Sitting over there in the racetrack pits is a $140,000 Porsche 911 GT3 RS, one of the most fearsome street-legal sports cars in the world. Yet it sits unused and unloved, like a child’s castaway toy.
That’s because I’m strapped into this: a Porsche GT3 Cup car, which can’t be legally driven on streets. Rather it’s found competing in some of the world’s most hardcore racing events. It won this year’s Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in the GT class.
This is the big time, the step up from the minors, the leap from a common band instrument to the Stradivarius, the jump from the community theater to Broadway.
It’s $250,000 of pure racecar.
Until now, I didn’t appreciate the difference between a street-legal Porsche and a GT racecar. There’s a yawning gulf between a navigation system and heated seats and a race-grade roll-cage and mandatory HANS device. (The HANS is a neck cradle between your fire-retardant suit and full-face helmet, designed to prevent your head snapping violently forward in the case of a catastrophic deceleration.)
The GT3 Cup car is ferocious and fragile; finely calibrated and violently concussive. It does exactly what it’s told at the hands of a professional.
There’s the rub. Even a Stradivarius sounds lousy in the hands of amateur. Can I make a perfect noise from this terrible instrument?
This is my final 30-minute session of laps around the 2.38-mile road course at Barber Motorsports in Birmingham, Alabama. The pit crew -- oh yes, there’s a pit crew -- gives me a thumb’s up. I push an ignition button and the naturally-breathing six-cylinder engine catches, the sound of a dozing Tyrannosaurus Rex with a head cold.
I engage the clutch, push the bulky sequential transmission lever forward and roll off. I’m not racing anyone but myself and the stopwatch -- a wrestling match between masculine pride and self-preservation.
Over the years I’ve attended every class level offered by the Porsche Sport Driving School here in Alabama. It starts with a basic sessions of one or two days, and progresses to the three-day “Masters Plus” course.
Only then are you ready for the GT3 Cup Experience. It costs $10,000 and is the equivalent of a doctoral dissertation, except a failing grade could mean pricy parts strewn across the tarmac. Students, limited to six for the two-day course, must have completed all previous advanced training.
The price seems steep until you start crunching numbers. A base GT3 Cup car costs $225,000, not including school additions like ABS brakes and a right-hand seat for the instructor. The car I’m driving is a 450-horsepower purebred worth $250,000 and is capable of 190 miles per hour.
After each lapping session the pit crew attacks the car, jacking it up and fiddling with its suspension and engine. According to school operations manager, Jeff Purner, operating costs run about $3,000 an hour.
That doesn’t include “consumables” like gas, brake pads or tires -- Michelin racing slicks -- which cost $2,100 a set. (After a day of hard laps, the rubber looks like it was burned by a torch.)
“We’re actually underpriced,” says Purner. “We have one returning client who owns his own GT3 Cup car, but finds it’s cheaper to train using ours.”
No wonder, as the school includes two full days of one-on-one instruction from professional racers, including endurance-racing legend Hurley Haywood.
I’ve known many of these guys for years. People like instructor John Lewis, an Alabama native who tends to camouflage his racing acumen with a heavy southern accent and good-old-boy colloquialisms.
Barber is a tough track and Lewis and I spent the morning driving the regular, non-racecar GT3 while focusing on two difficult sections. After an hour talking about weight transfers, yaw rates and camber changes, my brain was pickling.
But shortly after I had an adrenaline-soaked session with the Cup car, achieving a personal best lap time of 1:41. Respectable, if not exceptional. A very good lap driven by an instructor is closer to 1:32.
Rolling onto the track now, I’m mostly calm and, for the first time, completely alone. Another student has already spun the Cup car twice.
So begin 30 of the most intense minutes of my life. Focus is everything. I’m topping out of the short straightaways at 120 mph, with every straight ending in a nasty downhill corner. I’ve got to slow down, downshift and position the car exactly right. The car has no electronic stability or traction controls to fix mistakes. Imagine trying to park in your garage at 50 mph.
I concentrate on my breathing -- too often I find myself holding my breath.
Rhythm, repetition. My favorite section, on the back half of the track, goes like this:
Zing up a short hill (I can’t see the top); transition the car from right to left. The car crests and I’m immediately at the extreme edge of the road (danger!). Force my eyes away, to the next downhill corner.
Down now (rollercoaster!), going full on the gas. “Madness,” cries my brain, but the action cements the car to the road. It slides onto a curb as I turn, the suspension compressing, G forces smooshing me into the seat. The traction is surreal. No ordinary car could ever, ever, manage this.
I finally return to the pits, take off my helmet, pull out my earplugs and get the news. I clock my fastest lap in 1:36.3. I am inordinately pleased.
And so begins weeks of incessant day dreaming about the very unlikely possibility that one day I’ll get another shot at a 911 GT3 Cup car.
Porsche Sport Driving School, 911 GT3 Cup Experience, $10,000; +1-888-204-7474, https://www.porschedriving.com.
(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)