Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
John Rickard: “The majority of people down there are middle-aged guys with pretty conservative lifestyles. But a lot of these conservative guys didn’t start out conservative."
You have seen them, these Porsches — on highways, on city streets, in parking lots — and you have coveted. You have gazed at them as they passed you, stopped and walked around them when you find them parked, peered through the driver’s side window, curious about the biggest number on the speedometer.
Roger Roberts: "I’m sure there are some people who would perceive me as elitist."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
You are not everyone, but you know who you are: certain drivers of economy cars, sensible cars, family cars, minivans, but who know that Porsche is pronounced porsh-a, as in creator Dr. Ferdinand Porsche. Certain drivers who console themselves with the thought that, for all their potential power, most Porsches will never be allowed to be all they can be, to do all they can do. Like a Doberman on a chain, they will jerk and snarl and look intimidating, but they will remain hampered, reined in by an outside force. For the most part, you are right.
“The guy with the blue car out there, he was a world champion surfer. Drove his Porsche at one of these things at the stadium, and he hasn’t gone surfing since."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Paul Young, former president of the San Diego region of the Porsche Club of America (PCA), estimates that about 10 percent of Porsche owners in San Diego County are PCA members, and of that 10 percent, about 10 percent are active participants. Given that there are currently a little over 950 members in the San Diego region, that means only about 100 Porsches ever really get to open up at the monthly autocross held in the parking lot of Qualcomm Stadium. Only 100 get to charge into hairpin turns, tires chattering staccato squeals, back end hanging on the edge of spinning out, then roar down straightaways at 130 miles per hour. Only 100 get that chain unfastened.
Vince and Cecelia Knauf in their cars. Cecelia: “I got into a Porsche at Alan Johnson’s, down in the Sports Arena area, and two and a half blocks I drove it, and that was it."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Roger Roberts, current PCA president, features hinting at his days as a Navy officer, describes the unfastening, the reason why he owns a car he drives less than 3000 miles a year. “There is no feeling better, other than maybe sex, than to take a curve at that speed, fast, and feel like you’re hanging onto the road. Not many cars give you that feeling of control. Not many cars give you the feeling that when you turn the steering wheel, the car moves instantaneously. I don’t know how to communicate it other than that, because the only way you get it communicated is through your butt, being in the car and having the sensation of being solidly planted, and Porsche gives you the feeling of being solidly planted, no matter what speed you’re at."
1974 Porsche 911 RSR race motor. "We just have this need to go fast, I guess, and we’ll do anything to do it, if it takes every penny we’ve got."
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Roger’s first Porsche was a ’69 911; he bought it for $6000. He owned it for 14 years. Now he owns a red ’85 911 Carrera Targa and has purchased a white 1970 914 six-cylinder for his wife. He parks them in his garage. He has custom security installed. He doesn't care to mention the price, but he stresses the idea that Porsche ownership need not be reserved for the rich. “The average person in the club is someone who makes $20,000 to $60,000 a year and likes the car and is willing to spend money on that vehicle in addition to all the other stuff they do with their family — whether it’s a 914, which you can pick up for a couple thousand bucks, or a 911 that might cost $15,000 to $30,000 as a used car, or a 944 that may cost $8000 to $ 10,000. The folks that are wealthy and belong to the club buy a new car and it’s not a big deal. They can drop $70,000 to $80,000 on a new car because they’ve got the money to do that."
Roger does not work on his car himself. “I would guess that probably 60 to 70 percent of the Porsche owners in San Diego have their work done for them. The folks who go to the dealers are the people who buy the new cars.” He gets about 30 miles to the gallon, premium fuel.
He admits that his car is a status symbol. “Anybody who drives one and says it isn’t is probably deluding themselves. There are not many people who own Porsches. I’m sure there are some people who would perceive me as elitist, would perceive anybody that owns a Porsche as elitist. What it says to me, though, is that I appreciate finer things. If I can afford to buy something better, I will. It’s something that people buy either because they want to be flashy or because they want that performance which creates flash."
John Rickard, silver-haired owner of Black Forest Porsche and BMW Service in Kearny Mesa, offers this account of the Porsche club drivers. “The majority of people down there are middle-aged guys with pretty conservative lifestyles. But a lot of these conservative guys didn’t start out conservative. They were gung-ho younger guys that were out in the business world making money, and they raced hot rods when they were kids or raced motorcycles or whatever they could get their hands on. Now they’ve graduated to something that’s a little safer.
“The guy with the blue car out there, he was a world champion surfer, surfed all over the world. Drove his Porsche at one of these things at the stadium, and he hasn’t gone surfing since. That’s not absolutely true, but it’s his favorite passion in life. It happens to a lot of guys. They need an outlet, they need to go do something fun, and we call it ‘bang for the buck’. There’s more fun to be had for this amount of money doing this than anything else, compared to any other sport you can do when you’re 50 years old. We have a lot of women that drive down there, we have a lot of young guys down there, we have some really old guys down there, but the normal guy is middle-aged, conservative.”
On August 10, I went to see those middle-aged guys, young guys, old guys, and women race through a cone-defined course in Qualcomm Stadium’s parking lot. Around 80 Porsches were there — beautiful old bathtub 356s, all bulges and swells that make you wonder why they ever stopped making them; classic 911s, with and without tail fins and flared fenders; muscley 944s, squared off and stocky, boxy 914s, unrecognizable as Porsches to the uninitiated; one rounded 928; and even a silver Spyder racer. Besides silver, black, red, and white, I spotted aqua, burnt sienna, tan, mustard yellow, gold, chocolate brown, chartreuse, pea green, pale minty green, kelly green, royal blue, and a black-and-white swirled stripe. A lot of trucks were parked in the background, mostly Fords. It was not a glamour event. Everyone was in T-shirts and shorts. The middle-aged men brought their kids.
The track wound its way around the parking lot, full of tight turns followed by more tight turns, and straightaways tempting the driver to accelerate too fast to handle the tight turn at the straightaway’s end. I took a seat at a hairpin and watched as some drivers moseyed through: some pushed the limit, rising up on the outside front wheel, chattering all the way; and some, mostly the newer ones, spun out or slipped outside the cones. One 914 driver locked his front wheel, again and again, just before entering the curve, leaving a puff of blue smoke in the air as he accelerated away. The smell of burnt rubber hung over the lot. Round and round all morning in practice runs, and then all afternoon in the timed runs. Three timed runs, keep your best time.
If your best time isn’t what you would like, or if it occurs to you that your car is capable of doing more than you can do with it, you can attend one of the Performance Driving schools run by Vince Knauf, chief driving instructor for the San Diego PCA. Vince, genial and expansive, got into Porsches through his wife, Cecelia. I visited their house near Kensington, with the ’83 944 parked out front and the ’89 911 in the driveway and the Porsche racing photos and plaques covering a couple of inside walls, and Cecelia told the story. “I was taking my daughter to her eighth-grade graduation, and I crashed my truck. It was a flat-tire situation. It was either the cliff or the mountain, and I nearly killed her and myself. To go to and from the hospital, I’d get a rental car, and I couldn’t drive these cars. They were too scary. Even driving with Vince... no matter what I was in, it was just too much of a fearful thing.
“I got into a Porsche at Alan Johnson’s, who then had a dealership down in the Sports Arena area, and two and a half blocks I drove it, and that was it. The car was sturdy, it was on the ground. I just felt so comfortable. So Alan Johnson got me into his driving school. He had a thing; you buy one of his Porsches, he wanted to teach you to drive the car.”
What Alan Johnson, a former driver for the Porsche factory team, taught, what Vince continues to teach, is driving in control. “As long as the wheels are turning, you’re driving,” claims Vince. “That’s what the school is about — showing you what the capabilities of the vehicle are and how you can remain in control of the vehicle. When you’re going sideways, for example. Not that we recommend doing that on the street, not because you’re in danger, but it’s going to scare the poor people around you. They think you’re out of control.”
What distinguishes the performance driver from the “poor people around you” is difficult to explain. “It’s a little reminiscent of an old advertising poster that Porsche had, which basically said. They’re like children. You don’t understand until you have one.’ In modem words, it’s a change in driving paradigm.
“What we try to teach people is how to talk in the language the car understands and how to listen in the language the car talks to you in. Myself and the two chief driving instructors have written a performance driving handbook. We’ve got the book, we’ve got a little lecture on Friday night, and then Saturday is exercises all day, 8:00 in the morning until 6:00 at night. You get seven or eight different exercises where we put you through a guided experience of what your car does in certain circumstances.
“One of the most important is the skid pad. It’s just a flat piece of concrete with some cones to indicate a circle, and we make it wet. We throw a little soap in there to make it slippery. so that the car will easily lose traction at a speed slow enough that they’re not getting scared — 25 to 40 miles an hour. We tell them to accelerate up to the point where you fed like you're just holding on. Then we say, ’Give it a little more gas. What do you feel? Now gently give it more gas, what do you feel, gently give it more, more, more, more, what do you feel?’ Well, what you feel in that circumstance is the front wheels start to skid. The back end is still doing fine, but the front wheels are starting to skid, and it doesn't matter how much steering you do, the car pushes out from the circle. That’s called under-steer. The car isn't steering as much as you want it to steer.
“Then we slow them down, bring them back up to the same speed, and we ask them to get off the gas and hit the brakes. Well, what happens when you’re turning and braking in that circumstance is the back end comes out." This is called oversteer. Vince explains the “left-brain" side of it. “Think of the weight of the car balanced between all four wheels.
The weight’s about the same and the wheels are all sticking. When you change the relative weight balance, you change the stick — the more weight on a tire, the more stick. If you give it the gas real hard, the weight moves to the back of the car, because the weight can't quite keep up with the acceleration. There’s more traction in the back, less traction in the front —
understeer. Get off the gas suddenly, weight transfers to the front; no stick in back, the back end gets loose — oversteer.
“Of course,” smiles Vince, “the first time this happens, they just turn into utter panic city and close their eyes and throw their hands in the air. I want everybody to spin out on the skid pad at least once, so they have the experience that when the car is spinning, they ’re still driving. They’re still under control. We say, ‘Okay that's tine. Next time when that happens, straighten out the wheel a little bit.’ They find there’s things they can do to stay in control. Lift off the gas a little bit, the back end comes out. Get on the gas a little bit, the back end tucks back in. That’s a weird feeling the first time you do it.
“At this point, the instructor reaches over and grabs the steering wheel and says, ‘You’re not going to steer any more with the wheel. I want you to steer with the gas. Give it more gas when you want it to go out from the circle, get off the gas when you want it to come back in.’ They don’t pass until they can throttle steer without the steering wheel. It’s kind of a breakthrough experience. I can explain all this in words, but that doesn’t mean much. It's not real until you feel it in the posterior lobes.”
What is learned on the skid pad can be applied to other exercises, such as obstacle avoidance. “We take an instructor in the car and a student driving down a narrow lane defined by cones, and then they get to a decision point where they have to either stop dead at a barrier or go to either a left- or right-lane change. We’ve got a flag person there that will tell them where to go. We show them that they can steer around an obstacle, safely, at a tremendously higher speed than they could stop short of an obstacle. The accelerator is your friend. We show them that if you want to avoid an obstacle, you have to be not on the brakes when you’re turning, but on the gas. The car steers better when you’re on the gas. They can use throttle steering to dance the back end around a little bit — to get the car neatly, sharply around something."
Last year, Cecelia got to apply accident avoidance off the track. “I was driving up in North County. An 18-wheeler lost his wheel in front of me, and I had to avoid that. I couldn’t avoid it totally, because an 18-wheeler wheel and a 944 are about the same size. So I did my reaction thing, and I took out the right side of the car, but I didn’t crash. It was a packed freeway, but I pulled off the road and was fine."
Vince and Cecelia paid “in the low 20s” for their 944 back in 1983. The 911 they bought used a year and a half ago tor $30,000, “and we thought we got a bargain." They too stress that Porsches needn’t cost that much. They do not work on their cars themselves. “We stand a much better chance of making it worse than making it better,” admits Vince. “When you have a Porsche, it’s important to have a Porsche mechanic who sees Porsches every day, who has learned the secrets, the tricks, the intricacies of the car.”
From the full lot of Porsches outside the shop, I judge that the mechanics at Black Forest are that sort of mechanic. John Rickard sends me next door to R&M Motor Sports (which outfits Porsches for various levels of racing) for a tour of a modified engine. Randy Hinton, the “R” in R&M, youngish and with an enthusiast’s eagerness to talk about his interest, opens up the back of a racing 911. “A basic 911 will start out fuller than this." He gestures at empty spaces around the engine. “There will be a heater here and a smog pump and air conditioning here and a big box here, which is stock fuel injection. We take out all that stuff, and we go with what’s called mechanical injection or carburetion. That gives us a little more performance. There are bigger barrels, so they can suck in more air and more gas faster.”
He goes on to explain the engine that has made Porsche famous, the boxer. The six horizontally opposed cylinders with room for bigger heads, giving more power, the fan that blows air over the heads, cooling without the weight of water, the two camshafts driving the valves, as opposed to the one cam in a V6. He opens another car, revealing an engine with red plastic horns protruding from it. The tops of the horns are covered with the sort of foam that covers a microphone. “This is called mechanical injection. It shoots the fuel way down here [he points at the base of the horn] and sucks air down through here [he points at the top of the horn). It mixes the fuel and air way down in there. In carburetion, it’s all up [higher], and it takes longer to get there, so it’s not as fast.” This engine also has “slide valve injection," another advantage over carburetion. “On a carburetor, it would open like this.” He makes a motion indicating a disc with an axis through its diameter, flipping from horizontal to vertical. “You would have air going down [past it], but that plate is blocking the air going down, that little vertical piece of metal. A slide valve slides this way, open. There’s no restriction." He slides his hand to one side, showing the valve's motion out of the airflow. ‘That gives you five more horsepower.” “If you want. I’ll take you for a ride in this.” At last. It is not a long ride, and since we’re on highways, we have to be careful. Most of our quick acceleration is done on onramps. But Randy does punch it once, pinning me to my seat, and the onramps do reveal what Roger meant by “the feeling of being solidly planted” when you’re in motion. I would use the word “cradled,” but I don’t want to bring in symbolism.
As we head back to the shop, Randy tells me that some insurance companies will insure a driver based on his or her record and not pay attention to the type of car he or she drives. “I have two Porsches, and I only pay about $1000 a year. But if you’ve got tickets, it becomes expensive."
I ask Randy about the expense of getting into club racing. “They start out at the stadium [autocross]," he explains, “so they’ll go to a nice five-point harness, a roll bar, an upgrade in tires and wheels — a lot of street performance stuff like that. Maybe modify the computer system in the car, so the brain makes it run a little faster. At that point you’re probably spending about S1,000.”
But, of course, it doesn’t stop there. “The next step up is what they call time trialing. Mostly, it’s at big tracks.” Time trialing involves controlled passing. “Guys are starting to get a little more aggressive by then, and they’re trying to lighten the cars up, so they take out weight. Spare seats, carpet, the heaters, air conditioning — all that starts coming out. Maybe a different transmission, a little shorter gears. Positraction. Right now on cars, each wheel will spin different. If you’re turning, your inside wheel spins if you give it a lot of gas. Positraction is where it’s just one straight axle — both wheels will spin at the same time. You’ve got full power going to both wheels going around the turn. That makes it faster to drive and easier to handle. They start getting stiff suspensions and bigger sway bars, which corrects the sway of a car in a turn."
And on it goes. “The next step is full wheel-to-wheel racing. They’re stripped to the bare bones, with real heavy-duty cage all the way through. By the time you get to club racing, not including the price of the car, you could easily be into it about $40,000 to $50,000. It can be cheaper than that. You can literally go wheel-to-wheel on a budget of $10,000 and be very competitive in that class. What happens is, you get the bug. You want to be the fastest guy out there. You want to be in the fastest class. So you start going all out. But the majority of the guys doing this are at the stadium level. They’re into a $2000-a-year budget. It gets them a couple of sets of tires each year, and it’s just great."
“The bug” is no respecter of budgets. It strikes the well-heeled and the working man alike. Ike Bruchmann and Tom Neel are men of modest means — “shoestring budget kind of guys,” says Ike — both around 30 years old. Together, they have spent the last nine months prepping a 1973 91 IT (T for Touring) for Porsche club racing, eight to ten hours a day on weekends and sometimes five or six on a weeknight. Ike is shorter, dark, and energetic in his speech; Tom is taller, blond, and quiet. Both exude health, the enthusiasm of kids at play. When we meet, they are giving the car cosmetic treatment — applying decals, polishing the body and wheels, framing the license plate.
“Why do we do it?” asks Ike of himself soon after we shake hands. “We’ve got racing in our blood. His dad was a racer, my dad’s a racer from way back [Porsche Club zone 8 champion in ’79 and ’80|. We just have this need to go fast, I guess, and we’ll do anything to do it, if it takes every penny we’ve got, and if it means we’ve got to eat three times a week instead of three times a day.” How many pennies is that? “About $17,000 of our own money, and that’s with help. But this car is probably worth $50,000, if you had to go and have somebody build this for you. We’ve done all the work on the car ourselves, except for the roof. Our whole thing is we want to go out, have fun, and heat the guys with all the money.”
Ike got his expertise from working with his father, Volker, who now owns Volker's German Car Clinic in Santee. “He started racing in 1965 in Europe. He ran Formula Vs over there and built his own cars, and I grew up with it, going to the tracks and helping out. They used to throw me out of the pits because I was too young. You had to be 16. I was a 12-year-old in the pits, and they were, like, ‘Hey, you, you gotta get out of here.’ My dad’s going, ‘He’s my right hand.’ ”
From there, he moved to professional race teams. “I used to work on cars the Andrettis drove. In ’89, I worked the Porsche factory race team, raced by Jim Busby Racing. I drove from here to Daytona Beach, Florida, just a couple of days before the 24-hour Daytona. I got there, and the driver, Bob Wallek, said, ‘Hey, the engine’s got a vibration.’ It is is the night before the race. So we spent all night changing the engine and went out, qualified the car 12th. Then we did a 24-hour endurance race and won overall.”
Like an actor who wants to direct, Ike was a wrench who wanted to drive. In 1990, he sold a 70 Porsche 914-6 he had rebuilt for club racing to the current PCA president for $15,000 in order to pay the $10,000 necessary to race a formula car at the Del Mar Grand Prix. “I got the (914) for an apple and an egg. I probably only had about $6000 in it. I took the original 2-liter engine out and built a 2.8 liter, which is actually bigger than the one we have in our [911).” Because a 914 is a good bit smaller than a 911, this made for some difficulties. “We ran it at the stadium, and it only had the original size wheels on it. I couldn’t get any traction...it was so much power, and little tires on it didn’t work.
“The guy I sold it to had bigger wheels put on it, and he dominated the series for, like, four years with that car. He actually drove the car to Vegas; he had slicks [wheels] in the trunk and slicks in the passenger seat. And when he got there, he bolted the slicks on and beat these tube-chassis, full-blown race cars that had to be trailered there, put the street tires back on, and then drove back home.”
Ike also won the Baja 1000 in ’93, “on a quad [a four-wheel ATV], of all things,” but he wanted to get back into a Porsche. A Volker’s customer brought this one in, “black and beat-up," to be serviced because he wanted to sell it. Ike and Tom bought it for $5000 and began work. “This is basically the evolution of a Porsche,” says Ike. “We’ve made it evolve into something totally different than anybody else, and that’s why we re a little more unique than some guys.” Beginning with the engine. “We took the original engine and stripped it all the way down to the last nut and bolt. We had custom parts made for it. Connecting rods made out of a 4130 chromoly steel. A connecting rod is a link between your crankshaft and your piston, and that’s basically the weakest link in an engine. When an engine turns at high RPMs, that’s where most of the stress goes. It’s kind of like an insurance policy. Those babies cost us around $1000 for the six [one for each piston].
“When the car came out from the factory, the engine had only a 2.4 - liter displacement; we’ve beefed it up to 2.7 liters. The cylinder on a Porsche engine is removable, not like a V8 out of an American car, where you’d have to bore a hole. We took out the pistons and cylinders and put larger ones in, upgrading it to a 90-mm piston and cylinder set. They’re super lightweight and high compression. This increases horsepower and torque. The original had only 125 horse power; this one’s making 300. The only thing you have to change is the block. You have to open it up and machine it out. You also have to machine out the head to accommodate a larger piston.”
Following the more-is-better line, Ike also opened up the intake ports that allow air and gas into the engine, from 32 to 41 mm. This has the same power-enhancing effect as Randy’s slide valve. “Also,” adds Ike, “we’ve done some internal work on the block which we call windaging, creating less friction within the engine aerodynamically.”
So far, the modifications have been mechanical. Now they become chemical. “We cryogenically treated the engine. We had it frozen at -310 degrees for 24 hours. It changes the molecular structure of all the metal components inside the engine. It actually changes the hardness of the steel, so it’s a much tougher material now. The technology came from NASA — anything that goes out of the atmosphere has to be treated that way. A friend of mine did it for $200.”
Ike then had “every moving component sprayed with a dry film lubricant, which is baked into the pores of the metal, so all the moving parts are constantly lubricated. You could drain all the oil out of it, and it would run fine.”
The result of all this is an engine that will run up to 7000 or 8000 RPMs and will do about 160 mph with its current gear ratios. Though it could do more with different ratios, speed isn’t
everything. I approached Ike and Tom because, as I watched the Porsches run through the hairpin at the parking lot autocross, I noticed that their car was quicker through the turn than most. Ike agrees. “There were $80,000 to $100,000 twin turbo 1997s out there, and we were blowing the doors off them. We’ve modified the suspension so you can handle much higher G-forces through turns. We put in heavier springs that take a heavier load. The shock absorbers have been updated to a racing version and handle humps much better at high speed. It’s a weight-saving thing, too. Standard Porsches have what’s called a torsion bar for a spring. It’s a solid bar. This has coil springs, which are a much lighter setup. The whole idea is to make the car as easy to drive around a turn as possible, because anytime you’re sliding, you’re losing time.”
Again, turns. Keeping with the mechanical theme, Ike had this to offer— “The car was having understeer going through comers. We increased the camber angle — that’s the angle of the wheel — and the car started to steer into turns better. It all comes down to fine-tuning the suspension and tire pressures and whatnot.”
To further aid them in their winding ways, Bogart Racing Wheels of Santee sponsored Ike and Tom, putting on a $3000 set of wheels for free. “Originally, this car came with 15" tires; these are 17" in height. They’re 11" wide in the rear and 9" in the front, and a standard car has about 7". Wider tires are going to get you to stick to the ground better.” Wider tires require a flared rear fender. “They were a factory-steel turbo flare I had a friend weld on.” The front and
rear bumpers, the hood, and the front fenders were replaced with fiberglass body panels to lighten the car. All the glass was removed and replaced with lightweight Plexiglas. The interior was gutted—only a driver’s seat remains, waiting to be surrounded by a roll cage. They lightened the doors by drilling roughly 4“ holes on the inside, leaving a spider web of steel. Finally, to “punch a hole in the wind better,” they had a friend lower the roof, cutting at each pillar and re-welding. Add that to a long IROC (International Race of Champions) tail fin and a sky-blue paint job, and you have an exterior that reflects the interior modifications.
Though the 40-mm Weber carburetor is smog legal, they rarely drive on the street. “It’s kind of difficult to drive slow. It drives really good, but you know you’ve got all that power. You just want to, you know — you’re breaking the law if you try to hammer it down the road.” All this, then, for an occasional rip through a track. “We’ve been having a blast,” concludes Ike. “It’s fun to do a project together and see how it comes from nothing into something. Race cars are never finished. You’ll constantly update, and you’ll find ways to make your car go faster. If not, you’re going to get beat. We’re going to make as many races as we can financially do. I’ll tell you what, though — this car's going to be in the winner’s circle.”
For Ike, then, it’s the tinkering, the driving, and the winning. Talking with Walter Neighbors, 31, tall, and the possessor of chiseled features and a ’58 cream-colored Porsche 356, you get the feeling that it’s largely the driving. Walter was given the car by his father, who bought it in '59 for “two or three thousand. He never let me touch it, so it blew me away when he gave it to me last October.” The car had only 4000 miles on it since 1988. “He figured it was going to rot, he knows I take care of cars, so I guess he figured it was a good idea.”
Walter’s dad bought the 356 for transportation, then started racing it with the PCA and POC (Porsche Owner’s Club] in the '60s and ’70s. Now, Walter autocrosses it every month. “When I was a kid,” recalls Walter, “we had gone to a few races at Riverside when the track was still there — that was something that I always wanted to do.” He joined the PCA in January. “When you first go out, they’re required to drive with you and help you out. But there’s a signing off type of thing, if they see that you have the ability, 'i he instructor took two laps with me my first day and said, ‘I think you’re all right. You can go faster without my 150 pounds in the car.” By way of explanation, Walter adds, "It’s like anything else. .Some people have an ability for something. I’ve always been into cars. When I was a kid, we lived on a canyon road, and from the time I was 16 — I had a BMW 2002, and a friend of mine had a Morris Mini Coupe S — we would hang out there and wait for people to race.
"I was talking about this the other day with some friends, because they had a spare motocross bike, and they were going out to a racetrack that I’ve been at before, but I haven’t touched a motocross motorcycle in ten years. I got on it, and it felt awkward, but I connected with it after one lap. It’s the same thing with the car — you don’t dominate it, because it’s going to do what it’s going to do, but you connect to it, and you can feel what it’s going to do. I know what my car’s going to do a millisecond before it’s doing it. I know how the wheel is going to feel; I know the direction it’s going to go; I know when my back end’s going to get loose.”
And so we come to Walter on turns. “(The rear-engine Porsches) can snap at you at any time; that’s why connection with the car is important. If you go into a corner really fast, and you know you’re going too fast for the corner, you’ve got to — what we call the sphincter factor — you’ve got to negate your instinct to let off the throttle [or else) the back end’s coming around. I’ll keep my foot on the throttle, and I’ll brake with my left foot to try to keep control. When you put power and brakes at the same time, the reaction of the car is to squat down, all of it. The whole car hunkers down, and you get a little bit more grip. If the back end comes out, if you’re turning left, turn the wheel right, catch it, stick on the brakes with your left foot, usually it kicks back.”
Walter does not tinker. “It was lowered in 1959, and I’ve put stickier tires on it, but still street tires, so I’m running stock class. And I put some Centerline rims on it for lighter weight, that’s about it. The car handles so well right now, I don’t see why I should mess with it.” He doesn’t need to: he ran the autocross I attended in “1:03.1 or 1:03.7. I run in the stock classes because the 356 is the slowest car there. I don’t want to say this, but my time beat every stock class with the exception of the twin turbos and I think a 993 4S. I beat every 911 there and every 914, I think.”
Tinker or no, the expense of owning a Porsche, a vintage Porsche, can be daunting. “The rubber floor mats on it are $500, because they don’t make them anymore, and the color I have, tan, you can’t even get. Brake cylinders — four in front and two in back — I think are $100 a piece.’’ Because it’s a rarely driven historic car, however, insurance is fairly inexpensive, around $300 a year.
Walter does drive his car on the street, “once or twice a week,” and he notices the reaction it gets. “Something about the form of that car, it’s kind of strange, not just women but little kids will walk up to the car and want to touch it. I had a girl pull up to me in La Jolla on Saturday and roll down the window and say, ‘That car is a chick magnet!’ ”
For all that, he still says, “people that have German cars, at least from what I’ve observed, are people that are not into showiness but more into quality and performance and engineering. I feel that someone who’s into a Corvette is more into show than anything else, and someone who’s into a Ferrari is kind of a romantic but is into show too. People that are into Porsches are usually more purposeful people — a lot of engineers have Porsches. That’s just my observation — you’re more into function than form, but you still enjoy the form.” Like turns, most of the people I talked to had an opinion about other performance cars, Corvettes and Ferraris in particular.
Paul Young: “When I was able to afford a nice car, I drove a bunch of different ones, and it was interesting to me to see the flavor of these cars. Some cars, like Ferraris, are absolutely gorgeous, rolling artwork. Then, to drive it is such a compromise. It’s noisy, it’s uncomfortable, you can’t see out of it well. And when I drove it, it didn’t perform as good as a Porsche I had driven. The Porsche isn’t quite the eye-popper, but it could get from A to B a lot quicker, more civilized. I’d rather be seen in a Ferrari, but if there’s no one else around. Jt’s kind of like a Rolls-Royce. You think about that car. Let’s say you’re the last person on earth, there’s plenty of open roads, and you can drive any car. Would you drive a Rolls-Royce? Hell, no. There’s only one reason to have that car, and that’s to impress others.”
Roger Roberts: “Ferraris and Lamborghinis, the prices, it’s astronomical. You’re up in the S150,000 to $200,000 range. If you’re asking about a 300ZX or a Corvette, I’ve seen that Porsche has greater reliability. When I was looking for my Carrera, that was absolutely the case.”
Vince Knauf: “I believe that enjoying the car is the important thing. These are not made to be looked at. These are made to be driven. It’s a car made to be driven every day. It’s not a Ferrari, made to look good when you are driving and to look like you are well off, but there’s no room for groceries, you don’t want to drive it across town—it’s too uncomfortable. Every Porsche made is a race car; every Porsche made is an everyday driver. There’s nothing wrong with a Corvette. It meets the needs, aspirations, desires, and joys of a lot of people. It is designed for American-driving style. More for horsepower. Only recently has it added good control in turns and good brakes. Everybody who asks about a Corvette will ask, ‘What’ll it do? How fast will it go?’ In a Porsche, the * driving experience is different. It’s more control and style and class.”
Randy Hinton: “Porsches, on average, before they’re going to need rebuilding [engine-wise], have 150,000 miles on them. Ferraris, you get about 50,000, and you’ve got to rebuild it. The Japanese sports cars, they, just don’t have the character. [Cars] like them, they’re easy to work on, but they just don’t have the character of a Porsche. Usually, a guy will buy a Porsche because ‘Oooh, it’s a Porsche,’ but then they start to fall in love with it, and they learn the history of it, and now it’s heart and soul to them.”
“Heart and soul” seems an extravagant term to use for a piece of machinery, even one that can provide such intense thrills. And yet, driver of a sensible car that I am, I have watched these cars perform, ridden in one, and coveted. I have felt the pull in my heart, in a way I do not feel for other things beyond my economic grasp, perhaps because I drive a lot. I have lamented the fact that my car cannot pin me to my seat, cannot corner with precision, cannot respond to my every automotive whim. I have looked through the classifieds in the paper, scheming to purchase an old Porsche before my conscience catches up with me, promising myself that I will learn to work on cars. I have remembered my father-in-law saying, "You ought to do a story on Porsche wannabes.”