The Red Dragon, my flared-fendered, fire-breathing 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo was ready for her maiden track voyage.
But first, why would anyone pick this as a track car? Just as there is always the debate about how Formula 1 is 80% car and 20% driver versus MotoGP being 80% rider and 20% bike, I want to know just how much I am really doing behind the wheel. How much credit should I mentally take? And how much responsibility for mistakes should be more rightly allocated to me? What bad habits have I been developed, unchecked, by driving new, technology-laden cars?
It was time to find out. I purchased a car that takes me back to a simpler, more honest time. A time before airbags, ABS, traction control. It was even very early days for AWD and few cars had that outside of maybe the 959. Four-wheel-drive was for Jeeps!
This is not the first time I’ve made this move. I decided to do this for autocross a couple of years back and bought a cheap, slow car. A 1986 Porsche 944. What did I buy for my new track learning device? A 1986 Porsche 944. This new addition means that I now have two of these antique cars from the same year, same make, same model (almost). But even these two cars are extremely different. [I actually own another one – yes, three 1986 Porsche 944’s…]
One car is very modest with only about 150bhp when new. Probably about 110 now. It is naturally aspirated (NA). Perhaps a bit slow. But very rewarding to drive on the street and at the autocross. You have to work for every mile per hour. And the chassis rewards you with amazing grace and balance, despite it’s modest output. It’s quicker than it deserves to be. But still not terribly quick. It is a great teacher. You learn all about physics and vehicle dynamics. And you do so at a controlled pace.
The newest addition is a fire-breathing monster of a car, comparatively. To call it an antique is almost comical, despite it’s obvious age. From the same 2.5L displacement as my friendly ambient-air-breathing car, it’s cousin, this red one, dubbed “the Red Devil” by friends, comes with nearly three times the power and torque. The Red Devil has been worked over. She sports a large turbocharger that violently smashes air molecules together into a much more compact package than nature intended. She then gulps this compacted atmosphere, mixed with flammables, into those same 2.5 liters and lights the fuse of a bomb. You have some warning of what is to come via an ominous whooshing sound, like a hurricane’s first healthy gust brushing across your bow and rattling your windows. You know what’s coming next as you scan the horizon. And then you feel it’s force, pulling the vehicle beneath you like it is attached via a tow rope to an angry whale. You hang onto the rope, hoping that you can get ahead of the force before you get pulled uncontrollably down under the waves.
As you’ve guessed from my choice of flowery language, the power delivery is non-linear. And, with the car being new to me, it is very unpredictable. In fact, it was hard to predict anything about how this car would behave on it’s first track day.
Not only has the motor been worked over, but it sports large flares on it’s wheel arches covering huge tires and wheels. The standard 16 inch wheels have been replaced with monstrous 18 inch high wheels that are 10 inches wide in the front and 12.5 inches wide in the back. These are larger than what is on my 911. By a fair margin. The car came wearing Toyo R888 tires – about as close to slick racing tires as the DOT will allow you to pretend you can drive on the road legally. Grip shouldn’t be lacking. Provided you don’t do anything stupid. Like drive them in the rain. Or over bumpy race track sections…
And the suspension has been beefed up to match. The standard struts have been replaced by period cup car coilover bits that provide a firm, controlled ride. I also upgraded the sway bars immediately to M030 specifications since I had to update the rubber bushings regardless due to age and deterioration. All this helps the car maintain a very flat stance in the corners.
The interior is a nod to safety and a desire to make an attempt to control this detonation device of a car. There is a bolt-in half cage to provide rollover protection. Hopefully I’ll never find out how useful it can be. The seats have been swapped out for fixed-back, replica race buckets resembling what you’d find on a GT2 type of 911. I updated the harness belts from a four-point system to a much safer six-point system using belts from Sabelt, the folks whose iconic colors grace the interiors of factory Ferrari F40’s. Red car, red belts with yellow branding bits. Black interior. Unpredictable and explosive power. Yes, this is my ode to the F40, perhaps my most favorite ludicrous automobile of all time. But this version hailing from Stuttgart, not Maranello.
Pierre, on his laptop, on his wing. We’re all deep into the data now.
Sans pop-up headlights, back seats, heavy stock battery, and a radio, weight is probably a manageable 2,700-ish pounds.
On paper, the car should be pretty quick. If you can control it. So that’s what I set out to do this past weekend.
I woke up from a concerned sleep at about 3am despite not really needing to be up until 5am to prepare for my day at Thompson Motorsports Park in Thompson, CT. Nerves. Nerves and fear. I got my ducks in a row, packed some tools hoping to not need them. Packed some fluids for both car and driver. Dehydration is a very real risk when you’re at a track day. And when you’re mildly terrified of what is to come.
Lot’s of folks were very nice when I arrived at the track, as is the norm with the Porsche Club here in the Northeast. I fielded lots of friendly questions about the car as best I could. And tried to make sure everyone knew this was it’s maiden track day so that their, and my, expectations stayed appropriately low.
Lee Carpentier, pro driver and coach, once again joined us to convey his humor and pearls of race-driving wisdom. As he and Alex made arrangements for a session together in Alex’s GT4, Lee looked my car over with his now-familiar grin. The one that says, “this beast is going to make you sweat it out, isn’t it…” His voiced sentiment was more like, “Well, at least you aren’t lacking for tire.” He’s driven my other car before, so he could see the mountain I was about to climb.
We lined up for the first session. I’m in the White run group still, not having finished my second check-off ride to move up to the Black group at the end of last season. But with this new challenge ahead of me, this wasn’t the time to be worrying about group advancement. It was the time to get ready for whatever the car was going to send my way. I tightened my belts. It felt reassuringly good to be securely cinched in with a full harness for a change. Street belts just aren’t the same. But visibility out the back is reduced by my wings and cage and you can’t move your head around to compensate, so the mirrors have to be right. You can’t reach across the car for things. Once you’re in, you’re in.
We made our way out onto the track and started to warm up the engines and tires and brains. Yes, brains grow cold through the winter. It had been a long time since I’d been to Thompson. Nearly a calendar year. It had been a while since I’d been operating a car in anger on a track too. Nearly four months since Lucas Oil Racing School down in Sebring. I watched a video of myself driving this track before I left for some re-familiarization. But I wasn’t fully prepared for the fact that tracks themselves also change from season to season. Bumps grow where there were none before. And reference points change forcing necessary mental imagery updates. It’s not all new. But it’s not the same either. Lee was good to remind us of this later that day during his tech session.
As the temps and pressures came up on the car, I started to build some speed. Shifting isn’t nearly as smooth and easy as my 911. There are only five gears so the ones in this car are spread further apart. Add that to the fact that max power flows only in the two-thousand RPM window between 4,000 and 6,000 in each gear, and it became really hard to be in the right gear at the right time. Especially on corner exit. Get down into second gear and get back on power and you’re right in the meat of the power band. But only for a few seconds before you need to grab for third. Stay in third to avoid having to shift and you’re rewarded with a big pile of wait-for-it when you hit the gas after apex until the revs and boost build back up to the boiling point. Thompson has a few turns where the sheer length of the turn or combo of elements in a turn converts a desire to avoid mid-corner shifts into in a real hinderance to your ability to make speed.
The brakes felt quite adequate, luckily. They were a big concern as the runoff at the end of the rather long straight isn’t particularly generous. In a thirty-year-old car of somewhat unknown provenance, braking reliably from 120+ mph into turn 1 is a real sweat-inducing concern.
The suspension felt really quite good on track. There were few creaks and rattles. The car stayed pretty flat, I think. And general grip was as promised. Cars on slicks certainly still have a noted advantage. And I gave out plenty of point-by’s that first few laps. But this was all as expected.
The hard part was power delivery and gearing. And driving! There is a lot to do in any car on track. You need to watch the flaggers. You need to watch traffic. You need to keep an eye on those around you. You need to mind your machine’s status. You need to remember what you’re working on – maybe particular turns or techniques in development. And you need to drive. Keep eyes up. And try new lines in a new car. I felt like I was back in Green (the beginner run group) a bit during that first session, knowing that I didn’t have enough mental capacity just yet to do all these things in real time. I only had the ability to sneak in an occasional glance at my Race Technologies race dash to check speeds and temps. Feeling out the car and watching for danger on track took full-time focus.
I started to get more into a rhythm halfway through the session. I started to be able to get a quick look at my speed on the straight. And I started to see that my sub-optimal lines into the corners – based on only hazy memories of driving the track – were hurting me. “Too deep into this one.” “Gotta brake a little later here and get rotated.” There was a fair bit of dialog going through my head.
To say I got comfortable with the car that first session would be a bald-faced lie. I never did. But speeds were coming up. Eventually I got in behind a 997 GT3. Those are some quick cars and my pathetic little ego started to show itself out there. “I am keeping up with that thing! Wow, this little red devil does have some poke!” I’d lose a little bit in the corners. But then I’d be able to get the hammer down on the straight and catch up under braking. Traffic ahead kept the GT3 close at times. But sometimes I legitimately caught up in some of the twisty bits. I was having some fun, finally!
On about the third lap of chasing this GT3, we were close together coming out of the oval where it turns back out into the new back section – turns 8, 9, 10, and 11. This is where things got bumpy – literally. Turn 8 always had a few wrinkles in prior years being where the transition from the aging oval course to the newly-refurbished road course meet up but, this season, there are full-on humps right at track-left where you false-apex before braking later into the left hander. This turn and turn 5 under the bridge are probably the trickiest on this course. This time, the upward migration of these bumps caught me out. I braked a bit early to give the GT3 some berth. I was gaining on it but there was no way they were going to let me by until the straight, if ever, so I wanted to be close in case I could get a run on them but not dangerously so and not this early. As I gave the car a stab of brakes, I also turned the car a little left toward that false apex leading into turn 8. Bad idea. As the car hopped the bumps with some steering and some brake, it started to slide a bit to the right. I counter-steered a bit.
But this was the first run at the first track day of the season. Rust never sleeps. I gave it a hair too much, perhaps, and she started to slide the other way. Again, I gave it some counter-steering to get it back in line. Again, too much. Now I was sliding right again and the wall was looming. The grainy, smoke-filled voice of Dennis Maccio, head of Bertil Roos Race School came immediately to mind – “know when to fold ’em.” It was time for a tight on-track spin to keep out of the wall. So that’s what I did. Around I went. But I never left the racing surface.
I was already on the brake and clutch thankfully avoiding an embarrassing stall on top of my embarrassing spin. I watched a few cars dutifully obey the waving yellow flag announcing my screw-up as they proceeded safely past me. I decided to increase my safety margin by getting a bit more to the outside of the track onto an apron by the wall, but still in view of the flagger who would hopefully let me know when it was safe to get back underway. They did and I pulled a 180 back into the flow, knowing the only place I was headed now was to the pits to have a little talk with someone about what I just did.
Dick Anderson, our head instructor and then-president of the club, just wanted to see if I knew what I did out there. I explained as best I could (and got it mostly right, in retrospect), finishing with a slightly exasperated, “this is a really hard car to drive!” Sure, blame it on the car. Nice. I decided to park up in the pits for the last few minutes of that session instead of getting back out for maybe a lap. I needed time to mull this over and figure out exactly what I did wrong. Was it me? Was it something about car? Whatever it was, I needed to remedy it and fast. Two spins at a track day and you’re done. I was halfway there.
Huge credit to my friends who kindly asked what happened and tried to help me piece it back together. They offered sage wisdom about possible corrections. It was good to have inputs to consider and mull over. And they volunteered to go out next session and keep an eye out for my car, analyzing my performance from their vantage points to help out. There are no better folks than these. I’m eternally grateful.
Back out I went for the next session, humbled, once again carefully feeling out braking zones, shift points, lines around the track, and especially the line through turn 8 leaving the oval. I watched their line carefully as other cars entered that turn, knowing full well that many of them had a lot more help on tap to get through their potential peccadillos than I did. The wisdom to brake late, certainly after the bumps in turn 8, came rushing back. Now I really knew why Mike, my first instructor at Thompson years ago, made it a point to discuss the line through that turn and how coming in wide to the right might be the safer, if slower, path of wisdom. If only these things could come back to me just a bit more quickly.
The final three sessions were clean. And I eventually got my lap times down into the 1:28’s – not far off my 1:26 personal-best in my 997. My new race dash system even tells me that I have a theoretical best in the 1:26’s in the Red Devil, based on piecing my best sectors together in it’s silicon brain. It’s very, perhaps, I dare say, immensely gratifying, to feel like the old, antique car may actually live up to the purpose of it’s creation – being safe, fast, and even fun out on the track. This day started with the retrospectively predictable big-pucker moment, but all’s well that ends well. The only thing broken was my ego, which is both a good thing and exactly what I set out to accomplish.
And also, this is just the beginning of level 2.
My two fastest laps of the day