When he was a younger man, when he was a lieutenant colonel in the Air Force and a pilot of some repute, Bill Lusk flew Nikita Khrushchev’s bags around the U.S. during one of the former communist leader’s diplomatic visits. He said that Khrushchev sure had a lot of baggage.
Now that he’s 80, Bill Lusk drives a one-of-a-kind Porsche 911 GT3 with the Clubsport package around Auto Club Speedway in California during regional club racing meets at high rates of speed — they caught him at 150 mph going into turn 1, and 148 while exiting it a couple of weeks ago.
And though he’s 80, none of the younger drivers has pounded a shoe at him in anger, which is what Khrushchev did at the United Nations that one time.
The old man — er, veteran driver — from Las Vegas finished sixth among 25 Porsche 911 enthusiasts at the California Festival of Speed April 4 through 6.
He showed lots of intrepidity but very little bravado diving into turn 1 at 150 mph, because intrepidity is a good thing to have when diving into turn 1, Bill Lusk says. And bravado sometimes will get you hurt.
He has been racing Porsches since he was 62. Four thousand miles on the track. Zero scratches. On himself or on his racecar.
“The difference between NASCAR and club racing is we don’t hit anything,” he says. “NASCAR has the option of banging into somebody because they need to stimulate the crowd.”
At 80, Lusk says he races to stimulate only himself.
It’s not the speed so much that he finds arousing. He says it’s the interface between man and machine. It’s probably the same thing that stimulates Dale Earnhardt Jr., though you never hear Junior refer to it that way.
Junior basically says he likes to drive real fast, and to hell with anybody who gets in his way.
Bill Lusk, on the other hand, says he races “to confirm and affirm what I am, where I am, how I am, and how well I can perform a very challenging experience that’s unforgiving of mistakes.”
Or as Dale Jr. might put it, “Yeah, that, too.”
But what about The Rush, a visitor asks, having recently seen the Ron Howard movie about James Hunt and Niki Lauda and the 1976 Formula One championship. Isn’t it great fun driving into turn 1 at 150 mph, and exiting it at 148? Isn’t it great fun when babes ask for your autograph, even if they are older babes?
“Oh, it’s fun,” Bill Lusk says. “But fun is less important to me than the aspiration” of being all he can be on the racetrack, the man-machine interface, the confirming and affirming, the what he is, where he is, how he is.
Lusk says you have to remember he once was a highly skilled fighter jet pilot, No. 1 in his class at Vance Air Force Base in Oklahoma. So when Uncle Sam said he couldn’t fly with the Top Guns anymore because of a health issue, it took away his identity as a highly skilled, highly motivated fighter jet pilot.
Flying KC-135 Stratotankers and T-33 Shooting Stars — top speed: around 600 mph — and Nikita Khrushchev’s bags around the country is OK, one supposes, and Lusk says he even got to see the Soviet premier once.
But he says if one can’t fly with the Top Guns, one might as well be driving a Porsche 911 that cost $67,000 before transmission repairs, because the guy Lusk bought the GT3 from in Oklahoma City didn’t look after it that well.
The GT3, painted British racing green with yellow-gold accents, is the 179th Porsche that Bill Lusk says he has owned. That seems like a lot of Porsches. Lusk flips them for a living — “buy low, sell high” — and that helps pay for his racing.
He says he doesn’t watch much auto racing on TV, because he’d rather be doing it himself, though he did tune into the NASCAR race at Auto Club Speedway, just to compare the stock car drivers’ lines as they barrelled into turn 1 with his. But then some of them began bumping into one other to stimulate the crowd, and Lusk turned away.
He says Paul Newman is his racing hero because Newman also started racing cars later in life, and won his class at the 24 Hours of Daytona when he was 70. He doesn’t admire any of the current drivers to that extent though Vic Elford, the former world sports car champion, taught him there’s two ways to brake — braking to weight transfer and then, a split second later, braking to slow the car.
Vic Elford once drove a 911, too, you know.
When Bill Lusk, the would-be fighter pilot, retired Air Force 22 years, now pursuing a motivational-speaking career, is asked how he identifies himself today, he says, “I’m an 80-year-old racecar driver with a story to tell.”
One of his favorite things to do is drop by the Officers Club at Nellis Air Force Base on a Friday night, and crowd around the enlisted men, and listen to them talk about fighter jets they have flown.
“Then when they find out I’m a racecar driver, they crowd around me,” he says.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.