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Vasek Polak, 1914-1997
A man of whom it can truly be said:
They don't make them like that anymore

By Mark Vaughn

From "Autoweek", April 28, 1997.

"He was the most enthusiastic racer I have ever known," said John Morton, who first drove in the 1970s for Vasek Polak, the legendary Porsche dealer and race car owner. "The guy had the same enthusiasm for the last race we ran at Palm Springs as he had when I first knew him."

"Vasek was like a machine that was going 100 percent all the time," added Hurley Haywood, who drove Polak Porsches in Can-Am and Trans-Am races. "He had a tremendous level of enthusiasm, which he instilled in those around him."

Polak died April 16 at the age of 82, the victim of a massive heart attack while in a Lear jet. The plane was on the ground in Great Falls, Montana, in the process of transporting Polak to the Torrance Memorial Medical Center near his home in Palos Verdes Estates, California. Polak was injured March 11 in a 110-mph crash of a 1997 Porsche 911 Turbo S against the center guardrail on a German autobahn, and suffered broken bones but no internal injuries. He had a history of heart trouble; no connection was made by doctors between the crash and the heart attack. Doctors in Germany had cleared Polak for the flight home.

Vasek Polak

Said Paul Myers, a good friend and the vice president of Torrance Memorial Medical Center's health care foundation: "It was a car capable of driving at great speeds and Vasek was capable of driving it at great speeds. He drove with a passion, just as he did everything in life."

Almost anyone who has followed sports car racing in the United States since 1960 knew of Vasek Polak, whose Porsches were raced by drivers such as Jody Scheckter, Brian Redman, Danny Ongais, George Follmer, Milt Minter, Sam Posey, Jerry Titus and Scooter Patrick. Redman and Morton drove for Polak as recently as last November in a vintage race in Palm Springs, where they raced his BMW 2002s and 3.0 CSLs.

Polak rarely sold his race cars; 50 are stored in a warehouse in Torrance, and are often rotated into the showrooms of his six Porsche and BMW dealerships along Pacific Coast Highway in Manhattan Beach.

Polak was born in Prague in 1914, and was wounded fighting the Nazis in 1945 in World War II. He started racing after the war in his native Czechoslovakia. Last August, at the Monterey Historics, he talked about his start in competition:
"I kept a motorcycle in a box in Leipzig during the war. After the war, there was a race in Prague. He will try, I said to myself. I won the 250 class. From that day I was racing every race and I won the 250 championship."

After World War II, with the Russian occupation of Czechoslovakia, Polak joined the underground. In 1948, during a street fight with a Soviet tank, he was hit by machine gun fire as he carried a companion to safety. Polak lay in the street for two days until his sister found him and took him home, where he recovered. Later that year, alerted of his imminent arrest, Polak fled on foot to Germany, with only the clothes on his back. He found work as a mechanic for the U.S. Army motorpool, saved money for eight years, then packed everything he owned into a VW van and loaded it onto a ship bound for America.

"I arrived in 1956 in New York, because it was the cheapest fare from Europe. I came to New York with $300. I worked for Mr. Hoffman."

Max Hoffman imported Porsches, Mercedes, Alfas and Jaguars. Polak worked as a mechanic, and did such a good job that he was sent with racing teams to Nassau, Sebring and other tracks. His reputation as a mechanic, particularly his skill at tuning the four-cam Porsche Spyders, earned him much free-lance work. Two years later Polak had saved $3,000, and he loaded up the same VW van with tools and parts and drove west.

"My dream was go to California because I was already old and I wanted to do something before I became too old. I wanted to go to California because of the nice sun, and it was dry, there was no snow."

Polak arrived in Manhattan Beach in 1958 and started a repair shop. He tuned Jean Behra's RSK, which finished fourth in the 1958 Times Grand Prix at Riverside. With money earned from his shop, and through connections he'd made at Porsche, Polak opened the first Porsche-exclusive dealership in the United States. By the mid-1960s he was making enough money to enter his own cars in races. In 1966 he pulled a 911 off his showroom floor, went to work on it and sent it to the track with Jerry Titus, who won the SCCA's Class D production trophy.

In 1971 Polak entered a salvaged 917 in Can-Am. The car raced for four years with Minter, Redman and Posey driving. It did not win, but it finished second several times against the factory 917s. Polak also entered 934s and 935s that Haywood and Follmer drove in the SCCA's Trans-Am series, and he later entered his cars in vintage events.

"His enthusiasm for racing was the strongest I'd ever seen in a person who had been involved in racing his whole life," said Morton. "Most people just burn out after a while, but he had a longevity of spirit that is beyond anything I've ever seen."

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