Ambitious But Rubbish

I faintly recall the Latin phrase "per aspera ad astra" from reading "To Kill a Mockingbird" back in early high school. I really liked the concept of "through the mud to the stars" or "through hardships to the stars". I hadn't thought about it much in automotive terms. It turns out I needn't have bothered. My recent automotive adventures bear a stronger resemblance to the Top Gear mantra - "ambitious but rubbish". Here's the story of how things recently took a turn for the worst.

Yesterday, I arrived bright and early at Palmer Motorsports Park for the second-ever track day for the new-to-me "Red Devil" 1986 Porsche 944 Turbo. She did pretty well at Thompson a couple weeks back. By the end of that day, I was getting a bit more into her groove. What I liked was the reduction in weight over my 2007 911 Targa - probably about 600 pounds difference. You can work hard to engineer around heavy, but it's so much easier to avoid having to do that. I like that the car gives a perception of having plenty of power. It's hard to know if this perception is artificially accentuated by the aural drama of the blow off valves and boost regulators or if the car really has that much poke - but I'm openly confessing conversion to the world of crazy turbo sounds publicly. Yes, it is that much fun. I get it now.

The last time out I had a hard time adjusting to the pedal layout - it was very hard to heel/toe downshift and I found myself stabbing at the gas pedal in a rather non-elegant manner into turn 1 at Thompson repeatedly. I remedied that problem this time with a gas-pedal extension kit from Rennline. The narrow power band of the boosty engine required a bit of reflex readjustment. Shifts had to come thick and fast to stay on boost. You have little power up to 3,500 RPM or so...some whooshy noises as you get close...then, bang! A kick in the backside to the 6,500 redline. It seems like you blink and the redline comes and you have to shift up and start all over again. Grip was quite good, though. When I could manage smooth driving, the car was very stable despite the absolute lack of any electronic safety nets.

I went to Palmer with a bit more confidence in my new-to-me car, but still with some justifiable trepidation. I know (and love) Palmer, but it had been a couple of months since I was last here. And last time, we were driving backwards! Just like at Thompson last time out, I was mentally prepared to start off cautiously and build speed from there. Palmer is a track with tremendously special turns. There are two turns where you swoop in from above and feel yourself embraced as the track holds you tight in it's cosseting camber. As you gently add more throttle, you get to the point where you can decide how much abuse you'd like your tires to suffer at that moment in time. The track allows you to explore the aggression limits of your personality in a way that won't have you shackled in irons at the end of it.

And then there are turns with the opposite effect. These fast sweepers present disadvantageous camber over their sloped haunches. You go fast in these turns in direct proportion to the amount of "pucker factor" your body can endure as your car tries to slide off the road. The straight isn't even straight - which is a great way to test out your aero-stability and intestinal fortitude. 

As we set up camp in the morning, track-side, I realized that I hadn't even filled out my "online driver's meeting form" this go round. There is always something that you forget at these events no matter how diligent you try endeavor to be. The slightly chilly morning was quickly turning into a beautiful, sunny, somewhat hot day but with a good breeze. Of my closest track peeps, Pierre was there first. He did the prior "advanced-only" Friday day at the track and had really beaten up his right rear tire. There was literally no tread left on it at all. Time for a swap side-to-side. And this set of meats were brand new two days prior!! 997 Turbo's either eat tires for breakfast, lunch, and dinner...or something else is going on with his suspension. He would repeat this phenomenon with the other rear tire before the day was out, compromising his ability to run on the third day, unfortunately.

Alain rolled in shortly thereafter in his track monster - the 991 GT3RS. Sinister, black, mean and maliciously lovely. It's the kind of car that draws you in it can draw a bit of blood from you. It doesn't want to kill you. It just wants to see how much you can take before it can remind you that it's still way ahead of you. 

Off to the driver's meeting. John Dunkle got us rolling with his inimitable blend of humor, wit and pointed instruction. When asked who has never driven the track before, all the instructors raised their hands. Pierre also forgot to sign his online driver's packet so we had some remedial camaraderie to enjoy before we could get to setting tires pressures and such.

Eventually, my run group's turn came up. I put on all the gear and fired up my car. I've enjoyed going out at the back of the pack recently. It keeps me humble and cautious. I don't have to worry about giving lots of point-bys as I relearn a track in the morning. I can take my time, working back up to a line that works for me. And I can always take a ride through the pits if I need some space from cars in front. Being out in front doesn't afford you these options quite as readily. You feel a certain obligation to set a pace when you start up front.

As I finished up the sighting lap, things felt good. The corner grip in this car was impressive. I felt like I was more effective in modulating partial-throttle situations than I was at Thompson. Looking back, the second lap turned out to be my fastest of the session, fastest of the day, and perhaps the fastest for a while to come. Because just a few laps later, I started to hear an engine noise growing louder. In retrospect, I heard a bit of this noise at Thompson too and wondered why it sounded like my car wasn't settling back down to idle as quickly as I would expect it to in off-throttle moments. That may be why I didn't get too worried immediately. I was in my happy place driving the track at Palmer and thinking of my turns. As the noise continued to increase in intensity, I started to check my dash for signs. Oil pressure - 20ish pounds. Not good. I'm expecting to see 70. I immediately wanted to see oil temp, but that's on screen four of my race dash. I forgot to toggle it from one to four before setting out and I'm not quite at a point where I can lap at speed while fiddling with buttons in the center stack. The oil pressure number said all I needed to know. I had no idea what the cause was but I could feel that the engine was no longer making much power. There was no boost pressure to be had. I was limping my way around by the 10th lap. As I came around, having decided to pit, the engine just plain quit on me and I coasted back down the hill into the pits. I tried to restart a couple of times to see if it would even fire back up. The motor would cough to life a bit. It would not stay running. After one more attempted restart, I parked her up and hopped out with a sinking feeling.

Immediately, friends came to see what had happened. Kachel Motor Company (KMC) were the sponsors of this DE event and had a mobile workshop on hand. At the suggestion of a friend, I walked all the way across the paddock to see if there was someone from KMC to consult. Unfortunately, there was no one at their trailer at that moment. I walked back to my car mulling over what to do. Norbert Martel, our regional driver of the year last year, talented mechanic, and all around stand up guy, who also happens to have built up a very sweet 944 turbo, was my first thought. If anyone might be able to give a listen and provide some steerage, Norbert was the one. I found him hanging out in his trailer near his beast of a car. I knew he was probably instructing students that day as well, so I was very lucky to catch him in a quiet moment. I asked if he had a few minutes to give a listen to my car's woeful bale.

I fired her up and instantly, Norbert told me to shut her down. "Spun rod bearing." The verdict was instant and decisive. "I'll bet you a hundred dollars it's #2. No, make that one thousand dollars." I thanked him profusely but declined betting the money that I knew would likely end up right back into this motor. I asked him about what it would mean for parts and labor. Possible new crankshaft, new bearings, maybe new con rod, depending on the damage. He estimated five or six g's for a shop to do the work. I swallowed hard. I knew that wasn't going to play happily back at the ranch. I contemplated perhaps towing it to his shop anyway and letting it sit until I could get more into it, but then there are storage fees and things to consider. I was caught between my instant desire to get it back into fighting form and needing to take my lumps at home. Back home it was. I made the call to AAA to get the truck rolling. 

Pierre, savvy investment banker that he is, counseled me quite wisely to cut my losses on this car. "Get something with a warranty...and reliability...," he reasoned as the only sensible way to enjoy our hobby without suffering downtime and missed events with these types of problems. And, of course, he is quite right. Very sane advice from a man who even follows his own advice and is about to own one of the last-built Viper ACRs, with an extended warranty, of course. Look out, NER, something even more wicked this way comes.

But I've never been smart enough to take the beaten path. I'm a bit of a glutton for punishment, it would seem. Pioneering, in a manner of speaking, for pioneering's sake has always felt like more of a natural fit for my personality. I like doing new things the first time quite a bit. There is delicious fear in trying something new. The fear of the unknown. The fear of failure. And the fear of not being able to overcome these fears. It's a constant struggle. But one that makes victories taste of the sweetest nectar should they ever accidentally happen. Had I not had the blind courage to marry my wife back when we were mere children, as most sane people vigorously waved their yellow flags at us, we would likely not be celebrating our twenty fifth wedding anniversary this August. Although, I'm not always sure my wife thinks of this as quite as much of a victory. But she's stuck with me. I hope.

While I cannot yet say I'm fully committed to the rebuild-it-myself path, that is certainly the way I'm leaning right now. We'll see if I magically come to my senses or if some divine benefactor materializes to resounding trumpet blasts from brightly lit clouds above carrying mana, in the form of connecting rod bearings, from heaven. I'm not holding my breath. And I am preparing to get greasy.

In the first of many kindnesses that day, Pierre had Alain tell me to plan on being his guest for lunch. Pierre, Marshall (driver of a lovely Lotus Exige), and I packed into Pierre's 997 Turbo (with manual - so great!) and headed to one of our favorite lunch spots in town. I'll apologize for not being the best company that day as my mind spun on how my mangled-motor-business was going to play out. I also had to get back to the track for a work assignment to boot. Lunch was filling my belly in a very welcome and consoling way that day. I savored each bite, appreciative of even the smallest comforts at this point. Merci mille, Pierre. Je vous suis extrêmement reconnaissant.

While waiting for the tow truck (which only took 5 hours...), Alain came over and placed his key on the table and said to me, "you're on at 2:15." I wasn't sure I was hearing or understanding him correctly so I fairly instantly went back to busying myself with gathering up my things to pack into the car for the tow home. A few minutes later, he picked up his key again and handed it to me , saying, "you're up, here's the key. Take her out and give it a try." This unbelievable person was offering me a chance to place my unworthy, mildly-sullen keister into his unobtanium-derived 991 GT3RS for some laps around my favorite track in the world?? I tried to say no. Really. I had conversations in my head about how to politely decline – out of overwhelming gratitude and sheer respect for the magnanimity of the offer. I may have even tried to say "no, but thanks" out loud once or twice. But Alain wasn't hearing it. And I am a weak, weak man. This was an opportunity so rare and precious that it felt so wrong to take him up on it. I was fighting the opportunity in vain. My willpower quickly evaporated in the afternoon heat.

It was all a bit surreal. Strapping into the harnesses of the absolute hottest machine Porsche has on offer... One that very few will even see in person... Fewer still will see the gorgeous mix of stitched leather with alcantara insert panels on the top of the dash (I've not seen the like of it anywhere and was surprised to have not noticed every special detail of this car already)... Even fewer will buckle into the seat and manually adjust it to their stature, moving the steering wheel into a comfortable position... I felt among hen's teeth as I inserted the key and gave it a gentle twist to bring it roaring to life. As I taxied up to the line awaiting a turn on amazing track in this chariot of performance-driving-perfection, it was about as close as I can imagine heaven could feel here on earth. I might have heard a blast of trumpets from on high after all. Please forgive my plebeian prose. I can't muster sufficient words to adequately describe how amazing it felt to drive this car at speed. 

The RS is a fetching siren, calling you to flirt with a deceptively-close, rocky shoreline of speed and noise. The melody of the engine is so tuneful and sweet, so easy on the ears and senses, that you don't realize you may be suddenly traveling well over one hundred twenty miles per hour down the front straight. There is no drama. No sense of dangerous behavior. You do notice new things, though. There are reverberations and resonance as the wind struggles to decide whether to come through the open side windows or to commit seppuku into the large engine intake ducts in front of the rear wheels, for instance. As you mash the throttle climbing up out of turn five, the resounding howl of the four-liter, flat-six engine reconstitutes itself into a novel intoxicant as it rips off full-throttle upshifts with a crackle. I found myself living primarily for each chance to go deep into the loud pedal. Sure, any sane person would know they were going to love this car. But it was the way in which this car went about making me love it that I found so fascinating. At the same time as it was rock-solid and completely reassuring at speeds that required complete mental readjustment, it also hinted at elements of unpredictability and playfulness. I simply could not wrap my head around how hard the engine's torque would shove me up a hill even after a few laps. I repeatedly could not foresee the amount of wailing, mechanical, symphonic accompaniment emanating from the car's business-end as it varied somewhat proportionally to how quickly and deeply I pushed my right foot into the carpeted floor. But, damned if I wasn't going to try to figure it out.

My rational side told me to just take a couple of laps and go back in. Just a quick, respectful, "I can say I did it" sort of experience. I really did. I kept telling myself that this was the last lap and to pit in. It was a "Lord of the Flies" id versus ego battle. The car was just so far away from even hinting at a limit that I was immediately addicted to trying to coax just a bit more out of her each time around. I knew I had to stop but I just kept wanting a touch more. Another ripping upshift. Another mind-blowing turn in at speed. A hint at what more she could do. Clearly, I was being prudent to make sure I wouldn't do any harm to Alain's automotive jewel. But I found that the car was so far inside it's comfort zone that I was compelled to just nibble away at it a bit more each time. Even with the rear tires breaking loose in a couple of corners at times, the car was still waiting for me to come up to speed. I'm happy to chalk some of that up to a modicum of self-restraint. But, honestly, this was a car that is so much better than my brain was ready to process right now. Far better than many mere mortals can tap into, no doubt. I've spent years trying to get better and better. In mere moments, this car let me know it would take me many more years of mental retraining to meet it most of the way there.

What a car! What an experience! Alain, je vous adresse mes plus vifs remerciements.

To start a day with a large mechanical challenge and to then be treated so incredibly kindly by all of the folks around me - it is beyond description and a true testament to the people in the Porsche Club. Overall, I'm sure I know far too few of our regional members as much as I'd like but I already feel like I hit the lottery over and over again by making the acquaintance of folks like Pierre, Alain, Norbert, Bill, Christian, Adam, Dick, Ann, Kristen, Dave, Marshall - and all the folks who commiserated with me and offered their hard-earned wisdom and knowledge to try to coax me back out there for more. The range of emotion is as challenging to convey as it is to do a 1:4x lap time at Palmer (Alain's, not mine), but hopefully you all know you have my eternal gratitude.

At the end of it all, a question – is my little red race car worth the time and effort to fight the tide and get it back out there? Who can say, really? But, after pulling the data card from my one ill-fated session and looking over the traces, it turns out my second lap of the day in this new-to-me car (and current lawn ornament) was just as fast as my best time at this track at the end of last year in my 997. Whether you think the car falls more into the ambitious side or the rubbish side, the times at least might suggest this little thing might have a little bit of ambition left in her yet.