View from the Mountaintop, July 1972: Sisyphus is Headed this Way by (1 Story)

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Dear Kids —

This week I have a true adventure story for you. The stars are:

You, because the fact that you are far away gives me the excuse to write it down.

Ken Wasil, a truculent megalomaniac who never knows when he’s beaten. His favorite activity is driving at just over top speed in his racing car. His second favorite activity is describing to anyone who will listen, or to anyone who won’t listen, how fast he went in his last race and how much faster he’s going to go in his next race. Wasil wears glasses with lenses thicker than Coke bottles, and he can’t read a printed page more than six inches from the end of his nose, and nobody understands how he can see to drive as fast as he does, but he does drive very fast.

Lotus Europa number 66DP, Chinese red with two broad black stripes down the middle, a very well prepared race car that Wasil bought last winter after his first Lotus Europa fell apart from being driven too fast and then being put back together too fast.

The supporting players are:

Me, a patient and responsible citizen (where you live, perhaps better known as an absentee father), who drives race cars just for the fun of it and has a good record of bringing them through the race in one piece. Or two at the most, as in the Bryar three-hour enduro last year when he yanked the shift lever out of the car and had to finish the race in third gear, being without options.

Dick Sonderegger, my pit crew chief, whose job is mostly to keep his head when all about him are losing theirs, and to make sure that the race car and the driver get all the help they need to win without seeming to break any rules. He does his job very well.

A cast of thousands of freaks who answered Wasil’s ad in the Phoenix, an underground newspaper in Boston, for volunteers for his pit crew. Really only about half a dozen of them, but that turned out to be plenty.

Here’s the story.

A couple of weeks ago I offered to co-drive Wasil’s Europa in the three-hour enduro scheduled for Thompson Raceway in Connecticut on Sunday, July 9. Wasil hadn’t heard about the race, but his eyes lit up like glowworms trapped in Mason jars, and he began explaining to me how we could win the race outright simply by driving consistent one-minute-and-eighteen-second laps for the three hours, with two quick stops to refuel and change drivers. I had seen Wasil and his car at Thompson the previous week make one staggeringly fast lap at the beginning of the D-production race before coasting to a dead stop with a broken battery terminal, so I knew that Wasil was right. But I also knew there could be mechanical problems that would spoil his plans.

A few nights before the race, Wasil trailered his Europa to my shop and we rebuilt the rear suspension to get rid of some sloppiness that would have slowed us down, and Wasil bought some brand-new super-wide Firestone racing tires to let us go around the corners faster than ever. Trouble is, he didn’t get the tires on the car until the day before the race, and they turned out to rub quite a bit. They would have blown out in short order if I hadn’t managed to find some wheel spacers that made the rubbing less severe. Wasil ran the car on the new tires in the fifteen-lap Regional race on Saturday and he won first place easily. I had never driven the car, so I asked Wasil and Sonderegger to get it ready for me to practice the next day at noon. I didn’t want to do all my learning during the actual race, which was to begin at two p.m. I went back to Boston to get a good night’s sleep while Sonderegger camped in Connecticut. The next morning, Sunday, Sonderegger went to a nearby lake to take a swim, and when he came back to get the Europa gridded for me to practice, he found that Wasil and the freaks had taken the rear suspension apart again for some last-minute improvements. By the time Sonderegger got the car back together, the final practice session was nearly over. I strapped into the Europa and went blasting onto the track, but I completed only three laps before the checkered flag came out to end the session. All I had managed to learn was 1) that the Europa can go around corners much faster than my Lotus Elan (something I already knew), and 2) that I would need at least five or six more laps of practice before I could drive the car fast and smoothly around Thompson. But now I would have to get that practice during the race.

Wasil’s super performance the day before had won us the pole position for the enduro, first of about twenty-five or thirty cars, and it looked as if the Europa might actually be able to run all day and win. But just before it was time to grid the car for the big race, Wasil and his freaks had it apart again and were trying to readjust the offset of the rear wheels by adding washers to my spacers. I told Wasil I thought what he was doing was dangerous, because the washers were too small to provide support for the wheel, and under hard cornering the wheels would bend and might break. Wasil said he wasn’t worried. I said I was glad that he and not I would be driving the first hour.

The call to line up for the race came before we were ready. We were still tightening wheel nuts and adjusting tire pressures with a foot pump after Wasil gridded the car. That done, we carried our tools and gas cans to the pits in front of the grandstands and waited for the race to begin. The cars came out of the paddock and onto the track with the usual deafening roar, led by Wasil’s Europa and a huge Corvette. The pack surged and snorted through two warm-up laps, then the green flag came out and the race was on. The Corvette, beside the Europa on the front row and with more than five times the horsepower, stormed immediately into the lead, but had to brake for the first turn and Wasil did not. The Europa nipped ahead, blocked the Corvette on the back straight across from the grandstands, and disappeared under the bridge still leading. The whole pack followed, the roar of engines faded behind the hill, and we waited to see whether Wasil or the Corvette would be leading at the end of the first lap. A minute passed, the roar increased again and the pack came swarming around he clubhouse turn. We were disappointed to see the Corvette leading. But we were much more disappointed when the whole field had roared past with no sign of Wasil. We watched and listened at the clubhouse turn as the pack disappeared under the bridge on the second lap. No Wasil. After another minute the Corvette reappeared, followed by everybody else. Everybody but Wasil. Then, just as we were thinking of going for a swim, Wasil’s Europa came around the clubhouse turn at a tremendous clip, blasted through the oval and away under the bridge in pursuit of the rest of the pack. The race was less than three laps old and we were already two laps behind everyone else. We figured Wasil had tried to win the three-hour race on the first lap and had spun, then had trouble restarting his engine. (I had noticed that the starter was tricky, and on Saturday Wasil had sent some of his freaks to buy a new battery.) We settled down with the pit signal board and the stopwatches and awaited developments, I in my driving suit, ready to take over if necessary.

For several laps the Europa circulated very fast, passing slower cars right, left and in-between, making up the lost time. The only faster car was Al Alden’s Porsche 911S, which had started well back in the pack and was now leading the race. Then our stopwatches showed that Wasil was overdue again. This time he reappeared after only a few extra seconds. More fast laps, then again no Wasil. A few minutes passed, then many minutes. All at once I heard Sonderegger call out, “There he is!” Looking up the pit lane toward the clubhouse turn, I could see no sign of the Europa, but there was Wasil in his driving suit and helmet, flopping down exhausted on the grass under a tree at the top of the pits. Sonderegger ran off to investigate this strange turn of events, then came running back with his report, while Wasil got to his feet and staggered along behind. Wasil had spun the car again at the back of the course and had been unable to restart the engine, because the battery was dead. He had run up hill and down dale in the summer sun in his Nomex driving suit and thermal underwear to get back to the pits, and now he was showing signs of dying from the heat. At one point he had fought off the course physician, who was working at a flag station, saw Wasil stumbling along in his helmet, thought one of the drivers had gone berserk, and tried to wrestle him to the ground. (This part of the story reminds me of Toad and his concerned friends in Wind in the Willows). Wasil now requested that I take battery jumper cables, go back to the car and restart it, and take over the driving. Restart it with what? I wanted to know. You have to have a good battery to jump-start a car that has a dead battery. Turns out there was a good battery in the Europa — but on the floor of the passenger compartment, where one of the freaks had stowed it instead of installing it where it belonged. In fact, Wasil’s spin on the first lap had occurred when the good battery startled him by jumping off the floor as he was putting the Europa through a hard turn ahead of the big Corvette.

I was reaching dutifully for the jumper cables when Sonderegger told me to relax. The rules of the race forbade me going out to the car. No driver changes allowed anywhere but in the pits, and no help for the driver anywhere but in the pits. Wasil would have to find the strength to do it himself. Poor Wasil! He took the jumper cables and went staggering off.

More minutes passed, and the Europa came flying into the pits under its own power and rushed to a stop in front of us. I began putting on the rest of my Nomex, the crew jumped for the refueling cans, somebody yanked the spare battery out of the passenger seat, Wasil fell out of the car helmetless and — ! SCCA officials converged from all directions, and a tremendous fuss ensued. The Assistant Chief Steward, a notorious exploiter of the power vested in him as Competition Board Chairman for the New England Region, looming like a cross between a bantam rooster and a mannikin from Abercrombie and Fitch, began to bleat: “The driver’s hat! Where is the driver’s hat? The driver must wear his hat!” And to the other officials: “Watch this crew!” It seems that Wasil had been able to restart the car without jumping the battery after all, but that once inside he had too little headroom to put on his helmet, so he drove back to the pits with the helmet on the seat. There was talk of disqualifying the Europa, and the SCCA-ers watched hawk-like for further infractions of the rules. With Wasil out of the car and the refueling completed, I began strapping myself into the driver’s seat. All at once I heard a cry of “Broken wheel!” and felt the rear of the car rise off the ground on a jack. My prediction about the washers had been right. Feeling vindicated, I bellowed orders out the window: “Pull both rear wheels and the spacers! Put on the spares! Torque ’em up! Get rid of those washers!” Etc. Great feeling to shout orders at people when there’s no time to argue. In about a minute the rear of the car hit the ground again and Sonderegger yelled “Go!

But of course the engine wouldn’t start, because the new battery still had not been installed.

So the crew gave me a push, the engine started, the SCCA officials made a note to penalize us three laps for a push start, the signal man at the end of the pit lane waved me onto the track, I nailed the throttle and started through the oval, and the Europa nearly “traded ends” immediately. From being the best-handling car I had ever driven, it had suddenly become one of the worst. The rear tires were the reason — cold, under-inflated and not as wide as the front tires, causing oversteer — a tendency for the rear end to swing wide in the turns and try to get ahead of the front end. I fought the car through one lap and returned to the pits immediately for more air. Sonderegger checked the pressures. They were low, but they would go up when the tires got  warm. “Go!” he yelled again, and I went, but I wasn’t happy.

Now I was racing at as close to full bore as I could in a car I barely knew, with the tire pressures wrong and no battery to restart if I should spin it and kill the engine. I circulated raggedly at first, then more smoothly as the rear tires heated up. Each time I passed the pits, the board showed a little faster time. After about a dozen laps I began to settle into a fairly rapid groove, passing slower cars at a great rate and being surprised only about once a lap by bad behavior from the Europa’s rear end. As I tore past the pits on about the fifteenth lap, Sonderegger signaled to ask if everything was okay, and I gave him a combination shrug and thumbs-up sign. I wrestled the Europa through the oval, set up for the left-hand turn under the bridge, nipped the apex of that turn just right, and suddenly found the Europa traveling  backwards into a sandbank. I kicked in the clutch and tromped on the gas pedal to keep the engine from dying, but it was too late. I rolled backwards to a stop a few yards from a flag station and tried the starter a few times, but no luck. A couple of corner workers from the flag station pushed me out of danger from oncoming traffic, but the rules forbade their giving me a push to start. Instead I would have to walk back to the pits, get the jumper cables and the good battery, and carry them back to the site of the spinout. So I took off my helmet, gloves and balaclava, left them in the car, and started the long trek back, soft-boiling in my Nomex under the hot sun, scrambling up sand dunes and climbing over wire fences, running from corner station to corner station and waiting for instructions from the corner workers’ Day-Glo signal paddles each time I had to cross the track: there was still a race going on, and I was the anomalous pedestrian. I got back to the pits at last, feeling much the way Wasil had looked earlier, and collected the battery. Fortunately it was smaller than most car batteries and it had a carrying strap. I Iearned then that Wasil had left the jumper cables at the corner station nearest to his own spinout. This station was a hundred or so yards farther along the course than mine — pretty convenient, really. Wasil later told me that as I set out from the pits with the battery, he predicted that I’d never make it back to the car unless I had the constitution of an elephant. He was right, but I do have the constitution of an elephant, and although I fell over a fence, spilling battery acid and ripping a hole in the knee of my $150 driving suit, I did make it. The corner workers were kind enough to bring me the jumper cables (probably against the rules). I put the new battery back on the passenger floor, ran the jumper cables to the dead battery in the engine compartment, and restarted the car. To keep it running while I disconnected things, replaced the deck lid and put on my driving gear, I had to rest a big rock against the gas pedal. Since like most race cars this one had no radiator fan, the engine overheated rapidly, and by the time I was strapped back in and waiting for the Day-Glo paddles to wave me onto the track, things were smelling bad and it was beginning to look like curtains for Wasil’s engine. I didn’t want to be the guy to finish it off, so I pitted immediately, told Wasil the car was badly overheated, and said, “Take over!” He didn’t seem to mind that I had nearly destroyed his car, but he had the gall to ask me why I had taken so long. “We’ve got a race to win, you know.” The man is crazy.

By that time it was four p.m. The race had started at 2:16 p.m. and was to end at 5:16. We had completed about forty laps. Al Alden’s car, running first, had completed about ninety laps. Anybody but Wasil would have sworn we were licked. (I won’t mislead you: we were licked.) But we refueled, strapped the Myopic Maestro back into his seat, push-started him for another three-lap penalty, and off he went, sputtering around with the overheated engine. But as the ambient air passing through the radiator brought the coolant temperature down to the normal range, a small miracle began to unfold. Wasil started going pretty fast, even though it was obvious that the car was just as squirrelly for him as it had been for me. A few of his laps were very fast. I sat in the pits and waited complacently for Wasil to turn up missing again, but it never happened. He drove like a man possessed, as they say. The only faster car was Al Alden’s Porsche, and at one point Wasil actually passed him, regaining one of our many lost laps. With about half an hour to go, Alden holed a piston and dropped out of the race, but Wasil flew on. We showed him his lap times on the pit board, but he gave no sign that he saw anything. After a while we began to think that Wasil must actually be blind and that he was driving wholly by his sense of smell (but there’s some evidence that that’s not very good either). With about five minutes to go in the race, Wasil pitted for a slosh of fuel to prevent running out of gas, and off he went again (another push start, another three-lap penalty).

When the checkered flag finally came out, we had completed ninety-four laps, but we had accumulated twelve laps worth of penalties, so we got credit for only eighty-two laps, which put us fourteenth out of fifteen finishers. The winning car, a Lotus 47, completed one hundred and thirty-three laps. Wasil drove to the impound area, crawled out of the car on his hands and knees, and announced that he was going to die, but first he wanted to see his trophy. The guy is definitely insane.

But a very good driver. He managed to keep an unmanageable car on the track for an hour and fifteen minutes, going nearly as fast the whole time as he had with a manageable car. An hour and a half after the race was over, I got tired of waiting for the results to be published, so I went to find Wasil to say goodbye before leaving for Cambridge. He was still in his driving suit, still visibly sick from exhaustion and the heat, his eyes bleary behind the Coke-bottle lenses. He was a mess.

I felt sorry for him until I remembered that racing is something you do for fun.

That was a long story, which I also wrote for fun. You may find it interesting as evidence of the difference between the ways grownups and kids play. Kids quit when a game stops being fun. Grownups seem to like to finish a thing no matter what. Maybe that’s why working for a living turns out to be so much easier for a grownup than he thought it was going to be.

With love,

Your Dad








Characterizations: funny, right on!, well written


  1. Oh, say, not a huge audience for this piece but precise, elegant, journalistic, very loving of a relatively esoteric sport from a relatively esoteric insider’s POV, on a world that I, too, have obsessed over, all of us as mad as Wasil. I hope others will take a moment to read this detailed report that conceals and reveals an undercurrent of testosterone-laden conflict, overruled by these dastardly, ecstatic machines. I’ve got to remind you of Denis Jenkinson’s Motor Sports report (1955) of navigating for Stirling Moss in the Mille Miglia. Your piece has that tone, and I loved it!

  2. John Zussman says:

    I don’t know much about auto racing and am not a fan, but your story had me riveted from start to finish. Between the eccentric yet passionate characters and their temperamental cars, I couldn’t wait to learn how it came out. And I loved lines like “his eyes lit up like glowworms trapped in Mason jars.” Thanks for sharing this on Retrospect.

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