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Dawn On The Lawn: David Soares on Monterey 2009

I have always had an aversion to driving on the lawn and I won’t spin my tires on your golf course if you promise not to hit your little balls at my car.  I’ve been just about the only driver keeping off the grass this past week as the mobs have once again descended on the emerald fairways of the Monterey Peninsula to celebrate the cult of the automobile.  Beside the big lawn shows all over town, the Rolex Monterey Historic Automobile Races at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca selected sportscar stalwart Porsche to be celebrated for the third time as the weekend’s featured marque.

For the better part of my half-century Porsches have stood for “more from less.”  In a venue which now features a $400-per-person combination car show, food, wine, and deluxe gluttony festival, this maxim was ignored nearly everywhere, as new leviathan saloon cars from Bentley, Jaguar, and Rolls- Royce pounded the pavements and lawns of Pebble Beach and the 17-mile Drive.  Not to be outdone, Porsche took advantage of the hubbub to introduce a limousine of their own, the Panamera, to the North American market.  A few dozen new cars were airlifted from Leipzig on Lufthansa so that they might bask in the hype and flash which has become the new ethos of the Monterey Weekend.

Bright lights, little city

The bright lights at Porsche Cars North America appear to have recognized the huge burden that the factory has placed upon them to shift the new car in the American market and invitations were sent out offering a select group of Porsche Club of America members the opportunity to be the first civilians to drive the car here in the U.S.  While SCP didn’t rate a press car just yet (requests have been made for the fall), my card-carrying membership in the PCA identified me as a potential client and netted me a morning test drive in the new car on a route through the bucolic oaks of the Carmel Valley.

Because we’re all hard-wired to the Internet these days, we’ve become obsessed with spy photos and peeks at new cars.  This has created a tendency in all of us to render opinions about new vehicles while still ignorant of the driving experience and utility of a new car.  The Panamera’s looks have been subject to much controversy in the run-up to the introduction. Porsche’s chief stylist Michael Mauer was press-ganged onto a flight to Quail Lodge and tasked with an attempt at explaining to the faithful how the design was intended to somehow invoke the 356 and 911 while doubling their mass and volume.  Whatever.  Love it or hate it, like the 928 of the 1970’s, there’s nothing else out there like it.  After seeing Panameras for four days all over the Peninsula, driving up and down the Carmel Valley, pacing the Historics and the Pebble Beach Tour d’Elegance, and on static display at various venues, I got used to it.  Eventually I even began to find the car muscular and ruggedly handsome in a similar vein to the Porsche countryman we Californians elected to be our governor a few years back.

Once behind the wheel, I was quite impressed with the new Panamera.  I had just returned from a four-up 1200-mile jaunt to Portland and back in my BMW X3 3.0i and expected more of the same driving the similar mass of the Vier- Türen Porsche.  Wrong.  The seating position is very 997 and the tall center console is quite beautiful, even in the 400 hp base Panamera S I drove.  In Normal mode the steering is a bit over-boosted at low speeds and the car is as muffled as a bank’s basement, but once on rural Carmel Valley Road my spokesmodel/minder depressed the Sport-Plus button and invited me to “punch it.”  The Porsche Doppelkupplungsgetriebe (PDK) gearbox proved to be prescient, dropping down several cogs simultaneous to the flexing of my right ankle and the roomy limousine simply leapt forward in the manner of a proper Porsche, not bothering to gather up her skirts like a torque-converted Bentley or a Mercedes must do (“are you sure about this, sir?”), accompanied by a distant V-8 roar.  This supremely competent transmission makes the car, in my opinion.  The brakes proved similarly adept at reining things in as PDK had been at hurling us down the road, and our rear-seat passenger under-estimated our apparent velocity by a good 50%.  I can’t wait until these things start coming off lease fully depreciated…


We were provided with beautiful posters showing the Panamera on a dry lake bed (are ad agencies now completely out of ideas?) leading a pack of Porsche heritage entitled “Believe.”  In the pack were Al Holbert’s Löwenbrau 962, Mark Donohue’s 917/30, a werks Mobil GT1, and other Porsche racing icons of the Twentieth Century.  Remembering Porsche’s 50th anniversary at the Monterey Historics in 1998 and the Porsche Rennsport Reunions, I could hardly wait to see what sort of heritage would be on display for the roll-out of a new premium model in an entirely new market segment.  After all, PCNA had spent a tidy sum airfreighting 31 Panameras to Quail Lodge for the launch.

I’ve got my Orange Crush…

When I got to Laguna I could not have been more crushed.  Klaus Bischof had been tasked at the eleventh-hour to bring four cars from Porsche’s rolling museum, which were parked in a too-large stretch of empty asphalt next to the superb Rolex “Moments in Time” exhibition tent.  Only one of them was a car of a type ever raced in North America, the GT1-98.  A few privately-owned cars were strewn in the open area in front of the Porsche trailer, fortunately including Dr. Julio Palmaz’s beautiful Le Mans-winning 1970 Porsche- Salzburg 917K.

I have long associated Porsches with my home track at Laguna Seca.  My first experience there was of Siffert in the day-glow STP orange 917/10 Can- Am, followed by Follmer and Donohue in the Penske L&M turbo 917/10’s, and then Donohue’s brilliant come-from-behind walk-over, in the Sunoco 917/30, passing the 917/10’s of Follmer, Kemp, Scheckter, Redman, and Haywood.  Then came the Camel GT and Trans Am years, followed by IMSA’s GTP.  None of these icons of Laguna Seca and American Porsche- dom were represented in the patch of blacktop set aside as Porsche’s court of honor, despite the fact that most of them are currently in the U.S. and even though many of them were photographed and filmed in Southern California by Jeff Zwart earlier this year for the poster being given out in support of the Panamera launch.  Brumos kept the sole 917/10 present over at their transporter, while the 917/30 was represented by a bitsa built up from parts long after the Can-Am had disappeared.
Porsche Cars North America’s disconnect was further emphasized by Paul Ritchie’s Porsche Motorsport North America group being housed in a garage a football field away displaying some of their current projects, ironically including an ex Siffert Gulf 917 rolling chassis that Editor Morse is overseeing the restoration of.

Twilight Double Leader

Fortunately the event was saved by the efforts of several private collectors of Porsche racing cars, including Ranson Webster, James Edwards, Jerry Seinfeld, and Bruce Canepa, who brought (and mostly raced) a beautiful field of cars over the weekend.  Canepa put on a great show in his gorgeous and fresh Gulf 917-015 trying to catch Brian Redman’s better-suited-to-Laguna Collier Collection Gulf 908/3 on Saturday afternoon.  The 1981-1990 IMSA GTP and FIA cars also put on a terrific speed exhibition with about 20 956/962/K3/March Porsches spitting flames on the over-run during their 10- lap exhibition.  Sunday’s ’73-’80 IMSA group boasted a field chock-full of 935’s and sprinkled with Dekon Monzas, Greenwood Corvettes, RSR’s, a Le Mans class winning 934 and a BMW CSL (I don’t know what Kevin Buckler’s 2003 Daytona-winning GT3 RSR was doing there, but who am I to ask…). Hundreds of Porsche-owners (including myself) filled the lake bed with one of the better-attended marque corrals in memory.  All-in-all a fitting send-off to Steve Earle, who is stepping-down from the Monterey Historics after 36 editions.

Porsche has been at the center of the sportscar universe for 60 years.  Their lavish expenditure on the roll-out of a new sedan while snubbing their racing heritage was truly disconcerting.  One can only hope that rumors of Porsche becoming an exclusively GT outfit are simply pessimism driven by the times and that the Prodigal Nephew’s return to Zuffenhausen will also be a return to past glories.  The Panamera surprised me with its competence.  Hopefully the new management will as well.

                                                                       David Soares
                                                                       August 2009

sportscarpros Soares Says

David Soares