(Originally featured on www.rightfootdown.com)
About a week ago, I got an unexpected early morning message from a man I'd spoken to, but never met in person.
“Hey man, still interested in some early 944 fun/shooting?”
Now I don't know about you, but when someone offers me a chance to spend some time with a vintage Porsche, I agree first, and ask questions later. The owner in this instance had read some of my other reviews, and even knew the owners of some of those cars, so an unspoken understanding was already there. I figured it would proceed in the usual fashion: we'd meet in some forlorn parking lot at a depressing hour, I'd tear around on the street for an hour or so, snap some photos, and send him on his way. If that sounds like an odd way to spend a morning, it is.
The usual hashing out of scheduling began, which is always the complicated part. At any given point, I'm working on at least side project, in addition to a full time job, all while trying to ensure that my girlfriend doesn't leave me for my cat. That’s not a joke. It’s a serious concern. I intended to get something on the books for the Porsche, but there was no rush. I’m behind on work, and spring is just beginning, so we have many months of good driving weather left. But as we were discussing his SCCA schedule, the bomb dropped.
“If you'd like to co-drive my car on Sunday you're welcome to do so.”
Flogging sports cars on the street is certainly fun, but there are severe concessions made in the name of safety and staying out of jail. But on the track, I'd be allowed to drive as fast as I was physically capable of, without regard for other motorists, pedestrians, or police. Previously, I was intrigued. Now, I was enthralled. A Porsche, on a closed track, in a sanctioned SCCA event. How could I say no?
But then I remembered that I've never even spectated an autocross event. And I'd never seen the car in person. So, race an unknown car, in a type of event I know nothing about, on a track I've never seen, while the owner sits next to me? Also, the only rear wheel drive auto I’ve ever owned were some Ford Rangers back in high school and college. Both of which I totalled. Oh. This might actually be a bit more interesting than I originally planned on.
I know most autocross events just take place in parking lots, but this might be the one area in which Kansas City’s motorsports scene is better than some of our rival cities. Here, we have a web of paved lanes, that are then adjusted with a few cones to finalize the layout. This means there are actually grass runoff, different pavement materials, and even some very minor elevation changes. Picture it as a series of four way intersections, that you close certain arms of, to create a route.
So I headed down there, at the crack of dawn on a Sunday, with the sole goal of not breaking the car, and hopefully not embarrassing myself too badly. Luckily, we were scheduled to run in the third and final heat of the day. The downside of that was I would be spending a full eight hours at the track, and I hate spending that much time anywhere I’m not getting paid. But the upside was I would get many hours to watch and learn. The first heat I would just be learning, and trying to talk my way into any and all available passenger seats. The second heat, I would be a corner worker out on the track (complete with my own super stylish orange safety vest). Finally, in the third heat, I’d be taking the wheel.
I’ve thought about getting involved in autocross for a while, as it’s something I can get into without driving four hours, and also is (theoretically) a bit safer. Plus, my Cooper S is an incredibly popular autocross car. The man working the gate even attempted to talk me into it when I checked in to get my wristband. So obviously, the first car I talked my way into was a lightly modified Cooper S. Sure, this wouldn’t really be applicable to racing a rear wheel drive Porsche, but it would at least show me the track, and let me know what running my own Mini would be like.
Like every enthusiast, I like to think I’m a quick driver. I’ve been driving my Mini for a couple years, and like to believe that I’ve gotten pretty good at hustling it around. I’ve waxed poetically about the agile chassis on multiple occasions, and how it can play right on the grip threshold with ease. That was before I buckled myself into a car driven by an SCCA champion. His Mini only had a few bolt-ons, with some minor suspension work, so it was still very close to stock.
After the first corner, I no longer thought I was a quick driver. I was entirely unprepared for how fast you had to drive the car. Every single corner we entered, I was convinced we could not possibly stay on the pavement and out of the weeds. It didn’t have much in the way of straight line acceleration, but it just never slowed down. This was the definition of a “momentum” car. I now understood what drivers meant when they mentioned driving at 10/10ths. If that was 10/10ths, I’ve never driven above 5 or 6. Full aggression, at or beyond the limits of the tires, the entire time. My mind was blown. I couldn’t even pay attention to the course, because the physical sensations were so overwhelming.
After that, I bummed rides in a few other cars, just to get a feel for the course, and for the speed. Then was working the course. Which sounds much more complicated than it is. Basically, I stood next to the hairpin, and replaced cones that people knocked over. Pick up cone, gesture to official that a cone went down, replace cone. Oh, also try to not get killed by the Mustang on Hoosiers when it locks up its brakes and overshoots the corner.
To make things more complicated, I managed to lose my eyeglasses while working the course. So I wound up being out in the grass way longer than expected, before needing to run to the Johnny on the Spot for the important pre-race piss. I was going to be terrified anyways, the last thing I needed to do was soil myself in the driver’s seat. By the time I got done hunting for my glasses (which I did not find), and using the facilities (which were fairly unpleasant), the parade lap was beginning. So I ran the width of the parking lot, grabbed my helmet from my co-driver, and jumped in the 944. This was my first time sitting in the driver’s seat.
It was also my first time driving the circuit, in any configuration, in any vehicle. I had walked around it twice, and been a passenger three times, but that’s hardly preparation for doing it myself. I even managed to miss a cone on the parade lap. This didn’t exactly bode well for running it at speed.
After that inauspicious start, it was back to the staging lanes. For those of you, like me, who are new to autocross, how it works is you do a lap, then pull in and park, wait five to ten minutes, and then go out again. For me, I was sharing the 944 with the owner, so we had to alternate laps. The affect that these random pauses have on your mind is fairly bizarre. I would stand around and make small talk for roughly ten minutes, then sit in the passenger for a hot lap, then stand around for another ten minutes. After roughly twenty minutes of doing nothing, I suddenly had to switch my brain into full attack mode, flog the Porsche as hard as I could, then go back to killing time. The wild swings of adrenaline were difficult to process, and lead to a lot of the afternoon being a blur.
So here’s what I do remember. My first lap at speed involved an instructor riding shotgun with me to give me a bit of guidance. He seemed slightly nervous about the fact that my first time driving the car had been the parade lap and that I’d never competed in autocross. Some people have no sense of adventure.
But that went very smoothly, if a bit slow. He did question me after the fact, saying “I thought you’d never done this before?” To which I had to reply, “it’s my first time doing autocross, it’s not my first time driving fast.” Now, there’s a reasonable chance he was just trying to build up the confidence of a helpless rookie. But obviously, he was just dazzled by my sheer raw talent. Disregard the fact that my codriver was nearly ten seconds faster than me.
As for the 944 itself, it was amazing. Not a fast car, or even particularly quick, but like all great cars, it talks to you. Even on my first hot lap, I felt entirely comfortable letting the car slide out wide in the sweeper, and then lifting off the gas to get the nose to tuck back in for the slalom. Sure, I didn’t have enough experience to really test the limits of the car, but at no point did it surprise or frighten me.
I was too distracted by trying to keep the speed up to really delve into the nuances, but the fact that I was turning quasi-respectable laps with less than two minutes of seat time under my belt says the whole story. Similar to the legendary Miata (which consisted of basically our entire class), the 944 teaches you to refine your craft. You’re never going to get ahead by sheer power or grip, but instead, you need to conserve momentum and carry speed wherever you can. Push your limits, trust the car, and you will be surprised at how far beyond your expectations you can go.
As for the dramatic, dirt throwing photo here… Well, let’s just say I never quite got the hang of the hairpin at the end of the high speed section. I was always trying to eke out a bit more oomph before getting on the brakes, and always overcooked it. As with all of this, it comes down to needing to fully trust the machine. I never was able to really stamp the brake down as hard and fast as needed. There’s a degree of trust that your build with a vehicle as you slowly tease out each other’s limits. Just like with your college girlfriend, you need to try a finger before you cram it in there.
At the end of a very long day, how did I feel about my first autocross? Well, first of all, I’m slow. Like, really slow. I mean, you can watch the video for yourself. That was the final lap. The driving was an unbelievable rush, and it taught me to get more comfortable driving beyond the traction limit. I started to learn how hard a car can be pushed, and how to try and reign it back in. That being said, the amount of seat time you get compared to the length of the day is laughably poor. If I didn’t share a car, I would have had eight minutes of race time, out of an eight hour day.
I understand that this may be region specific. Our event had 150 cars enter, which as I understand it, is way higher than other regions. But because (as I often lament) we don’t have any easily accessible race tracks, anyone who is remotely interested in racing comes out. So everyone needs to get their runs in, plus has to do their time working the course. But still, a full day, and fifty dollars, for less than ten minutes of racing is a tough pill to swallow.
I say all this now, and bemoan how unfair it is, and what a poor deal it is, but then I look at my Mini in the garage.
You know, it might look real nice with a number placard on the doors.
And I’ve already got a Snell rated helmet.
And the track is only twenty minutes from my house.