A long time ago I owned a car. But even before that I would play racing games. And even before that my dad would take me out for drives in the open country roads of my province. I have been on the road since I was a child, in one form or another. I absolutely love roads. It’s why I enjoy racing games, why I enjoy touring cycling, and, now that I once again have a car, why I enjoy driving.
However, something never feels quite right when I’m driving my car on the road or on the track. It’s extremely hard for me to define this, and I’ve tried to blog about it many times but I just couldn’t find the right words. For this attempt I’ve settled on this explanation: my experience lacks purity.
Purity of what? I think it’s best if I split this up into two categories: road driving and track driving. In both categories I have been spoiled by better-than-real experiences as I grew up. Let’s talk about racing first.
I think that, because of racing games and simulations, what I have come to define as ‘racing’ for myself encompasses only a subset of what racing in real life actually is. Racing, to me, is about driving a car, any car, right on the edge for extended periods of time, either to improve your lap times or to win a race, that doesn’t matter. It’s about being in a perfect flow state, usually while listening to music because that’s what I do when simracing, tackling corner after corner, getting into a trancelike state of becoming faster and faster without having to think about anything else except that. That to me is the pure essence of racing.
Guess what: real-life racing is far, far removed from that feeling. There is absolutely no state of flow involved when you drive your own car on track. Instead you’ll be worrying about your brakes and tires constantly, because in real life those items degrade and you’ll have to pay for replacements when they wear down or break. And they do break! I’ve been lucky enough to have very durable tires on my car but I’ve already had to replace the entire brake system once, and the second set is starting to wear down as well. This still astounds me: the fact that all you have to do is push your car to the limit and it starts to fall apart. It does not put my mind at ease that my brake and tire durability is measured in hours instead of months when I take my car to a track day. Of course I could push my car a little less hard, but that’s not what I take it to a track: I want to be on the limit.
..which brings me to my next point: I know the GT86 is widely proclaimed as a car that’s great fun to drive on track, but I think I’ve reached the limit of what it can do. It’s a bloody amazing car, and it’s brilliantly easy to control, but that’s also its downfall: it’s brilliantly easy to control and it’s not actually that fast, so after you get used to it there’s not really any long-term challenge to it. Sure, this sounds arrogant, I know. Who am I to criticize a car that I haven’t even driven in a race? I’ve only taken it out on a few track days. But I’ve also chased that feeling of perfect control and driving on the edge for about 15 years in sim racing. I can only say what I think based on my experience, and in my experience the GT86 is not a long-term challenge for me. In order to be that, I would have to upgrade it, which I am not going to do because a) I don’t have the money for that, and b) it still wouldn’t be as pure a feeling as simracing, and c) I REALLY don’t have the money for that – to get the thrill I seek I would have to buy a dedicated track-day car and a lot of extras..
Then there’s public roads. One of the things I loved about driving with my dad was that he always knew exactly where to go, in an area well before navigation systems became standard. Being a little boy I did not have the burden of ownership, maintenance or paying any of the fees that come with owning a car. All I had to do was sit in the passenger seat and admire the scenery. It was perfect.
When I got my own (well, dad-funded) car about 10 years ago it never even occurred to me to take it to the track. It just didn’t seem like a thing you did with your own car. It seemed absurd. Also, somehow at that age I had gotten a little less interested in cars, did not have many friends and just did not have that many places I wanted to go to. This was still before navigation systems were commonplace so I also realized quite quickly that, outside of my province, I had no idea where anything was, and driving in the city was definitely not something I’d casually do. My confidence in my public driving skills remained low until many years later, when I optimistically told a girl I liked that “Sure, I can drive a car in Australia, no problem.” and ended up going on a road trip through one of the most alien countries my younger self had ever seen. That two-week trip did more to my driving skills than all the time I spent driving in the Netherlands as a teenager.
But let’s get back to the point. During and before Australia I lived in Japan, and I cycled around a lot there. Living there in the beautiful prefecture of Kanagawa made me realize just how much you can do on a bicycle, and I ended up doing many cycling trips around Japan. I traveled by bicycle on all the roads that cars take too, and where cars would be looking for a place to park so they can admire the scenery, I would stop wherever I liked, whenever I liked. I didn’t have to worry about fuel, parking, scratches, road tax, car insurance or anything else. If there’s a viewpoint on top of a hill somewhere, the photo I make after suffering up the hill by bicycle will be a million times more memorable than the one I take after driving up there by car. And that’s if you find parking for your car when you get there: we drove to Wales last weekend with the intention of climbing Mt. Snowdon, but by the time we got there the main parking lot was full, all the small lay-by parking areas were full too and there simply wasn’t any place even remotely close to park.
TL;DR: owning a car is not freedom. It gives you range but it gives you range anxiety. It gives you something beautiful but something to worry about. It gives you access to the world but a world to get lost in. On good days the weather is perfect and you’re driving a countryside road with no traffic in front of you, but on most days in the UK you’ll be stuck behind a truck in the rain wherever you go. In this day and age, in this location, driving is not about enjoyment or freedom. It’s about practicality and getting to where you want to go. That’s all nice and dandy, but that is not the reason why I fell in love with cars and roads and driving when I was a child. It just isn’t.
So, there you have it. For all my life I played racing simulations and drove my bicycle because I could never afford a proper car, but now that I have one I learned that I already had something better. That doesn’t mind I dislike driving in real life altogether; it can still be great fun, especially if it’s an experience you can share with someone else. But when it comes to purity, there simply are better alternatives.