Monday, August 23, 2010

Vintage iron

I take pride in my ambivalence. Or not. Whatever.

But it seemed to me I could have stood out, if I wanted, with my take-it-or-leave-it approach to the Woodward Dream Cruise. The Cruise is Detroit's (Metro Detroit's; none of it officially takes place within the city limits) own Mardi Gras meets American Graffiti meets the Henry Ford Museum meets Auto-Rama. It's a party, it's a parade where hot rods and classics stand in for floats, where the scent of exhaust, peeling tires and fading clutches stands in for stale beer and embarrassing cocktails, where something, I'm not sure what, stands in for we-have-beads-show-us-your-tits, and, given the demographics, I'm grateful that it does.

Priceless classics swap carbon monoxide with backyard hot rods and vintage muscle in all phases of restoration, amid rumbling documentation of every car that anyone ever first drove, first owned, finally owned, first got laid in, still hopes to get laid in or expects to be laid to rest in, punctuated by mostly question marks: sedans and minivans steered by the fascinated and the confused or maybe, for all I know, the nostalgic for the same but much more recent firsts and modest hopes.

They creep and crawl and stop and start up and down Woodward Avenue from 8 Mile Road to the city of Pontiac and back again, past equally endless gawkers in folding chairs moving almost equally fast. The Cruise passes by my new house just like it passes by thousands of others, close enough to hear it if you try, distant enough to ignore it if you want, and inconvenient as hell if you can't read a map and find an alternate route to where you need to go. People either love it or hate it.

I didn't make any big plans to check it out, but I was happy to walk over with friends who invited me, and I loved it. The spectacle reminded me, as everything reminds me given half a chance, of my own weird hobby of triathlon.

We athletes mess up traffic patterns, take over roads and confuse minivan drivers, too. We take pride in our chassis. We represent a vast range of heritage and model year and an even more vast range of stages of restoration and preparation. We're all driveable, some of us exquisitely so, some of us optimistically so. And a number of us have to pull to the curb before the event is over.

And somewhere, at some point, some genius made it possible for spectators to enjoy it without expertise. I'd wager that in dream cruises and triathlons, the prevailing question humming through the spectator side of the fencing is, "I wonder how old that one is?" and all they have to do is wait and look at the backside.

Hey, hey, hey. Mind the Mardi Gras comparisons, please. I'm talking about the classic license plate. Most of the cars in the Cruise sport a classic license plate that corresponds to its model year. Triathletes in triathlons sport Sharpie ink. With electronic timing practically ubiquitous in the sport, the race numbers on the biceps are little more than tradition anymore. But as long as the volunteers have the markers out, most races will go ahead and put a much more useful number on racers' calves: Their age.

I suppose it's mostly so when you're passing or being passed, you can tell whether or not it's affecting your place in your age group. (It's an interesting feeling to be passed by someone and actually be relieved to see he's 10 years your senior, or 20, just so long as he's not getting between you and the podium.) But the real value, I think, is its function as a classic license plate.

"I wonder how old that one is?" Clunkers or plodders, hot rods or hardbodies, it's not always easy to tell. Distinguishing characteristics can be subtle, and blurred further by devoted efforts to trick things out. I can't pretend to speak for the car guys, but I can guess they're a lot like us. When the spectators sneak a peek at the numbers on the bumper, we're a little pleased. And when they shake their heads, "that can't be right," well, we have to admit that's a little bit of what we showed up for.


Andy Owen said...

Taking all of this new (at least to me) information in, I absolutely love the classic license plate on your illustration...well played. :)

jcdill said...

The bicep number can be QUITE handy to the photographer. It's the only way we can put your bib number with your swim exit photo, and it's often the only way we can put your bib number with your bike or run photo if your printed number is not visible, such as if you pin the number on your shirt then take your shirt off, or you pin it on a belt and then the belt shifts and your number is facing back in your photo.

Please remind all triathletes to mark that bicep number clearly so that the photogs can see it!

ONE of these days I'll be the photog at one of your races, and I'll finally get you a run photo that you can be proud of. :-)