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The Endless, Circular Appeal of Doing Donuts

After all, very little in life is linear

For some eight months, Austin Pape of Dyersville, Iowa, wouldn’t cop to doing some donuts on the town’s Field of Dreams, the baseball field made for the 1989 film and now a popular tourist attraction. But this week, the 20-year-old finally pled guilty to second-degree criminal mischief over the damage he caused by driving around the site — a charge that may carry a fine of as much as $7,500 and up to five years of jail time.

Why the sudden change of heart?

Probably because, if you’re going down in court anyway, you might as well snag whatever cred comes with being “the shithead who tore some donuts on the Field of Dreams.” The donut is for showing off, right? In fact, it’s not unusual for donut artists to get busted because they bragged about it, as at least one Florida teen who ravaged a golf course can attest. Whatever juvenile instinct draws young men to the cheap thrill and mindless destruction of this automotive maneuver also entices them to praise their own work — and taunt the authorities. Some guys allegedly behind a “sideshow” donut stunt that shut down traffic on New Mexico’s I-25 a few years back actually called a local radio station to revel in the ire of other drivers. “I think it was pretty cool, and there’s nothing wrong with that,” one of them said.

The stunt-driven sideshow, born in 1980s East Oakland, the decade when hip-hop was taking hold, didn’t always involve the donut. “It was just peacocking, showing off the cars that were the pride and joy of many — mostly male — residents,” according to San Francisco TV reporter Sandhya Dirks, who investigated the phenomenon earlier this year. Donuts became common later on, as the police cracked down on such gatherings, and sideshow culture shifted from community pop-up parties to antagonizing law enforcement or unsuspecting motorists, dudes in cheaper vehicles delighted in spinning donuts on freeways and in the middle of public intersections. Dash cams, YouTube and social media, of course, have recently contributed to a renaissance for these dangerous antics.

Yet the donut feels very much like a transplant when urban gearheads pull them in cramped quarters. Surely it first gained prominence in the wide-open spaces of rural America, as immortalized in pop gearhead fare like The Dukes of Hazzard. My colleague Tracy Moore, who once wrote of her regret at losing her virginity to a boyfriend who “was fond of doing 360s in his Camaro in half-empty parking lots” and later telling her, “I done a donut,” says it was standard behavior where she grew up in Tennessee. “All I know is there are only two kinds of dudes in the South. The ones who do donuts, and the ones who don’t — and the ones who don’t aren’t real men by their calculations.”

This regional affinity makes a lot of sense to me. The car’s intended purpose is to get you from A to B, but in the middle of nowhere — with no place to go — the tight, squealing circle holds its own self-evident appeal. The burnt-rubber tracks inscribe an ideal, empty center of pointlessness. You orbit your own blank boredom.

That’s not to say the donut is without its joie de vivre. How else could it have become the standard victory display of American motor racing? Pro driver Alex Zanardi popularized the triumphant burnouts you now see from NASCAR and and IndyCar race-winners, beginning with celebratory donuts at the 1997 CART Long Beach Grand Prix and engaging in this bit of flair whenever he placed first.

The amateur donut-doer may not have a sports title to be proud of, but they take a similar pleasure in this mechanical agility — excited by the precision and power of their whip as well as the sheer physical intensity of centripetal force. The euphoria is clearly heightened by some additional messiness from an unstable surface: kicking up sprays of powdered snow, showers of mud, or when “whipping a shittie,” a hail of loose gravel.

If you still doubt the donut’s inherent fun, consider the world record for consecutive spins: 280. While I’m nauseated imagining this, driver Jamie Morrow managed the 17-minute feat just fine.

These examples capture the donut’s base allure for dudes: You don’t whirl your car about this way because you have to, but because you can. That the donut has no practical application — it’s unnecessary, kind of dumb and not great for your tires — is what makes it an essential activity, something to whoop about with your dirtbag friends. It’s the automotive equivalent of saying “Hold my beer” before jumping off a roof into the pool.

Indeed, it’s so ingrained in driving consciousness (or the adrenalized id, perhaps), that we can’t say for certain where and when it was first attempted. But seeing as the earliest motorists, active at the turn of the 20th century, were harebrained adventurers who wanted to test the limits of the invention, it seems likely they figured out the donut before long. Even the Model T can do them, provided a stage that’s slippery enough.

It’s incumbent upon us, then, to preserve the decency of donuts as an idle pastime and tradition. For every asshole doing them on the same street every single day, for each time you watch Paulie Walnuts cut cookies on Christopher Moltisanti’s lawn in The Sopranos, and for every night the Field of Dreams is torn up by a baseball-hating local, there’s a pack of kids out there with a minivan or Toyota Camry, harmlessly whiling away the hours with dizzying turns in a weedy lot outside the abandoned Walmart.

Leave them be, and let them ride. Not all journeys take the form of a straight line.