Joe Landaker was on my mind again while I was flying home to California from my ranch in Texas for meetings about our new Shelby GT500KR ‘King of the Road’ Mustang that’s lately been on the covers of so many magazines. Joe would have loved the horsepower we have now in our new muscle cars. He lived for horsepower and the road. He was my best sport car race mechanic in the 1950s, and looking out of my airplane at those long highways way down below in Texas I remember how Joe would drive John Edgar’s big gasoline GMC tractor and trailer full of race cars all the way from Los Angeles to the Atlantic coast, 3000 miles, living on cheese snacks and soda pop and never once stopping to sleep.
Joe could drive that transporter coast to coast in two days, give or take a couple of hours. Once in the late ’50s, when Bruce Kessler decided to ride along with Joe from Los Angeles to Miami for the Nassau races, Kessler went as far as Dallas with Joe before he got out and caught an airplane for the rest of the way. It wasn’t because flying was faster. It was that Joe was driving that rig over 100mph and it worried Kessler that they’d both die in some horrible highway crash. But Joe never crashed. It was his way with life. He was his own ‘King of the Road’.
Joe went full-speed at mechanic’s work in the same non-stop way. All-nighters with wrenches and hammers were just regular hours for him. I remember a time in Pennsylvania in 1956, when I drove a two-litre Ferrari leased from Luigi Chinetti, and Jack McAfee drove John’s 550 Porsche. The night before the race they had four of those new four-cam Porsches engines with roller bearings there in the garage along with the Ferrari, and about 9.30 I went over there to where Rolf Wütherich was working with Vasek Polak.
As I walked in, Vasek was chasing Rolf out the door with a wrench, cursing Rolf to hell and gone in German. I asked Vasek what the problem was and he said he had to tear all four of those damn four-cam engines down before tomorrow.
The next morning when I went to the garage, Vasek was just starting up the last of those four Porsche engines and I thought, this Vasek Polak is a genius! It wasn’t until 30 years later that Vasek told me, ‘Shelby, I didn’t do all that by myself. Joe Landaker stayed up all night and worked with me.’
Joe was not only a fabulous guy, but he was one who never asked anything from anybody. All he ever knew was work. Even though he wasn’t educated, he was very inventive, and all of his life he was taking some kind of contraption and turning it into something it wasn’t supposed to be.
Vasek, too, is a story in himself. He got caught over and over again trying to get out of East Germany, then spent a fortune getting his wife out – even though he later said it might have been better if he’d left her there!
In 1994, when Joe was 83, he got sick with terminal cancer.
I had a party for Joe and his family and friends in Los Angeles and we talked about all the memorable times we’d had, and I gave him a fast ride up and down the street in my first Cobra.
Joe was buried at the Veterans’ National Cemetery in Riverside, California, not far from the race track where I’d won driving the 450S Maserati that I’d busted and that Joe had worked on for seven weeks solid to fix for me. I rode to the cemetery along with Jack McAfee and Vasek in William Edgar’s Eurovan. Vasek was sitting up front and for a whole hour with his head turned sideways he told stories about Joe. We all laughed right along with him, even though we couldn’t always follow what Vasek was saying in his fractured sentences and thick accent.
Thinking of Joe, I always remember that when he’d get excited his false teeth would start to clatter and I’d have to slow him down to understand what he was saying. When old Joe passed on, working right up to the end on his pre-war Clipper bus, we lost one of the most original, seat-of-the-pants mechanics there ever was. I can see him now, standing there with his metal snips and mallet, cigarette hanging from his mouth, ready for anything that might happen.