Lessons From A Car Chase
What automotive culture can learn from a car chase and my high school parking lot.
Growing up in the deep south, I attended a massive county high school, the equally massive student parking lot of which was regularly clotted with trucks. Trucks are as common in the rural south as Teslas are in Silicon Valley. Throw a rock, and chances are a passing F-150 will block it from hitting a church.
Like churches, some trucks are more respectable than others, and a cursory tour of my old school’s asphalt landing strip revealed as much. One could find quintessential rusty farm instruments and utilitarian workhorses that were rugged, noble symbols of gritty and hardworking southern self-sufficiency, but other trucks were ghastly visages of American excess, ignorance, and conceit.
Confederate flags waved out of extended beds, MAGA stickers and Trump logos dominated rear window real estate, and enormous exhaust stacks belched black smoke into the air as gratuitously filthy entertainment. To gaze at a line of trucks like these (they often parked together at my school, earning the affectionate title of “redneck row”) was to witness tragedies of American history, politics, and environmentalism coalescing on bumpers hoisted into the air by skeletal aftermarket suspension.
I happily left these monstrosities behind by graduating high school and venturing to Atlanta for higher education. Time passed, and until one summer day after my second year in college, I had largely forgotten about them.
That day, a friend and I ferried my college roommate through forested mountains to Bryson City, North Carolina for an EMT training course at the Nantahala Outdoor Center. Once he unloaded his gear from my MK7 Golf GTI, my friend and I determined that it would be a waste of a lovely day and a beautiful landscape not to take some curvy backroads home.
The next hour consisted of a spectacular, windows-down blast along Bryson City Road from Almond, North Carolina to Franklin, North Carolina, set to my friend’s swaying playlist of jazz and pop. Despite the way the rest of this story unfolds, I would recommend that heavenly drive to anyone, car enthusiast or not.
As we neared the end of our journey several miles out from Franklin, a Ram 2500 diesel crept up behind us. Perhaps “crept” is the wrong word; the airliner sound of its spooling turbocharger became maddening as the truck lurched itself within a car-length of my rear bumper, and stayed there. What was at first a nuisance became unnerving as I wove the GTI through curves and corners, distancing us from the truck, only to have the huffing machine plant itself again at my back at its next opportunity.
Testing the truck’s intentions, I braked hard just prior to a sharp right turn, only signaling a second or two before the maneuver, and yet the truck braked harder, straining under its weight but still managing to flash its signal as it heaved itself to mimic my course. It became clear that we were being followed.
I instructed my friend to prepare, if necessary, to call the police as we came into the city. Over the next few minutes, I drove flat out, and the GTI performed admirably, bounding around bends, firing down straights, and building a considerable gap between our nervous selves and the clumsy, tire-squealing Ram that bucked and struggled to keep up.
Unfortunately, our progress vanished when we arrived in the small town of Franklin and were suddenly mired in local traffic. Slowing to a crawl, we watched apprehensively as the truck rumbled up to the left of us with its windows rolled down, and I’ll never forget what we saw.
Four versions of the same person glared down at us from the Ram’s crew cab. Four Columbia shirts, four mesh-backed fishing hats, and four pairs of Costa sunglasses adorned four faces written with surprising anger. I could tell they were younger than me (I was 20 at the time), and they reminded me vividly of the good ole’ boys that parked together at my old high school.
Just as we expected them to stop, the truck turned into a side street, and the four pairs of sunglasses only shifted away from us when the truck’s C-pillar finally obscured their view. As the Ram rolled away, a searing red Confederate flag blazed back at us from its rear window.
Though the truck had at last gone, we felt eerily uncomfortable in that remote southern town in North Carolina. My friend remarked that the city had a “Get Out vibe” (a reference to Jordan Peele’s disturbing horror film), and I suspect that because she had grown up in suburban Atlanta, she was blessedly unfamiliar with the sickening feeling that I knew all too well. We felt an inescapable gut sensation that if the Ram had stopped, and if we had been confronted by its brutish occupants, no one in Franklin would have cared. Needless to say the city didn’t have our company for long.
We never figured out why my silver little German hatchback incurred the anger of those petulant teenagers that day, although I suspect the GTI’s diminutive appearance may have had something to do with it. It reminded me of an instance where a similar truck had taunted my dad in our family’s black Toyota Prius as he drove me to school years before, and yet another moment in high school where a redneck-rower asked why I didn’t drive a truck instead of a hatchback, because “real men drive trucks”.
I’d say it’s about time the automotive community gets to work ridding itself of the factions that believe such stupid ideas, just as the country is gradually ridding itself of confederate flags, needless pollution, and (I hope) demagogic presidents. If southern parking lots and this truck chase can teach us anything, it’s that these grotesque features of our American and automotive cultures tend to show up together. We ought to drop a gear, hit the right pedal, and say goodbye to all that nonsense.