Bob Carlson (1948-2008)
It's difficult to remember a time when it wasn't unusual for a person to keep one major place of employment for most of their professional life. These days resums read like books, chapter upon chapter. You ought to explore all the opportunities that come along, but what's the litmus test for when the gig becomes a real contribution, one where you can actually make a difference?
Whatever it is, Bob Carlson took that test and graduated at the top of his class. He spent the last quarter century of his life pulling the levers and oiling the squeaky wheel behind the scenes of public relations at Porsche in America. It may seem like a dream job, but this was a time of major transition for the company, and Carlson put in a lot of long hours getting such mundane tasks as "the details" done correctly. The man stayed out of the public view and never cared for being in the spotlight; he was far more comfortable as the lighting director and getting that spotlight trained on the task. He never overshadowed his subjects-the cars, the drivers, or the company. For Carlson, it was Porsche first and foremost.
Carlson was born and raised in San Jose, Calif., which meant Laguna Seca was his home track. He covered motorsports for the town paper, got a fistful of degrees from SJSU, and eventually landed at Porsche Cars North America with a dream-gig scenario in racing PR. This was the era of the late, great Al Holbert and the 962. I can still picture him at Daytona during the 24-hour race, running back and forth from the official Porsche truck to the Holbert pits, gathering his notes. He was always energetic while a pack of us burned-out hacks would sneer and wonder aloud why we kept coming back year after year. Carlson carefully maneuvered through the PR minefield of the Porsche Indy experience, putting the best face possible on a series of missteps and mishaps and then the tragic plane crash which claimed the life of Holbert.
Porsche was also dealing with its own internal struggles and the sales slump that hit in the early '90s stretched the bounds of credibility. Carlson caught a lot of flak from many of us in the business, but usually in a behind-the-scenes, good-natured manner. He caught his breaks because even within the PR boundaries he was honest and forthright, and while many of his answers were considered off the record, that bond was honored. One must remember he was an Amerikaner working for a German company. For most that thought would be a migraine in the making.
As the company rebounded, both in sales and overall product quality, Carlson was given a springboard for creating new ideas to modify the dreaded "arrive-and-drive" staple that most automotive press invites had become. My personal favorite was in 2000 with quality seat time aboard the new 911 Turbo. The event was based in Reno, Nev., which offered ample time to make the best route covering several hundred miles, and the chance to make timed runs in the desert region of Black Route. This was a true USAC sanctioned record run through a series of timed stages. It was a great experience and one befitting the car. Later that evening at a historic house near Carson City, the after-dinner entertainment was Mark Twain-or about as close as you were going to get to the real Mr. Clemens. That was Bob Carlson, eclectic in his choices, but always memorable.
Carlson wouldn't want a tribute-that wasn't his style-but he has left something notable that will continue to be a tribute to what he worked for. After Porsche's 50th Anniversary in 1998, a first-class bash at the Monterey Historics, Carlson hit on the idea of having a get-together for like-minded Porsche enthusiasts and their race cars every few years instead of waiting for 10 years or longer. Support for the idea was tepid at first, but after the great success of the original Rennsport Reunion, held at Lime Rock in 2001, planning began for an even larger event held at Daytona in 2004, where many of the great names would be honored, not only the drivers, but the engineers as well. Then again in November of 2007, he helped assemble a gathering of 917s at Rennsport III.
Those who were there will always remember Carlson, though thin and recovering from cancer treatment, happily strolling through the maze of people and cars, smiling and taking it all in.