Today, we’re at One Porsche Drive in Atlanta, Georgia, the site of Porsche Cars North America’s (PCNA) newly christened headquarters. The 27-acre property on which it sits, located just outside the Northeastern corner of the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, is highlighted by a 1.6-mile Porsche Experience Center test track. The facility was designed to be a destination for the public, both enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike. PCNA is expecting 30,000 visitors per year.
I walk in the front door and pass by a Dauer 962 and a 911 GT1 parked in the atrium. Making a right hand turn past the front desk, I head to the Carrera Cafe—a Porsche racing history-themed spot where you can grab a snack, a coffee or a Coke—just as the day’s activities are about to begin. As the other journalists assemble, I take in the surroundings and am impressed by the unique modern architecture of the HOK-designed 220,000 square-foot building.
The HQ houses 400 employees from PCNA, Porsche Financial Services, Porsche Consulting and Mieschke Hofmann & Partner, which handles PCNA’s information technology. But there is much more, including a Human Performance Center and a Driving Simulator Lab designed to help make drivers healthier and more experienced. There’s also a Restoration Center, a Classic Car Gallery, a Porsche Exclusive Personal Design Studio, a Driver’s Selection store, a restaurant and the aforementioned cafe.
While all those departments and places are well worth exploring, we will save them for later. Right now, let’s head to the main attraction (and one that took 15,000 dump trucks full of dirt to build): the test track!
A Sports Car Playground
PCNA’s Driver Development Track consists of six separate sections that Porsche refers to as “modules.” There’s a handling circuit, a kick plate, an off-road course, a dynamics area, a low-friction circle and a low-friction handling course. Best of all, it’s a place that you or I can visit or book track time through Porsche’s Driving Experience website (www.porschedriving.com). Track experiences start at $300. There are a total of 77 cars in their fleet to choose from.
After a quick morning briefing on the schedule for the day, eleven other journalists and I head down the stairs from the cafe, split into small groups and head off to explore the test track.
We begin the day in a Cayenne Diesel on the off-road module, which is said to contain 21 different obstacles to negotiate. Judging by the very steep hills, a deep-looking water crossing and ruts made out of broken concrete and pipes along the way, I’d say that’s accurate. It is aggressively laid out and isn’t the “soft-road” course I was expecting. It would likely break most contemporary crossover SUVs after a few laps—assuming they don’t get stuck.
The lap begins with a 70-degree hill climb. After stopping at the top, I engage the Cayenne’s Hill Descent function, which safely returns us to level earth. Next is a series of high and low spots that make the SUV teeter along, which raises two wheels off the ground in spots.
Next, there are a series of turns to show off the Cayenne’s turning radius and more hills that further help the SUV demonstrate its power and off-roadability. This is followed by a crawl over a section of partially buried water pipes and then a splash through the water crossing.
We then go through a wall section that tilts the Cayenne approximately 45-degrees to the side, and then circle back around through a concrete halfpipe that brings us back to the starting line. For those that say the Cayenne is only good for taking the kids to and from school and towing boat trailers, a lap of this course would likely change their opinions.
Next, we head to the jewel of the Experience Center: the 1.6-mile handling circuit. I slide into the bucket seat of a 991 Carrera 4 GTS with a seven-speed manual transmission, ease out of the pit area and roll onto the track. After a lap or two I find myself thinking this course has a similar feel to Turns 3 through 7 at Laguna Seca, if they were connected by three straightaways. This is not a particularly complex track, but it does a fine job of giving a good sense of what a particular Porsche’s engine, suspension and brakes are capable of doing.
Though the course
was designed by Tilke Engineering of Formula 1 fame, it feels more like a winding country road than a F1 circuit. This is actually a good thing, as it gives you the thrill of driving on a favorite backroad without the worries of oncoming traffic or cops with radar guns. While I can nitpick about how I wish the course were longer, had more technical sections or elevation changes, make no mistake, this course is a blast to run hot laps on.
After cooling off in the pits, we make our way over to the low-friction handling course. This section is made up of polished concrete, which is designed to produce the same sensation as driving on freshly fallen snow. I buckle into the passenger seat of a Boxster GTS, which has its traction control switched off, and am taken for a demonstration lap by an instructor.
The key here is to turn into a corner, hit the throttle to get the tail of the car to break loose and then get the car straightened out so you can do the same thing through the next corner. It’s a safe place to play around with getting the car sideways.
My first lap is okay. I get the tail to step out, but my transitions from one corner to the next are sloppy. I am able to string one or two quick drifts together, but I end up overdriving or underdriving the turns that follow. After four laps, the instructor and I switch seats again. He drives into the first corner at a slow pace before nailing the accelerator, getting the roadster practically sideways. He powers through the rest of the corners with just as much zeal.
“What did you think of that,” the instructor asks, as we come to a stop at the starting area. “Who knew you could run a Boxster on street tires on an asphalt rally stage,” I say. Of the six modules, the low-friction handling course is the best place to practice car control. Next, we head back to the other side of the track to do runs over the kick plate.
If you’ve never heard of a kick plate, you’re not alone. So scarce are these contraptions that PCNA claims theirs is currently the only one in North America. But what is it exactly?
A kick plate is a hydraulically-actuated plate that is located just before a long and water-covered epoxy surface. As a vehicle passes over the plate, sensors trigger a random left or right “kick” that gets the tail of the car out of shape just as you hit the slippery straightaway.
On my first run, the plate kicks left. I countersteer and open the throttle up, but the plate is quicker than I am and I spin. The second run is better, as I don’t wipe out. The key is to know just when the plate will kick. That is quite tricky to do, though, as the third, fourth and fifth runs also resulted in spins. While traveling backwards at 30-mph in a 911 would be mostly terrifying anywhere else, it is strangely thrilling on this straightaway.
The kick plate is great practice for saving a car that is starting to go out of control. And Porsche classifies how aggressively the plate will kick in percentages. On my runs, it was set at 50 percent. I wonder what professional race car drivers can do when it’s turned all the way up…
The Low-Friction Circle is a section where drivers can practice car control on a wet circular pad of polished concrete. It’s more commonly known as a wet skidpad.
While all the other sections were new to me, this is a course type I have experience on. I ran a 991 Carrera S on a snow and ice skidpad at Porsche’s Camp4 media day at the Mecaglisse Motorsport Complex in Canada this past February.
I strap into a Boxster GTS, roll onto the concrete skidpad and find that it is much more forgiving than the snow and ice north of the border. The concrete is slick, but not so slick that it bites you quickly when you lose traction. When the car starts to go around, there is plenty of time to adjust the throttle and steering angle.
Next, I climb into the Alcantara-laden interior of the Panamera GTS. Since the sedan is 1,213-lbs heavier than the Boxster (4,244 lbs vs. 3,031 lbs), it takes more throttle to get it sideways. While the Panamera obviously doesn’t have the same sprightly demeanor as the Boxster, it still feels tight and drifts around the pad feeling like a much smaller sedan.
The wet skidpad is both challenging and fun. I would have preferred to run on it prior to lapping the low-friction handling course, as I was able to feel reasonably well acclimated to driving the Boxster and Panamera on this surface within about 10 laps. After we finish up on the skidpad, we head over to the sixth and final module.
The dynamics area is the place to clock zero-to-60 times and test a car’s handling through a slalom. While it’s the most ordinary looking part of the tracks, the area gives my instructor and I the chance to launch a Panamera GTS to 60 mph in under five seconds with Launch Control activated. The simple things are sometimes also the most extraordinary.
Next, we test the big sedan’s agility with a run through the cones on the slalom. For a car that weights more than two tons, the Panamera GTS corners remarkably with little body roll, even by small sports car standards. Apart from the handling circuit, it’s the place I’d most like to spend more time on. Feeling the essence of what a Porsche can do never gets old. As the clock strikes noon, we all head back inside for lunch.
Around the HQ
After a first-rate meal at Restaurant 356, the on-site fine-dining spot, we head to the Driving Simulator Lab, where visitors can test their driving skills on an advanced video game. As soon as we walk in, the moderator instructs the group of us to remove our shoes and settle into a racing seat in one of six individual fiberglass pods outfitted with a steering wheel, pedals and TV screens.
We are going to run a virtual Cayman GT4 at Laguna Seca. We begin by running five practice laps. During this virtual test, I am most impressed by the force feedback steering wheel, which gives the same sensation as a real steering rack. The track layout and the way the virtual Cayman responds to input are true to life. We then line up for a race based on our practice lap times. I’m starting third out of five.
I jump out to an early lead, but I overdrive the entrance to Turn 5 and get passed by two cars. Since our cyber Cayman has the traction control turned off and its video game pedals are slightly stiffer than the ones you’ll find in a real Porsche, it’s easy to hit the throttle too hard and spin while exiting corners, which happens several times after I get going again.Although my competitors have a few offs and spins in the following laps that allow me to pick up spots, I end up getting outrun and finish in the same spot I started in. While not anywhere near as thrilling as driving on a real race track, the simulator is a good place to get a feel for circuits and cars without having to travel or risk wadding up cars. We then head to the Human Performance Center (HPC).
The HPC is part gym and part laboratory. In the gym, there are a variety of pneumatically-powered, strength-training machines, some old-school kettle bells and a Batak hand-eye coordination training game that is identical to the ones used by Formula 1 teams. In the lab portion, a battery of tests are run to determine the type of hydration, nutrition and training that is ideal for a trainee.
Scoping out the rest of the facility, the Restoration Center is being set up as an American version of Porsche Classic in Germany. Mechanical restorations are expected to begin in the immediate future and full cosmetic and mechanical restos will begin not long after. In conjunction with the Restoration Center, the Classic Car Gallery is set up like a mini museum where Porsche owners can display their machines.
Last but not least is the Business Center, which offers board and conference rooms for per-day rentals and a Porsche Exclusive Personal Design Studio, which serves as a meeting space for customers who want to go through their paint, leather and specialty part choices and pick out Exclusive options when ordering a new Porsche.
Home in America
From the outset, it would be hard for One Porsche Drive to not be outstanding. Porsche invested $100 million in this facility and it shows. It is a well thought out, well executed headquarters that represents the brand to the highest possible degree.
For those who live on the West Coast of the U.S. who aren’t able to travel to Atlanta, Porsche is building a similar facility in Southern California. The Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles, which is expected to open in 2016, will be located 17 miles south of Los Angeles in Carson, California. The California facility will also serve at the new headquarters for Porsche Motorsport North America.