Day 2: Indiana, cars and freedom…

We were back on the road before noon, heading along I-80 through Ohio and Indiana. Somehow the drive seemed easier today and the miles passed to the sound of our “road mix” playlist. The road was still enough of a novelty for us to enjoy the fragmentary imagery we passed at 70 mph. There was no time to stop anywhere for more than gas — and postcards. The postcards were Silly Squirrel’s idea. He had decided to collect one from each state, so we now had a reason to explore the “gift shops” at those rest-stops.

It was at an Indiana stop that we ran across “La Mamie et La Moto” — an older woman doing a roadtrip alone on her 3-wheeler motorcycle — and Cactus Killer was inspired. Maybe the open roads out here do give people a greater sense of freedom.

Thoughts of freedom and American “car culture” intertwined. Europeans, pointing to the environmentally unfriendly S.U.V.s and the old “gas guzzlers,” often mock the American love affair with cars. Yet, “classic” car imagery has endured in the popular definition of what is “American.” Think 50’s-era tail fins, muscle cars, big Cadillacs, pickup trucks — even Jeeps like ours. Those vehicles were part of the “American Dream” — more than a mode of transportation, for many they became a reflection of a lifestyle, embodiments of power, speed and beauty.

ENGINES ON
Nothing in the last century had as profound an effect on the way we live as the invention of the automobile and for many years Indiana was at the center of the auto industry. It was around 1900 that U.S Steel built a new steel mill in Indiana right beside Lake Michigan, where raw materials could easily be delivered by both ship and rail, reducing the cost of production significantly. With steel cheaper, Henry Ford was able to develop an “affordable” automobile by using interchangeable parts assembled on a modern factory production line. Soon, automobiles were being produced in more than 40 cities within Indiana (the largest auto manufacturer in the state was the Studebaker Company, which operated from 1901-1963). Though Detroit, in neighboring Michigan eventually became the automotive production capital of the nation, the Indiana city of Indianapolis became the home to the most famous auto race in the world — the Indy 500.

The Indianapolis Motor Speedway was originally built in 1909 as a year-round testing facility for automobiles. Occasionally auto-makers would use the track to race their cars against each other — then some marketing genius had the idea that if the public were invited to the races, they would be so impressed they’d run out and purchase one of these new vehicles. The Indianapolis 500 was first held on Memorial Day of 1911 and it is still run every year. The race has claimed its place in American popular culture, as a subject of movies, televisions shows, and video games — and is even featured on a new postage stamp!

While the Indy 500’s elite “formula” race is world renown, many of the millions of racing fans across the U.S.A. prefer the “stock car” competitions of NASCAR. Stock racing traces its humble origins to the Prohibition-era bootleggers in the Appalachian region of the southeast. The moonshiners needed good drivers who could deliver the illegal whiskey without police interference. Small, fast cars were the best option for the winding mountain roads, and many drivers would modify them for speed and handling, priding themselves on their skills at outrunning the cops. The best drivers began challenging each other for bragging rights, and their races attracted a growing audience, creating a popular new sport.

And for the Do-It-Yourselfer, there has always been street racing — the ultimate test for the mostly young, mostly mechanically-inclined men who spend their time turning their cars into the fastest and hottest looking machines on the street.

Americans may have a fascination with the speed, power and beauty of the automobile, but driving the vast distances out here, we are beginning to understand something else. In rural parts of the country a car is not just an “accessory” to a lifestyle — it is a “necessity”…

>NEXT: CHICAGO, A FIRST TASTE…


More from Indiana:
PRACTICAL MATTERS: Art on Wheels for a Road Trip…


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