"See those brightly colored Skittles all over the steering wheel? You don't need to push any of them. Seriously, don't push any of them." That was basically my technical briefing before driving Porsche's latest generation of 911 Cup Car. Even as a longtime Porsche fan, I still find it surprising just how many six-figured 911 road cars are sold. It's even more surprising just how many of these purpose-built race cars the motorsports department can move. Since 1990, more than 3,500 owners have taken delivery of true, turnkey, track-only race cars based off of the 911.
I've wanted to drive a Cup Car car for years, probably since I was a teenager and first saw videos of young up-and-coming drivers mixing it up with legends and invited celebrities in equally matched 964s on the best tracks in the world. Chuckwalla is a great track with a variety of low-speed technical turns, high-speed banked sweepers, elevation, and a couple long straights. It may not have the cachet of Spa or Hockenheim, but I'll get the full experience of the car.
This is one of, if not the first 991-generation 2 Cup Cars delivered in the United States. Its normal driver and car owner, Tom Haacker, is generous and trusting enough to let me get behind the wheel on his very first test day. Haacker runs in the IMSA Porsche GT3 Cup Challenge USA by Yokohama Tires and apparently has to remember all of that every single time he talks about it. He's only been doing this a handful of years but managed several podiums in this series, along with a Second place in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill, America's least-appreciated around-the-clock event.
The hot shoe of the day is Daytona 24 Hour and Petite Le Mans winner Kelly Collins. It was Collins giving me the rundown on what not to touch inside the cockpit. It has three pedals, but all the shifting of the six-speed sequential gearbox is done with paddles. You use the clutch pedal to get it going in First gear, sometimes with varied success, but that's the only time you use it. So all of you militantly anti-shift-paddle types wouldn't like a Cup Car, I guess.
The gearbox sits in front of the engine; yes, the Cup Car is still rear engine if you're thinking about the RSR. The 4.0L naturally aspirated flat-six is an all-new engine that shares technology with the 991.2 GT3 road car. For the first time, the Cup Car gets direct injection. Also like it's street-legal variant, it uses pistons with a 102mm bore and a crank with an 81.5mm stroke. The 991.1 GT3RS road car redlines at 8,800 rpm, while the Cup Car revs to a mere 8,500. The road car also makes 500 hp at 8,250 rpm, while the race car, saddled with racing regulations, makes just 485 hp at 7,500 rpm.
Here's the thing: If you're a person who has always been into tuning and never driven an actual race car, you probably aren't impressed right now. This is why I think anyone who plans on modifying his or her car should be required to spend time in a real race car, on a racetrack, before buying a single performance part. The Dairy Queen parking lots on car get-together nights would look drastically different.
While the Cup Car's interior is stripped and most of the space, both physical and visual, is dominated by a rollcage, it is still recognizable as a 911. The dashboard is factory-ish, and the driving position is slightly lower than a standard 911 but feels largely the same and outward visibility nearly as good. Obviously, the seat is far more supportive than even the Full Bucket Sport Seat offered in the GT3 and makes me contemplate something like this in my own road cars. Although there are huge side impact beams from the rollcage X-ing out the door opening, the car is still not much more difficult to get into than a Lotus Exige or Alfa Romeo 4C.
The car requires a few switches to be flipped before hitting the big, red starter button. New road 911s have active engine mounts, which are luxury-car soft at idle and cruising, then using magnetorheological fluid, stiffen up when rigidity is favored over comfort. The Cup Car is equipped with half of that technology, the stiff half. At idle, the Cup Car rattles and shakes; even with earplugs and a helmet, it's loud. The low frequencies coming from the engine are the kind of noise that doesn't just jiggle your "performance ballast," it resonates in your bones.
The non-user-friendly clutch pedal has barely an inch of travel. Race cars don't like their very expensive clutches slipped. I've had that drilled into my head every time I get behind the wheel of anything with paper-thin friction discs, a feathery flywheel, and just enough software coding to barely keep it idling. VROOM, SChruuumpf. Yeah, I'm that guy; I killed it leaving the pits. Another unsuccessful try and one of the crew tells me these require some slip, "like a regular car." Ahhhh—true knowledge is gathered right after it would have been useful.
Race cars are built for acceleration, either in the direction of travel or in the opposing direction of travel—braking, or laterally—cornering. They absolutely don't like traveling at a constant speed, especially at something like a lowly 35 mph, like during photography. We did a few laps with me following the camera car to get rolling shots. This is an indignant way to get to know a race car, like a first date suffering from stomach flu. The car bucks and spits as I try to convince it to match the speed of the Volvo wagon in front of me. My arms strain as we wrestle back and forth getting pushed around by bumps and sticky tires grabbing any directional imperfections in the track. My body is tensed up trying to counteract the jostling, and it's getting hot inside here in fast. The car is louder than ever, and the engine's grumbling is complemented by shrill gear whine and the metallic clanging of every component in the driveline loading and unloading—that part in particular grates on every ounce of mechanical sympathy in my being. Mercifully, after just a couple of laps, the camera's memory cards are stuffed with new Porsche-shaped electrons. The Volvo pulls in as the suffering Porsche is about to get a reprieve.
As you may have guessed from the title of the series, these particular Cup Cars run on Yokohama racing slicks mounted to center-lock 18-inch wheels. Apparently, nobody has told the racing community how uncool 18s are these days. The meaty tires warm up surprisingly fast and seem to do so at the same rate front and rear, a sign of good chassis dynamics.
I've had the conversation with many a car owner, PR guy, and professional driver: How fast do you drive a car in a situation like this? The consensus is generally—as fast as you can, well within your limits. I've had PR guys give a verbal nudge to the ribs in the form of, "Look, I didn't bring you all the way out here to mope around the track. Get in there and get the real experience. But, you wreck the car and it's the last thing either of us ever does. OH, and have fun." No pressure.
I work up to what would be a decently fast pace in a well-built road car and quickly remember the huge chasm existing between even the best tuner cars and full racing cars. I make a quick mental jump to track mode and pick up the pace. I've gone from fighting with a violent machine to piloting a precision instrument by speeding up into the bottom of its performance envelope.
The flat-six barely ran at anything less than 4,000 rpm at part-throttle, but while I expected it to feel lethargic until the last couple of thousand revs before redline, it has surprising grunt starting at 5,000 rpm. Most drivers will wring these cars' necks bouncing off the limiter most of the time, but honestly, I'm not sure it's entirely necessary.
I calm down at the same rate as the car. I've melted into the seat; I'm using only the muscles I need to support my relaxed grip on the wheel. Unlike open-wheel and prototype cars that compromise driver comfort for aerodynamics and packaging, GT cars like this offer a near-perfect position. Race cars can be very relaxing. I notice everything has changed; the sound of a toolbox tumbling down a hill has been replaced by the symphonic sounds of induction, exhaust, and meshing alloy rising in harmony with the woosh of the greenhouse cutting through the air.
From high speeds, I'm reminded what race tires and downforce mean for braking. The pedal stroke is short and firm, but the feel is something way beyond even the best current road car; the braking force is as well. Being new in the car, I keep all my braking in straight lines, although this car is so planted, I'm sure I could carry it into turn-in. I am picking up the throttle early, rolling in gently to keep the backend down and not have to worry about chasing rotation before the apex. "I'm not spinning a brand-new Cup Car."
The steering, my god, the steering; everything in the front end is rigid, there's no rubber bushings, and all the components are Cup Car-specific parts and designed for even greater rigidity than a road car. It sits barely lower than a road car, but Porsche has still modified the geometry to accommodate for that. The 991 GT3 has some of the best steering precision on the planet; this is better.
Overall, the Cup Car feels wider and lower than even a GT3RS, even though that isn't really the case. It probably has more to do with center of gravity height. The contact patches, especially in the rear, feel pushed way out to the sides. You don't feel the weight rolling from one side to the other like you do when cornering in a road car. It doesn't lift the inside as much as it does lean on the outside a little more.
Although previous generations of Cup Cars have a reputation for being hard to drive and suffering from quick, sometimes punishing rotation, I'm just not getting that from this car. I am far more confident in this than I have ever felt in a GT3RS. That, even knowing the RS is equipped with computers that can ultimately save me from bad decisions while the Cup Car has none of that.
After a few laps, I find myself edging up further into the car's abilities. I'm pushing harder in corners where I feel particularly comfortable—and have enough real estate to deal with any sudden whoopsies. When pushed, right on the edge, the car has a very slow and progressive slide. It's that soul-satisfying, gooey, power-on, feels like the rear tires are stuck in molasses drift; it's nothing like the oh my god, out of control, blasting the tires loose and is actually slower but showier drifting you're accustomed to in YouTube videos. This is the subtle movement you really notice in those gorgeous low-angle slow-motion shots that follow a car from apex to exit curbing. Google the definition of "nirvana." This is pretty close.
Knowing that those fleeting moments of Zen are going to be the highlight of the day, I dial back a little and adjust my mental driving mode selector—Nerd Mode Engaged. It is so easy to get lost in a car like this; you can forget to evaluate it objectively. The spring rates are higher than a road car and weight is lower; it should ride considerably stiffer and yet it doesn't. The car still rolls and pitches—it even absorbs bumps. At speed, it's never nervous and for a car that so easily changes directions, it feels dead-ahead stable on center. From memory, a standard 911 feels like it has more of a yaw response on turn-in than the Cup Car, but part of that could be my extra cautiousness in the race car. I'll rotate a road car a bit, but not this car.
Is it fast? Of course it is, but if we're talking about straight-line acceleration, I've driven faster street cars. The difference, however, is that there isn't a street or tuner car out there that can match what this car does around a racetrack. I'm not talking just about lap times, but the ease and pure joy in doing it.
It would be really easy to hyperbolize the experience of driving the Cup Car. I should be tempted to tell you that this is a 911 on steroids or a Carrera in Iron Man's armor, but it isn't. This car is a 911. It started life on the normal assembly line before being fitted with task-specific components. It is as much a 911 as the base Carrera. It doesn't redefine what I expect out of a 911, but it does help me to understand why such a relatively simple car like a Carrera 2 is so incredible. The Cup Car is the natural extension of the rear-engine sports car family. It isn't just a bridge from the road car to a 911R and RSR; the Cup Car is the defining 911 because at its core it's just another 911.