Netflix’s Fastest Car wants to race past cliché. Instead, it revels in it
One of Netflix’s newest and most succinctly-titled shows, Fastest Car attempts to answer the age-old question that has plagued mankind for a little over a century: What’s the fastest car? Is it a Lamborghini, a Ferrari, a Dodge Viper ACR, a Buick Grand National, or… a Honda Odyssey? A 1976 Cadillac DeVille straight from the set of Goodfellas? A rat rod named Lunch Money? About a half-dozen pickups? A Ford GT driven by the villain in a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie?
At dragstrips from Irwindale, California, to Caddo Mills, Texas, the premise is simple: three unexpected “sleepers” attempt to dethrone a supercar. It is the ultimate expression of the credo “Built Not Bought.” Anyone cashing out their Raytheon stock can go out and buy a $100,000 supercar, but building something yourself—and possibly spending just as much—is what real Americans do, a narrative the show hammers with the subtlety of a nitromethane explosion.
There’s swelling orchestral music, slow motion, American flags blowing like amber waves of grain. Imagine if Michael Bay directed the first Fast and Furious movie. Imagine if a Honda Odyssey had 1200 horsepower. Imagine if literally every human on earth grew up street racing. (Presumably there would be a lot less humans.)
Your average drag race—we’re talking the fastest cars, after all—is over in about 10 seconds. So for the remaining 44 minutes and 50 seconds, Fastest Car must wring heartwarming personal stories from its racers, imbued as they are with reality-TV braggadocio. There’s the classic SoCal surfer dude. The girl who calls herself a tomboy. The drawling Texan who calls himself a modern-day cowboy. Gym lunks in tight-fitting shirts. The Dodge Viper ACR driver who collects swords.
Unlike the dragstrip that awaits them, there are twists: Surfer dude’s truck has hand controls and a wheelchair ramp, the Ford GT’s muscle man pays tribute to his friend Paul Walker. The driver of a 1987 Thunderbird built his car as a tribute to his friend’s death on the strip, going as far as to use the dead man’s engine to power his own. Tomboy girl’s father has some questionable views on the concept of the education system. Viper guy has a gun collection and a vanity plate that says REVENGE, but wait, he has a soft spot for dogs.
It is clear where the narrative lies: with the underdog. The supercar drivers are caddish, obnoxious, perhaps pitiable: they reside in their McMansions, surrounded by big toys for big boys. Oh yeah! The builders of these unassuming race cars work tirelessly in faraway shops, and wax misty-eyed about how racing is life, everything else is just waiting and for those 15 seconds when they’re free. The women, undoubtedly tired of being relegated to second-class car enthusiasts, instead swing hard the other way, playing up their toughness as a necessity to fit in. “Bunch of grown men that act like little babies,” says a girl who has a tattoo of her 1992 Chevrolet S-10 on her bicep.
Who’s going to win? They are. Every single driver declares that they’ll win. Everybody’s a winner. By dint of their virtue, with their drive and passion and double-shots of nitrous, they’ve won already.
And yet, in the end, they’re all friends (most of them know each other from various local street-racing scenes.) They inspect each other’s cars like anthropologists, analyzing tire sizes, eking out as much info as possible, psych themselves up. Viper Sword Man rolled up to the dragstrip wearing a shirt with his own face on it—truly a power move. The stakes are easily forgotten, even by the racers: by the end of the series is an all-out drag race at the fabled El Mirage dry lake bed, but it is just another race, another day, the ouroboros of enthusiasm devouring tires and nitrous until the heat-death of the universe.
Playing up the underdog well past the point of no return, Fastest Car is a conundrum of a show, attempting to break away from the spec-sheet posturing of most car shows, but never reaching far enough with its cast of characters to pull itself out of cliché.