Not long ago, taking your Porsche to the track for a weekend put you in a rather small group of Porsche owners. But over the last ten years the popularity of what might be termed casual motorsports, or non-competitive track days, has exploded in popularity. For many it begins with the relatively tame confines of a parking lot filled with cones and then escalates to running high-performance track days with any number of clubs. Of course, if enjoying your car on the open track days doesn’t satisfy your need for speed, you can continue your track progression with wheel-to-wheel racing.
For those Porsche owners who are considering entering the wonderful world of motorsports, here is how it generally works. As we mentioned earlier, discovering your car’s limits in autocross is a great way to develop a feel for basic vehicle dynamics and to improve your driving skills at relatively low speeds. When you decide to do your first track day, also known as Driver Ed (DE) or High Performance Driving Experience (HPDE), you’ll be pleased to know you’ll have an instructor with you for at least one weekend, and often for several weekends, before you are turned loose on the track. This is for your safety, the safety of others, and the well-being of your car.
Being a track day instructor and club racer myself, I’ve gone from the parking lot to wheel-to-wheel racing and watched many other Porsche owners do the same. There are several different approaches to becoming a weekend warrior of motorsports; first you must find the car that is right for you.
Often the first-time student shows up in his late-model street car, a relatively new 911, Boxster or Cayman and goes out to “enjoy” his car in a high-performance setting.” This is generally enough to get about 80 percent of the drivers hooked on the track experience. As these new drivers progress, they begin to have second thoughts about using their daily driver Porsche for a track vehicle. While driver’s education weekends tend to sound benign, make no mistake, “incidents” can and do happen on the track. Rare? Yes, but they do happen. And just for the record the euphemism “incident” sounds harmless until you have one and your pride and joy is on a flatbed heading home. Suddenly that “incident” looks a lot more like a wreck or a blown motor. For these rare occasions, track-day insurance can be a real savior.
With that thought in mind, consider this advice; do not take a car on the track that you can’t afford to repair, which leads to, what else, the designated track car. Unless you are actually racing, this designated track car is a wonderful excuse to own another Porsche. Or, if you are looking for a car reliable enough to run hard at the track and drive home, there is no brand better than Porsche. And here is another bonus: Generally speaking the parts used to modify a car for track use do not necessarily inflate the value of the vehicle. For that reason, things like bigger sway bars, roll bars, five-point belts and short-shift kits come cheap when you buy them already attached to a car. When you participate in DEs, HPDEs or track days you’ll notice another element of the experience unique to Porsche: There are plenty of 20- and 30-year-old cars on track. Driving a 1986 944 or 1983 911 on the race track and then driving it home seems like a normal practice, and this speaks volumes about the quality built into these early Porsches.
So now the big question: What car should you buy to drive to the track and still be able to use as a weekend driver or even a daily driver? We put the limitation of driving to the track only because if you don’t drive the car to the track you need a trailer, and if you have a trailer you need a tow vehicle and, well, you can see where this is all going. So let’s take a look at some cars that will provide reliable transportation during the week and thrills on the occasional track weekend. We’ll progress up the Porsche food chain based on value, which oddly enough also corresponds to performance.
1989-91 944 S2
price range: $6,000-10,000
Okay, we selected the 1989-91 944 S2 as our first choice for a great street/track car, but that doesn’t mean you should overlook the “right” 944, 944S or 944 Turbo. All 944s are great handling cars, cheap to buy, relatively inexpensive to own and operate and display a wonderful balance. The 944 will do everything within its power to make you look good on track, and if you do end up off track, more times than not it was the driver at fault. Then consider this, should you have an “incident” in a 944, it is not a major life changer for most people who can afford to go to the track. Ball up your new 997 or smoke the motor in your new Cayman, and there is considerable financial pain, not to mention the long explanation to your significant other. Used parts are plentiful for the 944 and are generally reasonably priced.
So why the 944 S2? Well, it just fits nicely between the normally aspirated and somewhat underpowered 944 (0-62 in 8.4 sec.) and the powerful but more expensive to own and operate 944 Turbo S (0-62 in 5.7 sec.), coming in with a 0-62 time of 6.9 sec. We might add the 968 as another good choice, but it’s not as plentiful in our six- to ten-grand price range.
The 944S2 incorporates a lot of the heavy-duty Turbo equipment with a reliable 3.0 liter, 16-valve motor up front that produces a smooth 208 hp, a substantial gain over the 190-hp 944S that it replaced. Adding a computer chip and better air intake will take you to around the 225-hp mark. The S2 shares the stronger gearbox and driveshafts with the 944 Turbo, so the entire driveline is very suitable for high-performance driving. The S2 also uses Turbo front bodywork for better aerodynamics and much improved looks. Out back, the under-spoiler from the Turbo can be found, which helps duct air out from under the car and directs cooling air around the gearbox.
The S2 shares the same big brakes as the 944 Turbo S and the 928 S4. If you are both lucky and patient enough to locate an S2 with the factory sports suspension, you’ll find even more Turbo parts attached under the car, like 30mm front and 20mm rear anti-roll bars that will help on track weekends. The only downside to any 1989 and later 944 is they have gained a bit of weight, coming in at 2,888 lb. Of course, shaving weight off a weekend track car is half the fun; adding components like race seats and removing the rear cargo carpet and spare tire go a long way to dropping pounds.
Problem areas for the 944 S2 are mostly maintenance based, and when you are tracking a car that maintenance schedule is bumped up. Oil changes, brake fluid, rotors, brake pads and gear lube all require more frequent attention. Brake parts are now considered wear items that will need replacing annually, and wheel bearings will also last longer with an annual repacking. Regarding price, can you find a 944 S2 for less than $6,000? Yes. Will it last through a track weekend and get you to work on Monday? Probably not.
Driving the S2 around town, on long trips or on your favorite race track is a pleasure. Since the level of sophistication is limited to ABS, you will be driving the car without the aid of electronic controls. You’ll learn about momentum, smoothness and consistency, all things that make a great driver. Then, after you have mastered your driving skills, you may decide you’re ready to step up to that cup car. The car will not be the fastest car on the straights, but here
are two things I offer students. Straightaways are for fast cars, turns are for fast drivers and this: It is infinitely more fun to drive a slow car fast then it is to drive a fast car slow. Given some track time in a 944 S2, you’ll come to understand both.
1978-83 911 SC
price range: $12,000-19,999
Even to the uninitiated, when talk turns to driving a Porsche on a race track (or anywhere else for that matter) most people conjure up visions of the iconic 911. The fantastic race history of the 911 overshadows the more obscure successes of the 944, and while Porsche has introduced an all-new mid-engine platform for the Boxster and Cayman, when the factory builds a race car it is based on the 911 platform. If for no other reason than that relationship, it is hard to argue with finding a Porsche 911 that is robust enough for some spirited track weekends but reliable enough to be driven to work during the week. Of course, finding all of this for under $20,000 makes it even more interesting but surely not impossible. On rare occasions a real deal will surface, like a friend who purchased a 911 Targa last year for the paltry sum of $10,000, and the car was race ready and still street legal. Today the car is still street driven and club raced, one of a dying breed.
And that may be the secret to finding the perfect 911 SC for road and track: Look at the Targa. Sure, they are not as rigid as the coupes, but since this is a dual purpose car, the addition of a cage will add rigidity to the car, provide a larger degree of safety and, frankly, add wicked style points when you drive to work. Just be certain to pad the roll bar in all the appropriate places, since you will be driving without a helmet to work.
With the ever growing popularity of “outlaw-style” Porsches, you have an opportunity to venture into both camps with an SC track car that remains street legal. The lower stance and performance upgrades, along with its race-car theme, make this very inviting, right down to leaving the numbers on the car.
The SC was introduced in 1978 and brought with it a near bulletproof 3.0-liter motor to replace the problematic 2.7-liter engine. The new engine produced 180 hp in the U.S., while 1981 and later SC models in Europe enjoyed a bump to 204 hp. This new engine was coupled to a 915 five-speed transmission, and it is all wrapped up in a package that weighs a mere 2552 lb. New valve guides gave the 3.0-liter a long and happy life, and while there can be problems with the chain tensioners and stock rubber-centered clutches, most cars today have had the appropriate chain tensioner upgrade (few 35-year-old cars still have the original clutch in service). If the car has been tracked extensively, it pays to give the underside a close examination at suspension pickup points to be sure the tub is structurally sound.
So what is the driving experience going to be like? Well, it is a visceral drive, assisted only by your ability and the overall condition of the car. A driver new to tracking an early 911 will no doubt hear the instructor say “don’t lift” often in a loud or high-pitched voice when the tail end starts to come around mid-corner. Like all Porsches, an SC has well-designed disc brakes. A well-maintained brake system along with some performance brake fluid and pads will serve you well, but be advised brake modulation is in the hands of the driver, as there is no ABS to prevent brake lock-up and the dreaded flat spotted tires that result from over braking. You’ll learn to drive a rear-engine Porsche well, and when you do few challenges in life are more rewarding. Moving on to a more powerful, late-model 911 with ABS will be easy after you’ve earned your stripes in an early car.
Finding an SC suitable for street and track should not be difficult; there are still plenty of them on the market. It appears prices are creeping up on all of the early aircooled 911s, so it may take a while to find the right car at the right price. Ultimately, finding a sunroof-delete coupe would be the ultimate track car, but as we mentioned earlier, the real deal lies in the Targa ranks. They bring less money and still prove to be capable track cars. Like most Porsches, we’d look for the newest SC you can find, and locating a 1980 and later is preferable. Of course, if you can locate any SC with “all the right stuff” for track weekends that is ultimately going to save you time and money, even if you pay a bit more up front.
1997-2004 Boxster & Boxster S
price range: $12,000-19,999
Astute readers will notice the Boxster and Boxster S fall in the same price range as the 911 SC. Odd, isn’t it? But the choice is yours: Do you want to drive a modern mid-engine platform that provides superior handling, incredible balance and niceties like ABS and even PSM, all in a package that will give you a top-down street car, or do you crave the near primitive-by-comparison feel of an early 911? Add a set of performance brake pads and some sticky tires to the Boxster S, and you have a car that is amazingly capable and affordable for your local HPDE.
Obviously, the cheapest cars are the earliest ones, but time has proven the 1997-99 2.5 motor to be less reliable than the later 2.7-liter motor. This is the new family of watercooled boxer motors, and the mid-engine six-cylinder provides surprising performance. Finding a good 2000-01 Boxster should be fairly easy, and higher mileage cars have either passed or cured the typical RMS and IMS problems. By moving into the current century, you should also be able to find a Boxster with the optional Porsche Stability Manage-ment system. If you can afford it, the 2002 and later 2.7-liter Boxsters have most of the engine reliability updates installed at the factory. While the base Boxster is a great car with its 217-hp engine, there is more to be had from the S.
Well within our price range is the 2000-04 Boxster S, and the S package brings everything a track junky could want in a car. The 2.7 liter S-motor produces 250 hp, and the big red brakes are matched to the increased demands. Find a 2003-04 Boxster S, and the Variocam provides an additional eight horsepower. Finding a Boxster S with the desirable Sport Chrono package, sport seats and sport suspension is not a major chore; all of these things are well worth searching for during your hunt for a Boxster.
The driving experience is going to be totally different than our first two choices. The electronic wizardry will help you produce respectable lap times quicker, and driving this perfectly balanced car at speed comes almost naturally. The modern package tends to inspire confidence, and when that inspiration turns to over-confidence, the PSM (Please Save Me) helps you through the course. If you are a novice driver, you may notice your instructor is speaking in calmer tones, using terms like “nicely done.” It’s up to you to discover if he is talking to the car or the driver.
Making a 986 Boxster S your weekend track car and daily driver is barely a challenge; these cars are that refined in stock form. Even with performance upgrades the Boxster S will handle street driving without being harsh, and you have room for golf clubs if you need to calm down after a weekend at the track.
So what’s the downside to going modern versus vintage? Changing brake pads and servicing or modifying the suspension is still within reach of a good home mechanic, but working on the Boxster engine is much more difficult than either the 911SC or the 944 S2. So if working on your own car is part of the fun, this may limit you a bit or at least present a new learning curve. This downside hardly outweighs the pleasures of a totally modern sports car that behaves up to your expectations on the street or on track days, and you won’t be the only guy towing a tire trailer on weekends.
GT3 (any year works for us)
price range: $50,000-150,000
You know, some guys just like to start on top, and when it comes to the ultimate street/track car, we’d suggest putting a GT3 in your garage. Of course, the financials here make this unattainable for many, and as we mentioned earlier, if you can’t afford to crash it, you can’t afford to track it. In this case some of us couldn’t afford the tires to track a GT3, but for those who can, we know of no better way to attack a road course.
So let’s a assume you can afford such a car: We’d recommend the 996 GT3. As a well-respected friend of mine who drove one on track and told me, “If I owned this car. I could drive it for the rest of my life and never fully exploit the potential of the GT3.” And for mere mortals driving the occasional track day, nothing could be more accurate. These cars are also the most affordable; with prices in the low 50s, you can buy what is essentially a factory-produced race car that somehow manages to be a comfortable (by enthusiast standards) street car, too.
Of course, tracking a GT3 is as simple as loading up a tire gauge and heading to the track. Even with street tires the GT3 is considered track prepared, and while a well-driven GT3 will put you to the front of the pack, even a poorly driven GT3 can manage quick lap times. At most big track weekends you will generally encounter a group of GT3 owners, so you should have plenty of other drivers to compare notes with and compete against. Should you need even more performance and image, might we suggest the GT3 RS 4.0. This latest and ultimate rendition of the GT3 is possibly the ultimate street/track weapon, and the only thing faster than the lap times is the rate of drain on your wallet, but such is the price of owning one of the most high-spirited production cars to ever roll off an assembly line. All GT3s look best being towed to the track behind a Cayenne Turbo.