Knowing When to Stop

When do you conclude your research? How do you know?

For me, it happened on Wednesday, September 2, 2009. I was sick as a dog. I had been having respiratory issues since the previous Sunday, so I decided to go to the doctor. However, by this point, I was also physically and mentally exhausted from the process of doing a turbo build on my Mercury Grand Marquis. Over the course of the build, I had faced more difficulties and obstacles than I ever could have expected. Friendships were strained, the shop where I was doing most of my work and research changed owners, and the fabricator helping me with the project ran into some serious personal issues that affected not just my project but the entire shop. As a result, I had somehow become a mediator between him and his boss. In other words, it was a very intense experience.

In addition to all of this, I had been constantly writing and attending street meets, which had become increasingly dangerous and attracted increasing amounts of attention from law enforcement. By the end of the summer, the street meet scene had become so big that the police actually broke up the main Saturday meet, which splintered that meet into three smaller meets. One began meeting near a Taco Cabana (coincidentally, the same location it had been when I first began attending it); this meet attracted show cars like DONKs, DUBs, and low riders. The street racers moved to a dark parking lot near a parts store; however, they had been contemplating this move for a while, even prior to the splintering caused by the police intervention, because they felt the big meet was getting out of hand.

The third group stayed at the original Best Buy location, and were ricers who drove a collection of domestics and imports. I was pretty unsettled by this group. Most of them owned slow cars but drove very aggressively. The last time I attended this meet, the driver of a V6 Mustang was doing doughnuts in the parking lot and coming very close to hitting onlookers. I realized that the onlookers and the other drivers were completely comfortable with this behavior, and I felt that from a social and cultural perspective, I had probably learned everything I could from the group and decided to leave.

One of the objectives I had in researching my dissertation was to observe culture without causing harm to others, and although I found myself in several situations I could have never predicted, I’m glad to say no one was ever harmed. Nevertheless, my memories of the mental and physical experiences I underwent while doing my research will be with me forever. The tribal-esque social structures, the lack of rules, and the necessary maleability of multiple truths have taught me so much about human nature and, in unexpected ways, have been significantly reflected in my own work within academia.

A street racer’s goal is to be the fastest driver in the fastest car within a set of rules and boundaries. However, these boundaries and legalities are always changing, and this lack of stability, this constant emphasis on situationality, is what finally got to me. As I drove home from the doctor’s office, where I had just been told my blood pressure was 160/100 and been advised that I needed to relax and take some time off, I began to cruise. I was so relieved to have confirmation that I wasn’t crazy, that the past few months really had taken a toll on me, to the point that a doctor had ordered me to stop and try to lower the amount of stress I was under.

However, as I drove that afternoon, my instinctive tendencies, normalized over the course of my research, lingered. I revved up my S2000 and took it all the way to 8000RPMs. I noticed a Lexus IS300 flying up behind me going about 100mph, so I decided to quickly move out of its way. Before I knew it, I had hit a high speed; as soon as I realized how fast I was going, I slowed down and let the Lexus pass. After I changed lanes, I saw a motorcycle behind me, red and blue lights flashing. The officer pointed at me, then pointed ahead, and drove off to pull over the Lexus.

I pulled over immediately and sat there for a moment, collecting my thoughts. I realized the officer had wanted me to meet up with him, so I got back on the highway to search for him. As I drove, I thought, “Most of the car guys you know would have just exited and played dumb, as if they’d never been motioned to pull over.” And that was my ah-ha! moment, when I realized just how distorted my reality had become.

Driving up to the officer, I realized I knew exactly what to do because of all the stories I’d heard from car people about how to act and what to say. The officer thanked me for not running away and actually stopping. He mentioned he had put an APB out on me anyway. At the time, this didn’t surprise me, but it probably should have. He explained that he could arrest me and impound my car on account of the speed at which he’d clocked me, but then continued that since I’d slowed down before I’d even seen him, he was just going to write me a basic speeding ticket. He asked me whether or not I was street racing the Lexus, and I told him no, I was just getting out of its way, which was true. “Well,” he said, “I’m going to go ahead and write you your ticket first since you actually stopped, and that other guy can just wait.”

I drove off after he wrote the ticket, feeling numb but relieved. I had never gotten a speeding ticket before, but from the beginning of my research, I knew the likelihood that I would get one was much higher. I called my oldest brother to tell him about the rite of passage I’d just undergone, and also called my dissertation chair. I realized the extent to which I’d become invested in the culture and the extent to which I had departed from my normal behavioral tendencies.

As a postscript, I should note that in the weeks following this incident, two of my friends went to jail for street racing, and their cars were both impounded. The car scene has since moved to multiple locations.