Matthew Day Jackson: Vroom for Change

A racing-obsessed artist builds a dragster

The artist behind the wheel of his dragster (below).


The art of Matthew Day Jackson defies conventional boundaries, and his recent pursuit—drag racing—is certainly no exception. Comparing the emergence of dragsters to the “birth of modernity at the end of Brancusi’s chisel,” the Brooklyn-based artist says that, like Brancusi carving stones in his workshop, early race-car builders would “take leftover, broken, gutted, old cars, and they’d shave and lower and polish them,” producing objects that reflected their individual creativity.

Unlike pioneers of modernism, however, makers of race cars introduced an added element: full-throttle speed. It was in this latter spirit that Jackson, having enlisted McKinney Corp to help him build a Super Comp dragster a couple of years ago, also became licensed to race by the National Hot Rod Association.

Jackson’s great-grandfather and uncle loved racing, so he considers his own fascination “partly genetic.” His cousin Skip Nichols, a hot-rod designer and driver, had a shop not far from Olympia, Washington, where Jackson grew up. Since Jackson’s immediate family tended to own “really cheap cars,” Nichols’s beautifully crafted machines loomed large in his youthful imagination. “They were elusive, mysterious, and radical, and I was attracted to them like a moth to a flame,” he says.

Since his emergence as an artist nearly a decade ago, Jackson has produced numerous mixed-media sculptures and installations that archly treat the detritus of American pop culture as historical artifacts. In his 2004 work Sepulcher (Viking Burial Ship), on view last year at New York’s Whitney Museum, for example, he staged a fictional burial aboard a wooden boat bearing a sail made of punk-band and beer logos cut from old T-shirts. He sees racing as “a sextant for navigating certain parts of American culture.”

Jackson tuned and tested his dragster more than a year ago in Florida. Propelled by its 950-horsepower engine, he says the car ran top speeds of 179 mph. More exciting to him, however, was the fact that it recorded consistent 7.87- to 7.89-second times on quarter-mile tracks. “That’s fast,” he says.

Unfortunately, during one of those runs, a computer glitch cooked the engine. His dragster has been on blocks for many months since then, during which time Jackson has tried to remain philosophical. In racing, he says, the decisive few seconds between start and finish require an act of faith. “If you over-muscle or over-steer or slam on the brakes, your car’s going to buck and roll, and you’re going to total it,” he says. “You have to let the car do its thing. You have to let go.”

He hopes to enter stealth races soon, with his car painted “a preliminary jet-black, and with no signs, no names, no nothing, so nobody knows how fast it is.” He also envisions public performances in the spring, with sponsors’ names emblazoned on his car. (Sponsorships range from $500 to $60,000.) Yet, for the time being, he confesses, “I just want to get the thing running. I don’t like to think I’m superstitious, but maybe I am. I keep thinking the car is telling me I need to learn more about it before I go out and race it.”

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