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Notes from the Cellar

Across the Border

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Postcards from the edge



Bill Oursler looks at them Porsche Kissin’ Cousins

Aren’t family businesses wonderful? Unlike their wholly owned public counterparts, these enterprises are not only tied to the idea of profit making, they’re likewise immersed at the same time in the often non-rational emotions of their private owners. The most recent example of this potentially self- destructive phenomenon can be seen in the near daily soap opera that is Porsche.

Currently Porsche is in talks with Volkswagen to work out an arrangement that would see Porsche effectively become part of VW, with the latter gaining control of Porsche’s operations. The only problem here is that since 2005 Porsche has been purchasing VW stock and is reported to now own 51 per cent of the giant automotive manufacturer. In effect then Porsche would be giving up not only its power as the majority VW stock holder, but its power to determine its own fate.

So, why would Porsche commit what in a sense is suicide after 60 years of existence? The answer, at least on the surface is the 9 billion Euro debt it has run up, in part to raise the financing its needed to buy out Volkswagen. Underneath, however, there are other agendas, one of them being the long running family feud between Ferdinand Piech, currently chairman of VW’s board of directors, and his Porsche cousins, led by Wolfgang Porsche, who heads Porsche’s board, a board of which Piech is also a member.

If things go the way they seem to be going, and Volkswagen does become the dominant player in the new conglomerate, Piech will have won. Clearly there are conflicts of interest here, these being intertwined with the dangers of serious monetary difficulties for Piech and Porsche – since he and his family are part of the extended Porsche family which owns the Zuffenhausen-based company – during a worldwide financial crisis.

However, for those interested in sportscar racing, the outcome of the family feud and the looming dominance of Porsche by Volkswagen, bizarre, and as fascinating, if not confusing as it might be, is only important in the effect it has on the motorsport programs of the two corporate players involved. And, in that sense it seems clear that the rumored development by Porsche of a new LMP1 sports racer for the 2011 season won’t happen.

Given that, one has to ask what then will happen with Roger Penske, who is currently racing a Porsche-powered Riley in the Grand Am’s North American Rolex sports car tour as part of a rumored “make work” program to keep him on board in preparation for Porsche’s reported re-entry into the top LMP ranks of the sport’s universe.

Almost immediately the thought comes to mind of having the very erudite Penske move over to the Audi side of the house where not only is there the just introduced R15 LMP1 to play with, but an alleged all new LMP1 car for 2011. Still, if that were to happen, how would Penske fit in with the current Audi prototype players, Reinhold Joest on the European side, and Champion Racing here in the United States?

To a large degree that remains unclear. In part this is due to changes in monetary policy between Audi and its dealers in the United States focusing on how those dealers pay for the cars they purchased from the VW subsidiary.

Unlike the past, dealers now are said to be required to put up front the funds for the vehicles as soon as they delivered into their hands. In terms of Champion, this has forced the South Florida dealer into a court overseen reorganization plan for both its Audi and Porsche franchises. And, while the Champion racing organization and its related tuning business are not involved in this enforced restructuring, one has to wonder how much, if it all, Champion will be involved should Audi return to the ALMS either later this year, or next.

As for Joest, there the likelihood there appears to be that the German team will continue with Audi along the same lines as it has in the past. So, if Penske step in, would he replace Champion, or run along side as an equal in the Audi motorsport universe? That is something that will be determined in part by the personalities of Piech and Penske.  If one assumes that Piech’s personal goals are at the heart of his taking advantage of Porsche’s inability to refinance massive debt, will he then be willing to share the center stage spotlight with someone such as Penske, who like Piech tends to be a high profile individual? For that answer one might want to look at Penske’s most recent association with Porsche’s involvement in the ALMS’ LMP2 division.

During the American’s recent tenure as the factory representative for the RS Spyder program, there were rumors that Porsche wasn’t all that pleased with the fact that at times Penske overshadowed the factory itself. Still, the two men not only have known each other for the better part of 40 years, and, perhaps more importantly, were the ones (Piech then being responsible for the fortunes of Porsche motorsport) who negotiated the deal which led Penske to race the turbocharged 917 spyders so successfully for the factory in the North American Can-Am in 1972 and ’73.

Beyond this is the further fact that Penske is one of the world’s top rated businessmen, with the kind of financial clout that has put his empire, including his massive string of auto dealerships, in the middle of the Fortune 500 list, something which alone would make him a candidate to become associated with Audi in its motorsport endeavors.

Will that happen; who knows? Still, stay tuned because the soapbox serial seemingly is far from over. Indeed, given everything, perhaps it would be better if the whole family feud that is the Volkswagen-Porsche mess were simply turned over to the guys at the BBC’s popular TOP GEAR program to solve. If that happened, we could at least have a laugh while watching the bizarre unfold.

Normally book reviews don’t mix with columns, however, this one seems to fit appropriately with Penske’s future as part of either Porsche’s or Audi’s motorsport efforts since, in part it involves Penske Racing’s highly successful 917 Can-Am program of the early 1970’s. The book by Mike Argetsinger, and published by David Bull is entitled simply “Mark Donohue,” and is a biography of the late driver’s life and career.

Unlike Donohue’s own autobiography, “The Unfair Advantage” which was more technically oriented,” Argetsinger’s is broader in its scope, covering not only the driver’s story, but at the same time giving the reader a history of the period. While some may criticize this inclusive approach, Argetsinger has produced a fascinating look at a time during which racing changed dramatically not in the least through the efforts of Donohue and Penske. In short, it is well worth having.

                                                                       Bill Oursler
                                                                       June 2009

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