ROSAMOND, Calif. — The buzzing and squealing of a man chasing his past echo interminably across the high desert. Then suddenly, silence.
The modified Toyota Celica, alone amid the scrub brush and tumbleweeds of a scarred asphalt track, rolls to a wall.
The car stops. Driver Clay Regazzoni raises his hands. The noise has returned and this time it is him, shouting in Italian.
It is about a belt. He needs a belt.
Not a belt for the fan, or alternator, or power steering.
He needs a belt for his left leg.
He needs it to keep the useless limb from flopping on his equally useless right leg.
He can't move the leg back with his hands, because his hands do more than steer and shift.
His hands work the gas. And the brakes. And the clutch.
The rules for this once-great driver are different now.
But his will is not.
In 1980, after winning the inaugural event four years earlier, Regazzoni was in an accident in the Long Beach Grand Prix that left him paralyzed from the waist down.
In two weeks, Regazzoni will return to Long Beach for the first time since then to prove that legs were the only things lost.
In what could be the first instance in racing history of a paraplegic driver racing again on the site of his paralyzing crash, Regazzoni will compete with 16 others April 16 in the Toyota Pro-Celebrity race.
Usually such events serve only as an entertaining preview to the main race--watch your favorite sitcom star spin out at 110 m.p.h.
But this year's pro-am, one day before the annual Indy car race at the same location, contains as many twists as the course.
Watch Regazzoni drive west down Shoreline Drive as he was doing on the 51st lap in 1980.
Watch him pass the spot where his brake pedal fell off.
Watch him drive past the dead-end escape road where his car hit stacks of old tires, then a concrete wall, at 160 m.p.h.
Watch him drive past rescue workers, who took 22 minutes to cut him from wreckage that pinned his knees to his helmet.
Watch him chat with Chuck Jones, the Tustin businessman who was co-owner of the car that Regazzoni crashed. A man who will forever wonder if he shouldn't have used a different welding technique on that brake pedal.
Watch him see other old friends. Watch him revisit every old nightmare.
But don't expect to see Regazzoni sweat.
Earlier this week while practicing here at Willow Springs in Rosamond, Regazzoni was shown a picture of the smoldering rubble from 1980.
He laughed. And he laughed. And he laughed.
Two co-workers saw this and shivered.
"I am cold, no?" Regazzoni said. "I am cold."
Regazzoni was on the verge of racing past several other Toyotas driven by celebrities during training this week when suddenly he backed off.
"Hmmm, guess he just stepped on the brake," a Toyota official said.
The man paused before realizing his error.
"Oh, uh, I mean, I guess he just \o7 used \f7 the brake," he said.
As stunning as any driving Regazzoni does these days is the sight of him climbing out of his car and into a wheelchair.
At 54, this Swiss-Italian with a substantial mustache and temper not only still drives with the speed and smarts of a former Formula One champion, but he acts the part.
"You want my life story? I give it to you two minutes!" he screamed at a reporter last week. "I do what I always did! I just do it differently!"
Willow Springs officials made him stop practice briefly last week, and not because he was endangering fellow racers.
It was because he was the only one on the course without a helmet.
As soon as the other racers finished, Regazzoni removed the helmet again.
"In these (roofed) cars, what do you need it for?" he asked.
His participation in the pro-celebrity race is indeed akin to Michael Jordan returning to basketball action in a charity game against sheriff's deputies.
But as Jones has lately reminded him, one rule will guide Regazzoni's return to Long Beach, even in a street stock car.
No matter how fast he runs, acceptance will come slowly.
"Right now, we just need to show people that it's OK, that challenged drivers can do it without their legs," said Jones, searching for sponsors for a disabled team including Regazzoni and local disabled driver Mitch Payton. "People need to realize that once on the course, all drivers are the same. They are all just helmets."
Regazzoni, who began driving within a year of his accident, has raced a variety of cars throughout Europe during the last 15 years, including in the Paris-Dakar rally.
He has also founded a disabled driving school in Rome. His influence with the government there has helped ease restrictions on the issuance of drivers licenses to disabled Italians.
But with the advancement of hand-control technology, last year he felt confident enough to return to his first love, street racing. In October, he drove a street stock in an International Motor Sports Assn. race at Sebring, Fla.
Already, Payton had won three such races and the barriers were beginning to fall.