I’m a loser. Not in the “my life really sucks” kind of way, but I don’t ever win anything without considerable effort. The most I think I ever won was a pencil in the 3rd grade. I think I still have it somewhere.
My longtime friend Glen Cordle is an anomaly of odds. A business card in a fishbowl is a sure thing for Glen. Somehow, some way, his name always gets drawn from the hat. Every so often I receive a phone call from him saying that he’s won something. Usually it means free lunch for Glen, me, and a few friends. The phone call several months ago was a little bit different. It went from the usual “Hey, what’s up?” to utter disbelief. Glen had won the 60 Years of Porsche essay contest, and was taking me to the Porsche Sport Driving School at Barber Motorsports Park.
The prize was a two-day, high-performance driving course. It consists of training on an off-road course, a skidpad, an autocross and the racetrack itself, and teaches specific techniques such as trail braking, heel-toe downshifting, and emergency lane changes. It also means quite a bit of time behind the wheel of some of the best-engineered vehicles in the world. With a fleet of more than 40 cars valued at around $4 million, there’s no shortage of German metal at the school. Cars include the Panamera Turbo, Carrera S, 911 Turbo, Cayenne S, Cayenne Turbo, Cayman S, Boxster and Boxster Spyder.
When we arrived in Alabama, Glen and I speculated our names would be on a sign held by someone named Hans or Ferdinand. I can’t remember the guy’s name off hand, but it (and his accent) rang more of Birmingham than Stuttgart. Seeing the sign with the Porsche crest made the enormity of the situation sink in.
Our smiles from this point forward were permanent. After a short drive we arrived at the Ross Bridge resort and golf course. Surrounded by million-dollar homes, it’s a perfect spot to stay when attending the school. I hadn’t slept the night before due to my excitement, and the night before day one would be no different. Since I had Glen with me, I figured nothing could go wrong.
In the morning we hopped into the van and zipped over to the track. We were greeted by a 911 Turbo; behind it sat the Porsche office and classroom. At that moment I realized I should have brought my wife. I could hear the “but you went and did that Porsche thing,” being used against me even 20 years later.
Our first interaction with the Porsche instructors was in the classroom, learning the physics behind weight transfer, braking, accelerating, turning, and the “circle of traction.” I felt like I could handle it. My history of driving old Volkswagens at their “limit” in the backwoods of Wisconsin surely would put me a step above the surrounding slacks-and-loafer crowd. Class lasted about 45 minutes, after which I found a helmet that fit my giant head, and headed out to the waiting vans.
Our first stop was the skidpad. The slickest thing short of ice, it’s a sealed patch of smooth pavement. Anything more than 10 percent throttle sends you into unrecoverable oversteer. The goal for day one was to learn how the car performs in an over-exaggerated environment. We drove a 911, and having a car communicate with feel and sound the way it did made me realize what we were really getting ourselves into. Being able to predict what the car is doing based on its ability to translate the road to the driver was something I’d never experienced. Day two on the skidpad was similar, but timed. The instructors noted it was obvious we were from Minnesota. I did manage to beat Glen by a full second without PSM (Porsche Stability Management) engaged. With the PSM on he beat me by a second.
Next was the autocross. For me, autocross seemed pretty boring up until then. How much fun could it be running around a fake track with cones filled with kittens (allegedly)? I’ve literally fallen asleep at autocross events in the past. Before the Porsche school, part of the thrill of driving was the danger, the risk. Driving in a parking lot filled with cones instead of trees seemed about as exciting as climbing on a jungle gym covered in expanding foam.
In hindsight, it’s obvious I had the wrong approach. Being able to drive a car correctly, being rewarded by the clock for doing it correctly, and exceeding your own expectations is a thrill. On day one practice, we drove a Boxster S. Light years above the late-’90s era Boxsters, the new Boxster S is a snappy, light and able car. And the course was very, very tight. We got advice from the instructors via radio, and during a few ride-alongs.
On day two, the instructors organized all participants into teams. Our team, Team Thunderchicken, consisted of Glen, a couple from Kentucky and myself. While the Kentucky couple definitely wore slacks and loafers and we were decidedly jeans and Pumas, they were fairly down to earth, though admittedly not a fan of Glen’s team name. The event itself was a team relay. We worked together to complete the fastest time possible for 12 total laps. The car was the Boxster Spyder. Essentially a Carrera GT for the masses, it’s lighter, faster, and sexier than your average Boxster. And like other attractive things, it’s at home with its top off so you are at all times surrounded by 320 hp of classic flat-six sound. I haven’t heard anything quite like it since riding in a friend’s 914/6. The Thunderchickens scored a one-minute lead over the other teams.
The Cayenne S drive came with an unexpected twist. It involved spending a couple of hours driving around the property behind the track. A mix of steep slopes, tight trails, and a small pond, the exercise showed the sport SUV’s true potential. The Cayenne S is equipped with locking diffs, user-adjustable ride height, user-adjustable damping and hill assist going either down or up.
Any production vehicle really shouldn’t be able to climb a hill covered in rocks and mud on Monday and burn down egos of most sports car owners on the track any other day. The Cayenne would do this without a second thought. We encountered small ponds, 45-degree inclines and declines. When the instructor asked Glen what would happen if he turned the wheel on the way down one of the steeper hills, he promptly replied: “Fall to my death.” This didn’t stop another Cayenne driver from completely letting go of the wheel and turning off the course towards a tree. It ended up well, but was the one of two times I thought things might not.
The racetrack at Barber Motorsports Park lends itself to patience and forethought. Both the 911 Carrera S and the Cayman S encourage this type of driving. The Carrera S that we drove was equipped with a six-speed manual. The Cayman was equipped with the PDK dual-clutch transmission. My personal preference is always to be romantically rowing through the gears, but the PDK shifted well, and seemed to hold a downshift into and out of a tight corner.
As things began, the Cayman S was my preferred vehicle, as we weren’t supposed to be shifting in the manual cars. But as time progressed, the limits of the Cayman S, when compared to the Carrera S, became obvious. Neither missed a beat on braking. However, the Carrera S has a clear and distinct handling advantage in the corners, and corner exit power. While we really wound the Cayman out, I’m not sure we ever really found the limits of the 911. I imagine this is partly lack of skill, and partly a bit of fear that the $90,000 car we were driving would ease us into bankruptcy if we eased into a crash.
Learning to look where I want to go, and not where I’m going, was the most difficult thing to learn. This is not generally something you can do regularly on a public road due to things like oncoming traffic, pedestrians and baby strollers. On the track, especially for a car with any kind of power, things come at you fast. The instructors said that if anything caught us by surprise, it’s because we weren’t looking ahead. Being able to see past the apex and pin your exit was the most rewarding part of being on the track. Trail braking into the apex, unwinding the steering wheel and hammering the throttle into the straight is like sneaking into a hospital, stealing a vial of adrenaline, and using it on the spot purely for the getaway. Planning ahead for the apex and exit is like planning a prison escape. Delicate in effort, and hard on the execution.
Trail braking was another trick I had never heard of. Years of on/off-button video gaming had taught me to jam the brakes till I could make the corner, and hammer the gas on the other side. Crashing into a digital tree line had no consequence. Trail braking consists of hard initial braking, followed by never truly letting off the brakes until the apex. This keeps more traction on the front tires, where you need them. Since Glen and I opted not to take the extra insurance, our $10,000 liability loomed over our heads and we continued to soak up every bit of instruction we could.
I’d never driven a 911 in my life other than at an old valet job. (Never, ever, valet your Porsche.) I’m not sure what it’s like to own one, let alone to buy a brand-new one. I’m not sure I ever will. Driving one around the track is comparable with losing my virginity, or the emotion I got when I first laid eyes on my wife. It’s overwhelming at first, but as I familiarized myself with the car, everything felt like it was in the perfect place.
Glen and I earned a spot with our own instructor. We didn’t know if we’d been segregated because we were slow, or fast. I figured if I was with Glen, it was probably the slow part. We soon were lapping our classmates. Repeatedly. It’s a testament to the fact that just because you can buy it, it doesn’t mean you can drive it.
Another highlight was being able to look over the 911 GT2 RS. It showed up out of nowhere. We came out from lunch and it was just there. It loomed over the other 911s like a 15th century king. I wager that if it were parked at the grocery store in a Porsche-ignorant town, women would drop groceries, leaving oranges rolling across the lot. They would forget their children in their shopping carts, divorce their husbands, and wander to the car while kicking off their shoes and unzipping their dresses.
At the end of the second day the instructors drew a name out of a hat for a final ride around the track. Do I even need to say who won? Glen mentioned the car ripped his face off, and he didn’t really mind. I ended up with a ride in the Panamera, a Cayenne S, and 911 Turbo. It’s amazing what a real driver can do. I don’t really get motion sickness, but if I was susceptible to vertigo, I expect I would have likely filled my helmet.
To be honest, I’m having trouble figuring out how to put my emotions down in writing. Driving cars that I point at, take cellphone pictures of, and post on forums was ethereal. The past few days have found me religiously looking at Porsches. Unfortunately, I’m not sure I can give up my house and fit everything I own in the boot of a 911.
I’ll be back to the track again. Hopefully sooner rather than later. One of my worst experiences in recent memory was the drive home from the Porsche Sport Driving School. With the fun cars tucked away for the winter up in Minneapolis, the drive home from the airport was with an antiquated SUV full of people. I felt like I was driving a tugboat, sawing at my direction with the boat’s rudder, I was left to reflect on what I hope isn’t a once in a lifetime experience.
Most likely you, as a car enthusiast, can relate to me. As a young boy, sitting and staring at the giant sports car poster on your wall. Imagining driving it or racing it. Making monumental decisions like what color you would get. White? Silver? Red? Scanning the body lines, every corner, every flare, every slope and hump. Memorizing it for when you didn’t have the poster to study. How the car sat, its presence and its demeanor.
For some of us our entire personality hinged on what we imagined ourselves as inside this car. For me, this car was a 1988 Porsche 911 Turbo. Ok, to be honest there were dozens of cars I was absolutely in love with during my childhood, as reflected by numerous holes in my bedroom wall, and more than a few boxes of toy cars. But the one that stuck with me, and has continued to do so, is the Porsche 911. Mine was going to be Guards Red with Fuchs wheels.
Recently I realized something. The dreams from when I was young haven’t died, but adapted to match where my life has gone. I used to imagine driving one of these and having everyone fall over themselves trying to get to me, but now it’s taking long drives with my wife, and one day working on it with my son, teaching him the things I had to learn the hard way. The constant in these dreams is the car, a 1988 911 Turbo, and me.