ALSO SPAKE ZARATHUSTRA (1973)

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”Man is something that must be overcome; and for that reason you must love your virtues — for you perish by them.“ Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

DUMMMM…….. DAHHHMMMM……… DEEHHHMMM…….. DEEMMMMMM…….. DA-DUM……. to the accompaniment of an orchestral overture, somewhere in America four mechanics in white shirts and slacks push a shaved albino carrot of a motorcar onto the launch pad of a drag strip… the rocket car is shrouded by four motorcycle tires and looks rather docile, like a soapbox derby racer with a slight thyroid condition… horns blare out of a series of lo-fidelity loudspeakers wired in parallel, with cables sagging down the length of a drag strip… DUMMMM………. DAHHHMMMM………. DEEHHHMMM………. DEEMMMMMM…….. DA-DUM… BOUMP…. BAMMPP…. BOUMPHH… as tympanies rattle, smoke silently wisps from hydrogen peroxide gas chilled to near absolute zero… the caustic vapor stings those close enough to read the lettering POLLUTION PACKER stenciled onto the race car’s aluminum-skinned fuselage.

The Pollution Packer. The moniker itself served as a fantastic portent of an age when outrageous hyper-velocity will be absolutely effortless and won’t degrade the Air Quality one iota. The rocket car is a postcard from the future, a day when there is no smog and warp speed for the populous is commonplace. The fuel is hydrogen peroxide, suggestive of experimental hydrogen-burning engines that produce water instead of smog.

Although hardly as pure as the driven snow, as far as rocket fuels go, hydrogen peroxide is decidedly less toxic than, say, hydrazine, a radically unstable fuel additive that would explode upon contact with just about anything. Vintage film of Nazi Luftwaffe pilots with nasty and gruesome burns from dicey landings with experimental rocket airplanes are testament to the chemical’s volatility. In the 1960s, a few of the braver nitro dragster racers would splash hydrazine into the fuel tank after the motor was lit and the dragster was running on the start line, creating a cocktail of nitromethane, benzol and 2% hydrazine. Surreptitious use of hydrazine is credited with the first 200 mph clocking by a fuel dragster (Chris “the Greek” Karamesines in 1960, a feat not matched for another four years). As per the instability of hydrazine, one top fuel driver said that, “I do know if you spilled the straight stuff in the trunk of the tow car you had instant fire. Had first hand experience with that one. I really think there were more guys running it than were willing to admit (it).”

”… it didn’t take the Talmud to see that folks would pay good money to see death-defying displays of horsepower and cockpit acumen at their local drag strip… jet and rocket dragsters became a way to subvert the system and ensure that the racers were in the loop in a fiduciary sense… it was a means for hot rodders to be paid in full…“ — Gus Levy, SCHTUPPING THE SYSTEM WITH MAXIMUM THRUST, previously unpublished.

”NHRA was founded in response to a demand among thousands of hot rodders in all parts of the country to organize a legitimate, purely American motorsport. And NHRA, under Wally Parks’ guidance, did just that. We’re all very proud of 50 years of achievements.

”If you’re so fond of airplane engines, race ‘em the air, in airplanes, where they belong. Yes, drag racing is about automotive engines, and as long as I have any say over it, the sport will stay that way.“ NHRA muckety-muck, Dick Wells.

Meanwhile, back at the drag strip’s launch pad, the music is all midrange and sounds like a hangover feels. As a string section joins the horns and the percussion, and everything swells toward a crescendo that distorts the speaker cones and attempts to cloak the lack of any real noize out of the race car resting in a wistful and dormant manner on the drag strip’s starting line. Noise from the twisted and besotted crowd swells in time with the trumpets’ flourish and a smattering of beer cans and trash are tossed ineffectually in the general vicinity of the track.

From the rocket motor comes a discordant harmonic, a high-pitched whistle — like the sound of a negligent housewife’s tea kettle set to a high burn. The opera overture reaches its apex and continues blaring out of tin speakers, oblivious to the whistling, which is in a different key altogether. Every head hurts just that much more from the atonality.

As the start lights turn green, the rocket car smokes in the drag strip with a heavenly mist of steam. The air stinks like ammonia with a hint of rubber gloves burning in a landfill faraway in Valhalla. As it zips down the race course, the Pollution Packer burns H2O2 in a quantity and concentration that would keep an Aryan nation of Rita Hayworths platinum blond for life. The white vapor is a gentle and clandestine nerve gas, silently tweaking central nervous systems and fogging the brains of those assembled like mosquitoes in a culvert.

It is fitting that the soundtrack to the launching of a rocket car is “Also Spake Zarathustra,” Richard Strauss’s ode to Frederik Nietschze, a pompous piece of music appropriated by motion picture director Stanley Kubrick as the opening theme in his space epic, 2001.

Nietschze was a firm believer in the elevation of the human spirit, and how man could take his endeavors to ever-spiraling heights. If life had any meaning, he reckoned, it was to raise the bar on all matters spiritual and intellectual — and by extension, technological.

2001 was a 1960s production and an exercise in inscrutable bombast. The movie’s message was garbled by the gobbling of w-a-a-a-y too much LSD by its filmmakers as they read the Arthur C. Clarke book upon which the script was based… one precept of 2001 was the notion of uroboros or bookends and how everything in the spacetime continuum comes full circle… at the beginning of the film, barbaric simians gather at a monolithic totem left behind by a future civilization of humans who have vaporized their very existence… during a total eclipse of the sun, the monolith generates an unheard cosmic wail that tweaks the psyches of the primordial chimps who have discovered technology in the form of a zebra bone that can be used as a billy club… they haven’t yet discovered the wheel nor fire, but these hairy precursors to humanity have found a way to beat each other’s brains into a pulpous ooze… this same totem mysteriously manifests on one of Jupiter’s moons, whereupon the nervous sounds of a planetary eclipse drives a handful of space explorers to their doom… civilization has gone full circle, back to the species upon which humans evolved…

There is an echo of Kubrick’s ethos by the whooping and hooping of beer-battered bleacher bums, dangling precipitously by the top rails of a temporary grandstand. The drunks are an embodiment of verisimilitude and simulacrum, an example of 2001’s apes either somewhat evolved or somewhat de-evolved. The shrill pitch of the rocket engine is a physiological device that tweaks the primitive id of the beastly crowd of trackside tipplers.

The rocket whizzes by and the drunks scream even more belligerently, dazzled by the raw display of speed and stoned by the surreal cloud of rocket vapor. Up in the grandstands just shy of the finish line, two hippies blowing weed drop their jaws. “That was too fast,” one exhales, like he had just seen the monolith and thy monolith’s name is the Pollution Packer.

And perhaps it was too fast. Or perhaps tossing beer cans in the presence of a rocket car is just a monkey throwing a bone to the heavens.

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