Some say this act it is the mating call of the idiot, others say it is a gross example of showing off, but most just think it’s cool. The act of spinning a car’s tires until they start pouring smoke and filling the surrounding area with the smell of heated rubber, the infamous burnout. If you’re a fan of cars then you have seen or performed this stunt before during your driving career. Whether you did it to warm up your tires at the drag strip, showing off at a car meet, or goofing off because you were planning on buying new tires anyway, doing burnouts is part of the automotive culture…but who invented it?
We all love seeing a car produce clouds and leaving a behind a Goodyear finger print on the asphalt, but who was the first to come up with the idea? Who was the one who came up with the idea of using the clutch, brake, and gas to keep a car stationary while spinning its tires? This question was keeping me up at night so I decided to ask the internet and found… nothing. All I found was that the start of drag racing in the late 40’s which could have been the origins of the smoking tire, which would make since seeing as how the original purpose for performing a burnout is to warm up the rubber so it sticks to the asphalt creating more traction for the car. I could not, however, find a name or date as to the first one ever done. Then I thought Motorsport could be another lead as to who was behind the smoking tire. Now it seems almost blasphemy to not do a burnout or donuts once you have crossed the finished line with the checkered flag waving you down as you win first place. But that again left me with a dead end at the 1950’s with no name, just a NASCAR victory tradition.
We all know the practical purpose for performing a burnout, but we rarely question the reason why we think they are so cool. A lot of us force ourselves into thinking the smell of burning rubber is good, kind like the line from the movie Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of napalm in the morning, it smells like… victory.” In reality the smell of burning tires is awful, but we force ourselves to breathe though our mouths so we can enjoy the spectacle before us of a car showcasing its ability to convert fuel and air into smoke and exhaust notes. I often hear people, mostly women, say stuff like, “Why do you guys do that, it’s so pointless”, or, “Aren’t you just damaging your car?” Yes, performing burnouts that are longer than 5 seconds means putting your car at a higher risk of damaging major components, but there are psychological factors taken place in the mind of Gearhead before, during, and after conducting a burnout.
For example, take an average Gearhead who is not a master mechanic, has a car that is considered his pride and joy, and has a subscription to at least one car magazine, let’s call him Otto. Now let’s say Otto is at a gathering of Gearheads like a car show, car meet, or the local auto parts store. Already the mind is more excited than a puppy greeting its owner coming home from work at the idea of being surrounded by people who speak, “car”, and will understand phrases like, “I blew a tranny”, and not get judgmental looks of confusion. Two outcomes usually happen when a Gearhead is around other Gearheads, either he/she will get into a heated dispute with a fellow car-nut over which two particular car brands or cars are better, note they do not have own these cars to argue about them, or they will get a basic instinct to show off their car. Let’s say it’s the end of the day and the cars are starting to leave, and Otto is on his way out of the parking lot and there is a line of people with video cameras filming all the cool cars leave the lot. Otto knows he’s got a nice car with at least 380 ft.lb of torque at his disposal. Instinctively he will scan for police cars nearby as he selects a low gear. Left foot on the brake and leaning on the gas as the car lurches forward with an engine grunt as people start to hear the first cold layer of rubber being sanded off Otto’s set of Firestones. The tires heat up all that is heard is the sound of exhaust system burping out RPM’s as the car turns into a cloud maker with the crowd cheering on.
At this point, Otto’s ego is at a 1980’s action movie hero level of badass and keeps the power on for a few more seconds before letting off the gas. He leaves his asphalt signature while making the dramatic exit that has plagued so many other poor Gearheads with hilarious results that have filled the internet. Reality starts to set in as Otto calms down and settles in for the drive home, and he backtracks all that as happened just now. The final state of mind most Gearheads face after a burnout is, guilt. Otto starts to worry that he probably cut the life of is rear tires by about 40% and that his fuel level took a hit with all that high revving. Otto tries to say sorry to his car by driving very carefully and obeying the speed limit all the way home. Not all of us will react the same way Otto does, but we have all been in at least one of these three states of mind at one point or another.
The burnout is one of those Gearhead mystics that we all take for granted as always been around and enjoyed, but we rarely question. It is a tradition, a crowd pleaser, a strategy, and in some cases, an annoyance. Until the day comes that cars turn into hovering, self-driving, machines that take us to work at hyper speed, we shall continue flexing the torque of our cars because it is cool.