Smithology: Each of these arms is nudged into motion

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Start (entry) plus (+) one-tenth (0.1) of a moment: It’s a right. Uphill and heavily cambered, maybe 28 mph if you push it. Sane means 25 or 26 mph, as the hill rises fast and steep. The sight lines are awful, no visible path out, just a wall of climbing road. Oaks and maples hug the pavement. This is new asphalt, maybe a season old but already polished in the tire grooves. The sun dapples through the trees, turns the aggregate shiny.

+ 0.2 moment: A foot further in, visibility ticks up. The camber change is obvious, the lane falling off as the road crests. Apropos of nothing, in the way that a person can be immersed in one thing while idly thinking about something else, a voice in the back of the driver’s head wonders what to make for dinner.

+ 0.3 moment: Pasta sounds good? 

+ 0.33 moment: The downshift starts. Left foot lifts from the floor mat. Third to second.

+ 0.36 moment: Left shoe reaches the clutch pedal.

+ 0.365 moment: Look at that exit! As if the trees had opened to let the road through.

+ 0.37 moment: Left shoe begins to depress clutch pedal.

+ 0.391 moment: Why is it always so hard to decide on dinner? Why can’t I just be one of those dudes who goes to Smashburger every night or whatever?

+ 0.395 moment: Left shoe produces enough clutch travel that right hand leaves steering wheel, moves in general direction of shift lever.

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+ 0.396 moment: A shaft of orange light cuts through the branches and shade, filtering into the cockpit for an instant. A blink later, it’s dark again.

+ 0.4 moment: Right foot begins to roll on brake pressure. The nose sinks a tick as the front springs begin the long and relatively slow journey to full compression. Both front shocks lag a hint behind, ever so slightly misvalved for the load and treatment, at least on this particular piece of pavement and in this weather and on this tire.

+ 0.55 moment: Bolognese sounds alright. Didn’t you date a girl who made great bolognese? Did she leave the recipe? It’s probably floating around that old laptop in the bottom of the closet. Next to that big box of CDs from college.

+ 0.558 moment: Remember when you used to leave a single CD in the player in the car for weeks on end? Just the same songs, over and over, never getting old? Why was that so satisfying?

+ 0.5581 moment: In fairness, Van Halen’s 1984 was, on its own, pretty satisfying.

+ 0.56 moment: Right foot bends to the right, angled to briefly blip the throttle, which is inches away. Brake pressure does not change. [Voice in back of head sings prechorus from “Hot for Teacher.”]

+ 0.6 moment: Bottom three fingers of the right hand pull shift lever rearward, out of the third-gear gate and toward the car’s center. The dimensions of the neutral gate force a brief delay as the lever is pushed left, on the way to second gear.

+ 0.62 moment: Clutch is released. The shift is now complete. The tires, having received no upset in engine braking, do not know or care.

+ 0.639 moment: The driver’s head turns into the corner. In the movies, this is where the eyebrows drop and concentration happens, because Driving is Serious Business. In reality, one expressionless human on a mountain back road in flyover country, still thinking about dinner and the rest of his life while also somehow free from those concerns for the briefest of flashes … well, he just looks where he wants the car to go. At which point it goes there, because that is how the body-mind conversation works.

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+ 0.7 moment: The steering wheel is turned quickly but smoothly to the right. Maybe 20 degrees. Wheel moves upper steering shaft moves universal joint moves lower steering shaft moves pinion shaft. The meat of a few pinion teeth then find purchase on a linear rack gear, and then that rack gear slides left in its bushings, within the steering-rack housing itself. As the tie rods mounted on each end of that gear are forced to move—left one pushed out, right pulled in—a balljoint pressed into each tie rod transfers force to a steering arm, and the upright bolted to each of those arms is nudged into motion. A steady stream of force is sent to the races and balls of the wheel bearings, to the hubs themselves, to the threaded studs on those hubs, and finally, after a seeming eternity of milliseconds, to the two front wheels.

Those wheels flex ever so slightly—too little to be seen—and then they transfer that torque again, to the bead of each front tire. The lower sidewalls on each carcass twist, contorting. Contact patches are placed in a fluid mix of tension and compression, a conveyor belt of sipes and tread blocks squeezed and stretched as the tire rotates. Slowly but surely, the front bumper points further and further to the right. At the rear wheels, a similar dance follows, a beat behind.

At this instant, a chance gust of wind blows a small collection of fallen leaves into the road. Those leaves become caught in the wake of the car’s underbody, carried along for a few feet, before being spit out behind the rear bumper and landing on the road again.

The car has officially entered the corner.

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+ 0.76 moment: Bolognese girl had pretty eyes.

+ 0.83 moment: Another gap in the trees, another passing shaft of sunlight.

+ 0.87 moment: Peak lat. A moment of tire squeal, a sustained sine-wave chirping. The car is now producing around 95 percent of its possible grip in this particular corner.

+ 0.878 moment: So that’s pretty great.

+ 0.88 moment: Braking has now bled off fully, pressure trailed down to the peak of the corner’s arc. Right foot goes to throttle.

+ 0.89 moment: Lots of throttle.

+ 0.891 moment: Further rear-suspension compression, more traction than torque. The driver grins.

+ 0.892 moment: Gonna have to run by the store, buy some ground beef. Mental note: Rear subframe bushings might be getting weak?

+ 0.893 moment: In an utterly unregrettable decision, the rightmost pedal becomes trapped between foot and floorboard.

+ 0.92 moment: Hands open the wheel slightly, then more after that, then more still. As the road straightens, the suspension seems to lighten, releasing stored energy, a kind of relief. The outside tires find the edge of the lane, slipping out to the painted markings.

 

One full moment after the start of all this silly jazz and swing: The wheel is straight again. The car carries on down the road, and somehow, in a universe where so much of life seems to be constructed of tiresome and expensive hurdles, there is another corner ahead, and another, and another, and the driver gets to do it all again, as long as he wants, and it seems easy, as long as there is time and tire and the hands at the wheel want to keep going.

Which, it must be said, it is another moment on its own, and a nice one indeed.

 

***

 

People say this stuff doesn’t matter. That all cars drive the same these days, that EVs aren’t that interesting, that modern roads are too crowded, blah blah blah. These complaints are grounded in reality but ultimately irrelevant, which is both convenient and a nice parallel, because in the grand scheme, driving doesn’t really matter, itself. Putting a car through a corner at anything like reasonable speed is not curing cancer or creating great art. Most of the trivial and mundane details of human existence add up to more.

But what if…

And forgive the indulgence here…

What if…

…you love it?

S-Curve Road in the Great Smokey Mountains National Park-Vertical
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What if you love it so bleeding flipping flapping much you can’t get enough? What if it feels like a small and attainable form of grace, or meditation, or simply escaping from everything you don’t want to do but have to do anyway? And you know that those who don’t understand will never understand, and they will mock or denigrate an entire subculture for enjoying this process, but that’s fine, because it just means there’s more of the good left for the rest of us?

I suppose it would matter an awful lot, then. To you.

Probably not too much to most people.

But also not too little, to others.

Never met one of those folks myself. Wouldn’t have anything to discuss with them, if I did. We certainly wouldn’t talk about how time seems to stretch out, and there you are, living what feels like a lifetime across a collection of seconds, watching a simple scene coalesce, as you yourself play a not-insignificant role in assembling that scene, no one there to watch or confirm, just a cinema of the real, in a specific location but never entirely of it, built and shown entirely for you.

And then you blink, and you are a few feet further down the road.

Where it only gets better.

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