The Diablo Mountains, east of San Jose, Calif., offer some of the best and most spectacular driving roads in Northern California. Bordering the local state park, Route 130 starts in the foothills by Highway 680, and winds its way up Mt. Hamilton towards Observatory Peak at 4,213 feet above sea level, and down the other side.
Running across Mt. Hamilton for 22.5 miles, Route 130 has much more gradient than flat, a few short straights, many open but even more numerous tight bends, and the occasional hairpin thrown in for good measure.
In all, there are 365 curves here, one for each day of the year, and all the tighter corners are cambered the right way. The backdrop to this sinuous piece of tarmac is rock face on one side and a sheer drop on the other. This is a serious driver’s road par excellence!
On the downside, the road was better maintained before the financial crisis, and the subsequent lack of funding and a couple of hard winters have begun to degrade the surface.
Thus, you have to be careful of small rocks that have been washed off the cliff face by the occasional rain. And just like at the Nürburgring in spring, autumn and winter, the damp patches shaded by the trees do not dry out.
Today, we are enjoying the breathtaking views from the University of California’s Lick Observatory, on Observatory Peak. It has taken us just over half an hour of spirited driving from the highway, covering barely half of Route 130, to get here.
It was no surprise that we only saw one other car on the way up as the locals say the population of Mt. Hamilton is around 40 people. However, unlike the odd tourist who comes up here for the observatory tour or just to get some clean air, the five of us, and our three GT3s were on a mission.
GT3s are not town or highway animals; they are lean and lithe predators born to go quickly on a racetrack or on roads like these, and the jockeys who ride them want to enjoy every minute.
Enjoy it is precisely what I was doing in this back-to-back drive of two tuned 997 GT3s and one tuned GT3 RS 3.8, all three fettled by California-based Porsche tuner Shark Werks.
It is one thing for Shark Werks to hand over their own brand-new GT3 RS 3.8 to a total stranger, it’s quite another for two of their best customers to do the same, especially on a road as demanding as this. I take it as a mark of the confidence they have in their cars, and the respect they have for Shark Werks co-founder Alex Ross and his team.
Ralph Jackson’s silver GT3 was actually the second car I drove that day. I had decided to start with the lightly tuned blue and orange Shark Werks RS 3.8, using it as the benchmark for the two modified 997 GT3s.
Their car, one of the four Gulf blue and orange themed RS 3.8s to come to the U.S., was famous even before it reached Shark Werks HQ. Alex and Dan collected it in person from supplying dealer Isringhausen Porsche in Springfield, Ill., in early November and drove it all the way back to California.
Their 2,229-mile journey across five states on the legendary U.S. Route 66 was the subject of a daily blog on the Shark Werks website in early November. I followed his journey in the days leading up to my visit to Shark Werks. The timing was perfect as I was due to drive the new 991 Carrera in Santa Barbara just a few days after my visit to Shark Werks.
Apart from being the most lurid GT3 RS 3.8 I have ever seen in the metal, the setting was familiar, and the figure-hugging race seats felt like a favorite pair of gloves.
When I twisted the ignition key, the engine fired up with a deeper, more visceral bark than standard thanks to the Shark Werks GT3 exhaust. I knew from Alex’s blog that scant seconds after taking delivery of his brand-new car, he had Isringhausen whip it into their workshop to install the exhaust, which is one of Shark Werks best-selling lines.
On day four, and 1,500 miles into the journey home, the intrepid duo stopped off at Evolution Motorsport (EVOMS) in Arizona for the ECU remapping work that would optimize the fuel, ignition and camshaft timing for both 91 and 93 octane fuel.
On the EVOMS dyno, the factory output baseline was 424 hp at the wheels. This was boosted to 442 hp, or 470 hp at the flywheel, by the ECU and exhaust mods, and the RS continued its journey west with smiling faces all around.
“When we got the car back to our workshop, we then did all our usual suspension and wheel upgrades as well,” said Alex. “Having a car that a customer can drive is a basic principle we uphold here, and we have proven over and over with various demo cars that there is no better way to sell parts or even complete cars.”
Feeling 20 hp on top of 450 hp is a tough call, especially on a road like this where you seldom get up enough speed to see the redline in Third. But from the more incisive way the throttle responds, and the more eager the rev counter needle chases the red paint, the seat of my pants tells me that the freer-breathing exhaust and remapped software have done the trick.
On top of that, the Shark Werks exhaust shaves about 18 pounds off a 997 GT3, but as the factory RS 3.8 uses a titanium exhaust, the saving drops to around 8 pounds. That said, the factory RS exhaust only uses titanium in its center muffler and tips, and the pipes are still stainless steel. Shark Werks use titanium tips that are larger in diameter but lighter.
A road like Route 130 requires a driver to get into a rhythm. I always take it easy until I feel comfortable, stepping up the pace gradually until car, driver and road come together. It takes three or four miles till everything snaps into place, but then we are off with the two GT3s behind.
The RS 3.8 takes the occasional rough surface and change of road camber in its stride. This car has fantastic poise and stability under trail braking into bends, and superb traction on the way out.
I know how good the stock RS 3.8 is, but with Shark Werks’ bump steer correction kit, control arms and rear adjustable link kit, the handling has even more finesse.
I know from experience that on a racetrack I would be confident to push the RS all the way and beyond. But here, with the rock face always just a couple of feet away, there is no margin for error.
Even pushing hard on this road, there is no sign of the suspension running out of travel, tram lining or the ABS even hinting of kicking in, and only once or twice does the deep front spoiler lip come into contact with the tarmac.
Lower unsprung weight always helps ride, traction, braking and even acceleration, so the HRE Monoblock P43S centerlock wheels in factory sizes that shave a total of 12 pounds from the unsprung weight play their own part here.
With a shade more grunt, soundtrack and handling than it came with out of the box, the modest Shark Werks alterations to the RS 3.8 score a bull’s-eye. They leave the RS 3.8 slightly more focused as a keen driver’s car, without upsetting its fine balance or eating into its ability to be used as a daily driver.
When Alex told me that property developer, Ralph Jackson, whose 2007 GT3 was the first recipient of the Shark Werks 3.9-liter motor, was keen to join our little soirée, I was elated. I have heard so much about Ralph, his car and the Shark Werks 3.9-liter engine that my expectations are running close to escape velocity.
Ralph’s 2007 GT3 is no garage queen. It was the very first ’09 GT3 delivered in Northern California and is used as a daily driver. It is also probably one of the highest mileage GT3s in the world, with over 58,000 miles under its belt, 23,000 of those covered with the 3.9-liter motor.
“I live on the northern part of the loop that we are driving today, where the roads are similar but smoother, so the steering, suspension, tires and engine get a good daily workout,” said Ralph. “It is a testament to the basic toughness of the GT3 and Shark Werks’ engine building skills that the car has never missed a beat.”
“The only thing that has ever gone wrong was the shafts of the stock front dampers bending at 50,000 miles with the torture this infamous road gave them,” he continued. “But since I replaced them with aftermarket Bilsteins, everything has been fine.”
Ralph is no ordinary GT3 owner. Turning 65-years-of-age this year, he is a GT3 Rennlister who has been associated with Porsche since his teens when he worked for the legendary Vasek Polak, and drove Abarth Carreras and RSKs around the Riverside Raceway.