When life gives you LeMons, make racecars!
Life is weird sometimes. A couple of months ago, I mentioned how awesome I thought it would be to pit the two most well known San Francisco Bay Area based Porsche LeMons cars against each other in a tongue-in-cheek 'battle royale' with a journalist hot-shoe at the wheel [note: I'm a warm-shoe at best]. When I first posited such an idea to the owners of these respective cars via a post on Facebook, I didn't think they'd take me up on the deal, and figured it'd be nothing more than a friendly comment. Shortly after that initial post, however, we'd figured out an event that would work best for all of us; the Golden Gate Region PCA's 9th autocross of the season at the old Alameda Naval Facility in early November. As they say, 'you miss 100% of the shots you don't take'.
The Players -
The participants in this weird game consist of Ferkel the Nein-11 and the EASY 908/14, perhaps the two best known Porsche-based LeMons cars in the world, or at least on the west coast. Both started life as iconic Porsche sports cars, but now they are sporting machines of another purpose. Neither retains their original engine, though both have kept their suspension completely stock. Neither was worth restoring, and both have had extensive, though not expensive, body modifications.
Ferkel the Nein-11
Ferkel rolled off the assembly line as a 1983 Porsche 911 SC in complete European Specification with a higher compression 3.0 liter flat six. When car owner Philipp purchased the car, it was a basket case. The SC had been involved in a rollover event with every single panel beaten and bashed practically beyond recognition, but the drivetrain was intact. The car was purchased, therefore, as a donor, in order to save the life of another of his 911s, perhaps one more deserving of that engine.
Once the engine was yanked, the car was stripped of many of its other parts that were still salvageable, and the body was destined for the scrap heap. Philipp, ever the opportunist, saw that the car, while beaten and bruised, was still largely intact and the chassis was straight with the damage being primarily superficial. As such, they decided to turn the now-stripped car into a racer. What better way to go racing in a car worth nothing more than scrap value than to head to LeMons? Since the engine alone was worth more than the $500 value limit imposed on LeMons racers, his team needed to find a suitable engine to swap into the car in order to take it racing. The team brainstormed on what engine would be 'least suitable for a Porsche race car', and came to the conclusion that it needed to be a diesel.
A 1.9 liter Volkswagen turbo diesel engine with nearly 300,000 miles traveled was sourced from a ratty and worn out Jetta. an adapter plate was sourced to fit the engine to the car's original 915 gearbox, and with practically no modification to the car or the engine, the team took it racing. The car, as it sits, is now down pretty significantly on horespower at only 91 horses on tap (about half the original 3.0 liter's figure), but torque is way up at nearly 200 lb-ft. The Nein-11 team had hardly done a shakedown drive with the car when it first hit the track in anger, and to add to the fun-o-meter, just one day before our autocross, Ferkel was unveiled to have a new 'Porsche Diesel Junior' tractor livery that is equal parts awesome and sacrilegious. Besides, how many Porsches have you seen with a smoke stack, let alone one with a tractor sourced flapper valve rain guard?
I Don't Think This Is The Way A 911 Is Supposed To Sound
The 908/14's story is perhaps somewhat similar, though with a more traditional gasoline engine. EASY (European Auto Salvage Yard) is a Porsche dismantler in the San Francisco Bay Area that has been providing parts for vintage Porsches since they weren't really all that vintage. As such, the shop has access to a whole lot of wrecked, decrepit, and past their prime Porsches just ripe for the picking. For their LeMons racer, the team chose a 914 as their base chassis. At first, the team raced the car with its stock aircooled flat four, but quickly found it was lacking in the power and reliability arenas. During that period, the car received its body modifications. in order to make their 914 look something akin to a Targa Florio Gulf 908/3, they flipped an early 911 bumper upside-down and tacked it on the front, smoothed out the contours of the front fenders, and added a pair of rear aerofoil fins. The rear decklid spoiler was created by flipping the stock decklid over and welding it in. From a few hundred feet away, if you really squint, it kinda sorta looks like a 908. Yeah, maybe.
When the team, represented in their corner by leader Richard Breazeale, grew tired of keeping up the car's original Volkswagen-based 2.0 liter, they decided to replace it with a Volkswagen 2.0 liter of a different sort. The new engine, known as an ABA engine in VW circles, was pulled from a Jetta as well, but a gasoline one instead of a diesel. This engine provided a decent power hike to about 130 horsepower, give or take. Unlike Ferkel, the 908's engine received a few hop-up parts, including a performance camshaft and uprated valve springs. While Ferkel has only been participating in LeMons events for a short time, the EASY car has been around the block a few times, and they've had to fix a few of the car's common problems, including frequent CV axle repairs, by building better parts. The 914's front suspension was replaced with strut housings from a 911 in order to fit larger calipers and rotors, but otherwise kept stock, down to the lack of sway bars, and the original 40 year old torsion bars.
The Venue -
The Alameda autocross course was an interesting place to be last weekend. The temporary track used to be an active naval base jet runway, so there was literally acres of wide open flat-ish concrete for us to play with. The course designer laid out a pretty good route that really favored cars with a really good low end pick up, as well as those with a bold driver. A short chute to a ninety degree bend led into an offset figure eight. Following the figure eight, there was a short jog to the left that led into a three cone slalom. Exiting to the left on the slalom, there was a left-right-left box complex. The course was kind of split in two with the first half being very frantic and required a lot of back and forth sawing at the wheel, and the second half a more flowing rhythm section. Both halves were split apart by two long left hand sweepers accented by a sharp hairpin. The second half of the course began with that long sweeper leading into a relatively long straight, certainly the longest straight of the course, which ended in a sharp left. An offset left leads into a push back to the right, then back to the left in a tight gate. Going wide back to the right, then back to the left setting you up for the hard side of another 3 cone slalom. After the third cone, you have to rotate all the way to the left to set up for a very tight and very slow left-right-left chicane, then a squirt of the throttle takes you across the finish. For those interested, a larger blow up of the course map is available here.
The Main Event -
Once at the autocross venue, it was clear that this PCA event was going to be unlike anything I'd ever done before. I've got some pretty extensive experience autocrossing with the SCCA, but I'd never run with PCA before, and certainly never at the Alameda facility. This place is so expansive and wide open, I could hardly believe it. I'm used to running courses that are no more than 40 seconds in length, mostly due to spacial constraints. I could tell just by a quick course walk that a lap of this place would easily exceed a minute in length, maybe more in the pair of weirdo cars I was set to drive. The three drivers, Philipp, Richard, and I, all decided that we'd not take ourselves too seriously at this event, and simply set a goal of having fun and figuring out the cars, rather than aiming for an out-and-out fast lap (which we knew wouldn't be all that fast anyhow). Of course, there was a whole lot of friendly competition, but nothing beyond a little ribbing.
The event was scheduled to be an all-dayer, and everyone would get three runs in the morning, and four runs in the afternoon. This put everyone on a tight time table, as we'd be running up on the sunset in the evening. I've never experienced an autocross that lasts as long as this one did, but I got about twice as much running in for the entry fee than I would normally get with an SCCA event. A decent trade off, I suppose. In order to get a fair shakedown of both cars, Richard selflessly donated one of his runs to me in the morning so that I could get four laps in each car, hopefully getting a feel for how they drove and putting in a relatively representative time.
Driving Experience: 908/14 -
In the morning sessions, I jumped behind the wheel of the 908/14 for two laps before switching over to Ferkel. The 908/14 felt really good for never having been autocrossed before. The stock suspension provided a bit more wallow and sway than I like in a cone-dodger, and a set of really thick sway bars would have been a godsend. Even without a taut and firm suspension, though, it felt generally well balanced, but could easily be rotated with a liberal application of the throttle. The front of the 'teener was light and easily managed, the steering was plenty communicative and allowed me to place the front of the car right where I wanted it. Not even a hint of understeer ever crept up, allowing me to drive in max attack mode.
Once on course, the car's engine didn't really even factor into the equation. It felt like a well-oiled machine, and everything worked as a cohesive unit. It didn't necessarily set the world on fire, and it wasn't the fastest thing ever, but it at least felt intentional, like a 914 race car really should feel. My personal opinion on the 914's original Typ-4 Volkswagen flat-4 engine is well known, I hate them. They're ungainly, dumpy, less than eager to rev, and they aren't exactly sonorous, but this 914 fixes those problems with a relatively simple engine swap, ironically another Volkswagen unit. Slotting into the slightly-too-narrow racing bucket, the car immediately felt like a race car. I could feel that it wasn't exactly built for a driver of my stature, but that's true of all 914s, if I'm honest. The 901 transmission's shifter, the steering wheel, and my left thigh all want to occupy the same space when the car is in 1st gear (left and back dogleg, remember). Once I shifted into second, it got a little more comfortable. Luckily, this course was open enough, and first gear short enough, that I was only in first for the start, perhaps for the first half second. Thinking back on it, starting in second might have been the better approach.
Driving Experience: Ferkel the Nein-11 -
After the cohesive feel of the 908/14, the insanity and levity involved with climbing aboard the Porsche Diesel emblazoned Ferkel provided an altogether different driving experience. The inside of the car was familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The 915 gearbox and it's shifter were instantly where I remembered them to be from previous 911 experience, and the seating was what I thought it would be, and with a slightly wider seat, was much more comfortable than the 908. The steering wheel, again, fell right to hand and felt like a 911 with sticky tires, providing excellent feedback and easy maneuverability.
Once on track, the car was an absolute beast, but in possibly the strangest way. Pulling this car up to the start line was possibly akin to riding into battle on the back of a dragon. It pops, snorts, whistles, and bucks like a dragon, plus none of your opponents can take their eyes off of you for the entirety of the battle. Everyone wants to know how you wrangled a dragon into letting you ride it. Driving Ferkel requires a mindset that only comes with experiencing driving Ferkel. It's enigmatic, to say the least. Those who are experienced with autocrossing early 911s will have some idea, at least. The things that are familiar; the lines through a corner, the steering, and the shifter, remain familiar. The things that are different, though, your previous experience will do you no good. Take what you know about the tractability, throttle feel, and sensation of acceleration provided by a 3.0 liter powered 911 SC, and throw it all completely out the nearest window.
There is something a little eerie about driving a turbodiesel 911 race car. First, it's not as quiet as you would think, given that the exhaust is pretty much just a dump pipe straight off of the turbo going straight out the driver's side fender. In early running, Ferkel had overboosting issues from such a short exhaust, so the team had to weld in some baffling to give the turbo some back pressure so it wouldn't spin so freely. As such, the exhaust has a strange whooshing whistle to it. Second, it is just plain weird to drive a 911 with a 4,000 rpm redline. The engine's power curve drops off somewhere around 3,000, though, so taking it up to redline is only beneficial when you want to prevent an additional shift on course, which admittedly did happen.
So, which car was faster? To be honest with you, I was fairly certain from the outset that the 908/14 would just walk away from Ferkel in a cloud of dust, but the competition was much closer than I'd expected. Because of the convoluted way we had to run in order to get me an 8 run day, the times shown here are just a little bit weird. My first run was with my number (1505) on the door, but my second run I had to run as 908, so Richard's first timed run is actually my second run. Here's a little breakdown of how the day went on course.
Run 1, EASY Porsche 908/14 - 74.278
When I first run a course, I always take things a little more cautiously than I do at the end of the day. By this point, I'd walked the course, and gone over the course schematic a couple of times, but the course always looks different from the driver's seat, so going at about 90% in order to get a feel for the flow of the course is my favorite way to start out. Besides, the car was on cold tires, so I didn't want to overextend the limits on the first run. This run was also a bit of an exploration as far as gearing and revolutions are concerned. How many shifts do I need to make, and where are the best places to make them?
Run 2, EASY Porsche 908/14 - 74.482
On my second run, I started pushing a little harder, as I had at least an idea of where the course went and where its best to have revs in hand, and where to be nearing redline. Unfortunately, the corner that I would prove to have trouble with all day was the long sweeping left at the midpoint of the track. Going into the hairpin, you can see that there is painted markings on the course, and this really messes with grip as you transition from painted to clean concrete and back to painted surface. I came into this corner just a little too hot, and I lost a lot of time trying to overslow the car in order to avoid hitting cones. I take pride in my ability to navigate a course without hitting cones. It's been 5 years since I've hit a cone on any course.
Run 3, Ferkel - 73.840
My first run in Ferkel was similar to my first run of the day, as I had to relearn my shift points and adapt to a completely different grip and handling pattern. I managed to be quicker on this run because I was becoming more and more familiar with the course, pulling out one of the variables. Every run that I put in felt like I was leaving a lot of time on the table. I knew I could push harder, and I was starting to learn where I could make that happen. On my run through the first 3-cone, I got Ferkel's tail wagging bigtime, and nearly looped the car pushing too hard through the weight transitions. I lost at least a second getting the car back under control.
Run 4, Ferkel - 71.615
This run was my quickest behind the wheel of Ferkel. Everything was warming up, I sort of learned how to get a little more out of the car. You'll notice that Philipp did manage to turn in a 70.985, besting me by sixty-three hundredths of a second. Without wanting to make excuses, I'm going to anyway; Philipp had a chance to drive his own car, a car in which he has hundreds of miles of racing experience, and he turned in his fast lap on his 6th run in the same car, while I was continually swapping back and forth all day.
Run 5, Ferkel - 72.791
After a few hours of siting, the tires had certainly cooled down again, and this first lap was another exploratory event trying to get a feel for the rhythm of the run again.
Run 6, Ferkel - 92.379
Yeah, I spun it. That would have easily been my best run, too. [Ed note - Yeah, of course it would.]
Run 7, EASY Porsche 908/14 - 69.097
This was my best run of the day. Things came together and I assembled the lap I needed from the car. The 914's driving characteristics were great, and Richard had already gotten in a few runs, so the tires were nice and warm. It was probably the run that had the best potential, and I took full advantage of that. You'll notice that Richard turned a lap that was 2 tenths of a second quicker than this one. I'd give more excuses here as to why I was slower than him, but I'll spare you. You'll also notice that Richard was pushing like a demon on his final run, clearing his previous best by more than a second, unfortunately he lost the back end as he neared the finish and took out a whole mess of cones.
Run 8, EASY Porsche 908/14 - 70.630
In my final run of the day, I put the throttle to the wood. Unfortunately I ran into more problems with that painted section of the braking zone going into the first left handed sweeper. If it hadn't been for that screw up, I know I had at least a half second in hand. Oh well, there's always next time.
At the end of the day, we all had a really great time, and I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Philipp and Richard for bringing their race cars out for this event, and for being such good sports. Also, your cars are amazing, don't ever change. The venue was beautiful, and I have to thank the Golden Gate Region for hosting and working with us to allow us all to get our runs in. The other participants were also very welcoming and warm to us, even though we were making a mockery of their serious competition. For the most part, we got a lot of attendees coming up and asking what the heck kind of engine was in the back of 'that thing'. We couldn't help but collectively smile at everyone's varied reactions when we told them.
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[Lead photo provided by Zandr Milewski, second photo provided by Caryn Kealey. All other images ©2014 FlatSixes.com/Bradley C. Brownell, All Rights Reserved.]