WE THOUGHT IT would be a good idea to have Bob Akin drive the Porsche 924 Turbo Carrera as he has had experience with the Porsche 935. Being the ace reporter he is, he finally got the story, but it wasn't easy. . .
Big time racing can be fun-some of the time. There are marvelous moments, when the car is running well, flashing through the tunnels of spectators under the warm summer sun. Unforgettable euphoria, standing in the winner's circle spraying champagne on the adoring crowd. Incredible majesty, moving off behind the pace car as thousands hold their breath in unison awaiting the start.
But much of racing is not fun. There are terrifying times in the pouring rain when you can't see but dare not slow up for fear of being run into from behind. Painful and costly crashes can crush your dreams and send your elaborate plans into chaos. Horrendous expenses, politics, rivalries and bitter disappointments are a constant backdrop to any major racing effort.
Some of the most enjoyable aspects of racing are the peripheral activities speaking engagements and teaching at driving schools, for example.' Best of all are the chances to drive other people's cars, Many people with priceless cars are anxious to get an expert's impressions at speed. Those who would not dream of letting someone else park their exotic treasures will hand you the keys and ask you to take them for a ride and "show me what this car can really do."
Several years ago on a beautiful June weekend at Watkins Glen, I was a guest instructor at a big meeting of the Ferrari Club of America. It was the next best thing to being turned loose in a harem. I must have driven 50 different Ferraris during those two days. At least six lovely little 308GTBs, several Daytonas, 250GT coupes and Californias, even three hair-raising laps in the giant 4.5-liter, methanol-burning monoposto that ran at Indy in the early Fifties. There were at least three immaculate GTOs on hand: one belonging to my IMSA racing partner Steve Earle, another owned by vintage racer Jim "Stoney" Stollenworck, and a third from Paul PappaIardos extensive collection. Only 37 GTOs were made and they are now worth about $300,000 per copy. On one afternoon. I was circling the track in Paul's car, giving one of the Ferrari Club officials a careful ride, when Earle and Stoney came storming past-nose to tail. It was more than I could stand. As my wide-eyed passenger sank deeper and deeper into his seat, I gave chase, picking off Stoney and hooking up within inches of Earle's megaphone exhausts. It must have been quite a sight. Close to a million dollars' worth of cars, 10 percent of the world's supply, power sliding through the turns, almost touching. I'll never forget the day nor will several others. The Ferrari Club official will never be the same-and, alas, I have never had another invitation to drive one of Pappalardo's cars.
Last March another chance to test someone else's car came up when R & T asked if I could stay on an extra day after Sebring to drive Debbie Gregg's Porsche 924 Turbo Carrera. which was part of the very presentable 2 car team running on BFGoodrich Comp T/A radial tires. Of course I agreed, but suggested they let me drive the car before it was thrashed in the I 2-hour race: the day after Sebring neither the cars nor their drivers are in shape for meaningful evaluation. But a pre-race drive could not be scheduled and I was resigned to the Sunday session until the BFGoodrich people arrived at my pit in the waning hours of the race to tell me that both cars were in serious condition. The matter would have to be postponed for several weeks.
After Sebring I took my 935 K3 back to race headquarters in Atlanta to prepare for the next round in the Camel GT Endurance Championship. The 924 Turbo drive was rescheduled for mid-April at Indianapolis Raceway Park. the day after we were to run the 935 on a private test day at Road Atlanta. The victim this time was to be my friend and often codriver Paul Miller's car. the sister to Debbie's car and identical in outward appearance with silver and blue BFG markings. .
Everything was looking good until I woke up on the morning of the drive to hear traffic sloshing past the Indianapolis Speedway Motel on rain-soaked streets. Rats! My nice holiday playing with Paul's car looked to be washed out, but, hoping for the best. I drove out to the IRP track about eight miles from the Indy oval.
The 924 was warming up in the pit lane next to its transporter. It was raining even harder as I pulled on my Nomex suit, feeling a little foolish because, with all the water, the last thing I expected was a fire. The car is difficult to climb into because of high side bars on the roll cage. This would definitely slow up driver changes but the extra protection is probably worth the sacrifice. Once past the side bars you flop deep down in the car-very cozy and dry. The instruments are well displayed-all the usual gauges, coolant and oil temperature. tach, oil and fuel pressure, plus the familiar boost gauge. The boost knob is located just behind the shift lever. Another knob, on the dash, alters the brake bias front to rear. The 935 has a lever that adjusts the front anti-roll bar setting, thus helping to offset the effect of weight change on handling as fuel is consumed from the front-mounted tank. This 924 didn't have this feature although I understand it is recently available. For these wet conditions the anti-roll bars were set full soft and there was talk of disconnecting the rear bar completely. However, it was decided that if understeer was the problem, then making the back stick better was not a good idea.
I splashed down the pit lane and out onto the long straight. The 2-liter engine had good power above about 4000 rpm and I felt the turbo coming in at 4600 before I slowed for the first of a series of right turns. The 5-speed gearbox made it easy to find the proper gear and worked with a pleasant ease compared with the stiff. clumsy 4-speed box in the 935. When I remarked about this, the crew seemed surprised, explaining that many of their components are from a 935. We agreed that the Germans just make the 935 that way to remind the driver that he is in a big: he-man's car.
A few laps of picking my way through the puddles were enough and I came in because nothing could be learned in this weather. The crew and I stood in the transporter, trading stories until it seemed the rain had let up a bit. I went out again and things were somewhat better. Coming onto the long straight, on the boost, in a wild slide, I was able to pull nearly 7000 in 5th before shutting down for turn 1. The P265/50VR-15 radials really worked well in rain conditions: they are similar to the intermediate racing treads that are popular in England (where it is always raining). Full rain treads, which look almost like snow tires, must be cooled by constant moisture or they overheat, chunk and are ruined very quickly. Less deeply grooved intermediate treads can tolerate a drying track but are nearly useless if it's really raining.
(I started the 1980 Le Mans race on intermediates, hoping the track would dry during the hour before the first fuel stop and driver change. Instead, a deluge made conditions nearly impossible for anything but full rain treads. It was the worst hour I ever spent in a race car: hopelessly out of control much of the time and nearly crashing a dozen times. The fuel warning light finally came on and I stopped for fuel and the proper tires. Ironically, Paul Miller was my co-driver on that rainy afternoon in France. It was raining hard again and there was no sign of a letup so we all reluctantly packed up and I headed for the airport and back to New York. It seemed as though I would never be able to do my Porsche 924 Turbo Carrera story...
Well, isn't this a nice surprise? Here I am at Mid-Ohio. It's a beautiful April day and here's Paul's car again-all shiny and dry.
Mid-Ohio is a beautiful race track. Lots of grass and clean facilities. A demanding track with plenty of turns and only one decent straight. And it's exhausting in the intense summer heat when most of the races are held. Last August I finished a dismal 12th. in the Lumbermens 500 km after the shift lever broke off in our 935. Paul Miller nearly wrote off this very same 924 turbo while attempting to see the Penetration Record into the woods at the end of the back straight. Cars get going really fast on this section and there's an almighty stop for an abrupt right-hander at the end. Paul didn't quite make it so off he went, down a grassy hill, up over the dirt bank and into the dark forest. Unfortunately, official measurements could not confirm a new record.
(In 1978 I was running flat-out down this straight in my Carrera RSR when Peter Gregg whooshed past in his 935. A moment later both of us went for the brakes-but mine weren't there! Peter must have thought I was the last of the late brakers as I flew past him on the inside. There wasn't much left to do except spin the car, which I did, about 10 times, before stopping just short of the steep dirt bank with no serious damage to anything but my nerves.)
Some of us look upon race tracks with a degree of reverence. In the midst of a hectic race weekend there is seldom time to think of anything other than the task at hand. But an empty race track, devoid of the crowd and the other cars, has a certain mystique. At the Lumbermens 500 this year the pit lane was a frenzy of activity-a jungle of broken cars, rushing pit crews and TV cameras. Now at 8:30 a.m., on a cold, clear April morning the pit lane was deserted except for the Herman-Miller trailer and the 924 turbo. Back in the pits, crew chief Lee White decided to take the 924 out for several laps to assure all was well. From the deserted track we could hear every shift, every change in speed. Suddenly there was a big over-rev and a screech of tires, which could only mean a spin. Lee came in, sheepishly explaining that he had accidentally gotten 1st gear while going from 2nd to 3rd. The resultant rear wheel lockup had spun him harmlessly off the track.
I got in, struggling again with the high side bars on the roll cage. Several laps later I began to pick up the pace. There was serious understeer and an annoying interference of my shifting arm with the side of the bucket seat. Then, in the twisting back section, while shifting up to 3rd I got 1st! Big spin off the track, but fortunately only minor damage to the front spoiler. Good grief, that's embarrassing. "Big Deal Professional International Racer Gets Wrong Gear Dings Car." I could hear Paul Miller on the phone already. "Akin, what did you do to my car?" I resolved that I would be very careful and not make another mistake all day. However, in Lee White's and my defense, the seat should be cut away because it interferes with the movement of the driver's arm as he pulls back to select 3rd or 5th gear. There's a lock-out to prevent getting 1st unless you are in 2nd, but that's exactly the problem. When you pull the lever back from 2nd to 3rd, your elbow bangs against the seat and your stroke is deflected just enough to cross the gate and
the lever ends up in I st - at least some of the time. And it takes only once to buzz the engine or wreck the car. '
Understeer was the car's major problem. The track was cold and the tires couldn't be heated to their most efficient levels, but still there were some adjustments we could make. The front antiroll bar was softened completely and the rear bar stiffened halfway. The intended effect of these changes was to make the front stick better while making the rear break away quicker to allow it to get ahead of the front. Much better, but the car was still pushing. A spIitter-a 2-in. aluminum lip extending out horizontally from the bottom of the air damwould be a big help. I remembered that all the 935s I had raced here required greater downforce on the nose than at other tracks. But, SCCA Trans-Am rules don't allow splitters although IMSA rules do. At least at Mid-Ohio this car would be a lot more fun in IMSA trim.
The BFGoodrich radials were much better than I expected. Make no mistake, they are definitely not as good as race slicks. These are street tires that anyone can buy. When a company goes out to race the product it sells to the public they are bound to suffer in comparison with limited-edition, full-race products. This is true of cars, engines, tires, and many other items. But an alternative approach-sell the public the product you race-is unworkable. I applaud BFG for the professional manner with which it has approached the 924/ radial program. It adds a new dimension to racing-an unofficial street class-and high performance street tire customers are certain to benefit..
The radials made the car looser than a real race car should be. Every turn was a big slide, imprecise and sloppy. To get through the fast left-hander at the end of the pit straight, I had to aim about 20 ft inside the apex-and still I would slide wide of the best line. I was certainly not running very hard and with full boost, the right gearing (the car still had the IRP ratios), max rpm and a hot, sticky track, I could have gotten close to AI Holbert's qualifying time set on slicks last August.
The 924 Turbo Carrera is a fun little race car. Very nimble and easy to steer, feeling lighter than its 2300 Ib, which is about the practical minimum without acid-dipping the chassis or going to a tube frame (allowed in Trans-Am but not IMSA). The legal minimum of 2150 lb can easily be reached with a tube car, probably with 100 lb to spare. Paul Miller's crew had gone to great lengths to work out myriad component reliability problems and improve performance compared with- the out-of-box version. Throttle response is exceptional for a turbo car. Our test car had an endurance engine rated at about 380 bhp at 8000 rpm and 18 psi of boost. Sprint versions can attain something over 400 bhp at 23 psi boost and perhaps even more for short periods of time. IMSA racer Bruce Leven proudly claims 440 bhp at 28 psi boost. The engine lasted nine minutes on the dyno before self-destructing.
In spite of its even weight distribution and terrific brakes, the car does not have much of a chance in IMSA where it runs in the GTO class against tube-chassis Corvettes, Camaros and BMW Mis. In Trans-Am things might be different for a tube-frame 924 even though the Chevys have up to 600 bhp.
I can't help comparing the 924 Turbo to my 935 K3. With only about half the power, of course, it is not nearly as fast.
Braking is almost comparable and, with racing tires, I think cornering would be about the same. The Carrera is a pleasant, very normal looking car-much like the new 944-retaining many of the street car components. In contrast, the 935 is an impossible contraption derived from the 911/930 turbo with almost nothing in common with its ancestors. It's an awkward, improbable yet incredibly successful racer with the engine and just about everything else in the wrong place. With 800 bhp, 2000 Ib, massive brakes, almost 2-ft wide tires, ground effects, -wings. spoilers, splitters, titanium axles and suspension, the 935 represents the high-water mark of evolution and technology as applied to a production design -proving the old adage, "You can't make a race horse out of a pig-but you can make an awful fast pig."
I'd like to run a race or two in the 924 on tight tracks such as Sears Point or Laguna Seca. The 935 is a nightmare on these short courses, but I think the 924 would be' great. Who knows? When the last 935 has been crunched into the wall at Daytona and the prices of prototypes finally reach the point where no one is crazy enough to buy them, maybe we will all be racing cars like the 924 turbo. We won't go as fast, but we sure would have fun. And big time racing could use a bit more fun.-Bob Akill
Le Mans Cars from the 60ies onwards