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.
What am I, with my sleeping bag, depending on the kindness of strangers, doing here?
What a namedropper could do with the ammo at the welcoming gala. Everybody who is anybody in the Porsche world is there. Great conversation, a live band, plenty of food and drink. I am Cinderella at the ball, and the GT2 is no pumpkin.
I’m suddenly very, very tired. It has less to do with conditioning than with the adrenaline tap being turned off.
After the party, it’s time for check-in to a sumptuously appointed room with a view of Cannery Row. I’m tired, but it has less to do with the long day than with the pressure of driving someone else’s race car. I crawl in between sheets with an off-the-chart thread count and fall asleep to the lullaby of gentle waves and barking sea lions.
I pass on breakfast at the hotel and decide to take a roundabout route to the track. Seventeen Mile Drive, then down Highway 1 to Carmel Valley Road and finally over Laureles Grade to the track. I first stop at a quiet place for coffee, on the patio, watching joggers and walkers pass on a wooded trail. A couple arrives on bicycles, decked out in serious riding gear. The man looks at the GT2 with naked lust; his female companion dismisses it as something only a man would want. I finish my coffee, swagger hardly at all to the car and take my time letting the motor warm up before departing.
The track is in full swing Friday morning with practice groups lining pit row, crowds and Porsches everywhere. The activity level is hyper-frenetic and the energy palpable. Cars from private collections mingle with classics from the Porsche Museum in Stuttgart. An announcer’s voice spikes the din as cars rumble up and down lanes shared by sauntering fans and hustling drivers and crews.
Laguna Seca is the ideal setting for intimate interaction with these wheeled treasures, usually hidden in private collections or viewed from behind ropes in museums. Virtually the entire history of Porsche racing, from the early spyders to the all-conquering 917s to the late RS Spyders, was on hand, complemented by almost 50 famous Porsche pilots and engineers: Derek Bell, Vic Elford, Vern Schuppan, Hurley Haywood, Al Holbert, Alex Job, Gerard Larrousse, Norbert Singer, Walter Naeher, Valentin Schäffer… the stellar list went on and on.
Finally, enough energy to walk around and look at things, pretend to myself to be writing a story about Monterey, eat an ice cream cone, eat a hot dog.
The red carpet-like viewing is not confined to engines and chassis: Derek Bell meanders through the throng, virtually unnoticed; grand marshal Norbert Singer snaps photos; Jürgen Barth strolls through the pits and stops at fellow ec scribe Kerry Morse’s 1993 3.8 RSR, Barth’s ride to a class win at Le Mans.
Porsche’s pavilion has a German beer garden, and the new 911 is displayed alongside such legendary icons as the 935 “Baby.” The pavilion is nirvana, too, for autograph seekers. The superstars of the Porsche world sit at tables with pens in hand, and the line snakes out of the biergarten, hundreds deep.
Cross the bridge between turns three and four to find “trash and trinkets” comprised of just about anything and everything with a Porsche logo on it or in it. Autograph sessions take place here, too, for the mere price of a book. Jürgen Barth and Randy Leffingwell are seen scrawling away.
The celebration reaches its peak on Saturday afternoon with an assemblage of race, road and rally cars chosen by Porsche for several exhibition laps, filmed from a helicopter. The spectacle covers virtually the entire competition history of the company from 1950 to the present and includes Zwart’s GT2. Even though the laps are to be run slowly, the GT2 will be surrounded by other rare and expensive machinery, and I don’t feel entirely comfortable driving on a circuit that I know only from watching others. I settle for shotgun. With no shortage of volunteers, I ask Oliver Hilger, the main man for Porsche Motorsport press, to pilot the GT2. Our paths have crossed before, the circumstances in sharp contrast, at the finish line of the Trans-Siberian Rally in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia. Long story.
As I approach 4 on the second race lap, there are flagmen on both sides waving blue flags, indicating that someone is trying to pass me. I have taken the Driver’s Meeting Oath to obey all flags scrupulously lest I not be invited back. Dutifully I move over and let a guy in a Speedster by. Certainly this is not the first mistake that I have made on this day, but just as certainly it proves to be the worst.
The first turns are reminiscent of an LA freeway at rush hour. Hilger snaps away with his iPhone and I am, too late, desperate to be driving! The congestion opens up at the famous Corkscrew, and then being co-pilot suits me fine. With its blind entry, sharp left, steep drop and fast exit, the Corkscrew will have to wait until after I go to driving school and find another ride at Monterey. I’ve discovered it’s all too easy to become a Car Slut.
Too soon Rennsport IV is over and it’s time to head back to LaLa Land, but first a stop off at Grandma’s Kitchen for a late, raucous breakfast with Randy Leffingwell, Pete Stout and Kerry Morse. No need to hide the swagger. They know all about what it means to drive a Porsche race car, especially if it’s on the open road, in honor of an earlier drive in an Alfa.
Post-partum racing—what a friend calls the feeling that you get after the last race of the year. I had it then, I have it now. I have no advice, no cure, no finish for this except to say that—take this as a warning—I no longer see blue flags.
Observations of the fourth edition of the Rennsport Reunion.
The overwhelming success of the 50th Birthday Bash for Porsche at the 1998 Monterey Historic Automobile Races proved to be the genesis for the original Rennsport Reunion. Merely stating that the peninsula practically had a Porsche nameplate attached to it would be the supreme understatement. The late Bob Carlson, in his duties as the man in charge of Porsche press affairs for the U.S., tossed up his own mix a few weeks later at Watkins Glen. Clearly, there was a need for a recognized event with support from the mother ship for a reason to party every few years. Why wait 10 years? Why indeed. After an official launch at Lime Rock, the event headed south to Daytona where there was room and a purpose. Florida has always been a popular destination for European and U.K. residents if only for the reasonably short flying time. Carlson always intended to see the show travel to the west coast, distance aside, and the bloodlines for Porsche have always been strong but with a different attitude.
The third edition took place at Daytona again for one simple reason, funding. The late Bob Snodgrass, of the Brumos organization, was a major factor in the success of this Daytona showing, picking up the slack in what marketing had not fully come to realize.
All of that changed when the circus came to Laguna Seca. Regardless of the cost, this was a bargain. A ready-made platform to launch the latest 911 to an appreciative, and at times rabid, gathering. The stage was set, the cast chosen and on with the show. How would the fourth edition compare when mirrored against the previous three or the big birthday of 1998?
Looking back at the event, a few things stood out. While it may have been officially known to accounting as Rennsport Reunion IV, it would be more appropriate to tag it as Rennsport West Coast I. It is simply a different attitude and in many ways, the west coast vibe is a lot more fun. As in 1998, there was a large family presence in the crowd while Daytona had the more hard-core racers. Club racing was a major feature of the second and third editions, and the paddock area of Laguna Seca just isn’t large enough to accommodate everyone who wanted to be on the track. The most obvious factor was the full inclusion of Porsche marketing and they took full advantage of the surroundings. A competition history of the 911 variants was constructed in the pit garages with everything leading up to a public debut of the newest evolution of the 911.
The embrace of social media meant the moving images of the fourth edition of Rennsport would always be accessible, thus refreshing the memory, something that wasn’t available for the previous runnings. The majority of the professional drivers and factory personnel I spoke with enjoyed themselves immensely and the adulation was evident by the long lines of those seeking a signature during the staged autograph sessions. In perusing the list of Porsche’s invited guests in attendance, there were some that were overlooked, or more to the point, not able to attend for various reasons. There was no question as to the importance of the contributions of those individuals. Fans and enthusiasts of the marque know the names. In the end game it comes down to this; would Bob Carlson have approved? I like to think he would have.