The Need for Speed

If you were a latchkey kid in the 1970s, there was no cooler babysitter than Speed Racer. "Speed Racer" was an anime-type afternoon cartoon that followed the exploits of Speed—that was his first name—a Formula 1 driver with a hot girlfriend, a pet monkey and, coolest of all, a car called the Mach 5. The Mach 5 was a low, sleek, white machine with a retractable roof, a red "M" on the front and a hot-looking "5" on the side. But the really good stuff was under the hood, and the floorboards.

Like a hipper, sleeker Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, the Mach 5 could leap through the air, as well as drive underwater. If Speed somehow drove off the course and into a forest—wasn't he supposed to be a professional race-car driver? —the trusty Mach 5 sprouted round, spinning saws near the bumper and cleared the way. When danger lurked on the road ahead, all Speed had to do was push one of the lettered buttons on the steering wheel to activate the appropriate lifesaving gizmo. My favorite was the "G" button, which would send out a tiny, remote-controlled robot that could carry messages, X-ray film and the occasional Egyptian statue, when the situation called for such things. Which was, naturally, every episode.

Of course, I knew that the Mach 5 was pure fantasy. After all, our family car was a beat-up red Chevy that my mother named Mario (after Mario Andretti), though it barely made it to the grocery store. But for a lonely kid sitting in the basement every afternoon, it was nice to dream that a mundane drive could somehow turn into an adventure, and a button could blow all your obstacles away.

The Need for Speed | Culture