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Originally aired 12.10.2004

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Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American life, distributed by Public Radio International. I'm Ira Glass.

Answering Machine

Message three, Sunday, 12:00 AM.

Brita Bonechi

Hi Rob, it's Brita. I've had an accident and I'm upside down in my car. I've called 911 and I think the cops are coming. I just want you to know that I'm completely fine except that I'm upside down and hanging from my seat belt because I can't undo it. I'll call you as soon as I get out of here. I love my car. So here I am. Bye.

Ira Glass

So you're Brita?

Brita Bonechi

I am.

Ira Glass

From the phone message?

Brita Bonechi

Yes.

Ira Glass

And at the moment when you're making this phone call, you're hanging upside down being held in place by your seat belt. It seems like it would be hard to talk normally.

Brita Bonechi

Well, my head was also squashed up against the roof of my car, and it was a really odd position to be in. So I reached my cell phone and called this wonderful woman at the state troopers, and she said, you're upside down in your car? And I said, yeah, but I'm fine. But send a whole bunch of people to get me out of here.

Ira Glass

What happened to Brita is that she was driving her Subaru station wagon about 100 miles from her home in Maine. There was a red SUV parked in the road, just stopped there, dead. She swerved around it, the road was wet, she went into a ditch, flipped over. Her shoulder is still hurt, but basically she's OK.

Ira Glass

The most amazing thing you say on this message is that moment where you pause and you just say, I love my car.

Brita Bonechi

Well, I'm talking about the fact that I've just murdered it and I know that I'm not going to drive it again. And it's a sadness, it's a tragedy for me, to have done this to a car that was perfect its entire existence. It was really horrible.

Ira Glass

Oh, like it had done nothing to you, it had been perfect and yet, yeah.

Brita Bonechi

And yet, I'd shot it by mistake. Yeah. I did love my car. It was a really great car. It was like a dog. It always did what I told it to do and it never broke down anywhere. I talked to it once in a while. And the new car I pat a lot to tell it it's all right, that I won't do it again. I think we spend more time in our cars in America than anything else, except maybe bed. I think everybody loves their vehicle. And if they don't, they should get rid of it and get something else that they can bond with.

Ira Glass

Today on our radio show, I Love My Car. We have five stories about feelings between people and machines. Act One, Crunk in the Trunk. In that act, a car stereo so loud it cannot be played in any normal way. Act Two, Baby, You Can't Drive My Car, about a car that broke a man's heart. Act Three, Objects in the Rearview Mirror May be Alarmingly Familiar. In that act, on the roads of Washington, D.C., a man chasing his own car. Act Four, Not Your Father's Chevrolet Salesman, in which we reveal the secret weapon of the number one salesperson at a big Chevy dealer here in Chicago. Act Five, End of the Road, about people who don't want to stop driving no matter what. Stay with us.

Act One. Crunk In The Trunk.

Ira Glass

Act one. Nearly every weekend of the summer all over the country, there are these car stereo tournaments. Or maybe extreme car stereo tournaments is a better way to put it. We're talking about cars and vans that have been modified with one purpose in mind: to generate a blast of noise so loud that if you were actually in the car when the system was detonated-- and that's the only right word for this, detonated-- the air would be knocked from your lungs and your eyes would bulge out. Your nose might bleed. This is dB drag racing, dB stands for decibels, of course. David Segal of the Washington Post attended the Steel Valley Regional Competition at the Mountaineer Gaming Resort in West Virginia.

David Segal

We're going to talk about obsession and subwoofers, and eventually we'll talk about girls and how to get them. But first, we're going to talk about a grudge. Specifically, we're going to talk about Vernon Sergeant and his quest for revenge against his rival, Paul Carmichael. Vernon is a middle aged black guy, Paul's a white teenager from a small town in Pennsylvania. It's a reckoning Vernon's dreamed about for a year.

Vernon Sergeant

We met here at the Mountaineer last September. The last show, he actually beat me pretty good, he actually beat me pretty bad.

David Segal

Paul beat Vernon fair and square, but here's what bugs Vernon. There was a glitch in the volume meter at that competition, and in one of the early heats, Paul posted a super high number, the sort of number that only the most monstrous car stereos produce. Someone took a photograph of that moment, Paul apparently crushing Vernon in a head-to-head match, and the photo showed up on Paul's website.

Vernon Sergeant

This was placed on his personal web page on dB drag racing. It kind of got under my skin. The reality of it all was he knew that the score was not legit. As far as Paul Carmichael is concerned, our shootout tomorrow, is what I like to call it, is going to be very interesting. Paul is ranked higher in the world. I plan on making up some ground tomorrow.

Paul Charmichael

This is actually the first time I've been to a two-day event and my parents haven't come.

David Segal

This is Paul. As rivals go, he's pretty unintimidating. He just finished high school, he's a little gangly, wears glasses. There's something tech support about him. He's incapable of trash talk, and he's even modest about his own dB drag record.

Paul Charmichael

My first competition I went to, of course I hit 135 decibels.

David Segal

Was that good, were you pleased with that?

Paul Charmichael

It was terrible. That's like the worst possible score ever. I think I was actually last, the third of three. Of course, I didn't tell anybody that, I just said I came in third.

David Segal

About a decade ago, this car stereo thing got way out of control, to the point where music isn't really part of it anymore. That's right, these systems are too powerful for music of any kind. Walk around the grounds here, a huge parking lot with dozens of guys working in teams, and you don't hear any music except what's coming from the parking lot PA. I asked this one competitor, Dave Jennings, to play me a tune on his system, and that set off a five minute hunt for a CD. He just didn't keep any near his flame-painted Chevy van rigged with a dozen 6,000 watt amplifiers, a dozen subwoofers, and 70 12 volt batteries In a vehicle that weighs more than 33,000 pounds. When he finally found a disk and blasted it through his pride and joy, it was impossible to recognize the tune. It sounded like a rock band underwater.

[MUFFLED MUSIC PLAYS]

That's actually Aerosmith. Aerosmith through a stereo that's five tons of bass and not an ounce of treble. In a normal car, it sounds like this.

[MUSIC - "LIVIN' ON THE EDGE" BY AEROSMITH]

So when the cars line up to compete at a dB drag race and the volts start flowing, nobody reaches for Megadeth. Instead, they use this three-second, electronically-generated tone. They all call it the burp. The idea is to give everyone the same sonic raw material to work with. But the burp is practical, too. Play a whole song on one of these systems and there's a good chance the amplifiers will heat to the point where they burst into flames.

Microsoft Mary

dB drag racing qualifying rounds brought to you by SPLMAX. Competitors stand by.

David Segal

That's Microsoft Mary, the computerized voice of this competition. A dB drag race looks a little like a regular drag race without the actual excitement of the race part. Two vehicles roll up, side by side, to one of those ready, set, go light trees. You think the cars are about to peel off down the street. Instead, a referee tapes the sound meter inside each car and shuts the door.

Microsoft Mary

Ready, set, go.

David Segal

The competitors stand outside their vehicles with these on/off switches attached through a wire to their stereo. And when the race starts, they've got 30 seconds to burp their machines.

[DEEP BUZZING]

That's the burp heard from outside the car. Moments later, the volume reading for each racer is posted on a tote board overhead. The winner proceeds to the next round, tournament style.

Microsoft Mary

Winner, 151.5 dB.

David Segal

What's measured here is decibels, but everyone calls it SPL, short for Sound Pressure Level. At these volumes, noise is a lot like a violent gust of wind, so dB drag racers do everything possible to stiffen and seal up their vehicles to prevent sound pressure and noise from escaping. It's an engineering problem. How do you build a stereo that's as loud as a riot in a car so perfectly sound proofed that you can't hear anything inside it? Doors are clamped shut, walls are often reinforced with poured concrete, the interior is dismantled, the seats and dashboard are ripped out. There's barely room for one person to fit inside. You end up with what is basically a huge mobile speaker box juiced by dozens of car batteries. It's a rolling vault of noise, like a tank designed at Ozzfest. But there are limits.

Sam Horn

We want cars that have a shape of a car, have a function of a car. Our rules state that the car has to be driven into the competition.

David Segal

How far do you have to be able to drive the car?

Sam Horn

We usually require the competitor to drive the car 20 feet.

David Segal

20 feet. This is Sam Horn. Yes, that's his real name. He's been judging dB drag races for years. He says most people trailer their cars to the event.

Sam Horn

Most of these guys have modified everything for maximum performance on the stereo, so there's no gauges, the windows have been replaced with armor plating, there's no air conditioning, there's no ventilation. I mean, there's nothing in there except the steering wheel and a gas pedal. but a lot of times, the steering wheel takes up way too much space so they'll chop it and put whatever they can find in there. I've seen golf club heads, beer taps. One guy used a half a speaker, just so they could try to steer the car.

David Segal

Obviously, these things aren't built with passengers in mind. In fact, one of the ironclad rules at a dB drag race, you're not allowed in a car when it's show time. The sound pressure in any dB dragger at full power will make you sick.

Sam Horn

At that point you start suffering problems with your vision, nausea. So for safety, we have them operate their vehicle outside at anything above 110 decibels.

David Segal

So how loud are these things? Reach over to the volume control of your radio right now. Got it? In a second, I'm going to play you a dB drag racing signal tone. So turn it all the way up now.

[DEEP BUZZING]

Now take this sound and, if you can possibly imagine this, multiply it by five. A typical dB drag racer is many times louder than the front row of any rock concert you've been to. Lore has it that these systems can crumple paper, that you're better off standing next to a jet engine than in a dB drag racer with the windows up. Some of this is true, but the guy who created this league, Wayne Harris, says some of it is macho myth.

Wayne Harris

I've heard people say that if you sit in these vehicles it will kill you. That's not the case. They'll sit in there, tweaking their vehicles. Of course, they wear hearing protection. But it's not going to stop your heart or cause you to disintegrate or anything like that.

David Segal

If you want to know how all this dB drag racing madness started, Harris is your man. It goes back to when he was a college kid in the '80s looking to meet babes.

Wayne Harris

If you have something that everybody just thinks is really, really cool and wherever you go, a crowd of people gather around, the girls want to be with that person.

David Segal

Harris should know. he began his car stereo career by building the Terminator, which was a 1960 Cadillac hearse he tricked out with a 30 inch subwoofer-- the kind you find at rock concerts-- 52 other speakers, six amplifiers, and a dashboard retooled to look like the cockpit of a jet. When he played Van Halen, he says you could hear it coming a mile away.

Wayne Harris

I would wear earplugs and then over that I would wear earmuffs, like shooters use when they go to the shooting range.

David Segal

Did that not seem slightly insane at the time, to build a car stereo so loud that in order to sit in the car and play it, you had to have ear plugs and earmuffs?

Wayne Harris

Yeah, it was kind of weird because-- it was kind of cool though, because people would see you wearing these headphones and they already knew that you had a pretty loud stereo but then you're reinforcing that concept because they're actually seeing you in your own car wearing headphones. So yeah, it was pretty nuts. When I think back about it now, yeah, it's pretty crazy.

[MUSIC - "JUMP" BY VAN HALEN]

David Segal

He and a couple of his friends started competing to see whose system was the loudest. And pretty soon, they discovered that if you just want to make a decibel meter jump, music is not very efficient. So they invented the burp. That was 1995. The dB drag racing league Harris founded today claimed more than 10,000 competitors. And last year, it staged more than 300 races, or whatever you call these things. You build up points at each event, just like NASCAR. And if you're good enough, you're invited to the national championships in Tennessee.

Wayne Harris

There are celebrities. I've seen the competitors and the judges signing peoples' shirts, their hats, their equipment, their amplifiers in their car. I've seen people signing the vehicles themselves. Any time somebody makes it to a level where they're actually a world record holder, in our world-- it's our world-- then everybody's going to know who they are.

David Segal

I've been to a couple of these now, and I'm always stuck with the same question. Why? Why, oh why, oh why? It's not prize money. There's hardly any in it. And it's not women, there aren't any at these things. There aren't even spectators, unless you count other competitors plus the few glum relatives who appear to have been taken here against their will. My best guess is that it's all about the quintessentially American obsession with glory, however fleeting. Everyone wants to be the king of the hill. That's international. But the number of aspiring kings always dwarfs the number of available hills. So in this country, we build more hills. We're geniuses, in fact, at building more hills.

We've got a league for everything, including underwater hockey and lawn mower racing. That's dB drag racing. It's utterly pointless. A car stereo competition with cars you can't drive and stereos you can't listen to. Until you realize that it allows a group of people to call themselves the best in the world at something.

Man

We need that car shut off in lane two.

David Segal

It's mid-afternoon on Sunday. Time for Paul and Vernon's showdown. Paul looks worried. His system is acting a little flaky.

Paul Charmichael

I changed the frequency, changed the volume, it just gets lower. I tried testing it, it's not doing anything different. So I'm just going to let it charge and go up there, give the best I've got, and probably lose.

Microsoft Mary

Street three. Lane one, Paul Carmichael. Lane two, Vernon Sergeant. Competitors stand by.

Man

I just need to get a thumbs up, ready in lane one from Paul Carmichael. Thumbs up in lane two, Vernon. Watch the leader board, here we go.

David Segal

Paul and Vernon are each laying on top of their cars, their bodies acting as human sound baffles.

Microsoft Mary

Ready, set, go.

[DEEP BUZZING]

Man

51.6 in lane two.

David Segal

Vernon burps first, posting a 151.6 decibels. Then he stands back looking pleased and waits. Paul does nothing for a very long 20 seconds. This might be a psych out or it might be tactics. If Paul holds out to the last moment and his score is higher than Vernon's, Vernon won't have time to burp again in the 30 second window. Paul is just standing there.

Microsoft Mary

10 seconds.

David Segal

With five seconds left, he finally moves.

[DEEP BUZZING]

Microsoft Mary

Five, four, three, two, one.

Man

50.8.

Microsoft Mary

Time.

Man

And Vernon Sergeant is our winner in street a. Way to go Vernon. Paul Charmichael, great run.

David Segal

Paul posted 150.8, nearly a decibel less than Vernon. Paul looks pretty devastated. He says later that he held off till the last second just to entertain the crowd. Vernon, meanwhile, is doing a dB drag race equivalent of an end zone dance.

Vernon Sergeant

Yeah, we spanked that ass. It wasn't a default. It wasn't fake, it wasn't artificial. I beat him fair and square.

David Segal

As the competition wound down, there was a lull in the action and I couldn't resist. I drove my rented Chevy Cavalier to the competitors' lanes, and Sam hooked up the volume meter while I revved the engine a couple times and threw the official dB drag race CD into the stereo. Then I cranked the dial and played that signal tone as loud as I could. 124 dBs. Sam was giggling. It was the smallest number he'd ever seen in his entire career. And I'm not going to lie to you. That made me a little proud. I was the lowest of the low, of all time, may be in the whole country, possibly in the whole world. And nobody can take that away from me.

Ira Glass

David Segal of the Washington Post.

Act Two. Baby You Can't Drive My Car.

Ira Glass

Act Two, Baby You Can't Drive My Car. Jamie Kitman bought his first MGA two years before he was old enough to drive. He and three other guys each pitched in $12.50 and they bought one that was fire damaged and they tried to get it to run. He's owned six other MGAs since then, this two-seat British sports car that stopped production back in 1962. And though he literally drives a different car every week as a reviewer and a columnist for Automobile Magazine-- they actually bring them to his house-- he says that the car that broke his heart over and over was the first MGA that he had that actually ran.

Jamie Kitman

I really wanted it to be a good car and I spent all my money, and I started meeting other people who knew cars, who were telling me all the things that were bad about it. And that made me feel really bad, so I--

Ira Glass

Oh my god, like you married the wrong person.

Jamie Kitman

Yeah, like all my friends think my wife is a jerk.

Ira Glass

Did you ever try to get a girl with that car?

Jamie Kitman

I had really high hopes for the MGA. I was sort of still figuring out how to talk to girls and things like that, and I guess I was 17 and I had this job delivering chicken for this place called Chicken Holiday or something like that. But there was this girl there that I'd had a crush on since the sixth grade. I was convinced that when she saw this car and me in it, she would realize that I was the take-charge kind of guy that she had always been looking for.

Somehow, I managed to ask her out for a date, so I went to go pick her up in this car. And I rolled up in front of her house and the car is belching and farting and making bad noises and I grind the gears, inexpertly shifting it. And she comes out of her house and just starts laughing and laughing at it. I thought she was laughing at me, but she was really laughing at the car. And the rest of the date was just bad.

Ira Glass

I'm surprised that you kept the car after all these disappointing experiences.

Jamie Kitman

Yeah, well that's the stern metal I'm made of, I guess. I don't know.

Ira Glass

I'm surprised that you've gone on to have seven of them in all.

Jamie Kitman

Yeah, you're in a reality-based world, Ira. I'm faith-based and it's an article of my faith that there is no cooler car than the MGA.

Ira Glass

So right now, you're a car tester, and that means-- just explain the procedure. You get a car every week?

Jamie Kitman

Yeah, right now at least one car every week gets brought to my house, and often I write about them and sometimes I don't, and sometimes they just sit there and I look at them.

Ira Glass

And is it like being a rock critic where most of the CDs that a rock critic will listen to just are not that interesting, they're just all kind of bland? And so most of the cars that you're driving just aren't that interesting?

Jamie Kitman

Yeah. It's not they're bad, it's just that they're not very interesting. Mediocrity is a relative thing, and as all cars get better, it takes more for cars to stand out. And it is very much the truth that all cars are better. In the 1960s and '70s, you could buy cars that would kill you if given half a chance. They handled treacherously or they would break. That was the other thing, is that there were cars that were famous for blowing up, which is one of the reasons I like old cars, because catastrophic malfunctions are still very much on your menu. Which is exciting to me, but I understand that that's not what the general market likes.

So the net effect of it is that cars just keep getting better and better, but the average car today is so much better than the best car was 10, 20 years ago or, god forbid, 40 years ago, that you can't really even have any fun in them.

The fact is that modern tires, they used to be like glorified bicycle tires, and now they're a foot and a half, two feet wide. They stick to anything. And the brakes are unbelievable, they come out of supersonic transports and they'll slow you down in a jiffy. What the enthusiast always liked doing, what sports car people in the 1950s would dream of was sort of sliding around corners and controlling the car as you went sideways through a turn. And that was a stock in trade, and all people who were interested in cars learned how to drive sideways.

Now you have to be going 90 miles an hour to get sideways because your tires are so big, just for one reason. And your suspension is so sophisticated that to have fun that way, it's much harder for people. And when it does happen, they're going too fast.

Ira Glass

But what you're saying is that what makes a car fun is an element of danger.

Jamie Kitman

I think that's part of it, but it's also the mastery of man over machine.

Ira Glass

Right, right, right. Because if the machine basically does it all for you, then there's no fun in it for you.

Jamie Kitman

Yeah, there's not a lot of skill involved, which is why I have to say that on the same 55 mile an hour roads, when I get in my '59 Morris Minor, I can be sideways at 12 miles an hour going around a turn. I never have to break the law, nobody even knows that I'm driving at the absolute limit of my ability.

Ira Glass

Jamie Kitman, the New York Bureau Chief for Automobile Magazine, US editor for Car Magazine, and a writer for GQ. Coming up, car salesman smackdown, hustle versus bustle, Great News Tim and his nemesis, with opposite tactics, opposite strategies to sell you a car. That is all in one minute. From Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

Act Three. Objects In The Rear View Mirror My Be Alarmingly Familiar.

Ira Glass

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose some theme. Today, it's our auto show, and we've arrived at Act Three. Act Three, Objects in Rearview Mirror May be Alarmingly Familiar. Curtis Sittenfeld tells this tale.

Curtis Sittenfield

Darren is my older sister's fiance and for a long time, he drove a white 1990 Toyota Camry. It had a vertical dent on the trunk and a tow ball on the back. One afternoon two years ago, he went to where he thought the car was parked near his apartment in Washington, D.C.

Darren

The car was nowhere in a one block radius of our apartment, and so I rode my bike around in the January rain, I rode my bike around in concentric circles around for about eight blocks. Then it became clear that it was just nowhere, anywhere, and so I reported the car stolen. I mostly just thought, I'm never going to see my car again. That's what the police had told me, also.

Curtis Sittenfield

What did they say to you?

Darren

He said that most likely, it was some teenage kids who had taken it out for a joy ride and that either would drive it until it ran out of gas, and then they would leave it, or maybe they would just drive it out of the city somewhere and dump it in a river or something.

Curtis Sittenfield

Darren's insurance company paid for a rental car, which he drove around for a couple days. He started thinking about what kind of car he'd buy next. One evening, he drove the rental over to a friend's house to watch a football game.

Darren

It was either a Sunday or Monday, one of the Sunday or Monday night football games. And I turned the corner onto their street, and at the stop light in front of me, about a half a block up was a white Toyota Camry with a vertical dent on the trunk and a tow ball and it was my car that was in front of me. And there were four people sitting in the car driving it. And so I never actually went into my friend's house, but I stayed in my car and started tailing them, thinking that I would be able to figure out how to get my car back.

Curtis Sittenfield

Of course, retrieving your car while it's being driven by thieves can be a little complicated. Darren realized he'd need backup.

911 Dispatcher

This is 911 Dispatcher 6360.

Curtis Sittenfield

He called 911.

911 Dispatcher

Hello.

Darren

My name is Darren [UNINTELLIGIBLE], and my car was stolen while I was on vacation. And I filed a police report. I'm right now driving in my rental car, and I was driving around and I'm right now following my car that was stolen.

911 Dispatcher

Heading in which direction?

Curtis Sittenfield

Listening to this tape, you realize 911 people really have heard everything. The operator snaps to action so matter-of-factly that it seems like maybe she gets this all the time. At a certain point, Darren wants her to acknowledge that these circumstances are a little special, right?

Darren

I can't believe they were driving my car around my neighborhood.

911 Dispatcher

Not too bright.

Darren

Not too smart at all.

911 Dispatcher

Police have been dispatched, where are they now?

Darren

We're still on Pennsylvania, we're just about to cross the river.

Curtis Sittenfield

It goes like this for a few minutes. Darren driving through the dark, cold D.C. streets at about 30 miles per hour, both the victim and potential hero in this chase, giving the 911 woman frequent updates on their location.

Darren

I was assuming that any minute, some cop cars were going to fly up behind us. But in actuality, I passed at least two precinct stations with parking lots filled with police cars but nobody coming out after me. And the whole time I was on with 911, on with this woman, and she was just, I have an APB out, if they're available, they'll come. So I just kept following them. And then we did this big U-turn on Pennsylvania Avenue. They're headed right on Pennsylvania-- oh, they turned around on Pennsylvania headed towards Maryland.

911 Dispatcher

Where? What's the last street?

Darren

They're on Pennsylvania and Potomac right now. Should I keep following them?

911 Dispatcher

Yeah, but stay a safe distance, of course.

Darren

At this point I knew that they had to know I was tailing them because nobody is doing U-turns following them on Pennsylvania Avenue. But at this point, I was angry and filled with adrenaline, so I was ready to keep going. And actually as they were running the red light, I thought, well maybe the thing to do is just to gun it and smash into their rear end, figuring that, whatever, the insurance company's going to pay for any damage. But if I smash into them, then at least they're stuck.

Curtis Sittenfield

And then presumably, there are four of them, there's one of you. There might be some kind of scuffle or something.

Darren

I obviously hadn't thought this whole thing through.

They're headed towards the Anacosta River on Pennsylvania Avenue right now. They just ran a red light. I might have lost them. They ran that red light, I can't tell if they went south on Minnesota or if they went straight on Pennsylvania.

Curtis Sittenfield

When Darren remembers his low speed chase, he thinks it took 20 minutes. Actually, from the time he made the call to the time he lost the trail, four minutes and ten seconds elapsed. The 911 woman gave him the address of the closest police precinct, which was one he just passed. Darren went in thinking the police had been breathlessly following his pursuit on the police band and would recognize him immediately. But they had no idea who he was. He made a second report of the same stolen car and went home.

Darren

So the next thing, it's about 2:30 in the morning and my cell phone rings, and it's the police letting me know that they had indeed captured the guys and retrieved my car, and that my car was being towed to the city's tow lot for storage overnight.

Curtis Sittenfield

The police didn't give Darren much information about who'd stolen the car, why, or whether anyone had been arrested. But he got a few clues once the car came back to him because the thieves had left behind all sorts of stuff. In the trunk was a tool box with lots of expensive tools, including a blowtorch. There was a giant key ring with 50 or 60 keys on it, several of them master keys to different types of cars. There was a huge subwoofer and a leather case holding a vast collection of CDs, although not the kind of CDs that you usually associate with subwoofers.

Darren

The Indigo Girls, Lilith Fair, Tracy Chapman, The Dixie Chicks.

Curtis Sittenfield

I'm standing with Darren in a storage area in the back of his apartment where he still keeps a lot of the stuff that was left in his car. If the key ring and the loot in the trunk tell the story of professional thieves with tools and musical contraband, the other stuff tells a different story, a more domestic one.

Darren

There was a couple of job applications in there, one of them was to Red Lobster and I don't know where the other ones were from. There was some tubes of Silly Putty, and there were some football sticker helmets, and then they had kids' toys in there. I kept one of the baby toys that they had in the car. It's a purple, round rattle, baby's rattle. They were definitely using the car to just go about their regular business.

Curtis Sittenfield

It was hard not to imagine the car thief carting his kids around or pulling out the rattle if they started crying in the back seat. Or saying, I'm sick of jacking cars. I'd like to work in food service. One of the men left his voter ID in the car. He's a registered Democrat, 20 years old. Not that any of this made Darren feel any differently about these guys.

Darren

I was mostly angry that they had put 3,000 miles on my car and had put all sorts of crap in it and that they were using my car to go break into other cars.

Curtis Sittenfield

I found out the police had arrested the owner of the voter ID-- his last name is Martin-- while he was driving the car. But they dropped the case. Apparently, catching someone red-handed driving a stolen car isn't enough evidence to make his case go to trial. The person can just say he got the car from someone else. I made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to find this Martin guy. First, I sent a letter to both the address on the arrest report and the one on the voter ID. I had some difficulty with the wording. There's just no Hallmark card that says, I think you stole my future brother-in-law's car. Let's talk.

I started calling around to Red Lobsters in the area, hoping Martin had picked up another application. I also called various phone listings for men with Martin's first and last names. One day, a guy answered. He said he was the godbrother of the Martin I was looking for. After mulling over several options in my head, I said, I think Mr. Martin might have had some involvement with a car belonging to a friend of mine. There was a long silence. Finally, the man asked, why would I want to help you?

Ira Glass

Curtis Sittenfield. She has a novel called Prep.

Act Four. Not Your Father's Chevrolet Salesman.

Ira Glass

Act Four, Not Your Father's Chevrolet Salesman. Selling cars is only partly about the cars. Maybe it's not even halfway about the cars. There are different theories and ideas about how to do it, competing theories. Sarah Koenig watched the process of automotive natural selection at a local dealer.

Sarah Koenig

Great News Tim is a salesman at Gillespie Chevrolet and Pontiac on the southside of Chicago. And the thing you should know about him is he's not their number one salesman. He's their number two salesman. Here's Tim.

Great News Tim

I'm the number one salesmen at Gillespie, the number one salesman in the world, best salesman in Gillespie. The only one who sells more cars than me is the owner. And the only reason why is because I assist him in his sales.

Sarah Koenig

The number one salesman at Gillespie, sorry Tim, is actually a woman. Yvonne Hawk, the only woman on the sales staff of roughly 30 guys. And she's easily 20 years older than almost all of them, a grandmother. She sells 16 or so cars a month. The rest of the guys, except for Great News Tim, average around 10 or 11. But he's also got that Muhammad Ali thing going.

Great News Tim

No, I'm something like the greatest in his prime. That's me, Great News Tim, all day long.

Sarah Koenig

So you said you were the number one sales guy, but isn't Yvonne number one?

Great News Tim

Look, I am the greatest. I mean, if you add up my sales and you divide it by the months that I've been selling, you'll see.

Sarah Koenig

Is Yvonne your biggest rival here?

Great News Tim

I have no rivals.

Sarah Koenig

What's the first thing you say to someone when they walk in the door?

Great News Tim

The first thing I do is I meet and greet the customer, and then I ask them something crazy like, are you here for the big sale? And usually they'll say, what big sale?

Sarah Koenig

Is there any type of person where they walk in and you just go, I know my charm isn't the type of charm that's going to charm this person, and I'm just going to let it go?

Great News Tim

I could sell anybody. I sold a man who couldn't talk one day. Everybody who was walking up to this man and saying, hey sir, how are you doing? Are you here to purchase a car? And the man is hunching his shoulders. I walked up to the man and I hunch my shoulders. And then I pointed at a car and he was like, I pointed at another car. He shook is head to say, yeah. And I rubbed my fingers together as in, do you have money? And he was like, yeah. I said, let's go. I signed him up. So I sold a deaf and mute man a car. I sold a Chinese person cars, I've sold all types of people cars. I could call somebody on the phone, seriously, from the White Pages of the phone book, that's probably sitting at home on the couch eating cereal and sell them a car over the phone and they'll come in and purchase.

Sarah Koenig

Could you sell me a car?

Great News Tim

I sure could. Are you ready right now? Are you here for the big sale?

Sarah Koenig

Gallup came out with a poll that ranked car salespeople the least trusted professionals in America. They scored lower than lawyers and members of Congress. Nurses were the most trusted, school teachers were second. And if you think about it, both those professions-- nurses and teachers-- are associated with women. Hence, I believe Yvonne's advantage in car sales over Great News Tim. He's the hard sell, he's testosterone. Yvonne, you just don't think she can rip you off. She looks and acts like your mother.

In our very first conversation, she talked about her baby granddaughter, and I found myself confiding my fear of flying. I watched her cozy up to a middle aged lady in the showroom by complimenting her outfit, which was pretty great. Kind of runway meets lumberjack look, all in green. Then talking about dogs and kids. It's not exactly flirting she's doing, it's more like infiltrating. But in the nicest possible way.

Yvonne Hawk

Did you see our Gillespie key chains? We got nice, classy key chains.

Rob Walker

Oh yeah?

Yvonne Hawk

Yes. Where's William? Hang on.

Sarah Koenig

William's the guy who brings the swag to customers at Gillespie.

Yvonne Hawk

William, to the showroom, please. Customer waiting. William, to the showroom.

Rob Walker

Is it real good, can I take it to the pawn shop?

Yvonne Hawk

It looks like it is, but it ain't that good.

Sarah Koenig

The guy she's getting the key chain for, Rob Walker, is a jail guard and deputy sheriff. A big guy, 255 pounds. But here in the showroom with Yvonne, he's a little sheepish. He's got messed up credit, he's worried about getting financing. He knows he can't get his dream car, a Cadillac Seville. But he walked in hoping he could at least get a truck of some kind. She's willing to help him out with the credit, but she lets him know he can't afford a truck, not right now. She encourages him to buy something smaller, make payments for a year, and then come back next December and she'll sell him that truck.

They walk around the lot, but management doesn't let me go with them. Too sensitive for national broadcast. So they both tell me about it when they stroll back in.

Yvonne Hawk

When him and I went on the lot at first, it was certain cars that were out of his range. And so me and him did a little bouting. But I did it in a nice way so that he wouldn't feel bad that he couldn't afford those, because he can't right now.

Sarah Koenig

What were the cars he had his eye on at first when you went out there?

Yvonne Hawk

An LS.

Sarah Koenig

What's that?

Yvonne Hawk

That's the Lincoln.

Rob Walker

Oh man, I can really picture myself in that Lincoln. I didn't see it at first. And we walked the whole lot, and it was like it was calling me. So I looked over there, I'm like, whoa. Let's go check this out. So she's like, oh this is nice, this is nice. Leather seats, it had a sun roof and stuff. She looks, she says, oh no, it's got too many miles on it.

Yvonne Hawk

It had 79,000 miles on it. OK, he travels to and from work and he's got a couple of kids that he picks up and takes to different things. How quickly is he going to be over 100,000 miles?

Rob Walker

And she was like, well in my opinion, I wouldn't get it. I would go with something else that's got lower miles. And I was like, whoa. Because usually a salesperson will go, whatever you want. I felt good, I felt like, OK, yeah, she's probably going to disappoint me, but she's going to tell me the truth.

She reminded me of my mother or an auntie, how she told me that I shouldn't get the Lincoln. And most mothers and good aunties do things like that. They're going to tell you the truth. Just like an outfit you got on, that outfit is ugly. You shouldn't wear that outfit. You're going to be a little hurt, but at least you're not going to be out in public with an ugly outfit on.

Yvonne Hawk

Buckle up.

Sarah Koenig

Finally, Yvonne convinces him to test drive a used Chevy Impala. Not the sexiest car in the world, but it's got leather seats and a sunroof and low mileage, and he fits in it.

Yvonne Hawk

How do you like it, Mr. Walker?

Rob Walker

It's all right, it's all right.

Sarah Koenig

He's clearly not in love with this car, but that doesn't matter. It's not about the car.

Rob Walker

I know one thing. When I do come back, I'm definitely going to ask for you again when I upgrade. Like I said, I like the way you make me feel like I'm somebody. Other places I went to, credit not all A1, people treat you like you're a second-class citizen.

Yvonne Hawk

Which you're not.

Sarah Koenig

Now, if you're thinking that Yvonne is just some soft-hearted granny, it's time to talk price. She's asking $20,630 for the Impala, $2,000 more than the suggested dealer's price in the Blue Book and $7,000 more than what the dealer paid for the car if they paid Blue Book trade-in value. She's not one to flinch about that. If there's one thing she's known for at Gillespie besides selling a lot of cars, it's that she's tough. You don't want to cross her. Her coworkers tell me how she strongarms finance companies, how she yells at managers when she thinks they're slowing down a sale. Here are Will and K.C., two of the guys on the floor.

Man

She's not afraid of nobody. She's not afraid of anyone, anyone at all. She has a wonderful personality. You can change [UNINTELLIGIBLE] [BLEEP] off.

Sarah Koenig

I ask Rob if he's noticed this side of Yvonne. It turns out he has, and he's got a whole philosophy about people like this who are tough but nice.

Rob Walker

An individual like that that's nice and trying to make sure that she treat you like you're a human being, I wouldn't mess with them in a negative way. Because a nice person-- such as yourself, you look like you're real nice and maybe somebody could push you to a certain degree, but I would hate for you to turn or her to turn into that evil person because there may not be no stopping. When you mess with a nice person or a person they call a pushover or lame or a geek or whatever, I've learned in my line of work, them the type of people you don't mess with. Not in a negative way. It's almost like messing with a short person. You just don't do it.

Sarah Koenig

You're saying I'm like a tinderbox. I could explode.

Rob Walker

I'm saying that if your guy do something that just push you to the edge, that he may be in serious trouble. He may actually see the devil. He may be able to tell someone in an interview like this, I honestly believe that there's such a thing as the devil, and I've seen it. And if anybody asks why, because I did something to my wife and my girlfriend, and I've seen the devil.

Sarah Koenig

Given all that stuff about the devil, I ask about the price of the Impala, if he's going to challenge Yvonne.

Sarah Koenig

Are you going to haggle for this a little bit?

Rob Walker

I'm going to see, can I work a little magic, talk to her.

Sarah Koenig

Soon, Yvonne comes back. She's carrying a contract. She slides it in front of Rob and points.

Yvonne Hawk

This is the price.

Rob Walker

$20,630.

Yvonne Hawk

Right. And then your tax and your plates and everything, and your down payment. And then this is what you'd be trying to finance.

Sarah Koenig

He signs. Doesn't haggle, doesn't say a word about the price. While he's waiting for his car to get cleaned up, Yvonne insists he eat some pizza that's been brought in. You've been here a long time, she says. You must be hungry. A woman comes through the dealership selling teddy bears. Rob buys one. I figure he's just being a nice dad getting his kids a present. But then he walks over to Yvonne, a person who has just sold him an Impala for $2,000 above Blue Book and gives it to her.

Rob Walker

I already have my biological mother, I have a stepmother. Can I consider you a mom?

Yvonne Hawk

I'll be part of your family, too. And I'd like that. I really would.

Rob Walker

How about I ride by and say I'm going to buy you lunch.

Yvonne Hawk

People come by and people do that. They bring me flowers and stuff on my birthday, and I like that.

Sarah Koenig

This is something Yvonne has in common with Great News Tim. He says his customers love him. They bake him cakes, they bring him candy. But where Yvonne has him beat, the reason she's number one and he's number two, is that no one's ever going to call him Mom.

Ira Glass

Sarah Koenig is a producer on our program.

Act Five. End Of The Road.

Ira Glass

Act Five, End the Road. People do not want to stop driving. In Illinois, where our show comes from, once you turn 87, to keep your license you have to take a road test every single year. It's a huge thing, losing the right to drive. A real turning point for people. Rosina Salerno is a 91-year-old widow. She had a stroke and, very reluctantly, under doctor's orders gave up her car.

Rosina Salerno

It was an '84 station wagon, a Chevy station wagon. I loved it. It was my life. I felt so much better when I was driving. I can't tell you how much a car means to a person. You're young and you really don't realize that, but if you have to give up driving, you're going to miss it. Nobody, nobody can understand what it's like unless you go through it.

And even now, believe it or not, parking is over here. I can look out the window in my bedroom and all the cars are parked underneath that window. And sometimes I forget that I don't have the car anymore. I go out there to look if my car is parked in the lot. Crazy, isn't it? I don't know, what am I going to do without a car?

Ira Glass

Which brings us to this story of an old man and his car. But to understand this story, first a little history about 1955. 1955 was a very good year for cars and a bad year for drivers. The '55 Chevy Bel Air came out and Corvette got a V8 engine. But James Dean died in his Porsche on the way to a car race in California. And the worst racing accident in history took place at Le Mans when Pierre Levegh-- Lucky Pierre-- crashed his Mercedes Benz on the front straight, killing 81 people. As the dead and maimed were carted away, Mercedes withdrew from the event and at the end of that season, quit motorsports altogether.

One side effect of this, a British driver named Stirling Moss could no longer race the Mercedes that he had become world famous for driving just a month before when he set the course record-- it was never defeated-- in a road race in Italy called the Mille Miglia, the 1,000 Miles. Moss and his navigator, Denis Jenkinson, covered the distance in 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds, which meant basically traveling at 100 miles an hour for 10 hours through little villages and winding country roads running the length of Italy. It's considered one of the greatest driving achievements in history.

The car that Moss drove is nearly as famous as he is, a Mercedes Benz 300 SLR, this big, silver cad of a car with red numbers 722 on the sides. Moss and the 722 still keep in touch, appearing regularly together at racing events like ambassadors at large for Mercedes Benz. And recently, Dan Neil, the automotive critic for the Los Angeles Times, got a ride with Moss-- now Sir Stirling-- in the old 722.

Dan Neil

Sir Stirling Moss and the Mercedes Benz 300 SLR number 722 have been going steady 50 years, long enough to make it a common law marriage. The car is an open-top version of the famous Mercedes Gullwing. These Mercedes postwar silver arrows were so called because of their shiny skins of electron and aeronautic metal lighter than aluminum. 2,000 pounds and over 300 horsepower, these cars were unbreakable.

Then there's Sir Sterling. People say he was the first modern race car driver. He made his living at the wheel, he wasn't just an aristocrat playing with cars. He was tight with a quid. He was the first driver to take physical fitness seriously, unlike many of his competitors for whom racing was macho part and parcel with boozing and broading the night away. His career-defining moment, his life-defining moment, was the 1955 Mille Miglia win, an almost supernatural performance that came out of nowhere. The Mille Migla record Moss set in 1955-- 10 hours, 7 minutes and 48 seconds-- are numbers every good wheelhead knows by heart.

Now it's 2004. On a rainy morning in October, Mercedes flies a few automotive journalists out to Virginia International Raceway to test a new car, a 617 horsepower carbon fiber monster that they have named the SLR. Price tag, $452,000. To sell the idea that this car is heir to the great SLRs of Moss's time-- and by the way, I'm not buying it-- Mercedes brings Sir Stirling and the original 722 to give writers rides around the track. This is a little bit like getting Lindbergh to do some sightseeing in the Spirit of St. Louis.

I meet Sir Stirling at lunch. It's him, all right. His features have thickened with age and he is, at 75, no doubt about it an old man. He's a little hard of hearing, but still quite within his wits. He's dressed in a dark red turtleneck and a houndstooth jacket, every inch an English gentleman. When it's time to go out to the track, he rises slowly. An assistant brings a wheelchair around for him. Sir Stirling has recently had back surgery. At the track the handlers are busy priming the car. The 722 is a beautiful brute in perfect condition, like a sculpture of streaming mercury. Two bolsters, like camel humps, are fixed to the rear deck behind the driver and the passenger.

Sir Stirling arrives. The camera crews go nuts. He's wearing a pale blue, one-piece cotton driving suit, a white polo helmet, goggles, and Italian, crocheted string-back gloves with leather palms. This is what racers wore back in the day before fire resistant Nomex and Kevlar full-face helmets. The car has no doors. Two people help as Sir Stirling stiffly climbs a step stool and settles into the driver's seat.

He pushes the starter button and the car comes alive with a snappish bark. Gray smoke jets from the massive exhaust pipes jutting from the car's right side. Then something wonderful happens. The hand fits the glove, the hammer hits the string, the old man disappears behind the goggles, and the racer emerges from beneath the helmet. The car seems to recognize him. Sir Stirling slips the clutch and roars off.

Moss said many times he could not have won the Mille Migla without his navigator, Denis Jenkinson, the bearded and gnomish Jenks. Their secret weapon? The pair ran a reconnaissance lap of the race with Jenks recording every detail on a roll of paper, eventually 15 feet long. This he unrolled during the race, shouting course notes to Moss over the canonade of exhaust when Jenks wasn't busy throwing up. When the race was over, the pair took off their goggles. This is a classic image of motorsports, Their faces blackened with dirt and soot except around the eyes. They look like pandas.

Moss brings the car around and it's my turn. I climb the step stool and carefully belt in. Because the engine is tipped over more than 50 degrees to the right, the transmission tunnel runs between Sir Stirling's legs, the accelerator and brake on one side and the clutch on the left. This would be damn awkward for most people, and I wonder if a man who can barely walk can mange. Oddly enough, though, Moss finds the straddling position more comfortable than a regular car. He sits astride the car as if it were a horse.

The handlers push the car to get it going. Moss flicks a bug from his goggles and tears off. We're on the course. The first thing I notice: Jenks didn't have much to hang onto. Its too loud to talk, so I sit in Jenks's seat and I watch Sir Stirling muscle the wheel. We're not going particularly fast, but the car would be a handful for civilians. It doesn't have power steering. To give drivers better leverage, the steering wheel is oversized, a big four spoke aluminum wheel with a wooden rim. Moss shuffles the wheel through his hands so that they are always in the same position, 3:00 and 9:00.

He twists his right foot to cover the brake and gas pedal, to rev the engine while braking and downshifting to save wear and tear on the gearbox. I watch him work. What is it like to be so good at something that even old and crippled you're still better than nearly everyone else?

We reach the main straight. The wind starts to whistle. He points at the big white tachometer. Every time he changes gears-- the gearshift knob has Roman numerals on it-- he indicates the gear with his gloved right hand. Third, fourth, fifth. That's about 110 miles per hour at this RPM. Now we've arrived at our real destination. This is how fast Moss and the SLR were speeding across the roads of Tuscany and the plains of a Mille Romana a half century ago. This is the speed that partnered them in history, so one of them cannot be thought of without the other.

Imagine the Italian countryside going by. It suddenly seems very fast. Tomorrow, the car will go back to the Mercedes museum in Stuttgart, Sir Stirling to his house in Florida. We thread through a few more turns, then he wheels the silver car back to the pits. My rendezvous with history is concluded. I thank him and give the car a pat on the dashboard. And then the two of them roar off.

Ira Glass

Dan Neil is the automotive critic of the Los Angeles Times.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Our program was produced today by Sarah Koenig and myself, with Alex Blumberg, Diane Cook, Wendy Dorr, Jane Feltes, Amy O'Leary, and Lisa Pollak. Our senior producer is Julie Snyder, Elizabeth Meister runs our website. Production help from Todd Bachmann, Thea Chaloner and Chris Ladd.

[ACKNOLWEDGMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to any of our programs for absolutely free or buy CDs of them. Or you know you can download today's program in our archives at audible.com/thisamericanlife. This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight for our program by Torey Malatia, who is a winner, who is number one, and who has just one question for you.

Great News Tim

Are you here for the big sale?

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week for more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.