Back in the day I was a close friend of Bill Scott, a world champion Formula Vee driver. After his career behind the wheel he settled in as the owner of Summit Point race track in West Virginia. He prevailed upon me for a few seasons to write an article several times a year for the track's magazine. In the spring of 1986, apparently inspired by a notice of Gregory's death in November of the year before, I wrote the following story. [Anticipatory apology to Don Dodge: I know in the first paragraph following I'm insulting your home town, but I was young and stupid in those days and used whatever material I had to make bad jokes.]
Summit Point Racetrack Magazine – May, 1986
I never met him and now that he's dead I probably never will. We didn't hang out in the same places. He was from Kansas City and I'm not — even if I were, I wouldn't admit it. He was too modest to have appreciated that attitude.
We did, though, have something in common: we could both crash cars with contemptuous ease, he at 130 mph in a Maserati at Nurburgring and I at 20 mph in a Nash Ambassador in the Zayre's parking lot. And while everyone in the entire known world expected him to die in tiny, flaming shards before this thirtieth birthday, he fooled them all and croaked a few months ago with a mundane heart attack at the age of 53. In the course of his uncommon life, he had outlived nine generations of multi-lived cats and 82 percent of the Flying Wallendas. He was Masten Gregory, King of the High-Speed Crashers.
He had earned his money the old-fashioned way: he inherited it. He was 19 and had one-fifth of an insurance company in his hip pocket. He could now afford his hobby of hopping up wrecks and re-wrecking them at speed. In his first two years of motoring, he spent about $50,000 — that at a time when you could buy an entire race track for $75. He got a Ferrari for $11,000 at one point, decided it wasn't up to form and sold it for $4,000. Recalcitrant cars would be stuffed in planes and flown to heavyweight tune-up artists around the country. He bought faster cars, smashed them at higher speed and bought more. One, a C-type Jaguar, he crashed and watched burn. Before the day was out, he bought another.
His wife, Louella, began her own career of sitting by the telephone, waiting for the call from the morgue.
Kansas City began to look small. Europe beckoned. Barely old enough to drink vin superieur, he packed up his growing family in 1954 and took off. At an age when you and I were worrying about financing a tank of gas, Masten was negotiating with Signor Ferrari dirrectamente. He would become one of Ferrari's best customers.
Without factory support or much experience in megaboom horsepower cars, Masten took to the continental courses with fearless abandon. He seemed not to appreciate the fundamental physical forces which tended to shove his car outward in corners. As a result, he rose quickly to the top of the Formula One Landscaper's Hit List as he mangled bushes, slaughtered shrubs, and felled small trees on tracks all over Europe. It made him only go faster. By 1957 he had made it to fifth place in world championship points. He was beating the factory teams.
Stirling Moss expected Gregory to die in every start. "I tell him this to his face. I've said to him, 'Masten, you're going to kill yourself.’ He acts as if he doesn't even hear me." But maybe Masten did. He apparently began to realize that sooner or later he was going to crump so horribly that not even his own marvelous luck would prevail. The obvious answer was not to be in the vehicle when it (inevitably) left the pavement. And thus, in 1959 at Silverstone, was born the Masten Gregory Leap.
He was in a Jaguar, blazingly fast and wildly out of control as usual, when the car decided to commit suicide. It aimed itself straight for a wall at better than 80 miles per hour. Masten considered the possibilities. If he stayed in the car, he would surely die, though it probably wouldn't hurt much; if he exited, it would plainly hurt like a bitch, but he might live. He popped his belt, slid up onto the top of the seat, and walked off the edge of the car. A split second later it slammed into the wall and immediately descended into Metal Hell, belly-up with little "X" marks where its headlights used to be. Masten walked away without a nick. No one could believe it. This, after all, was Silverstone, not Lourdes.
Louella couldn't believe it either. She grabbed the kids, caught the next plane back to Kansas City, and divorced him, perhaps on grounds of his raving madness.
Later that summer at another English track, he walked out of another car. It blew up; he broke his leg. In Caracas he took a corner at 350 percent beyond the Mortal Danger Zone, bounced off some sand bags, and became airborne. While the car began to bank for a landing, Masten was unbuckling and trying to get out. Something caught, trapping him. The car plonked down with its feet in the air. Masten kicked open the door and crawled away unhurt.
Still he went faster. The next summer at Le Mans he was clocked on the Mulsanne straight at 178 mph. People had previously believed that irreversible nosebleed would occur at such speeds. The year after that, having crashed in virtually every corner at Nurburgring over many years, he won the 1,000 kilometer race.
And then, having gone fast enough for long enough, he quit. Maybe he began to see a skull and crossbones where his tach used to be; maybe he heard the conductor coming down the aisle, punching tickets and playing "Taps." He'd had more years and more crashes than any other driver then living. Masten hadn't beaten Moss often, but he had proven him wrong.
He retired in Europe. He had no real friends and his family was a memory. Of the last years of his life I know nothing. I have heard he got into diamond trading in Belgium. It would have suited his style. Perhaps he sat alone by a fire on a winter's night, rolling the gems around in his palm, the fire reminding him of the many cars he had incinerated, the facets reflecting light spears and memories of slewing past the Hippodrome Café on the Mulsanne at four in the morning, probably sideways and undoubtedly reaching for the harness release.
A small step for Masten; a giant leap for mankind.
Edited by Pepe Higdon, 03 July 2018 - 10:32 PM.