David Soares ponders the letter "P" and The Shipping News
I had the good fortune this past weekend to be among the crowd who got to
watch the second proper four-hour endurance race to be held at Laguna Seca
Raceway. The race itself held plenty of excitement and drama from beginning to
end, but the biggest drama was the racing debut of Porsche’s new LMP2 car, the
RS Spyder run by Penske Motorsport. But for a position-losing splash-and-go at
the end the car’s debut was a flawless fifth overall and first in the LMP2 class.
The Numbers Game
Much has been made about the virtual strip-mining of nostalgia by Porsche AG
and its wholly-owned subsidiaries Porsche Cars North America and Porsche
Motorsport North America in bringing forth the RS Spyder LMP2 car. Introduced in
the mid-1950's, the original 550 RS Spyders were the first pure racing mid-
engine sportscars built by Porsche. The 550, 550A, RSK and RS 60/61 Spyders
were the most popular and successful Porsche racers of that era and contributed
to Porsche’s “giant killer” reputation of that period. James Dean’s too fast to live,
too young to die moment was in a Porsche Spyder and guys like Ken Miles, Jack
McAfee, and Ritchie Ginther made their names in the cars of John Edgar and
John von Neumann.
While the RS Spyders were renowned as “giant killers,” the Penske connection
was to a horse of another color – from silver to the dominant blue and yellow
917/30 Can Am car developed with Porsche by Mark Donohue and Roger Penske.
The car known as the “Penske turbo-Panzer” remains one of the wildest and most
powerful sportscars ever produced. Penske and Donohue’s 1972 917/10 cowed
Team McLaren into abandoning a Canadian American Challenge Cup series that
they had dominated for five years running. By the end of the 1973 season the
917/30 was virtually unbeatable and became a legend among American racing
fans and throughout the world.
The players tried to take the field…
I was at the Laguna Seca Can Am’s in ’72 and ’73 and I can remember Penske
being a very hands-on team boss in those days, not someone who flew in on the
corporate jet for a race-day press conference while what seemed like 50 guys
from Weissach looked over his crew’s shoulders. For sure by ’73 the Penske
show was the class of the paddock with an enclosed transporter and cleaned-
and-pressed crew shirts, but the transporter was a two-axel bobtail and the crew
might have numbered a dozen if you counted the Captain and Mark Donohue.
When the turbo-panzer blew up in the heat race, Penske and Donohue rolled up
their sleeves and knelt on the asphalt while the crew managed an 8-hour engine
change before the main so that Donohue could put on a show carving up the
entire field to win convincingly.
Before this screed turns into a big sloppy hog wallow of nostalgia, let’s look at
Porsche’s sportscar racing heritage. There were front-line Porsche entries in the
24 Hours of Le Mans for thirty-five years until their last win in 1998 with the GT1-
98. Sixteen Le Mans wins. Then nothing. After Norbert Singer's stillborn LMP900
car, the core of the racing department at Weissach was shifted about and the
smoke-screen about needing engineering resources for the new truck was laid
Now Weissach has finally crawled out from under their joint-venture truck
program with VAG and after seven years can build a proper prototype. Hartmut
Kristen, who stage managed the project, admitted that the engineers on the LMP2
program were about 60% Carrera GT personnel and 40% new hires brought in to
revive the racing department. The choice of the LMP2 class remains a nod to the
Prodigal Nephew who apparently must not be challenged head to head. Seven
years is an eternity in racing, but why bring in the Terex Titan-load of nostalgia
I know that this is supposed to be the point where worldly cynicism takes over
and we all start the lamentation about the Way It Used to Be and how dare these
Johann-come-Latelys desecrate the tomb of our memories. I hate to burst
everybody’s bubble, but now that I’ve heard the pitch and seen the results, from
my Mr. Just a Fan, Man perspective that big tipper full of RS Spyder/Penske turbo-
panzer nostalgia is brilliant marketing and a shrewd business strategy by
Porsche and the best thing that could have happened to sportscar racing. I love it.
The marching band refused to yield…
First of all, drippy nostalgia or not, the Porsche RS Spyder LMP2 is the real deal.
Like everything built to the current rules package there’s a certain goofiness to the
proportions, but park it next to a Courage C-65 or a Lola B05/40 and the Porsche
turns graceful. Once it took to the track Lucas Luhr managed the third fastest race
lap of 1:17.136 behind Hayanari Shimoda’s blistering 1.16.480 in the LMP1 Zytek
and JJ Lehto’s Audi R8 1:16.643. Remarkably, this race time was faster than
Biela and Pirro’s championship-winning R8 and both Dyson Lolas which had all
out-qualified the Porsche. The ripping snarl of the atmo V-8 was pure race car as
opposed to the whisper of the turbos.
Porsche, like Ferrari, has always traded on race-breeding. Model names like
Carrera and Targa refer to classic open-road races of the Fifties. Race-breeding
in the higher reaches of the market can’t be based on hype. Porsche financial
reports blame recent sales stagnation on the global economy, but recent news
reports suggest that the real estate boom and low interest rates have trebled
disposable income in the United States to nearly six hundred billion dollars a
year. The recent Monterey auctions reported record sales of collector cars, the
high point (or low point depending on your perspective on the current frenzy) a ’66
VW Westfalia camper going for near a cool hundred grand. I tend to believe that
it’s got to be hard to shift sports cars without the sport image.
Porsche also engages in what a recording hardware sales whiz once defined for
me as “selling the dream.” Just like high-end recording studios are found in
more spare bedrooms than you’d imagine, Porsche sells surprising numbers of
brand new racing cars to the American market. While German annual reports
don’t break out sales of wholly-owned subsidiaries like Porsche Motorsport North
America, it’s clear that there’s a substantial business case for servicing all those
GT3 Cups and RS’s floating around the paddocks of the Speed World Challenge,
Grand Am, Grand Am Cup, IMSA Porsche Cup, and various club series. It was
reported that the IMSA Cup will see fields of 45 cars next year. Again, if you’re
selling the dream, you’d better keep the target up there or the forty- and fifty-
somethings with fat lines of credit and real estate equity numbers rivaling those
J.P. Morgan at the turn of the century are going to find some other way to live out
If those forty- and fifty-something Americans are the target-market for Porsche’s
offerings for both road and track, why not directly appeal to their dreams? A recent
Porsche ad campaign featured a 911 in front of a swing set over the tag line “Sold
in 1974.” Who sold that car in 1974? Roger Penske and Mark Donohue.
Do you recall what was revealed….
It was clear from the statements of Hartmut Kristen and Roger Penske at their
Saturday press conference that the RS Spyder was developed exclusively by
Porsche. Penske wasn’t brought in to develop the car. He was brought in to sell
I tried to draw Penske during the Q & A about his history with sportscar racing.
“Well, as I think I’ve said earlier this is a kind of coming home, especially at
Laguna Seca, because of some of the great racing I did, certainly early on in my
career, was at Riverside and certainly the race here at Laguna." But the Captain
made clear that it is his business partnership with Porsche as a major dealer in
the United States, England, and Scotland that is driving the deal.
As he thought through his answer Penske saw a synergy between the open-
wheel racing he has mainly been involved in for the past 30 years and sportscar
endurance racing: “We like long races, you think in long distance races, that’s why
we’ve won Indianapolis thirteen times because it wasn’t that we were the fastest
car but I think that the consistency, that’s really what this formula brings to our
And that’s the irony: even if Roger Penske was brought in as a marketing hook to
flog “Sold in 1974” tin, the whole thing is going to work. The LMP2 RS Spyder is
for real, and the dream itself is for real. Roger Penske likely didn’t plan to return to
sportscar racing, but his organization is a good fit and with the IRL struggling and
NASCAR threatening to limit the entries of mega-teams he’s got a surfeit of
personnel who know how to go the distance.
For many of us, sportscar racing is about nostalgia and traditions. There is
supposed to be a sportscar race on the Monterey peninsula in October, and
Roger Penske is supposed to run a Porsche there because those were the great
races. Tom Chilton conjures memories of a young James Hunt. Big-block
Corvettes are supposed to pound the ground and Astons are fast but never quite
there. Porsches are supposed to be a little smaller but a little stronger and win at
the long ones like Le Mans and Sebring.
Little Nemo in Slumberland
But sportscar racing is also about diversity and endurance. It’s about the
involvement of the great automobile manufacturers of the world. Most people are
tired of spec racing, but you can still win on Sunday and sell on Monday. We’re
not the only ones being sold a dream. Porsche and the ALMS may have struck the
cord that will resonate with people, sportscar endurance racing could be on that
threshold of a dream renewed.