On the surface, it is negative space, an environment defined by what it lacks. We immerse ourselves in it so often that we take it for granted. It is nighttime, and it is perfect for driving. Are you still asleep?
Most people do not have a positive image of night. Ask an elderly woman, a young girl, or a four-year-old boy preoccupied with the monster under his bed, and you'll likely get different versions of one answer: When the sun goes down, the potential for Bad Things goes through the roof. Nighttime is a world of dark corners and fuzzy edges, a place we tolerate but rarely prefer.
On a certain level, this is understandable. But from a driver's perspective, it's a load of garbage.
Consider the car and how your body works within it. The automobile, oddly, can be operated with a significant amount of physical detachment. You can ditch four of your five senses — smell, hearing, taste, touch — and still safely drive a car. Lose your sense of sight, however, and roads are suddenly are out of the question. Is it any wonder that night, nature's mandatory hour of blindness, is rarely thought of as a time for cars?
This approach misses the point. If driving, at its core, is an escape, then night driving is the ultimate distillation of the concept. Taking a car out in the dark removes you from Normal and places you in a world of your own definition — if you can't see it, you can almost pretend that it doesn't exist. For a few precious hours, life seems simpler, and we feel like we have control. Isn't that what the car is all about?
On a certain level, nighttime takes us back to why we first climbed behind the wheel. Partial blindness means a greater capacity for surprise, which means that we have to stay on our toes to stay alive. A dark, winding road offers danger, suspense, and a magnified sense of speed. The cloak of evening gives us license to be ourselves, and as Samuel Clemens once wrote, it subtly urges us to go primal:
In my age, as in my youth, night brings me many a deep remorse. I realize that from the cradle up I have been like the rest of the race — never quite sane in the night. — Mark Twain
There is more to night driving, however, than mere adrenaline. Winding ribbons of pavement can suck you in and jolt you awake, but expressways are also part of the magic. At night, they become endless treadmills to nowhere, passing through everything and nothing all at once. The view out the windshield rarely changes, and every gas stop reminds you of the last. It forces you to sink deeper into your thoughts, to pour yourself into your own head.
Cities are the exact opposite — there isn't a city on the planet that doesn't become more interesting at night, and it has nothing to do with traffic or stoplight cycles. When the sun goes down, cities reveal their true personalities, bombarding you with the throbbing glow of distraction or the subtle, quiet pulse of sleep. The car allows you to observe all this from a mobile, objective fishbowl, immersed but not involved.
Predictably, motorsport governing bodies rarely understand the night. Popular racing — NASCAR, F1, the IRL — uses giant halide or halogen lamps to sterilize the dark into something harsh and disturbingly clinical. By the same token, the most interesting and relatable forms of competition rarely attempt to tame nature — the switch from light to dark is a mind-hump we can all relate to, and it makes speed that much more impressive. (200 mph at noon on a sunny day at Le Mans seems reasonable, but somehow, that same speed at midnight seems impossibly, almost foolishly, brave.) Take this nighttime lap of a V-8-powered Lola at Le Mans:
That isn't video trickery, and they didn't shut the track's lights off for the sake of drama: La Sarthe at night is actually that dark. At over three miles a minute, the Mulsanne straight is an inky, pencil-thin tunnel where heroes are forged. This is ManBraveAwesome and distilled primordial balls, and it's a large part of why they call Le Mans the Greatest Race in the World.
Unlike most motorsport moguls, Hollywood gets darkness, but it rarely depicts the automotive world in the proper way. Surprisingly, Madison Avenue often takes up the slack, offering us thirty-second reminders of the romance of the evening. (Remember the Volkswagen/Nick Drake "Pink Moon" clip?) The Ave's most memorable effort is also its most recent — the VW ad below features a deserted city, a Golf, and an eerily appropriate reading from the Dylan Thomas play Under Milk Wood. It makes you feel something, even if you're not quite sure what that something is:
That idea, then, is night in a nutshell: It's a universal experience that thrives on its abstract essence. Like the automobile, night is a gloriously subjective thing; because it lacks definition and clarity, it's free to be all things to all people. And there's no better way to see it than from a car.
What does it mean to us? Simple: To drive is to remind ourselves that we are alive, and to drive at night is to remind ourselves, in every sense of the phrase, that we are not asleep. So go. Roll the windows down, throw the sunglasses into the glovebox, and venture forth into blackness. It may be dark, but if you can't see the world around you, you're not looking hard enough.
Photo Credits: Flickr/Lucas Janin, Gmanviz, 4PIZON