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Figure 1: Testing the S's power and agility around Willow Springs.
I have no scientific data to prove this point, but of the friends I've known who have labored to build a track car, their first outing on the circuit has never gone well. I venture this is not a reflection of the vehicle, but rather the psychological bonds that develop between builder and race car.
Let's face it, after investing too much effort and too many weekends along with spending the better part of your retirement fund into your project car, rolling out onto a narrow strip of asphalt surrounded by a field of fiendish competitors is intimidating. You simply do not want to smash the thing the first day out.
For the S, that initial test day was not spectacular. Actually, it sucked. And as expected, the poor performance had nothing to do with the car, its preparation or its equipment. It had everything to do with the driver.
Figure 2: Exiting the pits fitted with Getty's broad rear wing.
In my own defense, the day was cold and windy with threatening rain clouds overshadowing my serious sprints about the high desert racing circuit of Willow Springs International Raceway. Yet, while I would like to blame the weather for the miserable showing, I cannot. The trouble was inside my helmet.
In theory, an early lightweight 911 equipped with the competition components of the S, along with its potent 2.7-liter, mechanically injected motor and aggressive Yokohama racing rubber, should have easily circumnavigated the circuit in about a minute and a half. Similar cars have done so repeatedly with a few slipping below the 90 seconds barrier. To my dismay, my initial efforts could not crack the 1:37 barrier.
Figure 3: The Streets of Willow Springs.
Make no mistake, road racing is incredibly demanding, not only on the equipment but on the competitor as well. Unlike most sports, there are no huddles in which to catch your breath, no time outs, no seventh inning stretch. The contest is not over in four seconds or at the end of a quarter mile. Nor is the track a smooth oval where the greatest demands on the driver is to keep his right foot extended and turn left.
Driving a GT class race car, even in practice, requires total concentration one hundred percent of the time. You have to be committed to the moment as the car is running at its limits often within inches of other competitors who are moving at the same velocity along a narrow, twisting roadway specifically designed to thwart you.
Thus my plight. The car was prepared. I was not. After spending two and half years building the 911S racer, I was somewhat hesitant to probe its boundaries. Let me rephrase that, I was terrified to test its limits for the simple reason of not yet knowing exactly where those limitations were. The mere thought of lobbing the car into a cement safety wall or missing a shift and churning the valve stems into spaghetti prodded my internal gag reflex.
Prior to running the car on what is affectionately known as Willow Spring's "Big Track," I had the chance to shake down the S at the facility's smaller road course, the Streets of Willow Springs. Speeds at the Streets rarely top 100 mph and the spillways are broad with nary an obstacle in sight. Here, I was far more comfortable driving the car closer to the edge.
Figure 4: Feeling my way around the Streets.
Participating in a Porsche club short track event, the car managed to generate times only a few clicks off the fastest laps set by other competitors running that day.
But it was not the car's actual times that were important. It was the handling. The combination of H&R Springs, Bilstein shocks and 935-style components from E.R.P. functioned perfectly. This true 911 racing suspension far surpassed the car's original torsion bar setup. It was simply point and shoot as the car negotiated the tightest corners flat and steady.
Figure 5: Getting the S quickly up to speed.
The outing also reveled that the 2.7-liter motor had a personality similar to the original 2.2-liter six-cylinder. Unlike Porsche's larger displacement motors, torque is not a strong point of the new engine. This lack of off-the-line grunt became apparent when coming off a slow 90-degree bend and trying to accelerate onto the track's front straightaway.
Stabbing the accelerator as I maneuvered onto the uphill straight had a molasses-like feel, that is, until the tachometer needle nudged the 4,000 rpm mark. Even then the horsepower took its time ascending the power band. Not until the mid-four thousand mark did the new six-cylinder distinguish itself from its precursor. While the 2.2-liter would have continued a steady climb to its 7,200 rpm redline, once the 2.7-liter reached its mark it felt as if it suddenly gulped down a can of Red Bull energy drink and freaked on the caffeine surge to its cylinders.
Figure 6: Porsche champion Cort Wagner.
I have driven many turbo-charged Porsches, and mind you, I am not making a power comparison here, but the speed differential between low rpm and high was startling. Below 4,500 rpm, the S was as mild mannered as Clark Kent, but above, the three-piece suit and black-framed glasses were ripped away in favor of a red cape.
Back on the Big Track, acceleration is not the key. It's driver's nerve. It is said one never forgets how to ride a bike. But sliding into the seat of a pristine race car and heading out on to the circuit after an extended hiatus is akin to mounting the proverbial bicycle and pointing the front wheel down a slope of Mt. Everest. Sure, you will remember how to pedal, but making it to the bottom is doubtful.
Throughout the early practice sessions on the large road course I was stuck with unimpressive lap times. On paper, the S had the potential to run amidst the top contenders in its V3 classification, most of whom were running 90 seconds a lap. Although the racing slicks were holding the car to the pavement, I was apparently using the right pedal too sparingly and the center one too much.
Mind you, the minute and thirty-seven seconds at the Big Track is nothing to be ashamed of in certain class cars, but as the S was constructed with some of the best factory and aftermarket equipment available, an injustice was clearly being done.
To put my lap times into perspective, the fastest V3 car in the P.O.C. is a RSR-bodied 911 with a 3.2-liter Motronic motor. Owned and driven by Kevin Roush of G.A.S. Motorsports in Upland, California, it holds a track record of 1.27:7. That is a ten second difference. It doesn't look like much in print, but by the end of a thirty minute cup race, such a deficit would amount to the S being lapped...twice.
Clearly I was leery of testing the car's limits. How deep could I carry speed into the corners? How forgiving were slicks? How well would the rear wing keep the back end in line with the front? Two ways to find out. Either take to the track and keep ratcheting up the speed until the car's lateral forces bettered the frictional grip of the tires, in which case I would be contemplating its thresholds from a gravel pit, or I could let someone else take the car out and do the same thing.
Luckily, the weekend I jumped back into the race seat corresponded with the Porsche Owners Club's annual running of the Tribute to Le Mans, a four-hour day-into-night endurance race. This celebrated event, covered by Speed Channel and the local news agencies, not only brings out some of the best Porsche club drivers from across the country but it gathers a number of pro-racers as well.
Ego aside, I knew I would never attain the driving skills needed to appraise the car. Not simply to take it around the track at high velocity, but to return to the pits with an honest assessment of its development. For that, I had to turn to a professional driver, say, someone like Porsche Cup champion Cort Wagner.
Figure 7: Wagner and Martini's high horsepower ride.
The 1999 Porsche Cup champion, Wagner also captured the USRRC GT Championship and the GT Class title for the American Le Mans Series that year. His long resume of wins includes the 24 Hours of Daytona, the 12 Hours of Sebring and the Grand-Am GT crown in 2002 and 2003. Currently driving for Chip Ganassi in the New Century Riley/Lexus Daytona Prototype, it's safe to say I felt pretty confident handing Wagner the keys to the S.
Figure 8: Wagner in his office - the cockpit of the New Century Riley/Lexus Daytona Prototype.
I found Wagner with the Aasco race team scrutinizing the blue 996 GT3-RS he was sharing with avid club and pro-racer Brent Martini. Yes, that's his name. Martini. And yes, his GT3 sports the famed Martini & Rossi racing colors as well, just not as blatantly as mine.
We are old chums, Cort and I. Our friendship goes back at least six months, so after re-introducing myself, I had no trepidation asking him the favor of taking the S out for a few quick laps. Wagner was more than happy to oblige.
Slipping behind the wheel, he immediately set about the task at hand. He pressed himself deep into the seat, worked the belts tight, and snapped the shifter through the gates. Always quick with a smile in the paddock, Wagner is all business in the cockpit. He shot a few questions through the window. At what rpm did I shift? At the red paint? Okay. What was the oil temp running at? What brakes were on the car? What did it weigh? And so on.
Figure 9: The S heads out onto the track once again.
Here was the difference between most weekend racers and a professional driver. Although seated in a thirty-five-year-old 911 that was merely pretending to be a real race car, Wagner took his job very seriously. The S could very well have been a Daytona Prototype or a competition-prepared 360 Modena. It didn't matter. Wagner was going testing. He was going to work.
Figure 10: The big track of Willow Springs.
Out of the pits and into Turn One, Wagner immediately began working heat into the slicks. By the time he was leaving the apex of Turn Three and climbing the hill onto the right-hand omega of Turn Four, the tires were responding to his demands.
Through the down hill dip of Turn Five, the unsettling hump of Six, and around the annoying kink labeled Turn Seven, the Porsche champion was asking everything of the venerable car. You could hear it across the flickering, hot desert air. Wagner had the throttle plates standing on end as he entered Turn Eight, a high-speed sweeper and the very reason the Big Track intimidates most drivers.
A slight lift of the accelerator at the entrance of Nine and it was full tilt again. From the pit wall the S could be seen drifting out of the apex on all four paws. At the outer edge of the front straightaway, where the pavement met the desert, Wagner sent dust devils scurrying.
Into the hard left-hander of Turn One, the brake lights barely flickered and never before the second marker. Turn Two was taken as close to full throttle as possible, with Wagner playing the steering wheel to keep the car's balance on the sharpest edge.
After a few more laps, Wagner brought the S to the pit wall. A dash to the timing and scoring booth testified to the difference between a professional race car driver and those of us who put on the Nomex suit and play make-believe. 1.28.4! One minute and twenty-eight point four seconds. Seven-tenths of a second off the class record.
It was a phenomenal time and Wagner put it in the books with only five laps behind the wheel.
"What a great little car," he said, flicking off the belts. "It's really sorted out nicely."
I had a dozen questions but knowing the lap times he had just accomplished, it was difficult to talk with such a large grin plastered across my face. "It was very neutral, very predictable," he continued. I kept grinning.
Figure 11: The S at speed down the Big Track's long straightaway.
"It shifted nice and pulled nice. It reminded me of a Formula Ford because it was so under-motored." Okay, my grin faded a little, but then the guy's weekend ride was a GT3-RS with 415 hp on tap. "Part of the reason why it handles so well is because it doesn't have any horsepower, I mean, relatively."
The grin was definitely falling. I asked for suggestions to improve it.
"I would take some wing out of the back and see if it stays neutral. That might speed it up a little bit," Wagner recommended. He noted that was a change for Willow Springs. For low grip tracks like Laguna Seca, he suggested keeping the wing angle.
"I'm nearly flat out everywhere and that is really fun," Wagner said enthusiastically. "There's an easy twenty-seven in it. Maybe a one-twenty-six." My grin returned, big time.
Ah, redemption. The car proved itself and, by the end of the weekend, I had too as I managed to draw my laps times into the low 1.33s.
Lesson learned? The first day out was not about finding a better driving technique or the correct line around Willow Springs. It was about trusting the equipment. Watching Wagner's five laps built my confidence tenfold and I was not even in the car.
The intent of this project was to build a competitive race car out of a thirty-five year old coupe. I think it has come pretty close. Of course, now that the old 911 has proven itself, its time to turn my attention to polishing my driving skills. Thank goodness I opted to buy the S in 1978 and not that nice looking Triumph.
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Testing the SÂ's power and agility around Willow Springs.
Exiting the pits fitted with GettyÂ's broad rear wing.
The Streets of Willow Springs.
Feeling my way around the Streets.
Getting the S quickly up to speed.
Porsche champion Cort Wagner.
Wagner and MartiniÂ's high horsepower ride.
Wagner in his office - the cockpit of the New Century Riley/Lexus Daytona Prototype.
The S heads out onto the track once again.
The big track of Willow Springs.
The S at speed down the Big TrackÂ's long straightaway.