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2 November 2011

Porsche’s racing history roars, rumbles and sometimes blows up…

The plan was to attend Porsche Rennsport Reunion IV and deliver an accurate, and hopefully vivid, account of the three days of historic racing at Laguna Seca.

Then I walked into the paddock early Friday morning, and all pretensions of objective journalism were blown away by the astonishingly rich array of racecars crowding Laguna’s infield. Sure, I’d seen most of these cars raced before, at previous Rennsports and at various vintage meetings over the past 35 years, but the sheer number of legendary cars and drivers subverted my professional detachment into the shameless awe of a devoted cult member.

The plan unraveled with the first, massive intake of partially combusted racing fuel. I was standing behind one of only thirteen Porsche 908/3s ever built, Gulf #1 warming up in the carbon-thickened morning fog. Then, an infinity of uncorked decibels assaulted me as a 917K, a 910 and a 908 revved by on their way to morning practice. Over there, Brian Redman held court before a gathering of wide-eyed graybeards. Hurley Haywood, Porsche’s vice president of motorsport for North America, waved on his way to an unveiling of the 2012 Porsche 911, and Patrick Long, much the younger of the two Porsche aces, trotted in the other direction for an autograph session.

Meanwhile, Porsche engineering meister Norbert Singer stood by, unnoticed, watching a knot of enthusiasts pose for pictures next to his famous “Moby Dick” 935/78, the car that won both Le Mans and Daytona in 1979 — and that looked as fast sitting still as it did at 220 mph down the Mulsanne.

All this in the first 15 minutes!

Over the following three days, eight race groups, comprised of a varied and striking mix of types and configurations, filled the daylight hours with mostly accident-free competition, sometimes fierce, sometimes prudently protective of valuable machinery. Despite a racing history that did not begin until 1948, the variety of Porsche competition vehicles on hand was extraordinary and included everything from open-wheelers to prototypes to production-based racecars, many brought to the track by the factory and displayed under a huge tent. Nearby, in the pit garages, a series of 911-based racers demonstrated technology’s progress over the last 45-plus years, culminating in today’s ubiquitous GT3.

Porsche also brought along a few new 911s (991 is the official type number), making their North American debut ahead of the first press drives. Kilometermagazine.com will have a full review of the car in early November.

Singer was the event’s grand marshal (along with comedian Jerry Seinfeld who famously owns a few Porsches), and it was my intention to interview him. Famously self-effacing, he laughingly shook me off. “That’s too much like work!” So we ended up chatting informally over the weekend and on the Monday morning after the event enjoyed breakfast along with his old friends and fellow Porsche engineers, Valentin Schaeffer and Walter Naeher.

I had a felt pen in my pocket in case they wanted to sketch out their dream machine on the tablecloth, but it was not to be. Nor were any of them inclined to relive the good old days. But, before they ran off to catch flights back to Germany, I asked Singer if the rumors were true that Porsche had a secret lab where it was developing a spaceship to compete with Richard Branson’s ambitious rocket-plane. For the only time that morning, he laughed and said, “No, the rumors are not true. But, it would be interesting.”

Started in 1998 to celebrate Porsche’s 50th anniversary, Rennsport Reunion was visiting the west coast for the first time, and Laguna Seca’s winding road course proved an ideal venue to watch the very lively races. Organizers say around 35,000 spectators wound their way up the narrow roads to the track over the three days, which is not surprising considering that California buyers account for over half of all Porsches sold in the U.S. Porsche Club of America members, a significant percentage of those who attended, themselves brought in some 1,300 of their street cars, a record for owner corrals at Laguna Seca. So pleased was Porsche by the enthusiasm of both participant and spectator that Porsche and Laguna Seca are already planning Rennsport V. Even if you have only a marginal interest in Porsches, it will, once again, be an opportunity to watch, feel and smell an illustrious history that is still being written.

Remembered:

- A small collection of early spyders in the parking lot, all of which appeared to be daily drivers.

– An even smaller group of GT3s, every one yellow and looking F.O.B.

– Brian Redman smoking a field that included 917s to win the Weissach Cup in the Gulf 908/3, showing once again that balance and a favorable power-to-weight ratio can beat more power.

– Avid photographer Norbert Singer, shooting a gaggle of 934s and 935s exiting the Andretti hairpin onto the front straight.

– A marvelous assortment of cars from Brumos, their familiar white with red and blue stripes always an indicator of a serious racing effort.

– A dapper Vern Schuppan, the great all-around driver who won Le Mans in 1983 with Hurley Haywood and Al Holbert, avowing his contentment to watch others drive while relating the story of a terrifying stint in an ill-prepared Mini Cooper at Goodwood’s Festival of Speed.

– Vic Elford, as intense as ever, saying he had no interest in driving again. “Done that,” he barked. “The thrill is gone.” Understandable from the man who helped tame the 917.

– Old friend and Excellence magazine editor, Pete Stout, staying out of the way and mostly on line in a ’74 RSR during the Carrera Trophy race, finishing 27th out of 38 starters.

– The long streak of mostly silver as thirty-seven of the earliest Porsches buzzed up the front straight for the Gmund Cup, won by Don Anderson’s orange 1964 Bobsey-Porsche SR-3.

– The beautifully restored #0 Interscope 935. With Danny Ongais at the wheel, it took this writer for a fast ride around Riverside Raceway in 1980 and forever changed his perception of time vs. distance.

– Seven-time Pikes Peak winner Jeff Zwart, anticipating his next assault on the mountain road, now paved all the way to the top, with full-lock slides in his 906 out of the Andretti hairpin.

– Dieter Inzenhofer, a founding member of tuner Andial, which built Porsche’s winning Daytona engine from 1983-87 and in 1989, fiddling in the 906’s engine compartment and sweating as though it really counted.

– Zwart’s early 356, in totally original condition with a U.S. Military license plate from 1953. “It’s my daily driver!” he yelled from the cockpit of his 906.

– Didier Theys setting fastest lap of the meeting in a 2007 Spyder with a 1:20.679, around 10 sec. quicker than the winner of any other group and just five seconds slower than the Lola/Mazda that took pole at the ALMS race in September.

– A mostly well-behaved crowd, though there was a report of a fist-fight over the last of the event t-shirts. Concessionaires did record business, but I forgot to buy anything.

– Kerry Morse, shouting at the badly smoking L&M Can-Am 917, driven by George Follmer in a return to the car that won him the 1972 championship: “I told you not to run it!”

– Commiserating with Porsche Cup winner Cort Wagner, whose expected ride had mechanical problems and didn’t run. “Maybe I’ll go to the aquarium,” he joked.

– Wishing well to good friends Ted West, Pete Lyons and Bill Oursler with their book sales in the well-stocked vendors row.

– The mini-skirted young lovely who tried to bring her dog into Porsche’s luxury suite. “Not even if her name is Portia,” cracked the surprisingly literate gatekeeper who turned the beast, and dog, away.

– Porsche’s air-conditioned suite and an endless supply of excellent German weissbier, which that woman never got to taste.

– Chatting with the unofficial queen of Rennsport, the delightful Debbie Carlson, whose late husband Bob, a longtime Porsche P.R. man and great friend, was the driving force behind this exceptional series of reunions.

– Getting a close-up tour of the 2012 911 with chief of 911 development August Achleitner. Word: Wider, longer, lighter, lower and, of course, faster.

– Norbert Singer, over breakfast, grumpily insisting, “There is no absolute truth,” on the question of trusting one driver’s input over another’s after a test session.

– Walter Naeher, smirking at the grumpiness of his old friend.

– Singer needling Jochen Maas about his colorful wardrobe:”Here comes the golfer!”

– The pall that fell over the track Sunday afternoon when news of Dan Wheldon’s death spread throughout the paddock.


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