The "Porsche Driving Experience"Submitted by SharpMan Editorial Team on Sunday 10th October 2010
- Where to learn to drive a Porsche "properly."
- The rules for turning quick lap times.
- The differences among various Porsche models.
Have you ever received the proverbial offer you just can’t refuse? You’ll know it when it comes along. That ravishing woman who leaves you tongue-tied asks you out on a date. The boss rewards all your hard work with an unexpected week’s vacation. The IRS chimes in with a tax break just when you’re down to your last fast-food coupon.
Such was the case one fine day when the good people of Porsche invited me to experience the… well, the Porsche Driving Experience.
Normally, this high-performance driving school takes place at one of two tracks: Road Atlanta in Braselton, Georgia, or at the famed Sebring circuit in Florida. And normally, the car used for instruction is the Porsche 911 Carrera Coupe. For this special occasion, though, Porsche took the show on the road and brought some friends along for the 911.
The venue was Shannonville Motorsport Park in Ontario, Canada, the track where such future driving stars as Greg Moore and Jacques Villeneuve cut their teeth. A group of very lucky guests arrived to find no fewer than five new Porsches — the Boxster, Boxster S, 911 Carrera Cabriolet, 911 Turbo and 911 Turbo Tiptronic — lined up in the pit lane. For anyone who loves German engineering, this was a sight guaranteed to induce salivation.
Now, the Porsche Driving Experience (PDE) isn’t your regular racing school. There are no stopwatches and there’s no passing allowed, unless someone slows down and waves you past. Instead, the PDE is intended for Porsche owners and other enthusiasts to learn how to drive cars that were designed to go fast. The program emphasizes car control, smoothness and safety — three rules that I would test before the day was through.
To get things underway, the instructors drove everyone around the track in SUVs, pointing out the racing line, testing us on our knowledge of race driving theory. Following this brief tour, it was go time. Time to separate the men from the boys. Time for the rubber to hit the road. Time to find a new cliché.
Right from the start, I lucked out. First, the man who’s arguably the finest sportscar racer America has ever produced, Hurley Haywood, was assigned to instruct our group. All of the PDE instructors are overqualified, but Hurley has won all of the big three endurance races — Le Mans (three times), Daytona (five times) and Sebring (twice) — a record few drivers anywhere in the world can match.
Our group began with Porsche’s "slowest" car, the Boxster, and progressed up to the quickest, the 911 Turbo. Now, make no mistake: no Porsche is a slow Porsche. But if you really had your druthers, you’d want to build up your confidence as much as possible before testing out the awe-inspiring Turbo. (Trust me on this one.)
So, back to the Boxster. Yours truly behind the wheel, Hurley Haywood in the passenger seat. And right from the get-go, my heart pounded like a rabbit’s. Why, you may ask?
Three reasons: one, I knew I’d be making a mess of things at some point; two, when I did make a mess of things, I hoped I wouldn’t damage any part of the car or Hurley in the process; and three, rumor had it that Hurley grabs the steering wheel in mid-corner if you’re too far off the racing line… which led me back to reason number one.
For the uninitiated, the Boxster may be Porsche’s entry-level model, but it’s still a nimble and quick performer. As I worked on tossing it through the corners, Hurley called out what I was doing wrong: "Too much steering input… Not using enough of the track… You’re scrubbing off too much speed… Not using the brakes to get the weight transfer going…"
In driving road cars on the track, weight transfer is key. You use the brakes approaching a turn to shift the weight to the front end of the car. This helps the front wheels — which handle all the turning duties, remember — get in contact with the tarmac.
It seems illogical, but braking before turns actually gives you faster lap times. If you carry too much speed into a turn, invariably you’re still slowing down after the apex of the turn (the mid-point), which is when you should be back on the gas.
Hopping in the Boxster S — a Boxster with a bigger engine, bigger brakes and bigger tires — I repeated the same mistakes, particularly through a deceptive high-speed turn that really should be taken at slightly less than high speeds. My excuse? On every lap, I was having too much fun kicking the back end of the roadster out.
Officially, my passenger disapproved: "Think of the arc of the turn… Remember: slow in, fast out… You’re turning in too early… Still carrying too much speed…" And at one point, I applied too much gusto going through another high-speed sweeper and I got Hurley’s attention. "Eeeaaasssyyy," he cautioned as the Porsche drifted sideways, away from the ideal racing line.
At the end of this session, I was read the PDE equivalent of the riot act. "You’re still getting turn two consistently wrong," Hurley noted. "You’re not loading the front end enough. Not slowing down enough. Backing off in the middle of the turn, lightening it up, destabilizing it."
"I’ll work on that," I replied.
The 911 Cabriolet
As we switched from one car to the next, the instructors encouraged the drivers to note the cars’ different characteristics. As I stepped into the 911 Cabriolet, the first words out of Hurley’s mouth were, "This car won’t take a lot of jerking around."
He wasn’t implying that I wasn’t taking my driving seriously. He was referring to my lack of smoothness again. The 911 is a heavier car than the Boxster, and a faster one. Entry speed into the corners would be even greater… which meant that my light braking technique wouldn’t translate well.
I decided to hunker down and focus on the task at hand. One warm-up lap and four laps at speed later, progress was being made. "I don’t know if you’ve been thinking about it," Hurley said after our trip in the Cabrio, "but your driving’s a lot better this time around."
He was right: I had been thinking about it. I’d been mulling over something I already knew, another other seemingly illogical aspect of driving fast: the most aggressive approach is almost always not the quickest approach. Having had my fun with the Boxster twins, I decided to reward my instructor’s patience by actually putting some of his theory into practice. Naturally, his advice was right on the money.
The final two cars on the schedule were the pair of 911 Turbos, one with a manual 6-speed transmission and the other with a Tiptronic semi-automatic 5-speed. These cars were another step removed from the Boxster. With all-wheel drive and 415 horsepower, the 911 Turbo was a super car among super cars.
The 10 laps in the two cars went far too quickly. This was partly due to my perception and partly due to the fact that the Turbo is a thinly disguised rocket ship.
As a final treat at the end of an unforgettable day, the guests had the chance to witness the skill of the instructors firsthand. For my trip with Hurley, we climbed in the Boxster S. His supreme skill behind the wheel was immediately apparent.
He braked for turns very late and very heavily. "Clearly, I wasn’t using the brakes enough," I noted. And he tossed the car smoothly through turns as if it were a go-kart. "And I wasn’t going through that turn fast enough," I added. "That turn’s deceptive," Hurley assured me. "The idea here’s not to try to run qualifying laps. You did a good job." And at the end of the day, that encouragement was more than enough for me.
The Porsche Driving Experience offers both one-day and two-day classes. One-day classes focus on progressive, skill-building exercises. Two-day classes add longer periods of track time. For more information, visit www.porschedriving.com. One-day courses at Road Atlanta cost $1,595; two-day courses cost $2,395.This article last updated on Sunday 12th February 2012