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Renn and Strudel:  David Soares on Lollaporscha 3 at Daytona

This past November I flew to Daytona Beach for the latest tri-annual edition of the Porsche Rennsport Reunion by way of Atlanta.  It felt like my connecting flight was the Porsche Cars North America charter, as it was full of PCNA personnel on their way from HQ to staff that gathering, which has become a very “official” marketing-department event for the company.  During the plane ride it was gratifying for a motorsport history buff like me to eavesdrop on the young things from the marketing department being tutored in the finer points of 934’s and 935’s by their bosses before being air-dropped onto an orgy of Porsche racing heritage (some might accuse me of being a historical artifact myself at this point in my life, but I’m not owning that one just yet).  History was represented at Rennsport III by literally hundreds of pursang racing cars from Zuffenhausen and Weissach.  Clearly the christening of PCNA’s return to front-line racing in the ALMS as the “RS Spyder,” smacking the number “6” on the side, and contracting with Roger Penske to run the thing has been part of a conscious strategy to move away from Porsche’s “Internet Bubble” high tech image-making and to return to racing heritage as a marketing hook. This is a welcome move for fans of international sportscar racing.

Rat wrapper…

Porsche’s North American marketing shift was confirmed upon my return to the Left Coast and Beserkeley-by-the-Beach with the arrival in my mailbox of the latest issue of my favorite “food porn” (apologies to Tony Bourdain), Saveur no. 107.  As I flipped through a piece about the soupe a l’oignon at Au Pied du Cochon near the former site of Les Halles in Paris I was jarred by a familiar image, slightly out of context.  There among the butchers and Citroen Quinze-légers was a full-page black-and-white shot of the winning Hermann-Attwood 917K threading the Ford Chicane in the streaming rain during the 1970 edition of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  The page folded out to reveal a large and colorful image of Timo Bernhard giving Roman Dumas a champagne bath atop an ALMS podium, accompanied by a magazine-length dissertation on Porsche, champagne, and victory celebrations.  Below all this was a string of thumbnail shots of Porsche racing history: Ferry in a Gmund Spyder, the Carrera Panamericana, the Targa Florio, Daytona, the Monte, and of course Le Mans.  The copywriter extols the use of champagne to celebrate Porsche racing victories.  Other than a reference to “the French SPA” racetrack (I tend to associate Spa-Francorchamps with Chimay Rouge) the copywriter nails the synergy between Porsche and winning for Saveur’s “foodie” audience.  Is it any wonder that Ratatouille is the best reviewed film of the year?

Why should readers of SCP care that Porsche is hitting up the Chez Panisse crowd with a full-whammy of racing heritage worthy of Rennsport Reunion III? Well, other than the fact that the guy at the back counter informs me that the factory seems to have renewed interest in parts-support for my air-sucker, PCNA’s heavy involvement in the Daytona reunion and use of Le Mans imagery outside the enthusiast press suggests that the mainstream financial and marketing support desperately needed by the American Le Mans Series from the manufacturers is finally here.  Maybe Herb Fischel and Doug Fehan of GM aren’t the only guys who “get” ALMS CEO Scott Atherton’s thesis that there is a synergy between road racing and the high-end customer sportscar makers want to target.

Broadening one’s horizons…

What this renewed interest in heritage meant for the attendees of Rennsport III was that Porsche rolled out its most dominant prototypes for the concours and exhibition laps: the flat-12 917’s of 1969-73 and the ground-effects 956/962’s of 1982-94, along with many of the drivers who made these and other Porsches famous in period.  A dapper Richard Attwood was interviewed sitting on the Saveur-foldout No. 23 Porsche Salzburg 917K that won Porsche’s first overall victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans.  Later that car was front-and-center in the trophy display when it deservedly won the 917 class later that afternoon.

In case anybody wasn’t making the connection between past and present, Porsche also rolled out an example of the current P2 champion Penske RS Spyder of Bernhard and Dumas and the Dyson Racing RS Spyder of Wallace and Leitzinger.  After some un-timed exhibition laps they parked them as the centerpiece of the race car concours opposite Daytona’s start-finish at the apex of the tri-oval.  The Daytona Prototypes of Alex Job and Brumos Racing were relegated to a spot down pit road along with the “specials” like the Bobsy and the Dolfin.

On Saturday morning I wandered into an official photo-shoot making still more historic connections for the marketing department.  This time Roger Penske’s championship-winning No. 7 RS Spyder was paired with the No. 6 Sunoco-liveried 917/30 -004 now owned by Matt Drendel so that the Penske crew, in full DHL regalia, could be photographed with the two cars by a factory snapper from Germany.  Drendel’s car is an actual Penske team car that was constructed to defend Mark Donohue’s championship before the SCCA slammed the door on the Can-Am making chassis 004 obsolete. While the 2007 champion wore the number 7 rather than the 6 of 1973, Donohue’s “T” car wore 7 in ‘73, as did George Follmer’s super-sub championship car for Penske in ‘72.  After the formal poses the engine lids were lifted and the Penske crew seemed more interested in asking motor- magician Jerry Woods about the 917/30’s turbo flat-12 than in showing their machine to the curious Alex Job and Brumos DP crews eyeing the RS Spyder’s inner workings.

Everybody at the Rennsport weekend wanted to get next to (or in) that gorgeous car.  Marino Franchitti, whose brother won this year’s Indy 500 and whose sister-in-law is one of Hollywood’s most beautiful people, was a wowed choir boy invited to the Sistine Chapel for a personal papal audience when he was offered a chance by Kerry Morse to sit in the driver’s seat of Matt Drendel’s big blue 917/30.  Marino was born four years after Donohue won the Can-Am championship for Penske in the Porsche, but there could be little doubt that he felt that he was sitting in the greatest sportscar of all time.
Matt and Marino clicked immediately and the respect and awe held for the panzerwagen was obvious.
 The car itself is a stunning and sympathetic restoration – I’m old enough to still have Kodachromes of the championship chassis ( 917/30-003 ) in the paddock at Laguna in 1973 for comparison.  A tribute to the quality of Matt Drendel’s racing Porsches was that another of his “Big Ron” Gruener/Jerry Woods restorations won the RSR/934/935 class at the concours.

Bluebirds over the sea…

Some groused about Rennsport III being held within the family seat of NASCAR instead of at Lime Rock or Laguna, but to me Daytona International Speedway is an appropriate place on many levels.  Big Bill France didn’t just happen on that piece of swamp by chance.  Daytona Beach was put on the map by Gilded Age millionaire Willie K. Vanderbilt, who thundered down the smooth-packed sands at nearly 100 mph his 1903 60 hp GP Mercedes, by Sir Henry Seagrave in the Golden Arrow, and by Sir Malcolm Campbell in his massive Bluebird LSR machines.  Stuck in my usual time machine, after the Zuffenhausen crowd trailered-up I drove my rented New Beetle (wrong image for me maybe, but somehow apropos a Porsche gathering) for a few miles along the sands leading to the measured mile of the old Daytona Beach Land Speed Record course.

I reflected on the history of four decades beginning with the dawn of the automobile when Daytona Beach was where the Beautiful People, many in European machinery, sought to be the fastest men on land.  Those days didn’t last.  Presaged by ’26 Indy-winner Frank Lockhart’s ultimately fatal surfing expeditions in the Stutz Black Hawk, the fast crowd had de-camped to the broad expanses of the Bonneville Salt Flats in not-so glamorous Utah by the mid-Thirties.  Local businessmen like gas station owner Big Bill France wanted to re-capture the lost glories (and tourist business) of the Land Speed Record years and came up with Depression-appropriate stock car racing further down the beach as a substitute for LSR runs.  The course ran along the sands northbound and then back down Route A1A, with left turns at either end.  When things got too crowded along the Beach by the mid-Fifties, France partnered with the local government for some cheap swampland and bulldozed the sandy mud into the tri-oval for safer left-turn racing.  The rest, as they say, was history.

Red Desert

If even good ol’ boy NASCAR was born from nostalgia for a bunch of super- rich guys racing European cars, I’m even more convinced than ever that Scott Atherton of the ALMS is on to something.  Now Porsche in North America has glommed-on to the fact that the Germans no longer have a monopoly on high technology in cars (although they retain the advantage of being able to do development at the Nurburgring and on the Autobahn).  Heritage sells, and they have it in spades.  The Porsche Rennsport Reunion appeals to me because the car owners and caretakers are beer-drinkers in blue jeans, not a bunch of swells on the lawn wearing blue blazers and Panama hats, but they do care about races like Le Mans and the Targa Florio.  Saveur doesn’t target the stuffy three-star crowd either.  There is a synergy with the romance of these places and Saveur’s back-to-the-farm paeans to authentic French and Italian food and wine that somebody at PCNA can and should want to tap.  The home office may be trying to sell 4x4’s for Siberia and the Gobi Desert, but here in America Porsche has the opportunity to shift three sportscar lines to consumers of luxury goods.  It’s not just about the product; it’s about selling the dream.

David Soares

February 2008

sportscarpros Soares Says

David Soares