This Is What 240 MPH Feels Like

The biggest problem with motor sport is the inability of the TV viewer and the trackside fan to experience the actual experience of pushing a race car to its limits. You’re breaking the laws of physics. One split-second error could end your life. It’s impossibly loud. Everything is vibrating. The seat harness is wrapped so tight, you can barely move your ribs to breath. Your suit and helmet can make you feel awfully claustrophobic, if you’re not a professional. You’re hitting the apex of every corner with absolute precision, easing tires within an inch of your potential death.

In large part, the race is won or lost on the tachometer. You are in the right gear, throttling at the max possible without losing your footing, at every moment, of every lap. No two laps are the same. The fuel tank is slowly emptying, lightening the weight of the car, and increasing your speed. Weather conditions change. Photographers lean in, snapping away as you rocket past. Your focus is super human. “True concentration is not aware of itself,” the Formula 1 champ Phil Hill once said. When the driver forgets himself, he becomes one with the machine. “Sometimes you may not even be aware of the break in your concentration,” Hill notes, “not until you find yourself plunging past your braking point.”

Take a lap in a Porsche 956 with Derek Bell at Le Mans circa 1983. We can think of few pieces of footage that bring the racing experience to life so viscerally as this clip. Make sure the volume is as loud as it can go. It still will not approximate what it’s actually like to be in the car. But it will come close.

A.J. Baime is Editor-at-Large at The Drive and the author of Go Like Hell: Ford, Ferrari, and Their Battle for Speed and Glory at Le Mans.

Do Cars Have Souls?

Q: I know it’s only a machine, but sometimes I feel as if my car has a soul. You know, some sort of sentient, actual life force that gives it a personality. Am I nuts? Is it possible for a car to have a soul? – Hope Springs, Eternal, AL

A: That’s really two questions. First, I have no idea if you’re nuts. Consult your local mental health professional for that one. But let’s not dismiss that second question out of hand.

Let's first ask whether or not you, my human correspondent, have a soul, because certain corners of neuroscience feel pretty strongly that you do not. Sorry. Studies of brain chemistry and brain function have some scientists believing that our sense of self, and our belief in our own free will, are just illusions. Or delusions. Or at least something that’s evolved to keep us going and breeding, but nothing like what we’ve considered to be consciousness, intelligence, cognizance and human agency. You are your genes, and they’re just running through their biological inevitability.

I reject that. Not because there’s no substance to it, and not solely because of my religious faith, but because I think, my thinking has changed over time, and I’m aware of those changes. The materialist reductionism of human experience runs counter to my intuition, and sometimes my intuition is all I can go on. So for our purposes here, souls are real things that exist.

Of course cars don’t have human souls, but I’m going to posit the existence of mechanical souls. Souls that represent all that goes into designing, engineering, building and ultimately using any man-made device. These mechanical souls aren’t eternal – as I have faith that human souls are – but they’re palpable in how a thing functions and relates to the human operating it. In using a machine, we feel the intelligence and effort that went into creating it.

A car embodies thousands of years of human effort, learning and development. Let’s start with the taming of fire, the understanding of the wheel and circular motion, the development of metals, rubber, plastics, and structures to start. None of those come from a single eureka moment of a solitary individual, but millions of people slowly recognizing the potential of what they encounter and capturing that and refining it into something useful. Those millions of micro-contributions accumulate over time so that a driver feels them as painted steel in his/her hand when opening the door of a Miata. All of humanity’s thousands of years of experience in animal husbandry and hide processing is there in the leather on the shift knob. Turn the steering wheel and for a milli-moment there’s Charles Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber communicating through the driver’s fingertips.

All the efforts of hundreds of generations of inventors and engineers don’t go away. They’re there in every car for us to feel, appreciate, and when things are going right, enjoy. And no two cars are absolutely exactly alike. Particularly if they’ve been worn down with use over time.

Yeah, machines have souls. And not just cars but everything from the clack as a Zippo lighter top shuts to the tones the iMac I’m typing on when I start it up, reminds us of all the human effort that went into building our mechanical and electronic world.

Artificial intelligence will accelerate our appreciation of how machines are imbued with the soul us humans pump into them. And maybe we are approaching a “technological singularity” where computerized machines themselves promulgate their own development at a rate beyond human control. But there’s always something recognizable human at the center of every machine.

And there’s nothing more human than a soul.