Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, located a few miles off Interstate 10 in California's Colorado Desert, is so remote that it makes Willow Springs, way up in the Mojave, feel cosmopolitan. Embraced within the non-existent, and appropriately named, sprawl of Desert Center, Chuckwalla is a 2.7-mile, 17-turn playground for club drivers and occasional pros—and, as it applied to this article, a perfect test circuit while avoiding public embarrassment.
Mule for the day, a Porsche 935. Cultural game changer, one of those cars that shaped the nature of racing both technically and emotionally. A car everyone wants to drive, and once driven, wants to drive it even more.
The sheer visual audacity of a production 911 shell running faster than the titans of sports prototypes had run just a few seasons earlier and was at the same time unsettling in its mauling of the competition and magnificent in its creators' exploitation of any opportunity. Porsche constructed more than 60 various examples of the 935 between 1976 and 1981. Toss in the dozens of cars built using street tubs with factory-available parts, and you have a staple of racing culture that spread around the world.
Off the track, too, its influence was seen in the slant-nose craze—Stuttgart meets Miami Vice—and in a surge of street tuning. Take a used 912, slap some fiberglass panels and a rear wing on it, and head for Riverside for a club date (or at least win pole position at your local bench racing).
But it was racing where the 935 delivered: world championships, national championships, victories in all the major enduros, including Le Mans—not to mention it was arguably responsible for the worldwide popularity of the Martini colors and branding that are still exploited by Porsche to this day.
Back to Chuckwalla. Friend Tom Haacker had the track for the day to shake down his new Gen 2 Cup car, and he also needed to sort out his 1978 Interscope 935 (injection pump maladies). Editor Febbo had been scheming for months to try and get a drive in a Gen 2, the editorial excuse to compare the race car to the road car. Even if nobody was buying that line of reasoning, Haacker graciously extended an invitation for Febbo to indulge in his fantasy deadline reasoning.
Me? I was in attendance to try and recapture my past experiences in a 935, which goes back to those great open track days at Riverside in the early 1980s. I was no threat to anyone who could exploit max boost, but I was adequate enough to understand the fundamentals of pedaling a rear-drive turbo of prodigious power and idiosyncratic handling.
What Chuckwalla taught me was how many idiosyncrasies I had developed of my own since those halcyon days at Riverside.
The last time I'd been on track in a 935 was at Daytona in 2004. The car ran sort of OK but was cutting out on the banks, so I climbed into my backup, a 962C. At the end of the day, I felt less elation than a few aches and pains. Then, at Thunder Hill a few years back, more proof of the gap between car and driver. I was trying to put in a few decent laps in that most notorious of turbo-lag Porsche race cars, the 934, and my initial outing was respectable. Then my times began to slow to the point that they could have been timed by a sundial. I gave up on the last lap, letting a, yes, Boxster pass by. I was physically worn out. The owner of the 934 was concerned. "You started out so good; what happened?" That old line, "I was great, the car was crap," wouldn't have passed even today's alternative fact test. Turbo lag wasn't the problem; it was the lag in the driver's reaction times.
Those comforting thoughts came back to me as I sat strapped in the 935 waiting in pit lane for the oil temp gauge to reach operating level. All morning, I had to listen to the precise whop whop whop shifting of the 991 Gen 2 as Haacker, along with his pro coach, Kelly Collins, reeled off lap after lap. I watched Febbo do a good imitation of a roll-out test driver during his laps. However, my main interest was centered on the hulk of "old" technology that sat idling in pit lane. Finally, I got under way, just slipping the clutch enough to not stall the big flat-six twin turbo. It took a few laps for the basic familiarity to come back, but whatever confidence I'd built up was knocked down when Febbo as Rocket Man flew by. "I'll get some real estate back on the straight," I thought. It didn't happen. Though the 935 had the horsepower, it couldn't use it, as the Gen 2 Cup could go through three gears while I was debating to use Second or Third.
Mindful that the 935 was someone else's property, I restrained myself, backed off, and just enjoyed the reunion. Pit in changed all that. My satisfaction of a job done well, albeit slowly, ended when Collins ran over and told me I was going too slow. The plugs were fouling. Ouch...the lesson learned that day was don't expect to have the same experience of the past if you don't work at the relevance of the present.
Can I bum a ride, man?
Tom Haacker is a man of many words and even more explosions. During the day of driving at Chuckwalla, he went through dozens of the smallest firecrackers I've ever seen; seriously, it was like a Lilliputian war zone. As fast as the demi-dynamite assaults flew, it was merely cover fire for the witty quips and one-liners.
Clearly, the guy's doing OK for himself, but he's far from "that guy" who has decided to go racing during his midlife crisis. He started pro-racing in 2011 and was strong right out of the gate in his first season with a Second place overall at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. He has kept his earning steep and always pointed in the right direction with the help of top-notch driving coaching and a commitment to going faster. He's competing in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama Tires this year in Generation 2 Cup Car, which also appears in this same issue.
Besides the modern racing cars, he also has excellent taste in vintage machines. He owns a 962, which won the 1000km of Spa as well as a 993 generation Cup Car and a few other noteworthy cars.
It is impossible to thank Tom enough for the opportunity to get some hands-on time with both the Cup Car and the 935. We may have to find a connection for connoisseur-class fireworks and see if we can put together a nice gift basket. Nothing says "thank you" from the heart quite like explosives.