“My favorite stretch of road with this car?” he asked with a sly grin, “…on ramps.” When the light turned green, I instantly knew why…
How many of you have ever been extremely jealous of something another person had? Its okay, you can be honest…I won’t tell. It isn’t a trait that we like to admit to having, but we’ve all been there. The quote I started this blog with marked the last time I’ve been seriously jealous of anyone or anything, and I was jealous of our friendly co-host and jolly red producer Tristan. Why? Because he got to drive a Volkswagen GTI. To some, that may not seem special, and it actually didn’t seem special to me either, until I sat in it. When Tristan first told me his family got the little hatchback I didn’t think much of it. I was raised in a GM household. Horsepower was king: big blocks, rear-wheel drive, “lumpy sticks”, ‘MURICA! While I had heard of the hot hatch culture, I never really paid much attention to it because it didn’t involve Camaros or Corvettes. That changed on that fateful ride up the on ramp…
We were turning east from Highway 83 onto Interstate 94 in Delafield, Wisconsin. I had already been quite impressed with the little white car’s handling through the winding roads near Tristan’s home. The machine was absolutely planted to the tarmac and responded to all of Tristan’s inputs without hesitation. But, my Lord, when Tristan made that right turn and gave it the business, I was hooked. I was literally thrown into the back rest of the passenger seat, my head pressing into the headrest so hard that I could feel the fabric folding around my neck. It was like someone put a video in fast forward. We SAILED onto I-94! After what seemed like .0004 seconds, Tristan looked over and said “We’re in 6th gear. Did you notice??” I hadn’t noticed. The dual clutch transmission made the shifts so smooth that there was not even a hint of a lurch between gears. The RPMs never dropped either. Just one smooth run up the tachometer. That, ladies and gentlemen, is when I realized that a car without a V8, without real wheel drive, without a 4-on-the-floor transmission, and without the MOST horsepower could be fun. It was also when I became jealous. Seriously jealous. How come Tristan got to drive this car and I didn’t??? I’M the race car driver in the group!!! If anyone could handle this baby, it’s me!
From that day on, every time I talked to Tristan or his dad, I hounded them about the GTI: “Do you think I could drive the GTI sometime, please?” “Have you made up your mind about whether or not I could drive the car today?” “If I promise not go over the speed limit, would it be ok if…” “I want to drive your GTI, please?!?!?” “GIMME!!!” The answer was always the same: “No.” I even tried the “but I’m a race car driver” argument with Tristan. His response: “Oh, good! Because race car drivers NEVER crash!” What an asshole. Just when I was about to give up all hope, came one fateful late summer night…
We left Tristan’s house to make a run for the border and grab some Taco Bell, because Taco Bell. We had 4 people in the GTI, including CEP’s other host Andrew. Go ahead, ask him. He’ll confirm. While we were enjoying our chalupas, crunch wrap supremes and Baja Blast we were caught in the worst storm of the year. Tornado sirens went off, the lights were flickering, announcements being made to get inside as fast as possible, trees were bending over in the shape of horseshoes and the rain was so hard and dense that we couldn’t see the ol’ GTI just out the window. After waiting it out for about a half hour, we saw that the lightning had subsided and we no longer heard tornado sirens, so we decided to make a break for it and head back to Tristan’s place. The rain was still unlike anything I’ve experienced before or since. If you stood out there for 30 seconds, you may as well have fell into a swimming pool with your clothes on. It looked the same. Tristan was doing a great job taking it easy, not out driving the wipers or headlights and we were making our way back to safety. Then we came upon a railroad track crossing the road. Unbeknownst to us, on the other side of this railroad track there was an actual river running across the road. The rain had fallen so hard and fast that the ground had no chance to absorb it, so it flowed across this particular street like rapids. We went over the railroad tracks and did a literal nosedive. It briefly felt like we were on the first drop of a roller coaster. When we came down the other side of the tracks, water splashed up over the hood and windshield. The car, of course, died instantly from engine flooding. We were stranded in the middle of a major street with standing water past the bottom of the doors. We all took our shoes off, put our valuables on top of the dashboard, and hopped out to push. Our clothes were stuck to us instantly from the rain. Water flowed into the foot wells front and back in the short time it took us to get out and slam the doors. We pushed the GTI out of the river and into the nearest parking lot, and began making phone calls. In the couple hours that passed, we were threatened by police for “loitering” even though we couldn’t go anywhere if we wanted to, we helped at least 2 or 3 other motorists who got stranded in the same spot we did, and even had a local newspaper reporter talk to us for a few minutes because of our good samaritan work!
But by now, we were all cold and wet and wanted to go home. It was well past midnight and for whatever reason that I don’t quite remember, we couldn’t get a tow truck. But Tristan’s dad made it out there and after some finagling, the Volkswagen engine sputtered to life. Mr. Dudley turned to me and said, “Nick, your dream is coming true. You get to drive the GTI.” See, I lived the closest to the Dudley family’s trusted mechanic. Mr. Dudley would take the other 3 dudes back to their house to dry off, and I got to drive the GTI back to my house. The next morning, the Dudleys would come drop my car off, pick up the GTI and take it to be repaired. Got all that? Good…So, yes, FINALLY, I got to drive the GTI. At no more than 25 miles per hour. Without getting further through the gearbox than 3rd. On the interstate. The rain still hadn’t stopped at this point, by the way, so I was sitting in a soaked seat with wet clothes. There I was, in the first hatchback I ever loved, crawling on the shoulder of I-94 with the hazards flashing and clouds of white smoke pouring from underneath. A trip that would take me 20 minutes normally (12 minutes if I drove a healthy GTI) took over an hour. When I got home, it was almost 2am. I was shivering uncontrollably. I had to take my clothes and literally wring them out in the bathtub because they were so wet. After a long hot shower, I fell into bed. I didn’t take me long to fall asleep, but in that short period that I was awake, I couldn’t stop smiling. Why? Because that beautiful white GTI was in MY driveway. And I drove it there. Victory was mine, and it came on the heels of one HELL of a story to tell.
This story is told in vignettes.
One day, when I was in middle school, I stepped off the bus and walked into my house to hear my mom on the phone, saying something to the effect of "Yes, he's a very sensitive boy, very prone to crying." Things like this weren't that unusual to hear around my house. My mom was a teacher, and often gave out our home number to parents if they were concerned about a student in her class. The thing was, this time, she wasn't talking about one of her students, this time she was talking about me to one of my teachers. I had done something that day that had offended, worried, or otherwise bothered the new band teacher - this would later become a pattern - to the point that she actually called my mom to talk about it, and then obviously I got in trouble. I can't even remember what I said or did now, and I couldn't even remember that day, but I do remember overhearing that conversation because for me, it was a watershed. In that moment, I learned the difference between real and performative emotions.
I first heard Porter Robinson's song Language, in some bar or club and I remember that the music video was playing alongside it. It's an EDM song, which is a genre I listen to from time to time, typically while reading or studying. But something about Language struck me from that first listen, and it became one of my favorite songs. I connected with the song, and it's very short, simple lyrics because they made me feel something:
Give me release
Let the waves of time and space surround me, yeah
'Cause I need room to breathe
Let me float back to the place you found me
I'll be okay
Tristan and I roomed together in college. Our last year, we had an apartment off campus, and we both brought our motorcycles: him, his Triumph Bonneville, and me my Ninja 250. We used to ride together on nights and weekends, just ride to nowhere in particular except back home. We rode to the Wisconsin River flowage, we raced down county highways, we road down the back roads of the back roads until we hit gravel, we rode out to where there were no street lights and looked at the stars, we rode past the little radar sign in town and tried to perfectly match our speeds as we went past (successfully, I might add), we got trapped in a freak rainstorm and I nearly died, we rode out to Wausau for pizza and ended up riding back in temperatures so cold my ass was cold to the touch for three full days. Those moments were some of the best of my life. Just peace, serenity, and the sensory pleasures of fall. To me, all of those rides in the golden autumnal sunshine became exactly that: Gold.
I think racing games are mostly...fine. While there are games that are exceptions, my issue with racing games is that I get bored of racing; bored of driving the same track set over and over, with the only variation being the braking points. I want a little narrative behind my racing game, a little bit of pizzaz. The Forza Horizon games have both of those things as the centerpiece, and I still can't believe it took me so long to fall into them. I only jumped on the bandwagon when the original Horizon was offered in the Games with Gold program in September of 2016, as part of publisher Turn 10's lead-up to Forza Horizon 3. Seeing the yellow Viper cover art, I grabbed Horizon it off the Xbox store, installed the game, and actually sat there and watched the download complete. When I started the game up, Porter Robinson's Language was the main theme. A good sign! As for the game itself, it's perfect. When you start a new game, you're put into a red VW Corrado and thrown into this autumnal automotive wonderland. Set in a fictionalized Colorado, Forza Horizon tells the loose story of a Coachella-like racing event called the Horizon Festival that has taken over a part of the state. Every road is open to you, every mountain pass and sweeping highway begs you to race down it as fast as you can, and every event shows you how your friends did at that same event. Finish a race? Here's where you rank. Blow through a speed trap? Here's how much faster your friends are. The map encourages exploration, yet the events are all marked with these cool roadside stands, so you never quite feel lost. And of course the game is set in the fall, and the sunlight is always golden. Everybody who loves cars has their perfect car heaven somewhere in their mind. For some it's a racetrack, or a section of road, or maybe it's even a specific event, like the Daytona 500 or Moab. Not me. My car heaven looks exactly like Forza Horizon.
I very clearly remember the phone call I got from my Dad the day my Grandma died. He called to tell me that he was on the phone with the nursing home, and that Grandma had just been taken into the hospital with low blood sugar. I started to ask if he was going to go see her after work, and ask if I could go along with him, but he told me to hold on and clicked over to the other call. He came back in a few seconds. "She's gone." In the time it took for the news of my Grandma's hospital admission to go from the Nurse to my Dad to me, my Grandma's heart had just...stopped. That was it. My last grandparent was gone.
I played a lot of Forza Horizon between my grandma's death and her funeral. That was the game I happened to be playing most at the time I got that call, and it also served as a marvelous distraction. Yes, there's racing in the game, but it's street racing, so the "tracks" are more varied. Not only that, but some races in the game are just straight up duels: You and one other driver, as fast as you can, all out to the finish. There are also some other events where you race a helicopter or a previous generation of your car, and as I mentioned earlier there are also side challenges like the speed traps scattered all around the map. Of course, if you don't feel like doing any of those things, you can just cruise around and look. Even though is years and now two console generations old, the game still looks excellent with boosted Bloom Post-Processing helping to hide some of those nasty jagged edges. That scenic vista at the top is from the game, a location called Finley Dam, and it is quite pretty when you drive across that bridge span. The game sounds very good too, the car sounds are realistic, and there are several radio stations you can listen to with various kinds of music, each suited to different kinds of driving. The car selection isn't bad. It's a little bit scattered and eclectic, but with 50+ manufactures represented, how much can anyone complain? There's something for all tastes, and if a car doesn't match your taste, there's always mods, both performance and visual. Forza Horizon was a world I could lose myself in, and I did so gladly.
I can only remember three times I've witnessed my Dad cry: Once, when we were burying a stillborn puppy from an otherwise perfect litter, once on the first night in his new apartment after my parents divorced, and once at grandma's funeral. Stoic Germanic emotion is the best way to describe him, though most people go with emotionally detached. Grandma was a Lutheran, a Missouri (or misery) Synod Lutheran to be specific, a synod that is notoriously dour on the best days. I'm a Roman Catholic and even I was sitting in the uncushioned pews during the homily thinking "Hey man, why don't you lighten up a bit, it's only a funeral."
Grandma's funeral was very sad in a way that went beyond a singe death. That funeral was a generational change, the end of an era. Suddenly, my Dad was the oldest male in his own family line. At the burial, my Dad passed out white roses to everyone in attendance, and after the prayers we each walked up in our own time and put them on the coffin. It was an extraordinarily sensitive gesture from an otherwise remarkably withdrawn man. There are moments in life where you see your parents as something other than their familial position, glimpses behind the curtain of the parent-child dynamic, where you see laid bare that the person who biologically created you and then raised you is themselves afraid and alone and desperately sad. Real emotion, not performative.
I went home after the funeral. It was raining. I changed out of my funeral clothes and into something more comfortable. I started playing Horizon. Not long after that, my fiancee (now wife) came home from work. We had dinner. Then I played more. I was nearing the end of the main story. It was the final race. I had just unlocked the Lexus LFA, a truly beautiful car. In the game, it's a little hard to control, a little squirrely. My typical reaction to this behavior in a Forza game is to just slap AWD on the thing and be done with it, but this time, I wanted the challenge. For some reason I felt like I needed to beat the game in that car just as it was. In Horizon, the last race takes place in a small town well outside of the main fairgrounds. Players race for the King Of Horizon title against a field of the best drivers at the event.
I don't know if it was coincidence or good programming, but during the final laps of the final race, the song Language started to play. One possibility is that it would make sense for the developers to use the game's theme song on the final laps of the final race. Another is that the radio stations in Horizon have a limited amount of songs which all play more or less on a continuous loop, and that the soundtrack just so happened to be at the part of the loop that contained Language. What mattered to me is that Language was playing as I beat the game on the day of my last Grandparent's funeral. A wave function collapsed. And it made me cry. I cried as as an oversensitive boy, as a person who finds emotional satisfaction in cars and in driving, as a man who learned that it was better to hide emotions than show them and had suffered as a result, as a gamer who found a new world they loved wanted to use it forget a sad day and just deal with it all later. All of those things were true, all at the same time, and all of it expressed in a single lyric of a song I like found in the soundtrack of a game that still feels like it might have been made specifically for me alone: I'll be okay.
I'll be okay.
The beater. The junker. The wreck. Based on all the episodes about various cars we’ve owned, I’m pretty sure all of the hosts of the Check Engine Podcast have had one. This, dear readers, is an Ode to the Beater.
As a car podcast, we tend to focus on those cars that we deem “desirable” or cars that we... truly TRULY dislike. For the most part, that has either meant cars in their original state or dream cars that never were and never will be. Unless, as has happened a LOT as of late, we’re right and car companies copy all of our ideas. (See the post from last week about the new Skoda...). What I want to discuss here, however, is cars as they end up. For me, this post was spawned by my absolute love for my old, beater Jeep.
Ah, the Jeep. It has come up again and again on the podcast. You may know that I’ve said that I’ll drive it until it turns into a little pile of rust. But why? It’s noisy, it requires copious maintenance and repair (Luckily, due to its age and non-mysterious, domestic origin, very little of that is expensive), it smells a little weird, handles a little funny, and doesn’t get the best gas mileage. But I love it. I love it so much that it has survived as the second vehicle through TWO new car acquisitions. The first even mostly overlapped with its stated capability... but it has endured. Why? Why, CEP readers, has it done so? Well... because it’s a beater.
Having a car like my WRX and my previous VW group products, I have cherished my cars. I may occasionally need to clean them more. That’s on me, I admit it. But I generally took good physical care and did not abuse them. I changed the oil religiously at 3000 miles. I obsessed over tire pressures. My car life with these cars has been some of the best it ever was. It was also some of the most exhausting.
There’s something to say for a car that you can treat like an old pair of jeans. Take them out of storage and they’re all broken in, ready to go. Take them out and kick them around for a while, and they’ll be good as new as soon as you wash them. Or not. Maybe you do manage to score a tear doing yard work or a big, permanent grease stain from the garage. Who cares? They’re your old jeans. A beater car has exactly the same charm. Especially one with some utility, such as my Jeep. Just the other day, my dad was doing yard work with it, and my girlfriend and I are using it to haul the plethora of suitcases we’ll be mules for to the airport (shout out to Southwest Airlines’ 2 free checked bags policy!). It’s gone on road trips where the weather was unpredictable. It’s going to serve as the winter ride when my dad has to shed his Mercedes for the snowy months in Wisconsin.
It’s not fancy. I wouldn’t take it to the front door of a Wal-Mart and expect to wow anyone, much less a fancy hotel. It’s doesn’t make angry exhaust noises. It doesn’t look particularly unique aside from the modest bit of height the aftermarket suspensions adds. However, what it can be is everything but that. It has proven itself reliable, comfortable, capable, and helpful. What’s more, it does all these things while still allowing you to not care for it. I know that sounds harsh, and it’s not the best phrase. You CARE for your beloved beater, but you don’t REALLY care what happens to it short of catastrophic death. Small rip in the seat? Eh. Add a couple of Michigan pinstripes (read: tree branch scratches) taking it into the woods to pull a tree down? Meh. Muddy paw prints? Yawn. Need to leave it parked outside at the airport for a week and you’re not sure you won’t come back to find hail damage. Whatever. It is something you can care FOR but not care about.
And that’s what makes the beater a true joy and something that, at least in this podcast hosts opinion something that should be had by all car fans. Have your baby. Have the car that you obsess over every paint swirl or spec of dirt on the interior. Have the car that drives the hunt for perfect tires. But have your old pair of jeans. Have the car that’s always there for you. Have the car that will do what you need to do. Have a car that can be a mental ice pack from the joyous yet simply exhausting task of having your dream car. Own a beater!