A Critical Academic Analysis in the 21st Century

As I’ve stated elsewhere in this dissertation, the goal of my research was to explore the material culture of racing “the speed, the races, the cars ” as a vehicle to observe and analyze the social and cultural practices of the participants in order to generate insights into the cultural fluidity of central Texas. Over the course of my research, I immersed myself entirely in the culture, learning not only how one gains entry into the field as a participant, but also experiencing how issues like race, social class, and gender influence participation and growth within the scene.

My approach to the analysis of my data sets stems from two facets of my experiences: First, it is influenced by my formal training in ethnography, the study of social and cultural practices. Second, it is informed by my own personal research methodology, which relies not only on field notes, but also on video and photographic documentation, as well as participatory (i.e. first hand) experience in the field. As I began to interpret the enormous amount of data I accumulated, I consciously approached the task using multiple discourses simultaneously; I acted as an ethnographer, a documentarian, a practitioner of alternative pedagogy, and as myself, a large Latino with a Mohawk. That said, I assert the following about my research:

Hybridity Theory

Hybridity is a concept in cultural studies that describes a phenomenon in which a community combines its cultural practices with the practices of cultures outside the community. My initial introduction into Hybridity theory comes from reading “Hybridity: or the cultural logic of globalization” by Kraidy and a course I took with Joseph Straubhaar, the scholar who proposed the idea of Cultural Proximity.”  Through this intense training of thinking about the exchange of cultural and social practices in a multifaceted, multi modal way I have begun to think about and theorize my findings has in immense new ways.

For example, Japanese-style drifting is increasingly popular in the American drifting scene. American automotive cultural practices, such as driving domestic cars or using V8 engines, fuse with Japanese practices, like driving Japanese cars (which are referred to in the US as JDM) and using smaller motors and turbos. This hybridity merges two different groups of motor sport enthusiasts to create a new space in which two cultures and their practices are respected and compete on the same tracks. The products of such a space reflect this hybridity. For example, I once saw a Toyota Scion TC coupe, a front-wheel drive car, modified to be a rear-wheel drive vehicle so that it could compete in the D1 drifting series. The car’s elements integrated the American fascination with real-wheel drive sports cars with the Japanese tradition of affordable front-wheel drive sport coupes.

I also observed the marrying of multiple car cultures at Boost Logic. Their approach toward American, Japanese, and European automotive platforms was extremely demonstrative of the principles of hybridity. For example, they have a deep understanding of the Toyota Supra, a car introduced in the 1990s. After it was featured in the 2001 film, The Fast and the Furious, the Supra gained a worldwide cult following. Boost Logic’s Supra customers reflect this international popularity, ranging from local Austinites to Panamanian, Saudi Arabian, and British owners. The Supra itself embodies hybridity theory. Its engine’s short block (the pistons and crank shaft) is built by Toyota, its head (where the valves and cam shafts are located) is built by Yamaha, and its transmission is built by Getrag, a German company. Such hybridized mode of production is the consequence of the automotive industry’s practice of outsourcing in order to use the “best” parts for a product.

Over the past fifteen years, the internet has increasingly become a key medium for the dissemination of cultural hybridity throughout the realm of car culture. It has enabled the transfer of large numbers of geographically specific cultural events quickly and broadly to other parts of the world, affecting practices even within the smallest towns.

Online Forums

During my research process, I went with my wife to visit her family in Crystal City, which is in southwestern Texas. While visiting with one of her uncles who is a drag racing enthusiast, I became aware of the drag racing scene at the local Zavala county airport. I discovered that the scene was aware of and recognized the importance of import tuners and their ability to produce fast cars (import cars are typically not as prevalent in rural drag racing scenes due to a tradition of Domestic manufacturers having subsidized dealerships in small towns.). However, the internet has facilitated the creation of several spaces that have enabled a collective cultural consciousness. Chief among these spaces are:

  • Public forums
  • Private forums
  • User-generated video websites

Each of these spaces has its own unique methods for transporting information. In the course of my research, I frequented many of the forums. I began visiting forums as a teenager, when I used them to learn about high-end audio. I found they often contained a wealth of knowledge, due in part to the inherent narrowcasting that occurs in such specifically interest-targeted spaces.   The main website I began frequenting was AudioAsylum, a classic Bulletin Board that consisted of audiophiles who would share their experiences with various high-end audio equipment.   I learned about internet lingo, such as SO (significant other), nt (No Text, used when just leaving a subject line message) and YMMV (Your Mileage May Vary, meaning your experience may be different then mine).   I also learned about hiearchy trees within forums, both technically and socially.   Hierarchy trees are how threads are maintained.   For example, there may be an audio forum and under that forum, it might have an amplifer section and a speaker section.   These hierarchies allow for information to flow into specific spaces while being filtered in a very “natural” internet way.  Social Hierarchies on forums on then dependent on a couple of things, such as (in no particular order):   number of posts, quality of posts, background experience and administration level (on forums, often a user can become an administrator of a specific forum giving the power to be moderate content).   These various hierarchical styles create a social space that allow for cultural and social exchange over the internet in ways that break down traditional geographical boundaries.

While researching my dissertation, some of the forums — both public and private — that I frequented included: crownvic.net, s2ki.com, s2kca.com, , 6speedonline.com, mercurymarauder.net, and texasracers.com. Each forum typically contains common subforums, such as a forum for model-specific enthusiasts, a technical/body of knowledge forum, a variety of geographically specific forums, a multimedia forum, and an off-topic/hobby forum. Some forums also have subforums for racing topics, like drag, road, and street racing.

The type of discussion and the level of sophistication vary and, in many ways, reflect the socioeconomic status of the vehicle owners represented on each forum. In forums for more expensive models, popular topics in the hobby subforums include wine, wristwatches, and cigars. In forums for cheaper domestic models, the hobby subforums focus on guns and conservative politics. However, there are some shared topics between these forums. For example, nearly every hobby forum contains a photography section that focuses not only on car photos, but also includes discussions of photography gear and skills. Technology, and the discussion of computers and related issues, are another shared interest.

Forum users tend to be predominantly male, though it’s important to note that women who do participate are often received warmly and widely appreciated. Male users tend to interact with them in a very mature way. However, many of the private forums contain special subforums where users are highly sexist, posting images of nude women, pornographic videos, and other similar cultural artifacts.

Private forums differ from public forums in several other ways. They’re accessible only by registered users, and often contain sections reserved for special members within those registered users. The special sections of street racing forums often document illegal races that take place on highways and back roads.

The third online venue for automotive culture and social interaction are user-generated video websites, such as YouTube and StreetFire.net. YouTube is a widely known “whole tail” provider; they serve “short tail” content, such as MTV, ABC, NBC, and other networks, as well as “long tail” content, like vlogging, home videos, and other user-generated content. Through the use of metadata, analytics, and other strategies, YouTube has become a videotainment space that enables the sorting and sharing of content and has ultimately revolutionized and democratized content distribution.

The YouTube revolution has greatly impacted car culture. Prior to YouTube, the distribution of footage of races and amateur enthusiasts was heavily restricted by geography, and limited primarily to small media companies that published compilation tapes and, later, DVDs. However, during my research, I regularly watched participants in car culture show one another YouTube videos on their iPhones in parking lot meets, at race tracks, or in cars on the way to events. It was fairly common for them to upload videos of their cars while at the track or on the street.

Many of the videos I have hosted here and used to complement the text of this dissertation have, in turn, been absorbed into the culture that produced them. One such video is Marc Evans’ “Compound Turbo Explanation” video, which I created for him in the spring and summer of 2009. In the video, Marc explains his compound turbo set-up and how the system makes power. The video has been viewed thousands of times. Marc and I heard from a fellow car culture participant that it was used at an automotive tuning school to demonstrate the cutting edge of high-performance work. This video is a testament to the democratizing effect of user-generated video websites on media distribution.

While conducting research on YouTube and StreetFire, I discovered videos on a plethora of subjects, from low-rider shows, personal promotional clips of owners showing off their rides, footage of the Texas Mile, road races, and street races. I found the videos of street races particularly intriguing, given that many of them document what are essentially illegal races. The first street racing videos I watched originated in California; I was flabbergasted at the speed of the cars and the sounds they produced. While the footage was typically very shaky, I believe the sounds and the aura of speed are what most viewers crave.

I believe the internet has facilitated the hybridization and the adaptation of the social and cultural practices of automotive enthusiasts around the world. If I were to perform further research into hybridity and automotive culture, I would choose to explore the interplay between the automotive industry and user-generated content, and the effect this content has on automotive marketing and the industry as a whole.   As I wrapped up my research this specific research became a natural step as began making professional promotional videos for Boost Logic.   One such video is Boost Logic’s Drag Car video from the Supra Meet 2010:

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As of April 11th 2010, this video has garnered over 16,000 views on youtube.com.  Within the first day of launching we had over 2,000 views and YouTube emailed our account to request an advertising partnership where they would pay per click to display a lower 3rd advertisement as our video played.  This type of direct consumer/distribution relationship is something I look forward to researching.

Maintaining Cultural Hierarchies Through the Lexicon

As I became increasingly embedded in the street racing scene, I was introduced to many acronyms and abbreviations. Participants in the scene use acronyms and abbreviations for everything from engine types, like B16s (a Honda 1.6 liter 4 cylinder) and 2JZs (a Supra 3.0 liter inline 6), to car models, like a Z31 (a Nissan 300ZX made from 1983 to 1989) or a 993 (a Porsche 911 made from 1994 to 1997). I realized that these acronyms and abbreviations form an elite lexicon that creates a barrier to entry into the culture. However, the different elements of the lexicon will have different cultural capital depending on the social situation. For example, if you’re talking to a Honda enthusiast and you tell them you have an SR20 (a six cylinder Nissan motor made for an RWD platform) in your Honda Civic, they’ll probably look at you funny and ask how you swapped a Nissan SR20 engine into your Honda (not to mention wonder how you converted your SR20 into a FWD), calling into question both your knowledge of your car and of automotive culture in general. Thus, the more a participant in the scene understands its lexicon and can use it accurately, the higher a claim they can make on the scale of cultural hierarchy.

As an academic, I have been trained to observe culturally specific vocabulary and to integrate it into my work. I must admit, however, that the meaning of one acronym, DSM, eluded me until I finally broke down and asked someone about it. Marc explained to me that DSM stood for Diamond-Star Motors, but added that when people say DSM, what they are most commonly referring to are the Mitsubishi Eclipse, the Plymouth Laser, and the Eagle Talon platforms. As soon as Marc explained that, I knew exactly what he was referring to, because these cars were a significant part of the performance scene when I was a teenager. Each of these cars were platform-based, and although they were marketed by three different car companies, they used the same underpinning, were manufactured side-by-side, and represented fairly affordable entries into a relatively exotic platform. The top-of-the-line models offered a turbocharged inline 4 in addition to all-wheel drive (AWD). Their street performance was remarkable in terms of handling and acceleration, though the AWD did weigh them down a bit. The DSM have remained a favorite for import street racers and car show and drag race enthusiasts.

Armed with my knowledge, I attended street meets with automotive cultural capital that proved invaluable. I used the lexicon to forge new relationships and access new venues for research.

Race in Racing

Kenneth is half African American and Korean, he calls himself Blasian.

The construct of race for the purpose of this dissertation is based off the traditional idea of race in American, which focuses on Latino, African American, Anglo, as well as Asian and Middle Eastern positionality within the social and cultural context considered to be “normal” American life.  This construct is also highly influenced by my own experiences of race and racial discrimination within academia.   Being a Latino myself, I have faced much racial discrimination as a student for my writing, the language I use and often the way I physically look, especially since I am quite large male  and have a mohawk.   These tendencies to be discriminated against and see other minorities be discriminated against translated into my Automotive research.

While I was conducting my research, one of the things that very quickly became apparent was that race mattered in central Texas car culture. Wherever I traveled, everyone I observed took race into consideration, whether implicitly or explicitly. Furthermore, given that my research was participatory, my race directly influenced the way in which the various groups I researched perceived me. For example, in the Mustang group, I was a minority, since the group was dominated by blue-collar white males. They often used derogatory terms toward minorities, especially Latinos and African Americans. On a number of occasions they discussed immigrant workers who didn’t learn English and described how these workers were “taking over” their neighborhoods.

This mentality of viewing Latinos and African Americans as secondary citizens also generally carried over to the street racing scene at large. This was somewhat surprising, as the street racing scene does not solely consist of whites, but also includes many Asians and Middle Easterners. Their ability to maintain such discriminatory attitudes often seemed to be rooted in their understandings and experiences of caste systems and/or European cultural imperialism.

Racial discrimination seemed symptomatic of the crude and uncouth nature of the scene’s participants in general. Based on my research, I would say that many street racers are inherently risk seekers and are typically not sophisticated or accepting in their cultural understandings of racial issues. These tendencies are independent of economic or social status, and can be observed at a variety of hierarchical levels within the group.

However, the boundary of race was often overcome by means of the assimilation of cultural practices, a fact I took full advantage of in order to gain entry into the street racing social scene. The specific practices that will supersede race to enable entry into this scene are having a very fast car or having an attitude that de-emphasizes race. I employed both to allow me to participate and conduct further research.   In the beginning when I would arrive to street meets I would often just observe, not just as an anthropologist, but as a participant in order to understand peoples backgrounds so I could interact with them in an efficient manner as to break down social and cultural barriers.   An example of such a situation was when I went to a street meet and there were some Mexican Immigrants there listening to Conjunto music in their low rider and a group of street racers were making fun of them.   I then asked the street racers about their cars and their setups, using the knowledge I had obtained while observing.  After talking with them a bit I would go and talk to the Mexican Immigrants about their audio setups and when I would come back to the street racers they would look at me kind of funny for talking to them, I would explain what the Mexican Immigrants were up to and the street racers would often be surprised and then relate it to their past experiences, both good and bad in terms of understanding other races social and cultural practices.

Participants also discriminated against one another based on the types of cars they drove; for example, whether someone drove an import versus a domestic car, or had a V6 versus a V8 engine. Heavy language, territorial parking, and generally aggressive behavior are all ways participants expressed this kind of discrimination. (For a further description of this dynamic, see Street Racing.)

Import’s parking separately from the Domestics.

These cultural practices were not maintained in other central Texas automotive cultures. For example, the road racing scene differed tremendously. Road racing is a much more expensive sport, and reflects an entirely different set of values. Road racers treat each other much differently than street racers. While a wealthy street racer may be highly discriminatory within the scene, a wealthy road racer will typically not publicize such opinions if he has them. I also observed that participants in each scene frequently transcended the bounds of their scene to participate in other scenes. In such cases, social class and cultural circumstances tended to dictate their behavior.   I believe much of this behavior was due to that fact that road racing participants in general had higher educations and from more conservative social and cultural backgrounds in terms of deviant behavior.

I assert that the concept of having different ways to deal with race in different situations is a cultural phenomenon that takes advantage of cultural fluidity and the notion of code switching in a way that creates false impressions of sincerity. Observing this phenomenon allowed me to gain a greater understanding of how social spaces as a whole are negotiated.

I hope to further explore racial identity within the street racing scene, and perhaps attempt to create a visual representation of the social spaces through which each participant navigates.   Such visual representations would include Venn diagram style illustrations of the various automotive scenes, the races involved and how they relate.

Gender and Car Culture

Having taken and taught courses cross listed in Women and Gender Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, my familiarity with  gender in terms of social and cultural practices has been greatly heightened.   Having read theorists such as bell hooks, Gloria Anzaldua and working under Sandy Stone, one of the core founders of Trans gender theory, my approach to looking at gender stems from the deep rooted discrimination and male dominance in western European society, while also assessing spaces of power and empowerment.

When I began my research, I realized almost immediately that I wasn’t interacting with very many women in the car scene. Other than my very supportive wife, who joined me from time to time, I didn’t notice many women who were clearly invested in the culture I was observing. I gradually realized, however, that many of the women who  were present were wives and girlfriends, there to support their husbands and boyfriends. These relationships seemed to fall into quite conservative gender archetypes. Behaviors reflected these gender divisions as well; for example, wives/girlfriends often split off into groups to talk with one another while men stayed by their cars and talk.

Not every woman in the scene fit neatly into this role. In the fall of 2008, I met one such woman at a parking lot meet in San Antonio. She arrived in a yellow low rider, and its custom paint job and etchings immediately caught my attention. As she stood next to her car, she answered questions from onlookers about it. I asked if I could take her picture, and she was more than happy to oblige. She told me that she had been featured in magazines before, and she had a thick Texan accent. As she stood next to her car, her body language expressed pride and confidence. She told me about the custom etchings she had created on the entire car, and I found the intricate work deeply moving. I could see the love and care she had put into her show car, but I also found her comportment interesting; I felt it reflected a certain concession to the norms of the male-dominated scene while still retaining elements of her own identity.

A local San Antonio low-rider enthusiast shows off her ride.
A custom rose etched bumper

To facilitate my participation in the Hill Country drive culture in which many high-end car clubs participate, I purchased a 2006 Honda S2000. Through the S2000 Club of America, I met Sondra, the club’s local director, who organizes driver education events at local race tracks in addition to participating in the Hill Country drives. Sondra was very enthusiastic, and both her driving and her teaching abilities were interesting to observe. She carried herself in a stately manner, and had a knack for group dynamics. Through the S2K Club, I also met Kristine, a positive and friendly woman interested in both bikes and cars, who often participated in the drives as well.

I also met many women who often complained about their husbands’/boyfriends’ deep involvement with the scene; during discussions with men, I often heard stories about wives/girlfriends lost to their cars. A common practice in the scene is for men to refer to their cars as “chick magnets,” meaning they feel their cars radiate sexual auras that attract women. I met several women who admitted their attraction to certain types of cars and engine sounds, which surprised me.

Finally, my wife also took on a participatory role in my research. She is also an anthropologist, and has a personal interest in car culture. Like many historical female anthropologists, she accompanied her anthropologist husband in the field. Her participation in my research was crucial in traditional ways, such as the creative and financial support she offered me. And, as a woman, she could sometimes participate in social interactions with other women in ways I could not, and she contributed wonderful insights based on her own perception of the culture we observed. The value of her perspective is immeasurable.

However, as her attention was increasingly drawn to her own research interests, her desire to attend late night street meets and to talk about cars for hours on end did eventually wane. Many people tend to experience a similar loss of interest when they attempt to immerse themselves into a culturally specific milieu that does not fully engage them. I believe her eventual disinterest stemmed from how quickly conversations revolved around technical specifics, and how, as a result, discussions became exclusionary rather than inclusive.

Corina helping capture footage
Corina and Steph at San Antonio Race Way

Lauren, Russell Walker’s girlfriend, is similarly supportive. Her encouragement of his aspirations to become a professional drifter entails deep commitment, since he travels frequently; but she tries to attend every event, and her support seems unconditional. She often visits Boost Logic to have lunch with him or bring him cupcakes, and these visits seem to brighten up the shop and, I believe, contribute to a more welcoming aura for the space overall.

Lauren, Russell, Myself, Marc

All of these experiences and interactions were unusual — the exceptions, not the rule. Over the course of my research, the vast majority of women I met, whether at street meets, car shows, or SEMA, were highly sexualized and intended to pursue careers as professional actresses or models. They were extremely driven and ambitious women who were being paid or hoping to eventually be paid to be a model and/or an actress in the entertainment industry.

While following Russell Walker, I met a few models who were selling signed photographs of themselves, and were also inviting passersby to take photographs with them. I found this situation awkward, but was also intrigued by how accustomed to this I became after a few such interactions.

Hot Import Nights models

At SEMA, talking to models, getting their autographs, and having pictures taken with them were all strongly encouraged. I found this very stressful. I believe myself to be a feminist who opposes the exploitation of women for the sake of the perpetuation of patriarchal norms; but, in this environment, I was surrounded by exactly that. I was unprepared for models to ask me to take pictures with them, but realized this was a sales tactic designed to draw the conference attendees to the particular booth that sponsored each model. On several occasions I accepted their offers in order to experience the practice firsthand, and found it quite strange. Standing between two models who pressed up against me, I began to re-evaluate the way people in the scene interacted with and touched me in general.

Posing with models at SEMA

I realized the extent to which enacting these conservative gender roles made me uncomfortable, but I also recognized and personally witnessed the power of sex as a selling tool. I have yet to reconcile this experience. Two questions I want to continue to attempt to answer are:

1. Given that the entertainment industry is so highly sexualized, and that car culture is part of a masculine rite of passage into American-ness, how can we dismantle patriarchy in ways that encourage more female involvement in car culture?

2. At what age does the behavioral division according to gender occur in the car scene, and how can we change this? Given that both boys and girls play with some kind of cars as children, whether they’re Hot Rods or Barbie Escalades, at what age do girls become less interested in driving as either a sport or a hobby?

I hope to conduct further research into these and other questions, but I also hope my work to date has provided some insight into the roles of women in car culture and the ways in which they are involved in the scene.

As a final observation, I’d like to note that my dissertation committee chair, Professor Sandy Stone, primarily observed my research from a distance; but eventually I was able to convince her to accompany me to Drive Way Austin, a local road racing academy. Once there, Joe, one of the academy’s top instructors, took her for a ride in my turbocharged Mercury Grand Marquis. After a few high-G laps, she could only say that she wished we could drive longer and faster.

Sandy and Joe at DriveWay Austin after taking my MGM for a ride.