The American Road. It’s apple pie and ice cream in Iowa with Kerouac’s Sal Paradise. It’s an escape from “the frantic bustle” in Montana beside Steinbeck and Charley. It’s Neal Cassady mainlining a psychedelic school bus through the heartland. And, to many of us, it’s Len Frank driving an Alfa Romeo race car to the Monterey Historics.
Steinbeck wrote, “Nearly every American hungers to move,” but some like to move much faster than the others and will do so for no better reason than to be the fastest, out in front, beyond all the dull slowpokes who will never figure it out.
Len was one of these restless souls who needed to be out in front, and his tale of taking to the road in the same car he would race at Monterey in 1985 is a classic homage to simpler times, when production-based automobiles doubled as transport to the track. A successful trip was to arrive home at the end of the journey with no mishaps and intact sheetmetal, but, as Len so eloquently wrote, a true racing tale is one of small victories and defeats long before the checkered flag is thrown.
I have a friend who says I’m a Car Slut–I’ll go anywhere to race anything. Car Sluts are easy.
Len’s admission roams through my mind as I hang up the phone after receiving an invitation that would cause most grown men to swoon. Would I care to drive a Porsche race car from Southern California to Rennsport Reunion IV, Porsche’s spectacular motorsport gathering at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on the Monterey Peninsula? And not just any Porsche race car, either. It would be the record-setting GT2 driven by Jeff Zwart to a class win at the 2002 Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, and it would be displayed alongside a host of other notable Porsches.
As a late arrival to the motorsport party, I have more to learn than most gearheads have forgotten, but this is the chance of a lifetime in a very special car. However, with plenty of world-class journalists set to attend, adding my voice to the mix looms as a daunting task.
In dire need of a road map and a mentor, I find guidance, and no small amount of intimidation, in reading Len’s seminal piece, “The Road to Monterey,” from the July 1992 edition of european car magazine.
I am entering into one of my broke periods. Writing is one of the better things that I have done to make a living but financial security is not a big part of the benefit package. Things could be worse. Louie the Landlord is understanding. I have cars to drive. I have a “ride” for Monterey. Things could be a lot worse.
Exactly! I have a car to drive. I’ll never be mistaken for a wordsmith of Len’s caliber, nor will I drive on Laguna’s challenging track, but I feel ready to take my shiny car into the night, armed with his text as my passenger, mainlining through the heart of California.
California is Porsche country, and the Monterey Peninsula is synonymous with cars. This would be Rennsport’s first visit to the West Coast. The vision of the late Bob Carlson, longtime Porsche PR pointman for the U.S., the event brings Porsche’s legendary racing history to roaring life. Virtually every component of Porsche’s racing world will be present—famous cars and drivers, some of the fabled engineers who made those cars so successful and an enthusiastic crowd of Porsche owners.
And me. I am going on the road, in a race car.
Plan to leave at 6 a.m. Can’t sleep. Get up at three, on the road at four.
My own departure, like Len’s, is planned for an unwelcome o’dark thirty. I too can’t sleep, staring at a full moon but seeing CHP cruisers, potholes, engine problems and bent fenders.
It’s about 350 miles to Monterey, about six hours. The car is so full I can’t see out of anything except the windshield. I stop at a doughnut shop for two plain cakes and coffee. I want someone to ask me about the car, about where I’m going, what I’m doing. It doesn’t happen.
My “Rocinante,” the GT2, looks kin to the Merry Pranksters’ kaleidoscopic transport. All white, dripping with red Pegasus graphics, names and numbers that scream, “Extremely cool stuff going on here!” Even in the early morning chill, it starts up and runs like any other 911 before I stop at a Starbucks for a latte and a croissant. Len would have something to say about the cost of caffeine and carbs these days.
Trying not to swagger as I walk from “my” ride to the shop, I want someone to ask me about it, where I’m going, what I’m doing. Here I am, a woman of a certain age, obviously not Jeff Zwart, driving a car with a full rollcage, Recaro racing seats and hyperbolic graphics. Someone, anyone?
It doesn’t happen.
I see a few trucks pulling enclosed car trailers heading north toward the races or the concours at Pebble Beach. At the same time that I am envious of their (financial and real) security, I have this little glow of pride of having done it The Way It Used To Be Done…
Merging onto 101 north, I am smug, my peripheral vision finely tuned to nonchalantly catch the deserved “thumbs up” from other drivers. Disappointment sets in around Santa Barbara. I do garner plenty of attention, however, at the Santa Rosa Road exit in Buellton when I kill the engine at the stop sign. The only witness to this little faux pas is a crew of, oh, about 10 road workers. I do pick my moments.
After meeting friends for breakfast at Ellen’s Coffee Shop, the hangout for locals, it’s back on the 101 where I get not one but two thumbs up from Porsche drivers heading in the opposite direction. Yippee, acknowledgment at last! Ah, the life of a Car Slut.
Driving toward the freeway, a cop drives beside me for a while, disappears. I think he’s following. Paranoia.
A black Carrera looms in my rearview mirror. The driver gives a quick glance as he passes, but does he wave? I don’t know. The rollcage creates blind spots, including just where a CHP black and white is probably lurking. I am paranoid, my eyes constantly darting to the speedometer, but because I’m a considerably more visible target than the rest of the pack, I’m running a bit slower than the flow. Yeah, the Porsche is capable of winning hill climbs, but it’s also so straightforward to drive that I’m lulled into cruise mode. It shifts effortlessly and the racing seat is comfortable. OK, the suspension is a bit stiff, but, come on, it’s a race car!
My drive is unmarred by tickets or incidents and I arrive in Salinas, gateway to Laguna Seca. Porsches are everywhere. After gassing up the GT2, I’m politely waved into traffic by a guy in an M5. He smiles at me, too. What a courteous young man! Later, on the highway toward Monterey, that same gentlemen roars past me, weaving in and out of traffic.
Yeah, he showed me…
The-Kid-on-Christmas-Morning, Nose-Pressed-Against-the-Toy-Store-Window feeling. I can’t help that, I still feel that way driving past the entrance to Laguna.
I make the turn into Laguna’s main entrance late on Thursday, and even though racing doesn’t start until Friday, the infield is teeming with cars, transporters, golf carts, pit-cycles and people. Ah, the distinctive smell of racing fuel and the resonance of unmuffled engines. Finally, after hours on the road, I’m rumbling through lanes lined with awesome racing machinery, watched by an audience of famous names and just plain old fans of the marque. It’s my shining moment, but Santa Rosa Road looms large. What if I kill the engine in front of, horrors, Zwart himself?
I don’t see Zwart and I don’t kill the engine and I cruise through feeling pretty damned full of myself. The GT2 is supposed to be parked in a display tent, but the decision is made by someone to park the car outside for visibility. It’s immediately surrounded by shutterbugs.
I hear someone say, “A chick’s driving that car.” Shoulders back, girl.
The inside of the car smells like tires, the wind blows damp sea air through to mix with the tire smell—I have no trouble sleeping.
The GT2 is my transport to and from the track, my daily driver. Len Frank, ever the struggling purist, slept in his Alfa in front of a Chinese restaurant in Seaside. A tad romantic for my taste, I head to the Monterey Plaza where I’ll be Porsche’s guest, and the opening party takes place on a deck overlooking the bay.
The hotel valet bounds over to open my door. Nope, no parking attendant for this chariot. I follow the valet over to the structure and tuck “my” car in. Zwart hasn’t seen “his” car yet. Later that evening, he self-parks his daily driver, a 1953 356, next to the GT2. It’s a déjà vu moment, recorded in an eerily illuminated photo.