Ray Ho – 01/18/17

What makes some people want to hand over anywhere from $385 to $950 to drive a Porsche for one and a half hours with a driving instructor in the new Porsche Experience Center in Carson, California? Couldn’t someone just go drive one for free at a Porsche dealership or maybe try out a late model from places like Carmax? I am sure it would be equally if not more exciting driving fast on the streets and freeways, especially for the sales guy in the passenger seat. In any case, to find out, I decided to head down to Carson to experience it myself in a 718 Cayman.

Getting stuck in morning commute traffic on the freeways is enough to ruin anyone’s day. But not today! I am determined to enjoy my day off to drive a Porsche, albeit hopefully at speeds greater than 15 miles an hour.

After what seemed like an eternity (in fact it was just slightly under an hour), I finally arrived at this recently opened $50 million dollar facility. When I entered the guest parking lot, there were no shortages of high-performance cars, including many Porsches.  This reaffirms the demographic the center caters to. As soon as I stepped inside the building, the people at the front desk greeted me. I had to show my driver’s license and fill out some basic contact info (should I expect sales calls later?). Really? This is all they need for someone to get behind the wheel of a German Sports Car icon at high speed? Are they even aware that judging from the cars on the road, it seems like almost any moron could get a driver’s license in California nowadays. Oh then she pointed out that I also needed to fill out the back of the pages. Of course, there details the liability and damage disclosures courtesy of their corporate lawyers. It clearly specify that the driver is responsible for up to $10,000 for each (accident) occurrence or the driver can reduce the liability to no more than $2000 per incident for an additional fee of $50.

While waiting for my turn to drive, I spoke to a fellow driver who signed up to drive a 911 Turbo. I get it, his car will be faster than my “basic” Cayman. We exchanged Porsche stories. I mentioned that I used to own a 911 (996) C2 and I just got upgraded to a Cayman S for the cost of the Cayman.  He proceeded to assert that he currently owns a 911 (996) Turbo and he won the raffle for this driving experience from a local new Porsche dealership so he is driving for free today. Moving right along… We wandered around the somewhat compact facility; browsing the Porsche store, checking out the “Speedster” café and marveling at the famous Porsches on display. Through the floor to ceiling glass windows, customers can also observe the technicians at work in the Porsche workshop.

A few minutes before my start time, Charles, the Porsche instructor, sought me out. He would like to know what I wanted out of this experience. I told him that I just wanted to be a better driver, learn car control and ultimately drive faster on the track. We walked outside to the cars.  Although my yellow 718 Cayman S is turbo charged, I recognize it is still not a 911.

First up is the Kick Plate module, being held on a constantly wetted epoxy surface. This is where I drive the car at speed of between 20 to 25 mph onto the kick plate where it randomly kicks the car’s backend to either the left or the right. This would cause the car to spin in circles and slide off the epoxy surface. That explains why the car needs to be at a manageable slow speed going into the surface so we don’t end up sliding too far and hit the wall. It is still daunting that the car spins in circles as I press the brake pedal hard and at the same time praying for the car to come to a complete stop. While some people may enjoy being nauseous, the object of this module is to learn how to control the car so it will go straight thus allowing you to drive off the surface on the opposite side. The trick is to turn the steering wheel as fast as possible in the same direction as the backend spin. It was quite a workout just practicing turning the steering wheels from side to side as fast as I could in a stationary car. After a few tries, I thought I mastered this module until the instructor turned off the vehicle stability control. Now I appreciate why this module takes a good 15 minutes. Hopefully, I will never encounter this kind of skid in real life driving condition but it is somewhat comforting knowing that proper maneuvers would help.

The second module is the Low-Friction Circle, with water spraying from the circumference of the circle. When they say Low-Friction, they really mean it. Slowly going clockwise in circles, turning the steering wheel slightly to the right then blipping the throttle would immediately cause the car to slide. This is where quick hands to counter the slide along with a little bit of gas could help the car “drift” back into control. Now I understand why Ken Block is such an Internet sensation.

Next up is the Low friction Handling Circuit. While the surface is dry, it is still low friction enough that you really cannot exceed certain speed without sliding. This is where you learn the proper lines for turns, as well as appropriate braking points and steering. It is very rewarding to induce an occasional drift.

On to the module known as the Dynamics Area, a large asphalt pad where you can point the car straight, floor the accelerator then practice hard yet smooth braking. Initially, not knowing the braking capability of the car, it is downright horrific to floor the accelerator where the car is flying toward the barriers while anxiously waiting for the instructor’s command to brake. It almost seems to me that Charles has way too much fate in the capability of the car and the “stranger” manning it. Luckily we finished the module without any close calls. This module is also where I practiced letting off the brakes before turning the steering wheel and ran the slalom to exercise turning the steering wheel smoothly.

I can finally see how all these modules built up to the finale, the Handling Circuit. It is a short one-mile track that has enough straights, turns, and elevations to mimic a real racetrack. It is a course to put in all I have learned, especially from the Dynamics Area, to good use.  I believe all that “hard work” paid off.  I truly enjoyed the final few laps but there is still so much to be improved upon. Even though I had to yield (ok a couple of times) to the 911 Turbo on the track, the 718 Cayman S is no slouch. A mid-engine sports car with 350HP, superb handling and amazing brakes, I can’t think of a better car for this driving experience. Be quiet 911 Turbo guy!

The official goal of the Porsche Experience Center is to showcase the performance and handling of the Porsche cars and give an experience for someone that may not have thought about buying a Porsche or cannot afford one yet. Hopefully, this experience will translate into future sales. At the end of the day, it is a great marketing tool. I think Porsche found the perfect location for this center considering the concentration of Porsches and fans in Southern California.

One and a half hours went by quickly. Whether it is worth it is subjective. Conventional wisdom says it is better to spend money on experiences rather than on materials. In most case, I wholeheartedly agree. But as for Porsches, as long as you can afford to, buying one (even a used one) and driving it everyday would recreate the Porsche experience over and over again. Proving that sometimes you can have your cake and eat it too.