for the Porsche enthusiast
Vasek Polak was born on September 11, 1914 and died on April 16, 1997. He is survived by his daughter Venda Jezbers of Thousand Oaks and a son, Vasek Jr. of Portland, Oregon. He is mourned by all of us who knew him.
On March 11, Polak was traveling on the autobahn in Germany on his way back from the Czech Republic. Driving a new Porsche 911 Turbo S, at a speed reported in excess of 110 mph (some say much in excess!), he struck a road median between Prague and Munich.
Vasek suffered numerous broken bones, but no internal injuries. He was treated in a hospital in Regensburg, but after a month spent recovering, he insisted on being taken to Torrance Memorial Hospital, a facility of which he was a major financial benefactor.
Vasek died aboard a Lear jet whose cabin had been converted into an intensive-care ward. The plane had stopped in Great Falls, Montana for fuel on its way from Germany to Los Angeles. He went into cardiac arrest and could not be revived in spite of the heroic efforts of the doctors in attendance. Polak had been cleared by doctors in Germany to make the trip, but he had a history of heart problems and had been living with congestive heart failure for some time.
Vasek was born Vaclav Polakova in Prague; he left Czechoslovakia in 1948. Towards the end of World War II, there was an uprising against the Nazi occupiers in Prague. Vasek was shot by a German tank while trying to save a friend and the bullet pierced both Vasek's lungs. After he was hit, Vasek lay in the street for two days until his sister found him and brought him home.
Volak had a bicycle shop in Prague. After the war, the Communists took over the government and the Russians occupied the country. Vasek had stored a motorcycle in a box during the was. When the war was over, he restored the bike and entered it in a race in Prague. He won the 250cc class and eventually won the Czechoslovak 250cc National Championship.
Vasek, who had been a member of the underground fighting against the Nazis, continued the struggle against the Communists. One day in 1948, the secret police came to arrest him. His wife, Jindriska, called on the phone to warn him using a secret signal. She asked when he was coming home for lunch. This was the signal, because Vasek never came home for lunch. As the police approached the front door of the shop, Polak ran out the rear.
Vasek disguised himself as a farmer and walked through the woods to Germany. One day in Palm Springs, Vasek described this journey to me. Needless to say, it was harrowing with the constant danger of being discovered and shot. He crawled under the wire and arrived with nothing but the torn shirt on his back. Sadly, he had to leave behind his wife and children.
Upon his arrival in Germany, he was placed in a refugee camp. He got a job as a mechanic heading up the motor pool for the Red Cross and the American Consulate in Munich and started to save. He wanted to come to America where, he felt, opportunities would exist which would enable him to make enough money to try to get his family out of Czechoslovakia.
In 1956, Polak packed everything he owned into a VW van and, with $300 in his pocket, booked passage to America, He came to New York because it was the least expensive ticket.
At first, he had no money, but he was able to sleep in an equipment room next to a volleyball court in the Czech Community Center. He started working repairing Porsches for Max Hoffman. His beginning salary was $250 a month. Polak was such a good mechanic that Max sent him as a Porsche specialist with racing teams to Eastern events. Jack McAfee recalls meeting him at that time.
In 1958, Vasek decided to move to California because, he said, he wanted to come to a place where there was no snow and, perhaps greater opportunities. He packed the same VW van again and headed west. With $3,000 in savings, he opened a Porsche repair shop in Hermosa Beach.
Vasek was a wizard with the famous and difficult 4-cam Porsche racing engine. The same year he opened his shop, Polak prepared the engine in the Jean Behra RSK which came in fourth in the Riverside Time Grand Prix.
John Von Neuman recalls that Vasek was a true enthusiast who had a sincere feeling for cars. Shortly after his arrival in the South Bay, Vasek joined the John Edgar team for which McAfee was the driver. Von Neuman awarded him a Porsche dealership which was the start of an automotive dynasty.
In 1966, Vasek took a Porsche 911 from his new-car inventory and prepared it for racing. With Polak as the entrant, Jerry Titus took the car to the SCCA D Production championship. This was the start of his role as a car owner. He campaigned a 917 for the 1971 through the 1974 seasons and entered 934 and 935 models in the Trans-Am.
For the two decades after the fifties, Vasek became a legend as a magician with Porsches and entrant in the U.S. He was a major force in the Cam-Am and Trans-Am series with such drivers as George Follmer, Milt Minter, John Morton, Danny Ongais, Scooter Patrick, Sam Posey, Brian Redman, Jody Scheckter and Jerry Titus.
Today, most of the historic Porsche race cars are housed in the Vasek Polak Racing Division facility in Torrance. Carl Thompson is in charge, taking orders for Porsche racing parts and shipping packages all over the world. There are so many cars - around 50 - that some of them are kept on shelves. The collection even includes the three-car Porsche Interscope team that was withdrawn from Indy when the rules were changed at the last minute.
In 1995, Vasek Polak dealerships (Audi, BMW, Saab, Subaru, Volvo and, just recently, VW, have been added to Porsche) in Hermosa Beach and Manhattan Beach grossed over $51 million. Von Neuman says Vasek's was the only Porsche franchise without a concurrent VW dealership. John had to intercede with the factory in the matter, but Vasek was already well-known because of his work with Hoffman. After 16 years of constant and untiring effort, Polak was finally able to bring his family to the US. Von Neuman helped with arrangements and even made trips to Prague to see to the family's welfare when Polak, of course, could not. Unfortunately, after they arrived, Polak and his family became estranged and he and his wife were divorced. Vasek Jr. moved to Portland where he still lives.
In 1985, Vasek married Anna Maria Littlejohn, also a Czech immigrant who was the widow of an American pilot. In 1993, Anna died from breast cancer. Vasek contributed almost $2 million to establish a breast cancer treatment center at Torrance Memorial Hospital in honor of Anna. He was also in the process of establishing a similar in clinic in Prague. He wanted his native homeland to have the same level of medical care that is available here in the US. Another project underway was to establish centers for cardiology. My most poignant remembrance of Vasek were not from racing. Vasek, John Von Neuman and I all have homes on the same short street in Palm Springs. During Thanksgiving 1984, John and I were visiting Vasek. We were sitting around having a glass or two of wine and remembering the days of the fabulous fifties when there was sorts car racing at the Palm Springs Airport. Obviously, I had too much wine, because I proposed we ask the mayor (an old friend) if we could revive the races with vintage cars. Vasek said, "No, no, impossible." John didn't say anything because he only likes new cars. The rest is history. After getting a tentative okay from Mayor Frank Bogert, Vasek and I spent the next two days driving around Palm Springs trying to find a suitable location and laying out a course.
On Thanksgiving weekend 1985, we had a race put together. The Fabulous Fifties joined in and more than fifty drivers who had participated in the original Palm Springs Road Races, took to the streets in what was supposed to be an exhibition, but turned out to be a little more than that. Vasek entered a 1938 BMW 328 for John Von Neuman to race. When it came time for their group to go out, nobody responded. I hurried over to see what the problem was. It turned out the BMW was actually a replica and the other entrants would not compete against it. I had to explain to Vasek that he could not run a replica in a vintage race. Vasek explained that the replica was an "exact" one and he didn't see why it could not run. I had to stand firm and Vasek became quite angry with me. That evening, there was a party at John's house and by then , I was forgiven.
Every now and then over the years, I would drop by Vasek's office to see how he was. His office was impressive. He had a very large desk, always covered with many piles of papers, I never actually saw the top of the desk. I would say, hey, you've got plenty and now that you're 65 (or 70 or 75 or 80), you even have Social Security and Medicare. Why don't you sell all this, retire and have some fun. He always replied that what he was doing was fun for him and besides, look what he had built from nothing! Of course, Vasek never quite mastered the English language and sometimes our conversations took some time to get a point across.
During the late eighties (I don't remember the exact year), I was involved in managing vintage open-road races in Baja. The race was from Ensenada to San Felipe, but the actual start was from some 10km outside Ensenada to avoid dangerous city traffic. The night before, there was a drivers meeting and precise written instructions were passed out and discussed. We started cars at one-minute intervals and, about half way through the pack, John Von Neuman; and Vasek came driving up in a Ferrari 308GT4. The car was barely old enough to call vintage, but was probably the oldest they could get their hands on that could navigate on open road. I think it had a dealer plate. Without entry and without instructions they presented themselves. John was one of Vasek's closest friends. Finally, at the last I believe, we waved them off and they had a grand old time. After the revival of Palm Springs, Vasek always supported any event I was involved in running and, eventually, became enthusiastic about vintage racing.
We celebrated Vasek's 80th birthday at my home in Palm Springs with a Fabulous Fifties party. Vasek was always my backup for our Palm Springs parties; if we ran out of booze, his house was across the street. If I needed a bottle of wine, he would bring a case. Having fought in the underground against both the Nazis and the Communists, Vasek was a hero in the Czech émigré community. On the day the Russians left and Czechoslovakia was freed from Communist rule, both our families were in Palm Springs. All of the Czechs from near and far converged on Vasek's house. Never have I seen such celebrating!
After Anna died, Vasek lived alone at his home in Palos Verdes. He didn't come down to Palm Springs nearly as often. Occasionally, we would invite Vasek to our home or out to dinner or lunch. My wife discovered that a very attractive divorced Czech lady doctor was a friend of my sister-in-law. I proposed to Vasek that we all get together for a dinner and he could meet a lady with whom he could converse in his native language. But he kept putting me off saying, "Sometime, sometime...." I think he never got over Anna.
On April 23, there was a private funeral in Redondo Beach. In attendance from our group were Milt Minter, Jack McAfee, Brian Redman, Carl Thompson, John Von Neuman and me. There was a reception following at the Blue Moon Saloon in Redondo Beach. Sam Weil attended on a cell phone.
On May 3, there was a much larger gathering at the Crown Plaza Hotel in Redondo Beach. It was billed as a "Celebration of Life," in memory of Mr. Vasek Polak, 1914-1997. Among the approximate 200 in attendance were a number of Fabulous Fifties members including Max Balchowski, Bob Casey, Rug Cunningham, Steve Earle, Bob Eldridge, Bob Estes, Dale Estes, Art Evans, Dick Guldstrand, Milt Minter, John Morton and Sylvia, Scooter Patrick and Joe Playan.(Ed. Note: Please excuse me for any I may have missed seeing.)
We had hoped to be able to arrange a Fabulous Fifties wake for Vasek at his Torrance facility where his cars are kept. Unfortunately, however, we could not obtain permission from the administrator of the estate. I understand that Vasek left his car collection to Torrance Memorial Hospital. They will be sold under the supervision of Carl Thompson with Brian Redman providing consultation and advise. Vasek spent the last month of his life in a German hospital, much of the time, I understand in great pain.
Thankfully however, his children, Venda and Vasek Jr., were able to be with him and a reconciliation was effected.
Vasek was truly one of a kind, a unique individual. We'll all miss him. Rest in peace.
From "The Fabulous Fifties Association, June 1997" News Letter
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