It's amazing how open some people are if you just start talking to them. My first time at the 24 hours of Daytona, my parents had given me a garage pass as an early birthday gift. This meant I could stand nearly side by side with mechanics in the garages. I also brought my old go-kart helmet for the driver's autograph session. Actually, I hoped a team would desperately need a driver, as I would be walking by with my helmet. A kid can dream...
The morning of the race, the first place I checked out was the garage of Jordan Taylor's #88 Grand-Am GT AutoHaus Camaro with Jordan sitting inside his car. I bounced around to the passenger side and leaned in. I eagerly asked Jordan, "What are you guys working on?" Jordan told me they were working on an issue with the car's CoolBox. We chatted for a little bit then I went on my way.
The, "Hi, how ya doin?" approach can backfire. Twelve hours after meeting Jordan, I met Derek Bell. It went horribly wrong. Seven hours into the race, my dad and I decided to walk through the garages. As we walked through the gate, my dad taps my shoulder and points. "That's Derek Bell, the F1 legend." I walk up with my helmet and assert myself into his conversation. He was explaining something to three mechanics. It seemed important. I interrupted and asked if he could sign my helmet. Derek paused, turreted his head, and uttered a scornful, "No..." then continued his conversation.
Timing is everything. Actually, timing is the reason you're reading this. I Facebook-messaged Marc Miller, a professional driver for CJ Wilson Racing, asking if he thought CJ would like to work on a feature together. I got his reply within seconds, "Of course!"
As it turned out, CJ's team had been kicking around the idea of a media day in California at the private racetrack The Thermal Club. The plan was to compare CJ Wilson's personal Cayman GT4 to his race team's GT4 Clubsport, known as #DarthCayman. The GT4 Clubsport is essentially the race version of the Cayman GT4 road car, but they are two totally different animals with two totally different personalities.
The Porsche Cayman GT4 is the car some claimed Porsche would never build. The GT4 supports the argument that hanging a flat-six engine over the rear axle of the 911 was wrong to begin with. With a detuned Carrera S engine pumping out 385 hp sitting midships, the car is perfectly balanced. The best part about the car might be it's third pedal; Porsche threw a big, meaty bone to the driving enthusiasts with this one.
Not only did Porsche give birth to one of the most important enthusiast cars of this century, but the Cayman GT4 opened the door for its athletic twin brother. Enter the Cayman GT4 Clubsport; this car weighs 84 pounds less than the street Cayman and is only built with a six-speed Porsche PDK transmission. The Clubsport shares the same 3.8L flat-six with the same amount of power as the GT4 road car. The biggest difference in performance equipment is the Clubsport's slicks from Continental Tire.
I've never been to The Thermal club before, and there isn't much information about the track online. It's called a private racetrack for a reason. I got a sighting lap with CJ and then a ride-along hot lap with Marc Miller in the GT4 road car. The only way to find out the track's secrets is to get on and drive it.
Right from the start, it's clear the GT4 is an enthusiast's dream. Drop in and the driver seat gives you a comforting hug that boosts confidence. Turning out of pit lane and laying into the throttle makes your heart rate rise as fast as the tachometer. The car's stability reassures you that you're the driver and you're in charge. Oh, and the sound that goes along with laying into the throttle—it's beautiful, aggressive, raspy, and it reverberates with 50 years of flat-six-powered race cars.
The sound of the road car is complemented by each soul-satisfying gear change. It's a no slop gearbox—it's crispy, clean, and sexy. My "save the manual" friends understand my use of sexy. My first reservation with the GT4 road car was the braking. Initially, I hated them. If you hit the brakes too hard, the ABS struggles to keep up. The car starts getting small pulls to the left and right if the transition to threshold levels is too fast. It's a good sign the ABS is working, but it makes the car become a little skittish. A skittish car under heavy braking can become skid-ish, which sometimes leads to wreck-ish, which destroys a driver's confidence. I learned that a slow, firm squeeze into the brake pedal removes most of that issue.
You have to remember the engine is sitting right behind you, not in the front. Most drivers are accustomed to dealing with the majority of the weight in front of them, meaning the center of gravity is usually up there as well. If it isn't, that usually means weight is spread equally front to rear at both ends of the car, which results in a high polar moment of inertia. A forward positioned center of gravity is why the front of the car dives down under heavy braking; this is also what gives these cars more front-end bite on turn-in. So the GT4, being a mid-engine car, squats down under braking and the braking bias is closer to 50:50.
Once I finally get adjusted to the racetrack and the car, the GT4 is driving nirvana. The car is responsive and smooth with each input; you stop worrying about what the car is doing and focus on just driving fast.
Turns 2 and 3 of The Thermal Club's South Palm Circuit are where the car's perfect balance shines. The racing line through both turns is a little tricky; it's a right-hand decreasing radius double apex. Did I lose you there? What that means is you kiss the apex curbing of Turn 2 (the first apex), then point the car to your turn-in point for Turn 3 by moving back out to the opposite side of the track, and then initiate your turn-in for the second apex. Both apexes are close to each other, so you never fully unwind the steering wheel.
In a front-engine car, Turns 2 and 3 would be difficult; the car would have a tendency to understeer with either the forward-biased center of gravity pulling the front end out, or the high polar moment of inertia keeping the car from rotating. Thanks to being a mid-engine car, there is no understeer through these two turns, and the rotation is easy. In fact, there isn't any drama at all. The car just floats through both corners without any squealing tires, or worse yet, any snap-oversteer.
Snap-oversteer is exactly what it sounds like; suddenly, your rear wheels want to be your front wheels. This usually happens on the exit of corners, and your right foot is usually to blame. What surprised me the most was the GT4's ability to put its power down. I had all of the computer help turned off and even at apex, I could go to full throttle and the car would stay hooked up.
As amazing as the GT4 road car is, something felt not quite right about driving it on track. It doesn't flip the inner race car driver switch. OK, it has a competitive track time, but I never thought about how fast I was going. I was simply enjoying driving fast; the road car doesn't push you to attack. The real home for this car is on a paved twisty canyon road. But, of all the cars to feel at home, the GT4 Clubsport not only owned the track, it destroyed it.
At the end of my last SCCA event at Sebring, I had been contemplating hiring a driving coach for my next event. Luckily, Marc Miller was at this event in Thermal and set a baseline data lap in the GT4 Clubsport before I got my session. This meant I could compare my data to Marc's data, allowing me to study where I'm slower. Marc's fastest lap around the South Palm Circuit was a 1:19. My two goals were to not wreck the car and to get within 4 seconds of Marc's lap time.
The Cayman GT4 Clubsport doesn't necessarily live up to its evil nickname of Darth Cayman. It's only 84 pounds lighter than the GT4 road car and has the same engine, but one change can make a completely different machine. The PDK makes most of that difference, but the performance characteristics of the Clubsport are pretty close to a competition go-kart. Go-karts are low and have no suspension, which keeps them flat around corners. By "keeps them flat," I mean there is next to no body roll that you can physically see. The Clubsport does exactly that—it stays practically flat everywhere.
Most noticeably different between both the GT4 road car and the Clubsport is how much more bite on turn-in the Clubsport has over the road car. The Clubsport dives into each apex with such ease that it almost takes no real effort. Turn 1 is a slightly banked U-turn at the end of the front straightaway. All I had to do was look for the apex, kiss the curb, and nail the throttle. Like the road car, a big part of the experience is the sound. Driving the Clubsport on track is like listening to "Ride of the Valkyries" from inside the brass section. There is this gloriously satisfying fanfare that comes from the Clubsport's tailpipe. I can still hear the traditional Porsche pop that occurs between the millisecond gear snaps from the PDK.
This race car does exactly what you tell it to do; that's what makes it so easy to drive. I did get a little sideways exiting Turn 6, but it wasn't a dramatic or an intentional slide. I broke a hair too late approaching the turn, trying to push for that last tenth of a second, and over-drove the corner. As soon as I released the brakes, the rear end stepped out. I caught the slide, but my lap time was ruined.
Having to get out of the Clubsport was definitely the saddest part of my day. Fortunately, this meant I got to know how I stacked up against a real pro driver in the same conditions. Turns out, I was only 3 seconds off from Marc's lap time, with my time being a 1:22. Believe it or not, that is faster than a Pagani Huayra (1:23.7) and a Bugatti Veyron Super Sport (1:23.0) driven by another pro on the same track. For the full lap debrief with Marc Miller and myself, check out the video here:
The only thing I can say about both Cayman GT4s is that both cars are perfect. The power is perfect, the handling is perfect, and the design of the car is perfect. The Cayman design is a physical representation of the sound it makes, coupled with the experience you get out of it.
Overall, both cars give you a driving experience you'll never forget. The GT4 road car proves why we love sports cars, and the Clubsport allows you to show off your racing acumen. The Cayman GT4 allows you to enjoy driving a car from point A to point B not just for transportation, but because driving is the point. Conversely, the GT4 Clubsport encourages you to drive at your limit and then some. It makes you want to try to shave those last few tenths of a second off your lap time. Porsche has given you the ultimate racing starter package.
You could argue that these two cars parked side by side aren't that much different, it's once the driver gets inside that their mission changes. So no matter if you're an enthusiast who prefers a Sunday drive on a twisty mountain road or a track junkie sitting on a pile of money, Porsche has a Cayman GT4 for perfect for you.