For every generation, there was an icon that melded automotive enthusiasm and the silver screen.
In the 1950s, that was James Dean. The ensuing decade had Steve McQueen. The 1970s would have an argument, but memory serves me well enough to give that and the early 1980s to Burt Reynolds. There are many others worth arguing about, but you agree that certain key films featuring automobiles and motorsport would not be replete if they did not appear in them.
For the past twelve years, one movie franchise would equal to the films the older icons would have appeared in. "The Fast and The Furious" series opened up a new generation to another level of enthusiasm. It gave an entire generation of enthusiasts a new set of heroes – human and vehicular – to aspire to become a part of.
At the center of these films is an actor – Paul Walker. In the first film, he played an undercover police officer, Brian O'Connor, assigned to take down a ring that had been stealing electronic equipment. In subsequent adventures, Walker's character would end up on the either side of the law, despite maintaining hero status across the franchise.
We lost Walker on Saturday, November 30th. He and business partner Roger Rodas were in a 2005 Porsche Carrera GT coming from a fundraising event of Walker's charity, Reach Out Worldwide in Santa Clarita, California. The Porsche reportedly slammed into a tree. The accident trapped both Walker and Rodas inside the car while triggering a fire.
Walker was 40 years old. He is survived by his 15-year-old daughter.
Some may argue that the emphasis on Walker's death was unwarranted. The films promoted a new level of vehicular behavior – or, in a different view, misbehavior. It was the view of many people that promoting hooliganism and anti-social behavior should be frowned upon due to the film series' depiction of illegal street racing, drifting and the entire import-tuning scene. These are the same arguments that were spawned against the hot rod movement of the 1950s, the muscle car culture of the 1960s and the minitruck movement of the 1970s. You could also say the same of low rider culture.
Would you actually blame Walker for such behavior? He is only an actor – though he is an automotive enthusiast with a collection that would be influenced by the films he starred in. The issues alone are not of Walker's presence on the screen, but rather the business of filmmaking that produced and distributed these films to the public.
Others questioned on social media the emphasis on Walker's death as another notable (if not more heroic) person died later in the week – Nelson Mandela. I find it ironic on the evening of the announcement of Mandela's death, a live edition of "The Sound of Music" aired on American television with more social media traffic drowning the memorials of Madiba.
One thing that was forgotten in the social media hubbub was the fact that Walker had a philanthropic side to him. It was also ironic that he was heading to an event for his charity on that ill-fated ride. Reach Out Worldwide was Walker's way to ensure that global natural disasters get the immediate first aid attention via first responders on the ground. He may be an automotive enthusiast off-screen with an extensive collection of cars plus a partnership in a tuning and motorsport house, but this would most likely be his legacy – something that should not be forgotten.
What is also not forgotten was the outpouring of love by a generation of automotive enthusiasts for their screen hero. That was manifested in a series of cruises in Walker's honor. On a cold, snowy Sunday, one such cruise began at a familiar spot – AutoMotorPlex in Chanhassen, Minnesota. It began by a group called InCarNation. The group put up the cruise event on Facebook to attract hundreds of people and a diverse selection of vehicles to this event. It was a huge procession that drove the Interstate 494/694 loop around the Twin Cities to the Mall of America. In the end, thousands of dollars were raised for Reach Out Worldwide in Walker's memory.
The event itself was spectacular in the way that people actually braved the snow and poor road conditions to participate. The number of enthusiasts of all ages rode either solo or with a carload to do what they can to remember their screen hero. The single theme that came up in conversation with the mostly younger crowd was how much the "Fast and Furious" film series triggered their love for the automobile.
More so, the collaboration of various automotive enthusiasts truly made this a unifying moment in this carmmunity. How often do you get various clubs, enthusiast groups and other interested parties together to do something for charity – let alone remember the life of their cinematic hero? Not often, but when they do – it is a gratifying moment even for the charity and the other stakeholders involved.
There will still be debates. Should we honor someone who is an actor whose role influenced a generation of automotive enthusiasts? Or, should we deride him for encouraging vehicular behavior detrimental to public safety? No matter which side of the debate you are on, understand the need for those who wish to honor Walker's life in their own special way.
We, as automotive people, completely understand. This moment has resonance with a hope for further traction come the next year and beyond – all in Paul Walker's name.
Godspeed, Paul Walker.
All photos by Randy Stern