Green 1950s era race car with number sixty eight "F" painted on its side speeds through open country.

Prologue

For you long time readers of my blog, this story has nothing to do with the Holocaust, or any other story from outside of the “good ol’ USA”. But it does bear some relation to two earlier stories of mine: Ruth Levy Raymond aka “Mamaroo”, and a Tribute to TC – a Tale of Two Careers.

The difference, however, is this story has been lying in my desk drawer for more than a half century. Had my friend, Earl G., not kept daily notes of the events, and the people involved, the whole experience would have disappeared into the annals of time, only to be remembered in bits and pieces.

There was, at one time, some writer’s interest in making a magazine article out of it; but that idea slipped away eons ago. And from then on the story has remained in my desk drawer.

For those of you who were around during the mid 1950s, you may recognize some of the characters involved. And if you also happen to be a sports car racer from that era, you’ll recognize even more.

EAST COAST CHRONICLES

It was summer, 1956. My friend Bud (Earl G.) and I had just graduated from UCLA, with our brand new Air Force ROTC commissions as 2nd Lieutenants.

Since we had yet to receive our initial orders, we decided to take advantage of our brand new status as Air Force officers, and fly, free, to Germany on military aircraft.

Since the two of us were longtime sports car fans, and my dad was already in the market to buy a new car, I convinced him to buy a new Porsche. Then Bud and I would pick it up at the factory in Stuttgart, and do a little sightseeing while driving it through Europe. And maybe see a sports car or F1 race, before shipping the Porsche to Los Angeles.

Bud had already made a deal with Col. Donahue, the Air Force commander at our AFROTC unit. He had explained to the Col. that he was planning to keep a day diary that could be great publicity for the AFROTC. In exchange, we just needed him to contact the proper Air Force authority to supply us with the necessary orders to allow us on military aircraft. Then all we had to do was get to McGuire Air Force Base in New Jersey, with our orders to get us on a military flight to Germany. Or so we thought . . . !

A world war 2-era U.S. fighter-bomber plane, with two forward and one tail gunner cockpits, banks for a turn.
WW II B-25 Mitchell bomber plane.

It was July 4 when we started from Long Beach Airport, which is near Los Angeles. We easily got a ride in an Air Force B-25, heading east. And from then on, a couple more flights got us to McGuire AFB.

But then things got serious.

Once there, we turned in our orders requesting our transatlantic flight. Then dinner in the mess hall, and bed.

July 5: wasn’t much different, other than having more time to wander around the base. We checked to see if anything had come in yet for our transatlantic flight. Answer was “No! Too early!” Then dinner in the mess hall again. But then we decided to go see a movie. We got a ride down the road to nearby Fort Dix, and watched a movie in their Base Theater. Then a cab back to McGuire.

But with the weekend coming up, we knew that there’d be no activity on the base. So, we decided to take advantage of the weekend and go to the Sports Car Races at “Beverly-Mass” (Massachusetts).

So, the next night – Friday – we took a bus from McGuire to New York City. From there we got on another bus to Boston, but only after waiting for two and a half hours, wandering around Times Square.

We arrived in Boston about 8:30am Saturday morning. From there we had to catch a bus, and then a train to get to Beverly. But then we still had to walk three miles to the airport!

Thankfully, we were young and adventurous!

But “What” you ask, “was so intriguing about a sports car race, in a tiny hamlet all the way out on the extreme other side of the country, that made that trip worthwhile???”

Well, that requires a bit of a backstory!

Remember that Bud and I were rabid racing fans. Plus, for the last year and a half I’d also been racing a sports car. That’s me in the Prologue.

I bought the MG two years earlier, and needed money for tires and parts, and stuff. Ergo, while I was a student at UCLA, I was also working after class for Jack McAfee, who was one of the drivers here at Beverly-Mass. Actually, Jack put me to work as a “gopher”, at his small Porsche/VW dealership, because I hung out there so much anyway. So, I already new John Edgar, the owner of the cars that Jack was driving, plus the people that worked for both Jack and for John. An ex-hot rodder at the time, Jack was also considered to be one of the top sports car drivers in the U.S. (See Appendix to learn more about McAfee and Edgar).

The sports car races at Beverly, Massachusetts were sanctioned by the Sports Car Club of America, or SCCA, which was bringing together the best drivers in the USA.

When Bud and I finally reached the airfield, where the races were, it was easy to spot Jack and his pit crew. All we had to do was look for John Edgar’s 10-wheel transporter that carried his race cars literally around the country. He was one of the few owners who could afford to do that.

A red truck with large bright silver enclosed trailer with a viewing platform on top and two ferrari race cars parked in front.
John Edgar’s 10-wheel van with rooftop seating under a canopy (William Edgar Archive).

But on our way to Jack’s pit, we ran into Denise McCluggage and Tommy Burnside. Both of whom we knew from races on the west coast. Denise was one of the great woman sports car drivers, as well as a noted automotive journalist. And Burnside was a highly regarded photographer, noted for his work with people and cars in the international racing scene. (See Appendix to learn more about McCluggage and Burnside).

Tommy explained to us why some of the guys were wearing what they called “RFM” derbies, like Carroll Shelby, Ernie Erickson, and Paul O’Shea, in this picture, or Jack McAfee and Sherwood Johnston in other photos.

Carroll shelby, ernie erickson, and paul o'shea stand next the john edgar enterprises car mover truck, all wearing derby hats.
Shelby, Erickson and O’Shea, three of the guys in their derbies! (Burnside).

In fact, Johnston even had a derby brim sewn to the top of his racing helmet, which you can see in the Appendix.

When we finally reached Jack’s pit, Bud pulled out his camera and shot this picture:

Rolf wutherich sits with jack mcafee in the paddock field beside a red ferrari race car.
On the far left, in blue overalls is Rolf Wütherich. Jack is next to him, wearing his RFM derby. ( See Appendix to learn about RFM ). And I’m the guy standing on the far right of the picture (Gandel).

Rolf Wütherich, the German Porsche mechanic that John Edgar brought in to maintain Jack’s Porsche 550, also happened to be the same Porsche mechanic who was riding with James Dean during that ill-fated crash that killed Dean, but somehow Rolf survived. However that was barely 10 months earlier, and Rolf was still walking with a cane, and felt he needed help. So he brought in a mechanic from Max Hoffman’s New York Porsche garage to help him with the Porsche.

He was a little Czech guy, who spoke with an accent worse than Rolf’s. And Rolf loved to make jokes about it. Rolf called him “Venzel”, which was the only name we knew him by. It wasn’t until months later, when he had come west and had opened up a Porsche garage for racers, in Manhattan Beach, that I learned that his real name was Vasek Polak. (See Appendix to learn more about Polak).

But since we came in late, we missed Jack race in Edgar’s Porsche 550.

Crew members and fans crowd around a starting grid of 1500cc race cars.
This is the starting grid for the over 1500cc race, or the Main event. What makes the picture special for me is the guy in the bathrobe. But who he was or how he got there, we never found out (Gandel).

The other car of Edgar’s, that Jack was going to drive, was a Ferrari 857 S, that you see in the picture. It was a car that already won two races, but it was not the new car that Edgar had hoped to get from Ferrari, and it turned out to be a maintenance nightmare.

Pete vanlaw and joe landaker stand next to bright red race car with jack mcafee at the wheel on racing track with several other race cars and crews.
This is Jack, Joe, and me (in red jacket) on the grid. While the gremlins struck Jack again, and he only finished 5th, this picture has special significance for me, because a few years ago a friend found a copy of it in the Ferrari Museum in Maranello, Italy (William Edgar Archive).

As Bud wrote in the diary that he kept for the AFROTC, “We really went Eastern and watched the big race from the top of Edgar’s van.” And so we did in the day’s big race. The winners were: 1st, Carroll Shelby, in Luigi Chinetti’s 4.4 Ferrari that Edgar had leased from him. 2nd was Masten Gregory, in Chinetti’s 3.0 Ferrari. 3rd was Sherwood Johnston, in Briggs Cunningham’s D-Jag. (See Appendix to learn more about Shelby, Chinetti, Gregory, and Cunningham).

For the record, Luigi Chinetti was a very important person in the racing world, because he was currently the US distributor for Ferrari. And for the next few weeks he will have leased John Edgar three of his race cars.

That night we stayed at the same motel as the group. And after dinner, spent a couple more hours “bench racing” with Rolf and Joe Landaker.

Joe landaker and pete vanlaw grin from the back of a customized race car transport van.
Joe and me in the transport van at Beverly (Burnside).

A key part of Edgar’s crew was Joe Landaker. I knew him from the time he started working at McAfee’s. He was a workaholic, and Edgar’s go-to guy. First, he maintained John’s Ferraris at Jack’s shop, as well as at the races. But then he also drove John’s transporter to wherever the races were, while carrying the race cars, and taking care of the truck at the same time. For this event, he had driven all the way across the country, from Los Angeles to the tip of Massachusetts!

The next morning, Bud and I needed to go back to Boston, for some reason that neither of us can remember. But Edgar, Shelby, and O’Shea were all going directly back to New York. However, good ol’ Joe Landaker came to our rescue, and was able to get us as far as Waltham, Mass. in the van.

From there we took two buses and a subway back to Boston. We then caught a bus to New York that left at 5:15pm and got us back to New York at 1:30am the next morning. But we still had to catch a 3:00am bus to McGuire, which got us back to the base and the Visiting Officers’ Quarters (VOQ) at 5:30am!!!

July 9th: a “nothing” day. Two calls to the ISO (Information Security Office), but nothing has come in about our orders. Saw a movie at the base theater.

July 10th: The Turning Point! Got up late, did little all day other than call the ISO again, got us more nothing. So, we call Col. Donahue, only to learn that he tried on our behalf, but the Air University couldn’t do a thing. It would have to come from Air Force Headquarters, or the Dept. of Defense. But either way it would take at least six months!

So, that was it! We weren’t going on our trip to Europe after all!

But now what are we going to do??? In our frustration we decided to go to Trenton and see another movie. It was “The Great Locomotive Chase”.

End of Part One

This amazing road trip adventure continues (and concludes) with East Coast Chronicles, Part Two.


Appendix

John Edgar – Edgar’s Father was one of four founders of Hobart Manufacturing Co., in Troy, Ohio. John sold Hobart’s commercial food mixers, scales, and KitchenAid for his father’s company during the Depression. John’s father died in 1941 and left his substantial trust to John.

Previously into boat racing, he later got interested in fast motorcycles, looking to get more speed. He got Vincent HRD factory in England to build him a bike that would break the then-current 137mph speed record set on the beach at Daytona. And he got an ex-Indie driver and speed trial expert to drive it on the Bonneville Salt Flats, setting a new speed record of 150mph.

In 1947, John bought a TC MG, to which he added a supercharger, and was hooked on sports cars! By 1952, with more changes and a special streamlined body, and now driven by Jack McAfee, it became known as the “Ferrari beater” in early West Coast sports car races.

In 1954, he entered a new 4.9 Ferrari in the International Carrera Panamerica in Mexico, with Jack McAfee as his driver. But it ended tragically when the car crashed early in the race, and Ford Robinson, the co-driver, was killed. Devastated, Edgar didn’t return to racing for the better part of a year.

Later Edgar expanded his stable of cars to include other Ferraris, Porsches, and Maseratis. By 1956 he had also connected with Carroll Shelby and mechanic Joe Landaker, and then added a 10-wheel semi to his fleet, capable of hauling his race cars, or serving guests. Edgar was responsible for expanding motor racing in many ways, including the world famous Riverside Raceway. But while he did much to expand the sport, by the end of the decade he had sold all of his cars, the rig and all the spare parts, and retired from the sport.

John Edgar seated on his vincent HRD motorcycle.
John Edgar – Vincent HRD (Motor Bike)
(William Edgar Archive)
John edgar and jack mcafee in ferrari 340 america.
This photo has special significance for me because from all indications I was the last person to drive this Ferrari, after John asked me to drive it from his house down to Jack McAfee’s garage. From that day on no one knew what happened to it for six decades, when it was found in pieces in the back of someone’s garage in Downtown Los Angeles (Bob Canaan photo).

Carroll Shelby – In many ways Shelby was bigger than life. As a race car driver, he was one of the all-time greats, from 1952 to 1960, both here and in Europe. All the while he was dealing with a serious heart problem that led to a heart transplant and the end of his racing career as a driver, but not his career in racing, or his later career in his many businesses.

One of the many highlights of his driving career was winning the 1959 24 Hours of Le Mans, in an Aston Martin DBR1. He then went on to win the SCCA USAC Road Racing Sports Car Championship in 1960 driving a Maserati Tipo 61 “Birdcage.” As an automotive businessman, among other cars like his Cobra, he is known for developing the Ford GT40 along with racing legend Ken Miles, which won at Le Mans in 1966, 1967, 1968 and 1969. As of 2024, it remains the only American-built car ever to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans. He and Miles’s efforts at Le Mans were dramatized in the 2019 Oscar-winning film Ford v Ferrari.

On the less serious side, for a number of years, Shelby loved to race in a pair of farmer’s bib overalls, which became his trade mark. (Lots more in Wikipedia).

Joe landaker speaks with carroll shelby, who is wearing a helmet and striped overalls.
Joe Landaker, Carroll Shelby (Evans Collection).

Jack McAfee – McAfee was, without doubt, the best racing driver from Southern California during the fabulous fifties who never turned professional. But before sports cars, Jack began his racing career driving hot rods and sprint cars.

Jack’s first sports car race was at Palm Springs in 1950 and he won it. His last race was in 1962 at Pomona, where he finished second overall.

In 1958, Road & Track listed McAfee as one of the top nine sports car drivers in America. In 1951, he was the Pacific Coast Champion in the under 2-liter class; in 1956, the National Champion in under 2-liters; in 1958 and 1960, he won the under 2-liter crown again. As a true amateur, Jack sometimes ventured outside California for pro events and he finished among the top ten at both the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Mexican Road Race.

When asked why he retired from racing after such a distinguished amateur career, Jack said that he had a family to raise and a business to run. Actually, appointed at age 29, he was the youngest franchised car dealer (VW and Porsche) in the U.S.

Jack mcafee, wearing helmet, smiles from his seat at the wheel of an open top race car.
Jack McFee.

Vasek Polak – Vasek, or Venzel as we first new him – was the epitome of the American success story. He escaped through the Iron Curtain with nothing but the torn shirt on his back and died a multi-millionaire. He was born in Prague, Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic), and served in the Czech Air Force from 1935 until the German invasion in 1941.

During the German occupation, he was a member of the underground. After the war, Vasek operated a machine shop in Prague until the Communists took over and he again joined the underground, but had to escape through Austria, and worked in Munich at a VW/Porsche shop, and finally got to America in 1956. There he worked for Max Hoffman on Porsche racing engines until 1957 when he moved to California, and quickly became the go-to guy for Porsche race cars. Then starting with a small Porsche repair shop in Hermosa Beach, he built an auto dealership empire that by the nineties included BMW, Audi, Saab, Subaru and VW. He was also known as a “magician” on the Porsche four-cam racing engine, with his racing teams, beginning in 1966, winning major races throughout the country for the next decade.

Vasek polak smiling.
Vasek Polak (Evans Collection).

Luigi Chinetti – Being in charge of Ferrari sales and service in America, Luigi Chinetti had total control over who was to drive his cars before they were sold, and who was allowed to lease them for special events, as was John Edgar. Over the years, his control over Ferrari in America lessened and was replaced by a more rational distribution system. But as time passed, his contributions to the entry of America into the international world of motorsports became more readily apparent, and he became more and more revered as a link to the beginnings for both Ferrari and sports car racing in this country.
Formerly a well-known racer in Europe, Chinetti was also in the business of selling, and would rely on only the world’s top drivers, like Carroll Shelby and Masten Gregory. Both were top U.S. drivers, who were already making names for themselves in European racing as well.

Luigi chinetti leaning over exposed race car engine.
Luigi Chinetti (Burnside).

Briggs Cunningham – Instrumental in the formation of the SCCA (Sports Car Club of America) after WW2, Briggs was a pivotal figure in fifties-era sports car racing. As an early enthusiast, in 1950 he built a Cadillac-engined special – dubbed “Le Monte” by the French – in which he and his co-driver finished 11th overall. Quite a feat for a first-timer. Then from a small factory in Florida until 1955, he built his own series of “Cunningham” race cars, driven by some of the top drivers in the U.S., plus himself. After that he and his team raced mainly Jaguars, Maseratis, and Corvettes. His team included some of the best drivers from Europe and the U.S. In the 1960s he moved to California and opened an automotive museum in Costa Mesa.

Briggs Cunningham looks around from his driver seat in an open top race car.
Briggs Cunningham (Burnside).

Paul O’Shea – Paul O’Shea was one of the winningest drivers in the Sports Car Club of America during the fifties. For three years, 1955, 1956, and 1957, he was the SCCA National Champion. The SCCA champion amasses more points than any other driver, not just in his or her class, but in overall total. In his 300SL Gullwing Mercedes, Paul was virtually unbeatable from coast to coast.

Paul O'Shea in racing car cockpit with helmet on.
Paul O’Shea (Evans Collection).

Masten Gregory – Born in Kansas City in 1932, Gregory was hardly the typical image of a race car driver, based on his small stature, serious face and thick-rimmed glasses. But the “Kansas City Flash,” as he was affectionately known, won an incredible number of races on his way to accomplishing in 1965 what only two other Americans had done, winning the 24 Hours of Le Mans. Gregory was a true motorsports pioneer: he was the first American-born driver to compete on a regular basis in the European-dominated Formula One. And he was also a pioneer by being one of the only race drivers to wear eyeglasses during the race, a practice still very uncommon even today.

Masten Gregory observing events with other men in sunny open space.
Masten Gregory (Burnside).

René Dreyfus – Born on May 6, 1905, in Nice, France, Dreyfus was obsessed with automobiles at an early age. From 1924–29, he raced in a number of amateur events and won five championships, and then he began his professional career. But after two mediocre tries in France and Italy, he returned to France. In September 1937, Dreyfus drove a Delahaye 145 to win the French government-funded award to encourage French automakers to build cars to compete against Germany’s dominant teams of Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz. In 1938 he began to drive for Talbot-Lago, and in April 1938, he followed up this monumental feat with a victory over the faster and more powerful Mercedes-Benz W154, piloted by Rudolf Caracciola.

After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, Dreyfus joined the French army but he eventually was permitted to sail to the United States to reunite with O’Reilly Schell, who was fielding a team of Maserati 8CTFs at the Indianapolis 500 in May 1940. With the fall of France in June 1940, as a Jew, it was impossible for him to return home. He settled instead in New York City; after the U.S. entered the war, Dreyfus joined the U.S. Army and served as an interpreter in Italy.

After the war, Dreyfus became an American citizen and brought his brother, Maurice, back to New York. Together, they opened a French restaurant, “Le Chanteclair,” which became a sort of club house for the world’s racing community. The establishment was frequented by some of the world’s most famous racers including his former German rival, Rudolf Caracciola.

Dreyfus died on August 16, 1993 at the age of 88.

René Dreyfus seated in open top 1950s sports car.
René Dreyfus (Gallica).

Lyle Russel “Skitch” Henderson – Skitch Henderson was an American pianist, conductor, and composer. His nickname “Skitch” came from his ability to “re-sketch” a song in a different key.

Probably best known for his television career at NBC from 1951 to 1966, Henderson was the conductor of the orchestras for The Tonight Show and The Today Show. He served as the bandleader for both Tonight Starring Steve Allen and The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson.

Henderson’s much earlier break in films came when he was an accompanist in a 1937 MGM promotional tour featuring Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. He later worked with Garland to learn “Over the Rainbow” during rehearsals for The Wizard of Oz. He also played piano for the first public performance of the song by the 17-year-old Garland, before the film was finished.

Skitch died on November 1, 2005. 

Skitch henderson portrait photo from 1965.
Skitch Henderson

Tom Burnside – Already noted for his work with Life Magazine, Tom also became one of America’s greatest auto racing photographers and photojournalists. Beginning in the 1950s when European-style racing was just coming into its own in the U.S., Tom Burnside and his photography chronicled the growth of the sport, the people involved, and the development of what became the legendary venues such as Sebring, Watkins Glen, Bridgehampton, Beverly-Mass, and Brynfan Tyddyn, to name a few. He and his work continued well into the ‘60s, while widening his coverage to include Nassau, Cuba, Mexico and more, plus the people, the cars, the teams and the venues involved.

Tom Burnside and Carroll Shelby hunched over together looking at something on a workbench.
Tom Burnside with Carroll Shelby. (Elinor Burnside).

Denise McCluggage – Denise was an American auto racing driver, journalist, author and photographer. McCluggage was a pioneer of equality for women in the U.S., both in motorsports and in journalism. She began her career as a journalist at the San Francisco Chronicle and began sports car racing a short time later. In 1954 she moved to New York to work at the New York Herald Tribune as a sports journalist.

In auto racing she began to race professionally, and earned the respect of her male counterparts. Her trademark was a white helmet with pink dots.

Some of her racing achievements include winning her class at Sebring in a Ferrari in 1961, a class win in the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, and much much more. She also drove Porsches and Maseratis, among several others. She ended her racing career in the late 1960s.

But her life continued in publication, writing books on skiing and auto racing, as well as, a journalist, author and photographer until she died in 2015 at the age of 88.

She also wrote the text to accompany Tom Burnside’s photographs for American Racing: Road Racing in the 50s and 60s.

Denise mccluggage, wearing helmet with its visor up, grins as she sits in the cockpit of her race car.
Denise the Racer McCluggage (Burnside).

RFM Derbies – Drivers wearing derbies at Beverly-Mass. The SCCA was the sanctioning body for most of the sports car races out of California, and their administration was very solidly for amateur racing. However, some of their top drivers felt the opposite. So, at the races at Beverly-Mass many of the drivers showed up wearing what they called “RFM” derbies, meaning, “Run for Money”.

Briggs cunningham and a derby hat-wearing sherwood johnston look at a race car in the paddock.
Sherwood Johnston has added his derby to his racing helmet (Burnside photo).

End of Part One

This amazing road trip adventure continues (and concludes) with East Coast Chronicles, Part Two.

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