My Car Quest

December 3, 2020

Fiction: Deja Vu

by Wallace Wyss –

Jimbo was a racer. He knew he had the talent. He had, after all, at the age of 16 built his first race car, a special powered by a four cylinder Porsche pushrod four, all by himself. And he got lot of publicity for it, with a spread in Autoweek.

He had earned an SCCA license by age 21. And had road raced on three of Southern California’s racetracks. The best complement he had received was that he was sensitive to the needs of the machine, which in a long distance endurance race, could make all the difference.

He wasn’t, he was first to admit, a full time racer. No, it was, in real life, his work as a draftsman that put bread on the table but he had always yearned to be a racer, and on weekends had taken several back-to-back race driver’s school courses and was certified for three types of racing.

His ambition, which he told practically to every car guy he met, was to drive in a vintage race like Monterey, in a thoroughbred race car that has actually raced back in the day when it was new.

“Blooded in combat” was the phrase they used for a car that had raced. He always thought that was a strange phrase, as if assuming that everyone who raced would come back bloody.

The ride of lifetime came up when he heard a Porsche team, owned by a local brewery magnate, lost its driver, a proud German, who walked away from the team when he insisted the suspension wasn’t set up right. Jimbo had watched the man take a lap and saw the driver sawing at the wheel, trying to find the right line through the corners. He didn’t know whether to put the blame on the car or the driver.

He hung around that team’s pit, introduced himself, and they looked at his resume of rides. The right hand man to the man in charge sluffed him off, saying “We’ll get back to you.”

But the phone didn’t ring. He drove back to Los Angeles thinking it was no use. Soon he’d be 30 and team managers were telling him that they wanted a young driver, one that they could train their way.

He didn’t even talk to other teams. He wanted this one because of their car, a fabled Porsche 550 Spyder. That was the car he had loved since he first saw a picture of that model, with James Dean, who owned one, pulling on driver’s gloves at a gas station.

Then a friend tipped him off, that team had hired a driver, an Italian who had run several vintage races in Europe. He went back out to Willow the next time there was vintage race practice to see how their new hot shoe would do. He talked to the mechanics as the new driver suited up. For a second, his eyes locked with the eyes of the new driver, a tall lad with unruly hair.

If the new driver recognized him as a rival, he didn’t let on. To Jimbo, this Italian was a young and cocky guy and he expected that the driver would ignore him. He knew that kind of attitude, the one in which life was divided between only winners and losers. And he, not selected, was a loser. So why bother talking to him?

Jimbo took out his binoculars and watched intently as the new driver took the car out and ran a lap. When it came through the esses, he tightened the focus, watching the driver’s hand movements, where he shifted. The driver was good, he’d have to give him that. But wait a minute, he was fighting the wheel, sawing back and forth like the first driver that had quit.

Porsche 550 Spyder

He watched as the new driver came into the pits, skidding to a stop and jumped out of the car like it was on fire, angrily slamming his helmet on the ground. He was swearing in Italian. Now Jimbo didn’t know Italian but he damn well knew swearing when he heard it. Something about the suspension.

The Italian had words with the car’s owner and the upshot was that the driver peeled off his uniform and stormed off, clad only in his briefs! He got the call from the owner a week later.

By then, he knew a lot more about the car and was ready to give the owner the right answers. He had researched the car, going to a car racing library in a museum out in Sylmar. Turns out it was a rebuilt wreck. The car had, in point of fact, as claimed, had been in the Targa Florio, back in the days when it was still a real race, not a vintage race. The driver that year, an Italian prince, had been leading in class when he inexplicably turned a sharp left, straight into one of those carved-out-of-stone kilometer markers. Taken out the whole front. The driver never regained consciousness.

Now what happened next, by Jimbo’s way of thinking, was downright bizarre, and maybe had something to do with his aristocratic heritage. Dying on the field of battle or something. His family had interred their young heir with the car, seated at the wheel, in a grave on a mountainside overlooking the very same stretch of road where the accident had occurred. Something like that would never be done in the States. But Jimbo figured that, since the piloto was from a rich family, one reeking of nobility, no locals protested. The common folk, would never understand…capitsch?

There was a pretty good cover-up of when the car was disinterred, because the next articles he found on that car with that serial number were only about when this American owner had acquired it,( sans the human remains of course) and had it restored in Italy.

“Restored” wasn’t the word for it. you could almost say re-manufactured from the ground up. Jimbo was sure if it was displayed at Pebble Beach, it would take first in class! He doubted Porsche themselves had one in their museum that was any better.

Oh, the call. Yes, though he’d been rejected twice, they hadn’t forgotten him. They found his application and, without mentioning a word on what had happened to the Italian, they offered him the chance to drive the Porsche in the big vintage race scheduled the following weekend on a track down near San Diego. And, unlike most vintage races, they were offering him pay. Not much but, hell, enough to pay for the whole week of Monterey Car week, which usually set him back a couple grand, even if he stayed in the Motel 6.

***

Five days later he was at the track, standing in front of the 550. The owner had left a scrapbook on the car’s history on the picnic table outside his car trailer and Jimbo leafed through it. He stopped at one page that showed the car in the Targa and then looked up at the car and saw that, since the last time he’d seen it, someone had affixed a racing number, the very same number in fact that the car had been assigned in the Targa. He looked at the picture again, the side view, and then walked up to the car. Someone, someone very talented, had even replicated the family crest of the driver in the Targa. It was hand-painted, using what appeared to be real gold leaf and read Scuderia St. Ambrosa or something like that. He leafed through more pages, seeing pictures of the prince in the pits at the Targa, a blonde Northern Italian with a boyish grin.

He got into the car and pulled on his string back driving gloves, wishing that he had been given time to practice but though they had rented the track exclusively the week before this event to dial in the suspension, they hadn’t called him.

He sat with the engine idling on the grid under the hot San Diego sun. The photographers were crowding around the car now, impressed by its perfection; its almost translucent silver paint job and his period Dunlop driving uniform and period “pudding bowl” driving helmet. He heard comments about the authenticity of his attire—including this leather rimmed four-pane goggles, and his handmade leather driving shoes.

In fact, all that he lacked compared to the driver pictured in the Targa was the royal title in front of his name. Well screw that, he grinned, he’d show them the son of a back country horse breeder could drive too!

The race started, a rolling start. He started out following the leader but kept the pressure on, winding out to 8000 rpm every time he hit the straight. Finally, four laps in, he found he was in the lead with only six laps to go.

It was just about to complete his fourth lap when he reached the esses again. He downshifted and began turning right, intending to clip the apex as he drifted around the corner. The car, suddenly with a mind of its own, turned left.

***

Now they say your mind races a thousand miles an hour at a time like this. He now knew that to be true. His mind flashed to his youth, when he had first heard that there could be forces that were out to get you. Like horses. At his uncle’s ranch in Mendocino, he remembered that there had been that black stallion that had thrown not only him off once he tried to mount him but everybody that tried to ride him (a tendency the stallion suddenly lost after being gelded, that’s right, once they cut off his balls…)

The Porsche left the track at speed he stabbed the brakes but the wheels were off the ground, maybe eight feet off the ground. He flew right over the crash fence. His mind was still racing at 1,000 mph. A memory came back, from the time he’d met an old time race driver at Indy. The man had been an ace mechanic who graduated to driver. But his glory as a driver had been short-lived–a couple big wrecks in the same season putting him right back in the garage again, turning wrenches for the rest of his working career.

After a two hour conversation, the old man had clasped him on the shoulder and given him one parting piece of advice. He remembered the man had very sad eyes. In the thousandth of a second Jimbo had left on this earth, he knew now that he should have taken the old man’s warning to heart.

A warning that came from hard experience. The old timer had turned down a ride at Indy after seeing two ace drivers–who happened to be personal friends of his and both possessing superior driving skills–had crashed in practice, both driving the same car that had been repaired the first time and sent out again. They lived but their lives were never the same.
There was a thud and Jimbo knew he’d hit something immovable. Flames shot up all around him. As his world went dark, Jimbo could hear the man’s warning. “Above all, son, and hear me out on this–you don’t want to EVER drive a car a man’s been killed in..fact is…some cars are out to get you…”

Wallace Wyss

 
 
THE AUTHOR/ARTIST: Wallace Wyss is the author of 18 car books. As a fine artist, he is accepting commissions to do oil portraits of classic cars. He can be reached at mendoart7@gmail.com.

 
 
 
 

Painting by Wallace Wyss.

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