8. Competing in the 914
Considering Porsche has such a long history in racing and rallying, and how events like Le Mans (both modern and classic) grab everyone's attention, I always find it interesting that so few owners have a crack at some form of motorsport or another. Yet, on the other hand, there never seems to be any shortage of people doing track days, some driving half way across Europe to take in some terrifying laps of the Nürburging…
Now I'm no track star by any means – I've never done a circuit race in my life, and to be honest I'm not sure I have the spacial awareness to cope with being in the middle of a pack of cars piling into the first corner. I've driven on various circuits at different times in my journalistic career, including Brands Hatch, Donnington, Silverstone, Castle Combe, Lydden Hill, Vallelunga (many years ago on a press launch with Mazda) and others I've since forgotten, but I have to be honest virtually all of my motorsport experience has been gained in a straight line, a quarter mile at a time, in drag racing.
I know that some people look down their noses at drag racing, seeing it as a peculiarly American sport which requires little or no real skill. The truth is something very different: timing is to the 1000th of a second, meaning the tiniest lapse in driver skill or car set-up can make the difference between a win or loss. There is no margin for error, no opportunity to make up for lost time if you screw up.
However, since moving to Cornwall some two decades ago, I began taking more of an interest in two very different motorsport disciplines: sprinting and hillclimbing, both of which are popular 'down west'. I have attended several regional hillclimb events, notably those at Wiscombe near Exeter, where Porsches are a regular sight. I love the atmosphere, the camaraderie – the sheer friendliness – of it all, but I've never taken part, partly for fear of embarrassing myself in front of my peers and partly because I kept coming up with excuses. As for sprints, I did try one many years ago at Brands Hatch in my Carrera 2.7, but made a bit of a pig's ear of it and went back to drag racing other people's cars!
So that was that, until recently when Adrian Crawford, one half of marque specialists Williams-Crawford, kept dropping less than subtle hints that I ought to have a go at a sprint in my 914. I couldn't really think of any genuine reason why not so set about joining the local club (I already had an competition licence 'just in case') and checked my helmet and race suit. Helmet was just fine, and in-date, as I bought it fairly recently to use in the USA. But my perfect two-layer AWS race suit was, um, 25 years out of date! Oh dear, more expense. As it turned out, Demon Tweeks' eBay store had a sale on and I was able to pick up an OMP suit at 1/3 off retail.
Mods to the car were minimal: tow points front and rear (factory at the front and a webbing loop at the rear), markings to show how to shut off the ignition and yellow tape round the battery ground cable. I also added a black sunstrip across the top of the screen – and that was it.
My first event was the Truro and District Motor Club's sprint at Perranporth airfield (aka Spitfire Raceway), a simple figure of eight course with four straights, two cross-overs and a tightening hairpin at the far end, all marked out with cones. Entered in the Series Production Cars class, my 'opposition' comprised everything from Audi TT and S3 to a Vauxhall Firenza. Mazda MX-5s appear to be the inexpensive weapon of choice…
The first thing that struck me was how welcoming everybody was, with a number of people coming up to have a chat about the car, some commenting that they didn't know how I could bring my self to compete in such a 'classic'. The response to that was 'it's what they were made for'…
The first practice run was a bit messy as I tried to get my head round the course, but the car felt good, its 130bhp being perfectly adequate (for now) – the worst feature were the brakes which, being bone stock, lacked bite. But I didn't hit any cones, or go off course, and I felt quite happy to have broken my 914's sprinting virginity.
Second run, the first against the clock in competition, went better still, with an improvement in time of almost three seconds. I was pretty happy with that, and looked forward to the next timed run. I then made the classic rooky mistake of 'over driving', trying too hard and getting my braking points all wrong. Lose two seconds and do not pass go… Third timed run, it began to rain, so was pleased when I only lost two seconds to my previous best dry time. Right, one more run. This is going to be it, right?
Of course, I screwed up. I completely misjudged the second to last corner and turned in far too early. The moment I realised my mistake, I yelled an expletive at myself and cruised back to the pit area with my tail firmly between my legs. Even the commentator muttered something about 'hanging his head in shame' as I drove past…
And that was it for the day. I'd loved every minute. The 914 had behaved itself (arguably better then the driver did) and I can't wait to make some changes to the car (a new more supportive seat, full harness belts and better brakes) and then I'll be set for the next time – whenever that may be.
As Adrian Crawford said as we were about to leave, 'Lots of people do track days and pretend they're racing, but this is real competition. Even if you don't win, you get far more satisfaction from competing in a proper event than you ever will from a track day'. Do you know what? He's right.