If you gave been following my track driving history you are probably aware that Greg Phillips and I have been sharing track cars for several years. We started driving together when I was between racecars and Greg needed help with track set-up on his gray 928. We moved from the gray car to a red 928 racecar, and then I put my foot down and said instead of reinventing the wheel we should just get a 911 track car.
We drove that red 911 racecar for several years at occasional autocrosses and virtually every time trial since 2010. Then, Greg started expressing an interest in trying out club racing during the 2016 season as a newly added entry onto his bucket list.
I thought this was a great Idea; but not with the 911. I selfishly didn’t want to put a car we had so much time, effort (and money) into out on a club race circuit where it could be easily damaged with a new driver.
Now, any car can be damaged at a time trial as well, but the chance of damage in club racing is far greater. That 911 was like one of my children and I didn’t want to push it into harm’s way any more than we were doing already,
Spec or Not Spec; that is the question: For those unaware of what a spec racing series is actually all about, I will attempt to explain in its simplest terms.
A spec series is a racing series where a specific car series is the only car allowed, and only a certain modification package is permitted. Theoretically, all the cars should be identical. Most of these series have a specific rule set ending with the sentence: “If we don’t specifically say that you can do it, you can’t!”
Non-Spec classes usually use a horsepower to weight ratio and a much looser set of rules governing what modifications can be made to the car. These are the faster, albeit more expensive, classes.
So I made the suggestion that we start searching for either a 944 or Boxster spec car. I really like spec series racing as the competition is so good, without the out-of-control costs that are associated with the higher and faster classes.
I made a pros-and-cons list for each car and started doing my homework. The more attractive Boxster is a much newer chassis with more power as well as the ideal mid-engine layout with far newer and more sophisticated suspension.
The 944 on the other hand is like a Timex watch. It takes a licking and keeps on ticking. The 944 is not as fast or as technically advanced, but you can fix one in most cases with a rock and a stick and a roll or two of duct tape.
Bottom line is I was lured in by the dependability, simplicity, and ease of maintenance of the 944. Because broken or crashed, I would be the one fixing it!
I was heavily leaning towards a 944-Spec car when my old friend George Taylor brought in his orange 944-Spec car to Black Forest for me to work on. He wanted to get a few items addressed before he put the car up for sale so it would be turn-key ready for the next owner. He was selling this car to finance his next car project after a very successful run club racing the car for the past two years.
This wasn’t just some random 944-Spec car; this was a car I almost bought two years prior, just before George was looking to buy the car. I had known the car for over a decade as it was originally built by my good friend Sean Steele of Autobahn Dismantling and dubbed “The Pumpkin.” I just waited too long to give Sean an answer and George had snapped it up!
A few calls to George and Greg and we all decided this would be a match made in heaven. Deal done and we had ourselves a 944-Spec racer for Greg’s club racing bucket list.
This all happened in late 2016. The plan was to get the car repaired and sorted in the early 2017 time trial series so it would be ready for Greg’s first club race at Auto Club Speedway in Fontana late that April.
It was a busy ’16/’17 holiday break getting the short list on the car knocked out and a little time on the alignment rack; but as January rolled around, “The Pumpkin” was ready for its inaugural test at one of PCA-SDR’s famous autocross events.
I took the car out and put the car through its paces at the autocross, which was a really smart move because there was a whole new list of stuff about the car that I didn’t like, and the handling was right at the top of the list.
This is a really interesting note as far as racecar setup goes. The last two owners had the car set up a particular way that fit their driving styles. Both of these drivers (Sean and George) liked the set up and drove the car very well, scoring many top finishes, so their thinking wasn’t wrong, it just wasn’t a good fit for Greg and me.
So it went back to the shop Monday morning and I started tearing into the suspension, making changes that more closely fit the driving style Greg and I are more accustomed to. That and another short list of items and the car was ready for our first big track adventure at Chuckwalla Valley Raceway only three weeks after the autocross.
We ran the late January and mid-March events at CVR, where I placed 1st and 2nd and Greg placed 3rd and 4th in a field of 6 cars in class. We were very pleased with the progress of the car and were very excited for Greg to go to his first club race at Auto Club Speedway for our annual California Festival of speed.
Greg crossing the finish line in in his first club race event.
We took both cars to CFoS in late April and the 944 was just perfect for this event’s oldest rookie. A couple tire changes and sway bar adjustments were all that was required all weekend. This was much better luck than I had with the 911, as it came down with a case of fuel starvation and was retired from the event. The 944 even ended up doing some double duty on Sunday when I got in a couple practice laps and timed runs to salvage out my driving weekend.
With the first club race under Greg’s belt, we decided to share the car again at our next time trial in late May. This event was at Streets of Willow, where unfortunately we had some contact while I was driving. True to form, the 944 went from limping off the track to back in action in about 2 hours with—you guessed it—a rock, a stick, and a couple rolls of duct tape. The other newer car went home on a trailer, just showing how tough and simple to repair the 944-Spec car actually was. (OK, it wasn’t a rock and a stick but a hammer and a pry bar, with a few other assorted tools, but pretty close). Oh, and only one roll of duct tape.
The 944 in the E.R. getting patched up for the next run session.
Our next event was after summer break at Willow Springs International Raceway on the first of October. Greg drove in the club race and I drove the 911 in the time trial. A great event all in all, with some really great racing in the 944-Spec class. Greg was really picking up his game and getting into the thick of it. There was great racing to watch and cheer on from the stands.
Our next event was back to Chuckwalla for some good old time trial fun. This was great fun as it allowed us to make changes and try them out without the stress of having the best set up for race conditions. Just drive it like we stole it! Of course, I was making fastidious notes between each stolen run session for future improvements.
Next on the list was our season finale, the Buttonwillow Double Crown event; the last SDR club race and time trial of the year. We both had a great time driving until Greg started experiencing shifting problems. He finished the first sprint race after practice and brought the car in for me to look at and see if we were done or if I had something up my sleeves. This marked the first mechanical issue with the car in our first year of service.
As it turned out, the clutch had come apart and refused to disengage, which the transmission did not like at all. Back at the shop, I threw in a new stock clutch and our spare transmission. Having this spare transmission would allow us to continue driving events while the old transmission was getting repaired and updated for the new season.
Greg strapped in and ready for battle at our final event of the year at Buttonwillow Raceway (pre-clutch failure)
As a side note on dependability…the clutch and transmission were installed during this car’s original build in 2006. That’s 4 different drivers and about 100 track days of use. I can’t really think of another Porsche that will give you that kind of service.
What a difference a year makes…
The first year of driving this new car is now under our belts and we had a few thoughts to share.
Steve: So anyone who knows me will tell you I am a dyed-in-the-wool Air-cooled 911 guy. 911SC/Carrera is the car I feel most at home driving. They have a style unlike any other car, and one that will reward skilled driving. I also like the fact that some of the worst situations you can get yourself into can be corrected with full gas when your brain says BRAKE!
So as a 911 guy I was really surprised by how much I loved driving this car over our first year. I like driving a 911 on the edge, but this 944 begged to be driven over the edge. This car wants to be driven at 10/10ths normally, and 11/10ths if you want that golden lap!
The philosophical difference in these two cars and driving styles surprised me. The 911 must be driven correcting everything bad that is about to happen before it happens. The 944 is all in slow motion…like a car accident that goes into slow motion.
Because the car is slower and has such good handling you can dissect every corner into fractions and put the car exactly where it should be.
A great handling car like this is just like a Sunday drive at 8/10ths but done at 11/10ths—you must extract every ounce of “fast” that you can squeeze out of the package. Now that’s fun!
“Better to drive a slow car fast, than a fast car slow.”
Greg: I have not gone wrong listening to Steve about cars; so when he recommended this approach for club racing, that is what I did. I bought the car from George and Steve did the prep work, and except for the clutch finally dying at the last event of the year at Buttonwillow, it was bulletproof.
The costs were helped by running in a Spec class, and the consumables were also cheaper than the 911. Small tires and brakes that lasted a long time, partly due to the limited horsepower, helped keep costs down, although I would have liked to run the Toyo RA1’s rather than the Toyo RR’s. The grip is better in the RR’s but they do not last nearly as long as the RA1’s.
The lack of horsepower also meant that the 944-Spec cars were the slowest group on the track, at least until another 4-cylnder 912 or 356 comes along, and I did not see any during my first year of racing. But being at the back also meant I was not mixing it up in the middle of the pack, where most of the accidents and carnage seemed to happen. I did have to dodge a few cars when arriving after the accidents, however.
I first started in 928’s, V8 power and ABS, and learned about power oversteer. Next up was the 911SC, with no ABS or other nannies, and learning about trailing throttle oversteer. And now the 944, with no ABS or nannies, but very neutral handling that does not bite the driver, although I did severely flat spot a set of tires with brake lockup at Chuckwalla while chasing Peter Busalacchi in another Spec 944.
That brings up what I found to be the biggest difference between the DE/TT and Club Racing: the late braking needed for passing. Since there are no late braking passes in TT, only point-bys on the straights, the downside of late braking and flat-spotting tires was much greater than the benefit of improving your lap time by aggressive late braking, and so I was more conservative in my braking at Time Trials. Now I need to improve my braking technique to make some of the passes needed in Club Racing. The 944 will not make many horsepower passes. Most of my rookie year passes were pouncing when the car in front made a mistake.
I plan on improving my braking technique and hope to be better this year on late braking. I also hope to improve my starts, as I was very conservative as a rookie, tried not to be too aggressive in the first corners, and ended up being passed by cars that I had qualified ahead of by being too cautious. Wish me luck.
Jump ahead to 2022:
There are far fewer 944 Spec racecars available and many more Boxster Spec racecars on the market and the Boxster Spec race groups are huge which means great competition. The 944 is still the cheapest, most dependable Porsche Spec class to run but in 2022 I think I would choose the Boxster solely for the better competition.-SG.