We’re all hopefully familiar with The Distance, penned by California natives CAKE in their heyday, way back in 1996. An ode to horsepower and pain, the song marries driving rhythm with slick synthesized riffs to tell its story of heartbreak and the bond between man and machine.
It’s a hallmark of the band’s career and a delicious slice of 90s nostalgia - but under what conditions are the events described within even remotely plausible? In this essay, I aim to explore the chain of events that happen within the song’s narrative structure and understand the motivations of the main character, heretofore known as “the Driver”.
The driver, who is competing in organised door-to-door racing, loses the race – this is where the song begins. It is here that things take a dark turn, where we are told the driver continues to attack the racetrack long into the night. This is unprecedented in organised motorsports – let’s examine why.
If we presume this is a fairly low-level race meet, it’s within the realm of possibility that he could prepare and start his racecar alone, without the assistance of trained crew.
However, the fact there are fans, and a cup, suggest that it’s a fairly well patronised event. Even basic track days require a handful of marshalls to run the event safely; this event would surely have all that, plus those responsible for timing and race control, let alone stewards! These would be among the first people to arrive at the venue, and presumably, under normal conditions, the last to leave. If a competitor was spotted still with his racecar inside the venue when they went to lock up, surely questions would be asked.
It is possible that the general arrangements meant that racecars would be left at the track overnight. Strange, but not impossible. This would then necessitate the driver packing up, while holding things together and generally not arousing suspicion from any teammates or others in the pits.
Following this, our plucky driver would then need to hide at the track, waiting for everyone to filter out. By the time the driver returns his vehicle to the circuit, quite some time has passed (“long ago somebody left with the cup”) – suggesting that not only did the driver secret himself away at the track, but sat in hiding for likely several hours while stewing over his lost race and failed relationship. During this time, at no point does the driver decide that perhaps heading home to sleep or seeking the consolation of friends and family is a better idea than what he is about to do.
At this point, the driver is now out on track, giving it the business (“driving and striving and hugging the turns”). The lack of any active timing crew at the track (“the arena is empty, except for one man”) means that our driver is blowing off steam rather than genuinely working to improve his skills for the future. More worrying than that, however, is the visibility on track – given the time of day (“the sun has gone down and the moon has come up”), the track is almost certainly pitch black. While we have no way of knowing if the track has lighting for night races, it’s almost certain that this would be switched off for a day race. Such electrical panels are usually kept under lock and key, and the average driver would have no need to know of their current location. We’ll be kind to the driver and assume that this decision to return to the track was not premediated, and that thusly that our protagonist is now attempting to drive at race, or perhaps even qualifying pace, in the dark. Literally, the driver is going all out (“still driving, and striving, as fast as he can”). This brings with it a frankly ludicrous chance of disaster, whether from our driver missing a braking zone, taking too much speed into a corner, or hitting nocturnal wildlife that may have strayed out on to the track. Reduced visibility is a major issue when driving at night, and to do so on a race track without the proper lighting or indeed, any safety crew at all, is pure madness.
We get a glimpse into the driver’s past as we make it to the chorus:
“She’s all alone in her time of need, because he’s racing and pacing and plotting the course”
This suggests that the driver perhaps made the choice to dedicate his time to his motorsport career, at the cost of spending time with the one he truly loved. Despite this, the driver ultimately fails to win the cup he so desperately desired, thus leading to the stated “bowel shaking earthquakes of doubt and remorse” which, understandably, “assail him, impale him, with monster truck force”.
We know that “she’s hoping in time her memories will fade”, which suggests that there is a sliver of hope that our driver can salvage a relationship with his former paramour. However, clearly his obsessive personality is his downfall, as he continues “fighting and biting and riding on his horse”, perhaps on some level still believing he can make everything right by driving ever, ever faster into the night.
We know not how the story ends – our narrator leaves the scene, stating only that the situation is “so sad, alright”.
That it is, buddy.
That it is.