We’re in Carson, California today to tour the newly opened Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles (PECLA) and drive on its test track. We’ll also tour the new home of Porsche Motorsport North America (PMNA), which shares its space with PECLA. Located approximately 17 miles south of downtown L.A., adjacent to the 405 and 110 Freeways on the site of the old Dominguez Hills Golf Course, this facility is the second Porsche Experience Center in the United States. The first, which houses the Porsche Cars North America headquarters, opened at One Porsche Drive in Atlanta in May 2015.
Like the East Coast center, this facility has a driver development track, a simulator lab, a cafe, a restaurant, a business center, and a Porsche Exclusive Design Studio. The L.A. center is, however, built on a much larger plot of land than the one in Atlanta. Covering 53 acres, PECLA is situated on practically twice as much space as the 27-acre Atlanta campus. This extra room allowed Porsche to add features like a high-speed straightaway and larger modules on the development track.
As we pull up in front of PECLA, we find the exterior of the facility looks like a modern, if understated, racing shop. Walking through the front door, we see an array of especially desirable Porsches, including an original Gulf-liveried 917, a new 911 R, and the 1983 Gruppe B 959 concept car. Through a large glass wall to our right is the shop floor space for PMNA. In there, we spot an RS Spyder that was once run by Penske Racing and a Löwenbräu-sponsored Holbert Racing 962. While there is enough automotive eye candy on hand to ogle indefinitely, there is something motivating us to leave this hall of legendary machines quickly: a morning of driving on the test track.
To the Track
PECLA’s driver development track consists of eight modules designed to replicate a variety of driving conditions. There’s an “ice” hill, a low friction handling course, a kick plate, a low friction circle (aka a wet skid pad), an off-road course, a handling course, and an acceleration straightaway. Add those up and you end up with seven modules. Porsche says eight because the handling course can be split into an Outer and Inner loop. Now, let’s get behind the wheel of some Porsches and feel this place out!
1) Ice Hill
We buckle into a new 2017 718 Boxster (982) S with a seven-speed PDK transmission and set off for the track’s ice hill. Wait, ice in sunny Southern California? Nah. This portion of the test track is a slippery 7 percent slope that’s finished in simulated ice (i.e. polished concrete that’s wetted down by the track’s 88,000-gallon recycled water supply). At the bottom of the hill is a right-hand turn that’s designed to produce the driving experience of an understeering car (i.e. when traction is lost at the front wheels and a turn is taken less sharply than intended) on an icy road.
For our first trip down the hill, we’re conservative and roll to the bottom in second gear at about 15 miles per hour. Hitting the brakes as we near the bottom, the front tires lose traction and the car pushes forward despite the fact that the steering wheel is turned to the right. The lesson here is to be lighter on the brakes and more gentle with steering inputs. On the second run, we get up to 15-20 mph and brake closer to the bottom to feel the car out more. Naturally, this makes the Boxster push straight ahead again. But being smoother and less aggressive with our steering input makes for more compliant responses from the car.
For the third time around, we aim for 20 mph and lighter braking pressure earlier. This time, however, the tail steps out a bit as we steer right near the bottom. We save the car from completely spinning and learn another lesson: No matter how smooth you are behind the wheel, you can only drive so fast on slippery pavement with dry-weather tires. Even so, the well-balanced Boxster is confidence inspiring in less than ideal driving conditions. And the ice hill itself is an excellent environment to learn car control when the front tires lose grip.
2) Low Friction Handing Course
Next, we drive the 718 Boxster S over to a small, dry polished concrete part of the track that Porsche calls the “low friction handling course.” This module is designed to simulate a smooth tarmac surface that is covered in a light to medium amount of powdery snow. Unlike the ice hill, though, the purpose of this section of track isn’t to simulate a car understeering. Instead, it’s designed to allow you to learn control over an oversteering car (i.e. when the rear tires have less grip than the front ones) as you accelerate through and out of a corner.
On our three laps, we drive easy into the short, sweeping corners and get harder on the throttle once we’re past the apexes. The tail steps out as we exit the corners, but the loss of traction happens in a fairly progressive manner, which gives a good amount of time to react. Since this is a controlled environment, the car behaves identically through each corner. While we don’t find this module to be as challenging as the ice hill, we believe it’s an ideal place to learn how to safely remain in control of a car that loses rear grip. It’s also great for finding a car’s breakaway limit. Now, let’s head to the kick plate.
3) Kick Plate
A kick plate is a metal slab that’s recessed into the ground just before a straight, wet stretch of pavement. When a car’s rear tires pass over it, a hydraulic actuator “kicks” the plate left or right, making the rear tires lose traction and the car skid or spin. The purpose of this contraption is to teach drivers how to “catch” a car that becomes suddenly unbalanced at the back.
On our first run, at about 15 mph, the plate kicks left, knocking our Boxster sideways. Even so, we’re able to regain control fairly easily. The key here is having very quick hands. At the moment you feel the plate kick, you’ve got to countersteer immediately. For the second run, we approach the plate at 20 mph. Although the slightly higher speed makes the car feel less stable when the plate kicks right, we countersteer as quickly as our reflexes can and we save the car more easily.
Feeling more confident, we approach the plate at about 25 mph for the third and final run. Although that’s not a particularly high speed, when the plate kicks left we are sent spinning out of control down the wet tarmac. Like on the ice hill, no matter how good your reaction time is or how smooth your inputs are, the limit to remaining in control ultimately comes down to how well your tires are gripping the pavement. The kick plate is great for learning both how to react when a car gets out of shape and a place to work on reaction time behind the wheel.
For our last module in the Boxster S for the day, let’s head to what Porsche calls the “low friction circle” and what we call a wet skidpad.
4) Low Friction Circle
The low friction circle is a polished concrete slab that’s 300 feet in diameter. Like the low friction handling course, it gives drivers a feel for an oversteering car. Unlike the low friction course, however, this module is drenched with water by sprinklers and is designed to encourage sustained oversteer (i.e. a drift) rather than brief moments of oversteer.
We start our first clockwise lap at 10-15 mph to get a feel for the surface. Really, though, it feels just like the wet polished concrete on the ice hill. Picking up speed on the second lap and adding more steering input, the car starts to drift. Pushing the Boxster harder and adding more steering angle is finally enough to get the car to spin out. While the low friction handling course is best for learning how to handle an oversteering car in the real world, the wet skidpad is the place to experience more extreme oversteer and to learn and hone drifting skills.
With our time and laps in the 718 Boxster S complete, we head back to the pits and trade our mid-engined sports car for something a bit different.
5) Off-Road Course
We strap into a 340-hp 2017 Macan (95B) S and head for the dirt, gravel, rocks, and obstacles that make up PECLA’s off-road course. This portion of the test track was intended to show drivers how the Macan and Cayenne SUVs perform in harsher terrains. The course consists of some three- or four-foot tall mounds of dirt, obstacles like a large wooden seesaw, and some 25-foot tall hills with 45 percent ascents and descents.
The first order of business is climbing one of the tall hills. Easing up to the foot of the incline, we nail the throttle and the Macan takes us up the hill with vigor. Although a 45 percent incline sounds relatively tame, the sensation of climbing one—and the sight of nothing but blue sky out the windshield—is enough to make our heart tick at a higher rate. Reaching the top was the easy part, though. Now, we have to get down.
We engage the Macan’s Hill Descent Control system and ease over the edge of the top. As we start to descend, we pull off of the brakes and let the hill descent function bring us back to level ground. We’re not exaggerating when we say that the hill is steep enough to make us feel like the tail could lead a flip forward. But this intuition is proven wrong as we reach the bottom of the hill perfectly fine.
Next, we circle around the rest of the course and go over some shorter dirt hills. We also drive over the seesaw that allows us to go up it, balance at the middle of it, and then drive down it as we drive forward. Reflecting on our drive of the Atlanta Experience Center’s off-road course, we wish that the PECLA setup had a small water crossing and perhaps more highly banked sections. Really, though, these are relatively small nitpicks, as this course is essentially just as fun as the one back east. Now, let’s get back on some tarmac and behind the wheel of a 911.
6/7) Handling Course
After parking the Macan in the pits, we get behind the wheel of a 420-hp 2017 911 (991.2) Carrera 4S, which we’re set to drive on the PECLA handling course. At 1.3-miles (when the Outer and Inner loops are combined), the track was intended to simulate a twisty country road. Porsche is clear to point out that although Formula One circuit designer Hermann Tilke drew up this course, it was not built to be or feel like an outright race track. Instead, it’s intended to be a place where drivers of all skill levels can learn to drive safely at speed.
Rolling onto the track, we find it to be as advertised. This course is mainly made of sections of corners and bends that flow together. There aren’t really any technical, hard-braking sections like you’d find on a competition road course. One particular highlight, however, is an uphill stretch near the middle of the course that leads into a downhill right-hand turn that reminds us of Laguna Seca’s Turn 8 (aka the Corkscrew).
After a few laps, though, we understand why Porsche choose this handling course layout. While this track isn’t as thrilling as places like Laguna or Road Atlanta, it’s a less daunting course that’s far better suited to newer sports car drivers looking to safely learn sporty driving. At the same time, it’s also a place that experienced drivers will enjoy. The layout is relatively simple, but it’s nowhere near boring.
8) Acceleration Straight
For the last module, we drive the Carrera 4S to the acceleration straight. The point of this section is to give drivers a chance to experience the Launch Control feature that many modern Porsches have. As a bonus, at the end of the nearly 3/4-mile straightaway is a replica of the famous Carousel corner from the Nürburgring Nordschleife.
After cruising down to the start of the straight, we mash the brake pedal and floor the throttle to engage Launch Control, pull off the brakes and blast away from the starting line. We hit 110 mph on the speedometer before getting on the binders at our braking marker—a PECLA billboard perched next to the track and the 405 Freeway. We drive around the nicely banked Carousel at around 50 mph and then head for the exit of this module. As we drive back to the pits we’re thinking two things: 1) that was a blast and 2) we know we could have at least made it up to 125 mph.
After the track time, we head to the on-site Restaurant 917, which is located on the second floor of PECLA’s 50,000 square-foot building, for a high-quality lunch. From there, we check out an assortment of Porsche merchandise in the PECLA retail store and then drive some virtual reality Cayman GT4s in the Simulator Lab. We make it back to the large glass wall that divides the main entrance from the PMNA shop floor. The Porsche Motorsport garage looks modern and is medical operating room clean.
The $60 million Los Angeles and $100 million Atlanta Experience Centers are Porsche’s largest investments outside of Germany to date. Other than small nitpicks like wanting a more challenging off-road course, we really have no serious complaints. As was the case with One Porsche Drive in Atlanta, Porsche hit a home run with PECLA.
Best of all, anyone can book track time at 19800 South Main Street in Carson through the Porsche Experience Center website (porschedriving.com). Packages start at $385 for an hour and a half of drive time in a 718 Boxster and go up from there. Most of Porsche’s current production sports cars and SUVs are in PECLA’s fleet of vehicles available for driving on the track.