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The Flamethrowers 2

Art Arfons and his Green Monster

Art Arfons and his Green Monster

I went to a great lecture earlier this month. Richard Tapia, a renowned mathematician at Rice University, spoke on “Math at top speed: exploring and breaking myths in the drag racing folklore.” The abstract:

In this talk the speaker will identify elementary mathematical frameworks for the study of old and new drag racing beliefs. In this manner some myths are validated, while others are destroyed. The first part of the talk will be a historical account of the development of drag racing and will include several lively videos and pictures depicting the speaker’s involvement in the early days of the sport.

It turns out that Tapia and his brother Bobby were drag racing pioneers half a century ago. Bobby would beat the great Art Arfons in a match race in 1959, set records in the 1960s, and be inducted into the National Hot Rod Association Hall of Fame in 2002. Richard would focus on math and receive honors of his own, including the 2010 National Medal of Science and election to the National Academy of Engineering (the first Hispanic so elected). He is a national leader in preparing women and underrepresented minorities for PhDs in science, math, and engineering. And, at heart, still a drag racer.

I didn’t grow up following drag racing, but I did follow the quest for the land speed record, which received lots of coverage in the 1960s. Arfons and Craig Breedlove were regularly in the news, with their latest efforts at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.

Which brings me to the point of this post. I wrote a few days ago about having started Rachel Kushner’s new novel The Flamethrowers. I’m now just past the halfway point, and was pleasantly surprised to find that in Kushner’s tale, the narrator arrives at the salt flats to participate in some speed racing herself.

It’s the 1970s. The narrator has graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno, and moved to New York, where she has met an older artist who is a member of the Italian Valera family, maker of motorcycles and tires. I don’t want to describe too much of the plot. Suffice to say that there is a marvelous scene in which she has arrived in Utah in time to watch the Valera team prepare for its latest assault on the land speed record, with famed driver Didi Bombonato at the wheel.

With that as background, I can give an example of Kushner’s fabulous prose, a single paragraph in which our narrator describes Didi:

Each morning, I watched Didi out the window of the trailer as he put on his driving gloves and stretched his fingers, open and fisted, open and fisted, as if he were communicating some kind of cryptic message in units of ten. After his hand stretches, a crew member brought him a little thimble of espresso, which he took between deerskin-gloved finger and thumb, tilted his head back, and drank. He had pocked, sunken cheeks, thin bluish lips, and eyes like raisins, which made him seem angry and also a little dimwitted. Not everyone can be a great beauty, and I’m not exactly a conventional beauty myself. But there was a special tragedy to Didi’s looks: his hair, which was lustrous and full, feathered into elaborate croissant layers. Somehow the glamorous hair brought his homeliness into relief, like those dogs with hair like a woman’s. There was that advertisement on television where you saw a man and a woman from behind, racing along in an open car. The driver and his companion, her blond hair flying on the wind, the American freedom of a big convertible on the open highway, and so forth. The camera moves up alongside. The passenger, it turns out, is not a woman. It’s one of those dogs with long feathery hair, whatever breed that is. Didi’s breed. After drinking his espresso, Didi would flip his hair forward and then resettle it with his fingers, never mind that he was about to mash it under a helmet. It would have been better to skip the vanity and primping and instead use his face as a kind of dare, or weapon: I’m ugly and famous and I drive a rocket-fueled cycle. I’m Didi Bombonato.

She can write. And the salt flats scene ends with a wonderful surprise, which I leave for you to discover when you read the novel.

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