The English phrase “burn rubber” relates to driving a car fast or spinning the tires quickly. This phrase also has some other more abstract idiomatic uses. It is a phrase based on a complex verb, where “to burn rubber” is a colorful way to refer to the urgent nature of various actions.
The literal meaning of “burning rubber” is to spin the wheels of a vehicle until the friction literally removes rubber from the tires. With manual transmission outfitted vehicles, the driver is able to spin the wheels in this way, by popping the clutch and stepping hard on the gas pedal. Drivers can also drive in ways that peel rubber from the tires onto the road, using the brakes of the vehicle, in ways that cause “skid marks” or rubber marks on the road surface. These types of driving are generally illegal, and may cause the driver to be stopped by traffic police and charged with reckless driving, unless the driver is acting prudently in an emergency situation.
In general, the phrase “burn rubber” is used to refer to driving quickly. A similar phrase, “burn up the road,” is also used. There are also other English idioms for speed or distance in other means of transportation, for instance, where English speakers can use the phrase “pound leather” to refer to riding a horse quickly or for a long time. In terms of on foot transportation, the phrase “wearing out shoe leather” is sometimes used for when someone is walking a long way in a short time. For instance, a traveling salesman without a car could be said to be “wearing out shoe leather.”
Some English speakers may use the phrase “burning rubber” to refer to someone working very hard or participating intensely in an activity. For example, someone might say “he burned rubber at work” to refer to someone working very hard at his job, although usually there is some component of recklessness implied as well. These more abstract uses of the phrase generally imply quick, intense activity of some kind, often driven by great emotion.
Although many uses of “burn rubber” don’t specify where the driver is going, some imply a given direction. For example, someone could say that a driver “burned rubber away from the scene of the crime.” Here, it’s understood that the driver is departing quickly away from a location, emphasizing the panicked nature of the departure over any intended destination.