Driving has always been a key feature of the Porsche brand, the ownership experience and the culture that surrounds both. Other attributes naturally follow, but the brand starts with the driving experience.
“One ride and you’ll understand why most rocket scientists are German”
Porsche has long-supported customer racing at both the professional and amateur levels. Porsche generously selects classic automobiles to share from its museum collection in Stuttgart and sends them to vintage events, other museums, and racing events around the world. The best example of this in the United States are the hugely popular Rennsport Reunion weekends held since 2001 at Lime Rock Park, Daytona International Speedway, and Laguna Seca. While on a more local level, concours and social events are a part of many Porsche club calendars, the main event for any Porsche owner has been the experience of driving.
The Porsche Experience Center in Carson California is primarily designed around the experience of driving. Jeff Francis, Speed Journal principal, recently took advantage of the opportunity to experience an afternoon of driving time with both a Porsche Cayman GT4 and a Porsche 911 GT3. With capable instructors alongside and an obstacle course that driving schools would envy, Francis flogged both cars back-to-back. In addition, the experience also helped prepare Francis for a trip later in the year where he’ll run Porsches during track days at the legendary venues of Spa Francorchamps and the Nürburgring.
“In 1948, Professor Porsche decided that any car that merely got you from here to there just didn’t go far enough”
A visit to the Porsche experience center is designed to immerse the visitor in all things Porsche. The staff reflects the German ethos of making you feel welcome, regardless of whether you’re a current or past Porsche owner, a potential future owner, or just curious.
While the main event may be the opportunity to take the car of your choice around the acres of playground behind the main building, the entry hall is effectively a revolving showroom of current and past models.
There is usually a handful of current or recent showroom models on display. In addition to more common examples that might be seen at a local dealership, the rare 911 R was on exhibit. The white 2017 911R is a low-production 911 that combines a manual transmission with the potent engine from a 911GT3-RS in a pure 911 shape that omits a fixed rear wing.
It is not unusual, however, to see visiting cars from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. With more cars than space, the main factory museum regularly sends various cars out to events and other museums on loan.
The Museum was represented by a pearl white 1983 prototype Porsche 959 and a silver 1960 Porsche 718 open-wheel Formula 2 race car. Each would be a featured exhibit at almost any museum in the world, so to have them in one place – with no ropes and no admission charged to see them – makes the experience unique. They sat alongside a silver blue 918 – the hybrid two-seater that is Porsche’s most recent halo supercar. The backdrop for the trio was an assortment of various race cars in for maintenance by Porsche Motorsport North America.
The rear of the facility features a gift shop with a wide range of clothing, die cast models and other Porsche trinkets. Nearby, the Speedster café offers light food and beverage that can be enjoyed inside or on the outdoor patio that overlooks the staging area for driving activities.
“The hours a Porsche spends parked. You don’t get those back”
The Porsche Experience Center offers two dozen different experiences; most are for 1.5 hours each. A 718 Cayman, Boxster or the various varieties of 911 await a current owner that wants to try something different or a potential owner that wants more than a dealer test drive. An off-road course is designed to show off the capabilities of the Cayenne SUV. Those that want to see for themselves whether the Panamera four door sedan is really as uncompromised as Porsche advertises can select from among various Panamera models. The more performance oriented visitor can elect for a session that directly compares rear and mid-engine cars or tests the 911 Turbo and 911 GT3 back to back.
The programs are designed to make use of the extensive test tracks in various ways. Make no mistake, the experience center is not a race track, so don’t expect timing and scoring, wheel to wheel competition or trophies. The goal is clearly an opportunity to experience Porsche road cars and perhaps improve driving skills along the way.
The facility offers a “dynamics area” which is a large, flat, open area with cones set up to permit a driver to acclimate to a car and feel how it behaves under hard braking or sharp cornering.
The handling circuit is a one mile winding road with rolling peaks and valleys, something like a winding country road that an owner might encounter on a weekend drive in their Porsche or a section of track on a natural terrain road course. The road rewards the quick identification of the correct line, navigating corners with limited visibility, and finding the best path through the corner and launch to the next.
An academic description of the polished concrete low friction circle and handling circuit read as an opportunity to develop skills to handle oversteer situations. The less technical description would be something like learning to hang the tail out and drift. Challenging and great fun.
To simulate a quick loss of traction, the kick plate module features a moveable plate embedded flush with the pavement. Sensors move the plate randomly to the right or left to simulate a car encountering ice or when a race car gets tagged from behind. Neither the driver nor the coach know which way the plate will kick, so being able to quickly respond to save the car from spinning is the key. The ice hill presents a similar car control challenge with a 7% grade, water jets and a low friction surface.
For raw speed, the acceleration straight is the highlight of all the exercises. Launch control gets the car moving down a ¾ mile straight which runs parallel to the 405 freeway. At the end, a tight, concrete banked hairpin loop designed to mirror the famous Nürburgring Karussell awaits. The driver zooms through the high g-force turn and returns back towards the starting line at speed.
“Starting from a clean sheet of paper is fine if you have nothing worth keeping”
A contemporary base Cayman or 911 is a very capable car. Porsche has a history of adding tweaks to turn base models into S or GTS models. In theory, the GTS models take the best of the S model options and put them together in a single package. But for those that want more, something that favors the track a bit more than the road without going to a pure track car, the GT version of each model is the sweet spot in the Porsche line up.
Since Francis was preparing for track days in Europe in the Cayman GT4 and the 911 GT3, driving both seemed like the obvious experience selection.
“Keeps the logical side of your brain pinned to the back of your skull”
Lead instructor Mark Hotchkis started Francis off with a tour of the sapphire blue Cayman GT4. (You may be familiar with the Hotchkis name. If you’re not, do an internet search for Hotchkis and “Porsche 962” and watch the on-board videos to get a quick lesson to see why Francis instantly had confidence in Mark’s guidance.) The GT4 features a mid-engine configuration, an unmistakable Porsche shape and perfect proportions that beckon the driver to climb aboard. The interior is perfectly suited to a GT car – spartan but plush finishes and materials.
Once underway, Francis felt instantly comfortable in the car. It felt like an old friend, but faster and better composed. Outfitted with a manual transmission, it was agile, predictable and was a natural extension of what Francis had raced in the past. The mid-engine configuration provided neutral handling and the 385 horsepower was enough to give an exotic car experience but without the looming fear that the car was just waiting to spring a harsh surprise if he overstepped its limits. The twisty country road handling circuit really made the nimble nature come to life and provided a very enjoyable drive. Mark’s calm and thoughtful guidance certainly helped enhance the experience.
The lasting impression of the Cayman GT4 for Francis was that it was exhilarating, nimble, and balanced. The only drawback for the driver was that he didn’t get to enjoy the gorgeous shape circulate around the track.
“Look at it this way, it’s either an expensive sportscar or a very reasonable race car”
The second car of the day was the GT3. Francis approached the Agate gray GT3 and explained his upcoming plans at Spa and Nürburgring to his instructor which helped to set the stage for the experience. Clint Boisdeau comes from a road racing background and immediately keyed into Francis’ plans with enthusiasm.
The GT3 is a rear engine exotic with just enough street manners to get to the track. Of course, a high horsepower, rear engine configuration has unique handling characteristics. Rather than make the rear of the car the focal point, Clint worked with Francis on front end handling and braking techniques, and to feel the car in its entirety. This recognition was a key to help Francis think about overall vehicle dynamics and how they all work together.
While the Cayman GT4 features a manual transmission, the GT3 includes a PDK transmission which operates without a clutch and makes for much quicker shifts. Initially, Francis expected to have to be more active to harness the GT3 due to its capabilities, but that expectation diminished quickly as he realized how the car works with the driver. The shifts were fast and the PDK anticipated gear selection which raised the speeds through the corners. The movement of a manual transmission became a distant memory and the driving process quickly became more fluid as he felt the PDK working. The narration from the instructor helped to understand what was happening and why, allowing Francis to both enjoy the experience and sharpen his driving skills.
To the everlasting delight of the Porsche 911 traditionalist, Francis’s lasting impression of the GT3 was the wide powerful rear end that firmly plants on corner exit, bites the tires into the pavement, and launches the car under power. While the interior may have more luxury appointments, the launch control provides predictable shot-out-of-a-cannon acceleration, and the PDK has more advanced technology than 911 models from prior decades, the core sensation of what makes a Porsche 911 is still fully baked in.
“There are rational arguments for buying a new Porsche, but we won’t bore you with them”
The Porsche Experience Center is designed to enhance the connection between owners and the marque and allow owners and non-owners a chance to drive different cars at speed to have fun and learn new skills. The best marketing campaign Porsche has ever designed is probably the simplest – just give people a chance to experience driving a Porsche.
More information about the Porssche Driving Experience Los Angeles can be found at https://www.porschedriving.com/porsche-experience-center-los-angeles