem' is an Alpine race setting with snow covered bridges and turns and a hidden ice cave containing a frozen UFO... there's an MIB black helicopter flying overhead to prove it! Next up is the exotic jungle island setting, the name of which I can't recall, featuring a hungry T-Rex, a watery beach, a hidden tiki village, and the caves around an erupting volcano waiting to swallow your car whole! 'Sahara Sands' is a desert level reminiscent of Egypt in which you have to avoid falling ruins, wind your way through ancient tombs, and try not to get stuck in the sand. If you've survived all that you get to a track called 'Metro Madness' which is a cityscape with highways, drainage ditches, warehouse districts, parking garages, and glittering skyscrapers to drive... through! But wait, there's more! There is a sort of haunted psychedelic track that I have yet to unlock. There are also at least three versions of the New Beetle I haven't acheived, yet. And still, there's more...

If you have a Nintendo 64 with "Beetle Adventure Racing" and 4 controllers, whip 'em out, hook 'em up, and call your friends over for an outrageous Beetle Battle! The Beetle Battles take place on one of six closed courses, Airport (basic driving with a few tricks, no planes), Parking Garage (speed and control are essential here, no parked cars), Lava Cave (concentration and control to avoid lava traps), Ice Flows (lots of sliding and jumping), Dirt Track Arena (my fave, learn the terrain!), and Medieval Castle (confusing and dark, makes me grumpy). The 4-way split screen view can be difficult to see on screens as large as 26 inches diagonal (4:3 ratio). 2-way battles are easier to see but not nearly as exciting. The goal for each level is to collect a full set of multicolored beetles then race to the finish. Naturally, it's not as easy as that. If you crash or suffer enough damage to make your car blow up you will lose collected beetles. To make matters worse, there are weapons and tricks available to thwart your enemies, and vice versa. If your cars' demise is the direct result of an enemy attack, that enemy steals a beetle away from you. It's not as insane as Super Smash Brothers but it's kinda like that, on wheels. Literally hours of fun, many times over. If you're an N64 owner, find this game. You won't regret it.

Action, competition, insane courses! Project Gotham Racing? Gran Turismo? Who needs 'em? With old-school treasures like "Hot Wheels Turbo Racing", "Beetle Adventure Racing", and "F-Zero"... let's not forget that SNES classic, who needs realism? ;-)


SPEED RACER - Setting the record straight

Speed Racer was the first glimpse of anime for most of us 'round eyes'. We were unaccustomed to this type of artwork and dialog, but I never thought about that. It was a cartoon about cool cars, it had relatable characters, and it had a monkey. What more does a little boy need for quality entertainment?

OK, Speed had a head-start in my cultural experience. Almost everything I liked involved cars in some way. Hot Wheels were indeed HOT and nothing was faster, except one car my brother had from Johnny Lightning, a competing toy race-car line. Speed Racer was and still is a great cartoon. If you didn't like it, that's fine. It simply wasn't your thing, but no matter how much you disliked it, it was far better than you remember. With a full-fledged family as the main characters there was a bridge of familiarity that made their world of insane racing and marvelous cars feel like it was just another day in the 'Brady' household.

The races took place in volcanoes, under water, in the desert, on tight-ropes, and often in the air for short spells. It's a fantasy racing world... exciting, dangerous, crazy, and ultimately ridiculous, but I learned that one monkey in the trunk of a car is more fun than a whole barrel of monkeys.

As a teen I sold off most of my Hot Wheels cars and tracks, but when I had a son there was an excuse to begin buying cars again. Alas, I hadn't considered that I grew up in a distinctly different setting than he, and cars just weren't going to be as cool for him as they had been for me. I grew up in a house with no carpeting.

NO carpet! Hardwood floors and tiles throughout made any room in the entire house a potential adventure speedway, whether we had those plastic orange tracks* or not! And our driveway was something of a secure area. We would spend hours drawing chalk roads and cities for our cars to inhabit. The driveway my son grew up with held 4 cars, max, and so was too crowded and close to the road to allow any lengthy playtime.

So, how does this all 'set the record straight' on Speed Racer? Well, Speed Racer is a fantasy world that related directly to one of our primary entertainment options, toy cars. Fights would break out over these cars, and occasionally they would be thrown as weapons... it was that important. Back then, before Star Wars, Transformers, and video games (two more things I enjoy), Speed Racer was the pinnacle of our car racing imaginations... and there wasn't a Mach 5 toy to be had, but we all wanted one. The Mach 5, like the TV Batmobile before it, became the ultimate driving machine at a time when we had only the vaguest idea what a driving machine was. So, here we are, 40-some years later, and I've finally got the greatest race car ever imagined in the form of the fastest toy cars ever made. Just what I've always wanted!

Counter-clockwise beginning in the lower left:
The red car is the Mach 4, possibly the car wrecked by Rex (get it?) Speed's missing brother.
The Mach 5 needs no introduction.
The Mach 6, star of the Speed Racer movie, appears here twice.
The dark purple car is the GRX, a car that has killed it's driver more than once.
And finally, #9, The Shooting Star, driven by the mysterious Racer X.

I still feel I haven't adequately 'set the record straight'. I'm experiencing B.A.D.D., Blogger Attention Deficit Disorder. These cars, as Hot Wheels, are a dream come true. As I've said before, every Hot Wheels kid wanted the Mach 5 and couldn't have it. Mattel created a copycat vehicle named "Second Wind" that was clearly meant to fill that gap, but without the tail-fins and that red and yellow 5 on the side it simply wasn't Speed Racer's car. It's the dream of owning that toy and racing it through the wild loops and jumps of a genuine Hot Wheels track that makes the Speed Racer movie such an exciting thing for me.

The Wachowski's didn't simply update an old cartoon and bring it to the big screen. They tapped into the childhood dreams of my generation! This movie puts that car on those tracks, all the while staying faithful to the history and fantasy of the cartoon, plus casting the whole thing into a future world where racing is everything, just like it was on my living room floor. The Wachowski's clearly shared this dream with me or knew very well someone who did.

And THAT, my friends, is setting the record straight, and why "Speed Racer" is the most exciting movie for me since the original "Star Wars". I'll be first in line to see this film!

*I've been remembering the tracks lately. [This post was started in the past but only posted today 4/23/08] Another post of mine, begun last night [4/22/08] and currently in draft, mentions Johnny Lightning tracks, which were red, perhaps with white stripes, and as I wrote the above bit about orange tracks I recalled the patriotic red, white, & blue Hot Wheels tracks released sometime around America's Bicentennial. Since then many colors of Hot Wheels track have been made.

"The Mist", Cloverfield, and More Monster Stuff

I'm glad I haven't seen "The Mist". The air is so foggy outside right now that I'd be too scared to walk my dog. Even button "E" (for "special illumination") on Speed Racer's steering wheel would have trouble with this "pea soup". The air is so damp that my lungs reacted to it, creating the sensation that I needed to cough.

I hear there's a giant monster in "The Mist", kinda like the Cloverfield monster. Cool. I'll have to check it out.

I still haven't seen Cloverfield, so I'm really looking forward to the DVD and it's bonus features. There has been much speculation in various Cloverfield forums that New York is too populated to have had only one idiot filming the devastation. Also, such hints have been dropped in interviews with production staff, and in the wording of ads for the DVD that there is more to come, either in the form of alternate footage of the same event or with follow-up stories. Only time will tell, and there's certainly no rule saying they couldn't make an actual movie based on Cloverfield, in the fashion of classic giant monster movies, instead of in shaky-cam style. We'll see.

BTW, or the record, it seems silly, even to me, that I should be so interested in something I didn't get to experience in theaters, but I've always been a giant monster fan, and I guess I always will be. Tyranosaurus Rex was always my favorite dinosaur, Fin Fang Foom is my favorite Marvel Comics monster, (Japanese) Godzilla IS the King of the Monsters... it's just my way. Vampires, werewolves, mummies, and the many incarnations of the Frankenstein monster all have their place in the world, but you know, even when they've been giant-sized, Godzilla still kicked their asses.

I'm big fan of Hellboy, Cthulhu, and the modern Mummy movies, even Underworld was big fun, and zombies are always good. I guess the classic Universal Monsters are just too cheesy for my tastes. But I love cheesy entertainment! Which begs the question, "Why do I scorn the classic monsters so?" Perhaps I'd like them if I gave them another chance. I haven't seen them since I was a kid when I only watched them because there was nothing else to do on a rainy Saturday afternoon, and back then I was genuinely afraid of monster movies. As for what scared me most... It's a toss up between the original Blob and Phyllis Diller. I was cool with The Munsters, but they had that sweet dragster...

Perhaps the idea that something has a (pseudo-)plausible connection to the world as I know it makes the ultimate difference in whether I like it or not.

What I'm trying to do here is whittle down my tastes into a unified theory of personal fandom. Next up, Speed Racer!

Out of Hibernation


The satellite map indicates an incoming storm of posts on the following subjects:
Cloverfield DVD, Danica Patrick, Hot Wheels, LEGO, and Speed Racer. There is also a strong likelihood of superhero movie commentary. Remember, posting storms are unpredictable and readers should be prepared for personal photography and items of local interest.

Thank you.