By Allan Ripp
July 23, 1979 12:00 PM

For hours mechanics have been fine-tuning the squat red-and-silver race car, while assistants check their clipboards and keep the Watkins Glen (N.Y.) bivouac free of litter and strangers. One fan wanders through in a T-shirt with the baffling slogan: “Before I was different, now I’m the same.” Presently the driver emerges from an enormous van, astronaut-like in his creamy flame-proof suit, and heads for the Formula Super Vee racer (named for its Volkswagen engine). At the wave of a flag he will roar around a 3.3-mile Grand Prix course at speeds up to 130 mph.

There are 29 other qualifiers in this Gold Cup event, but only driver Werner Erhard claims he is here for the sake of mankind. Erhard, the founder of est (Erhard seminars training), says that when he slides into his 164-horsepower Argo JM4, he is raising consciousness, not merely dust.

“Real people—you and me—feel like they don’t make any difference in this lousy world,” says the 43-year-old Erhard. He is tall and loose-limbed with icy blue eyes; he insists on eye contact during a conversation. If his listener looks away, even momentarily, Erhard stops talking. He wants everyone to understand why he is driving fast cars these days in addition to heading the $20 million business that est has become, plus a 1977 spin-off, his program “to end world hunger by 1997.” “I wanted to organize a high-performance team,” Erhard continues, “that could master a complex skill in a very short time with winning results and show that everyone involved makes a big difference, from grease monkeys to spectators.” In order to prove this estian point, Erhard says he considered such adventures as skydiving and karate, but rejected them as not collective enough. “Auto racing was perfect!” he exclaims. “I hadn’t driven a car in six years and didn’t know the first thing about racing. Whatever we’d achieve, we’d achieve together.”

Christening the project Breakthrough Racing, Erhard raised $580,000 (nondeductible), all of it from 550 of est’s more than 200,000 alumni. He enrolled in a five-day crash course at Bob Bondurant’s California road-racing school, then mobilized a platoon of mechanics and functionaries and began competition in January. Breakthrough maintains three $23,200 cars, one in California and two on the East Coast. Among other essentials, the crew van includes videotape equipment for analyzing lap performances. The peculiar project, says Erhard, is limited to one season; it will end in October.

The results have been impressive. This year the Breakthrough team has won six out of 12 races and set five lap records. (Erhard is the only driver.) Some track regulars note sourly that their grandmothers could have done as well given Erhard’s money and mechanical talent. Others credit the operation with remarkable progress.

Aside from its spiritual benefits, one tangible result of Erhard’s project will be a feature-length documentary film. Director Dan Weisburd, a non-est, insists he has total freedom to shoot and that he’s prepared to drop his cameras if Erhard meddles. “The last thing I need is a propaganda film on my hands,” Weisburd protests.

As for Erhard’s fans, who flocked to Watkins Glen in busloads, they are less interested in gears than in their guru. During the race they cheered indiscriminately when he zipped past, regardless of his place. When it was over everybody hugged, including his first and second wives, who travel with Werner and are close friends. “I’m not sure how good a racer he is,” says one track veteran of Erhard, “but if he can make all those people happy just by coming in fifth, he must be one helluva guy.”