Rennsport Hero

We look back on and drive the 996 GT3 RS that won its class at Le Mans in 2002.

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September 15, 2017

Le Mans, May 1, 2002. Sinking into the west, the setting sun pours a syrupy glow over the famous Circuit de la Sarthe. It’s sometime after 8:00 p.m. The track is cool and there’s a peaceful still in the air. Now deserted, the towering grandstands echo to the clatter of technicians as they work in preparation for the first test session of the 70th 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Lost in his thoughts, Kevin Buckler stands transfixed on the pit straight, watching the techs fix the ‘Porsche #81’ board above his garage. Brimming with pride, he turns his gaze to drink in the expanse of the pit complex and the dusty old stands that bear the names of past Le Mans legends and feels a wave of awestruck nostalgia wash over him. This is the moment he’s spent untold nights dreaming of. It is the moment he’s been waiting for all his life.

Gently, he lowers himself to the ground and with reverential care runs his hand over the smooth surface of the famous race track. The sensation sends a chill up his spine. Looking up, he grins, amused to find that his usually stoic crew are doing the same thing. They were all exhausted after the grueling transatlantic flight, but despite their weariness, all they could think about was driving straight to the track to catch their first glimpse of it while there was still light.

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Grinning, he looks on as his crew revels in the moment. And it’s just then that reality finally dawns on Buckler’s sleep-deprived senses: ‘We’re here. We’re at Le Mans. We’re really here!’

Like many of us, Buckler watched the 1971 film Le Mans in his youth and wanted to be just like star Steve McQueen. He read the books, watched the race on TV and drove lap after lap of the iconic track on PlayStation; where, from his home in California, it all seemed so far away. But now, at the age of 43, he was finally going fulfill his dream and race in the 24 Hours for real.

In truth, Buckler wasn’t the only one surprised to find his relatively inexperienced Petaluma, California-based Racer’s Group (TRG) outfit at Le Mans that year. Indeed, more than a few eyebrows had been raised when the Automobile Club de l’Ouest (ACO) accepted TRG’s application to race the 24 Hours. Not that Buckler didn’t deserve his shot. He’d spent more than a decade evolving his racing suspension business from a small-time garage outfit into a full-fledged shop and top-flight racing team.

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As far as his driving career went, Buckler had done the hard yards: working his way up from local Porsche Club events to IMSA GT3, all the way to the Rolex Sports Car Series, taking a couple of impressive class finishes along the way. But despite all Buckler’s successes, 2002 would be the year that his Racer’s Group would finally come of age.

With technical support from the factory, not to mention the loan of the rather useful Timo Bernhard and Jörg Bergmeister for the race, Buckler won the GT class at the 2002 24 Hours of Daytona. In itself, it was a brilliant and emphatic win. But more importantly, after seven years of trying, it was the result he needed to pave the way for a crack at the race he’d always dreamed of winning: Le Mans.

But it wasn’t to be all plain sailing that year. At Sebring, the race widely considered to be the unofficial qualifying event for Le Mans, the #66 car crashed out with just over 40 laps remaining. Not the best way to impress the selection committee, for sure. But despite the poor result, the ACO was still happy to give The Racer’s Group the nod.

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With his berth among the 48 elite teams secured, Buckler was able to negotiate a high level of support from the factory, which included the talents of Porsche’s hired guns, Lucas Luhr and Timo Bernhard—not to mention a shiny new 996 GT3 RS. Now that he finally had his chance, all he had to do was tame the treacherous 8.625-mile track, and learn to go fast without binning the car in front of the Stuttgart establishment. Easy…

In throwing its support behind a team with no Le Mans experience, the factory was taking an unusual risk. A Porsche had won the LM GT class for the last eight years in a row and now it was looking, in part at least, to TRG to make it nine. Weissach expected, and with so much high-profile support behind him, Buckler knew he couldn’t afford to let them down. Still, he felt confident that his squad could uphold Porsche’s faith—and he knew the car was certainly up to the job.

On to Victory

Freshly decaled in TRG’s livery, but left painted in Weissach’s customary white, the #81 car sits waiting in pit lane for its first lap of la Sarthe. Deciding to do the honors himself, Buckler slides over the massive door bar, straps in and steels himself for his first taste of the historic circuit.

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For any Le Mans rookie the pressure would have been intense, but as he leaves the pits Buckler is confronted with the disconcerting sight of Porsche heavyweights Roland Kussmaul, Alwin Springer and Norbert Singer, along with the rest of The Racer’s Group crew, all cheerfully waving at him from the pit wall. Bemused, Buckler waves back uncertainly, muttering through clenched teeth: ‘If I screw this up now, I might as well just keep driving straight to the airport.’

Despite all his years racing on the heart-stopping banks of Daytona, the Californian can’t help but be blown away by the speed he’s carrying down the Mulsanne Straight. With the RS screaming in sixth gear, he watches the digital speedo climb past 180 mph. As the trees blur by, he looks down the tree-lined straight amused to find that all the details from the PlayStation game are present and correct in real life: the Chinese restaurant…the hardware shop…the cow grazing at the side of the road?

“You’ve got to be kidding me! A fricking cow?” recalls Buckler of the moment a bovine interloper nearly ended his Le Mans bid after all of two laps. “All that cow had to do was take a couple of paces into the road and I’d have been saying ‘How you doin’?’ to it at 185 mph. It was absolutely surreal. And yet no one seemed to be bothered about it.”

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By Sunday the cow was gone, Buckler had gotten over his culture shock, and the #81 car was well and truly on the pace. By the end of the final session, Luhr had topped the LM GT class with a lap of 4:10.081—almost two and a half seconds faster than the rival PK Sport Porsche. Not too shabby for a team that had never raced at la Sarthe before. The car had proved to be brilliant straight out of the box, and things looked good for the race.

June 13, and the form that saw The Racer’s Group top the preliminary qualifying tables in May looks set to continue. However, twenty-five minutes into the early evening qualifying session Buckler gets a frightening reminder of just how la Sarthe earned its notorious reputation. Charging through the Dunlop Curve at over 140 mph, Buckler gets on the brakes for the chicane and is spun savagely into the gravel. Shaken, the Californian is able to get the car back to the pits where it’s discovered that a hose had failed, spilling coolant onto the track.

The rest of the car checks out fine, and with the hose repaired, Luhr is sent out for the final qualifying session where he takes the LM GT pole ahead of the hotly favored Freisinger Motorsport GT3 RS. Buckler is beside himself, but after his spin, he is all too aware of the challenges that lie ahead in the race.

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Despite his trepidations though, it seemed as if luck was to be on Buckler’s side that day. After being locked in an epic race-long duel with the Freisinger car, Buckler’s GT3 RS crossed the line a whole 58 seconds ahead of its rival. On its debut at Le Mans, The Racer’s Group had done the unthinkable—it had won its class, finishing 16th overall.

“It was unbelievable,” recalls Buckler, with a tremor of emotion in his voice. “When the car came across the line, we all threw our arms up in the air, and I just stood there watching these normally stoic guys jumping around, screaming and yelling like a bunch of little girls. It was so funny.”

Life After Le Mans

After its win at Le Mans, chassis 109 would go on to do a season of American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and Grand Am racing, helping Buckler take third in the GT championship and win the coveted Porsche Cup as the season’s most successful privateer. In 2003 it would compete again in the ALMS and Grand Am series, and have one last crack at America’s premier endurance events in 2004 before being retired and put on display on TRG’s showroom floor. There it sat, in pride of place, until sometime in 2005 Buckler made the decision to sell it.

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“The car was just awesome,” remembers Buckler. “It was fun, it was fast, easy to drive, and easy to set up. Sometimes we’d have problems with the other cars, but this car was magical. We called it ‘the happy chassis.’ If I had the money, I’d have kept it in a heartbeat,” he sighs. “But what do I do?” Still, as the saying goes, one man’s loss is another’s gain. And so it was that, after spending a few months advertised on TRG’s website, #81 would eventually find a new home in the most unlikely of places—Brisbane, Australia.

Having previously owned an early 996 GT3, Aussie Phil Holzberger found that he had developed a hankering for something a little more unique. “I wanted to buy a race car, something with a bit of history,” he explains. So in March 2005 Holzberger flew to California to inspect the car and found it too good to resist. A couple of months and around $200,000 Australian ($157,605 USD) later, it was one very happy Holzberger that took delivery of his freshly restored, Le Mans-winning 996 GT3 RS.

After a having a crack at the national Porsche Driver’s Challenge GT series, Holzberger has mostly used #81 for local sprint races along with the odd track day and, the occasional hill climb too.

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“Yeah, I must admit, it’s not ideally suited to hill climbing,” laughs Holzberger. “The circuit is too tight and the brakes and tires don’t really get the chance to warm up properly. Plus, it’s a pain to get off the line. But it’s fun though!” Just how much fun? I’m about to find out…

Behind the Wheel

It’s the final session of a long, hot track day at Queensland Raceway in Ipswich, Queensland, Australia, and I have the track all to myself, which is good because I’m nervous as hell about driving this GT3 RS and could do without the distraction of dicing with other cars.

It’s not the power or the price tag that’s worrying me. No, the thing that is gnawing at me is the knowledge that there was only one Le Mans-winning Racer’s Group GT3 RS and it can never be replaced. But despite the enormous sense of responsibility that comes with driving a car like this, just knowing its provenance, knowing that it has got the history of la Sarthe, Daytona and Sebring coursing deep within its veins is enough to send a chill down my spine.

After climbing over the roll bar, I strap myself in and hunt around for the start button. It’s just then that I notice Buckler’s sticker: ‘NO MISTAKES’ and grimly chuckle to myself, hoping that I can heed his advice. Right, it’s time to go for a drive.

The 420-hp naturally aspirated flat six roars to life. Serrated and harsh, the blare from the exhausts shakes you to the very core. It’s angry, visceral and unbelievably loud, but glorious all the same. Combined with the rattling, coffee-grinder grate from the drivetrain, this racing machine is only just on the right side of ear splitting as it trundles up pit lane.

Out of the pits, I accelerate hard out of the long Turn Two, with the flat-six’s guttural roar hardening to a saw-toothed howl. The pick up off the throttle is electric. And although it’s smooth and linear, accompanied by that feral soundtrack the RS’s acceleration feels intense!

With the hoarding blurring in my peripheral vision, we storm down the long back straight. Wringing the car out in fifth gear, I can feel the downforce-producing aerodynamics start to work, pinning the RS to the ground. Wow! All of a sudden, the marker boards start to flash by and I get off the gas and onto the brakes.

Advised by Holzberger that the brakes—15 inches in diameter up front and 14 inches out back—need a good shove to get them working, I hit the firm, slightly wooden-feeling pedal as hard as I dare and instantly find myself dangling from my harness, watching the world go into reverse. The sheer violence is astonishing, but it’s the way you can fling the RS into corners that truly impresses.

Even on cold tires, the grip and composure is amazing, but once everything’s up to temperature the performance simply blows your mind. The turn-in is sharp and precise, and it’s happy to be held on the brakes far deeper into the corner than I could have imagined.

A long way from being the razor-edged monster I was expecting, the 996 GT3 RS is remarkably balanced and benign. It feeds you a constant stream of friendly chatter, giving you all the information and encouragement you need to increase your commitment through the corners. The feedback from the chassis is so clear and direct that you’re able to catch your mistakes virtually before they happen. Even after just a handful of laps, you can understand why Buckler called #81 “the happy chassis” as driving it is easy, intuitive and just so much fun!

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