Pirate Porsche

This 1975 RSR is the only car in the history of Le Mans to sneak on track.

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June 29, 2018

While walking through the back streets of Quito, the capital of Ecuador, something bright green poking out of a garage door catches my eye. The boxy oil cooler set in the front splitter coupled with the massive flares over the fat rear tires make it seem like something special before I can even see exactly what it is. As I get closer, the pump attendants at the fuel station turn into guards. Fortunately the car’s owner, Alfonso Darquea, is more than happy to call off the security to talk about his pride and joy. A chance find quickly turns into an incredible discovery. This is no ordinary RSR, but a car that ran at Le Mans in 1975, where it was given the moniker “Pirate Porsche.”

If you like cars and motorsports, then you’ll have to agree that Darquea has lived a charmed life. Since the 1960s he’s owned one of Ecuador’s biggest gas and oil companies, Dispetrol, and has had the means to own and race some outstanding machines. His collection currently includes a Lancia Delta Integrale and Toyota Celica that were raced by Juha Kankkunen in the World Rally Championship (WRC), both still in their iconic works liveries, an ex-works Fiat 131, and a Schnitzer BMW 320 to name a few. But it’s the RSR that he is most fond of, and in his office, surrounded by trophies and certificates from decades of successful racing, he tells me how it came to get its unusual nickname.

In the 1970s, Guillermo Ortega and Fausto Merello were well-known racing drivers in Ecuador who raced no less of a car than a Porsche 908/02, taking a very credible seventh-place overall in the 1973 24 Hours of Le Mans. However, shipping cars around the world was even more complicated 40+ years ago than it is today. As such, they bought a brand-new 911 RSR direct from Porsche for 1975 and had it delivered at the track in Le Mans.

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Painted in black with #9 on the side and proudly displaying stickers of the Ecuadoran flag, the RSR looked the part, but it wasn’t race tuned or prepared. That being the case, the drivers could only manage a 4 minute 40 second qualifying lap, which was only good enough for a lowly 60th place…on a starting grid of 58 cars. They got put on the reserve list and needed two faster qualifiers to pull out to be able to make the race, which looked less and less likely as the clock moved closer to 4:00 p.m. on Saturday afternoon.

But then the NART team boss, Luigi Chinetti, had an argument with the ACO race officials over them placing his Ferrari 308 GT4/LM entry in the prototype, rather than GT, category and withdrew his four entries in protest. Suddenly, it seemed the Ecuadorian drivers’ Porsche had a way into the race.

Team members ran around frantically trying to get permission for the Porsche to go out on track for the formation lap, but in the crowded chaos of the pre-event startline, they couldn’t find the right official to ask. So they did the only thing they could: They pushed the RSR onto the grid and took the green flag hoping that everything would get sorted out in a lap or two and they’d be allowed to continue.

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But when the race organizers found out that the Ecuadorians were racing without permission, they were absolutely furious and black flagged the RSR immediately. It became the only car in the history of the race that snuck in and raced without permission. Hence the name “Pirate Porsche.”

Long & Winding Road

Auto racing in Ecuador doesn’t get all that much international press, but this tiny little country that straddles both the Andes and the Amazon actually has a long and rich motorsport history. One brutal event called the Ruleta de Republica, which translates as Lap of the Country, was basically a Dakar Rally on tarmac and it was the race that Ortega shipped this RSR over to South America for. Darquea explains why the car didn’t really shine there though…and the reason for that was partially down to Darquea himself.

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“You know the WRC these days, 10 km (6.2 miles) and the stage is finished,” says Darquea. “That’s nothing! In the Ruleta, we used to have stages high in the Andes and down on the subtropical plains near the coast that were 400 to 500 km (249 to 311 miles) long, all on closed roads. It was just incredible. I loved that event! You were in the cars for hours. But Ortega’s RSR wasn’t really well-suited to the rough roads, high altitude, and the constant tight corners. He needed something a bit more nimble, which is why I always used to beat him in my Porsche RS!”

The RSR came into its own in sports car races on smooth and flowing courses like the Yahuarcocha Circuit in Ibarra, where it scored many victories.

One of the reasons Ortega had purchased the Porsche was because the Ecuadorian motorsport governing body had decided to restrict engine displacement to 3,000 cc, which meant the Ferrari 250LM he part-owned with Merello (which incidentally sold for $14.7 million at Sotheby’s in 2013) was ineligible to race. But in 1980 they reduced it further, down to 2,000 cc. So after just four years of racing, the RSR also became obsolete.

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In any normal country, Ortega could have just sold the car. But Ecuador has a generations-old Draconian law that states that only brand-new vehicles can be imported, and old ones cannot be exported! This law even extends to parts, so the only way to get things imported is to export similar items in an ‘exchange.’

Apart from storing it in a garage for posterity, the only thing Ortega could do was convert his RSR into a road car. To accomplish this, he swapped the original 330-hp 3.0-liter flat-six engine and gearbox with someone in America for a standard 210-hp 2.7-liter drivetrain. The wide flares were taken off and much narrower ones were put on until Ortega had a pretty standard looking 911 that no one knew was a downgraded Le Mans racer.

Ortega drove the Porsche less and less over the years until a couple of years ago when Darquea finally persuaded him to sell it to him. Since then, Darquea has slowly been rebuilding it back into the race car it was intended to be.

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Thirty years later and customs regulations are slightly more relaxed now, so Darquea was able to ‘just’ buy a new engine. If that wasn’t expensive enough though, he still had to pay the import fees—which doubled the cost!

Compared to the engine, the fenders, wheels, and the other needed parts weren’t too expensive to buy or too hard to find. To complete the build, however, Darquea is still waiting to find a second-hand braking system. The original was too corroded to repair, but he thinks that the cost of a new RSR-spec one is a bit too outrageous, so he is keeping his eyes open for one for sale that’s been used before. Also, a pair of authentic racing seats have eluded him since he began the build, so they’re still on his shopping list.

As I peer into the car, I see buttons for electric windows on the inside of the door, which were not something seen on too many mid-1970s Le Mans racers.

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“Well, there’s originality,” Darquea shrugs. “But for someone my age, it’s also important to consider comfort and convenience. I suppose Ortega changed the doors with ones from a more modern Carrera. But on the good side, I’m pretty sure that the electric motors are lighter than the winding mechanisms, so I might keep them for a while.”

On the Road

It is a beautiful day in Quito, so Darquea is happy to take his RSR for a test drive. But this Porsche hasn’t been started for a while and sounds like an arthritic old dragon waking up. One with bronchitis. But even coughing and spitting, it still somehow sounds gorgeous. There is just one problem, though: Someone left with the garage exit ramps! A mechanic finds some old wood planks and we try to lay down a makeshift way over.

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Darquea inches the RSR up following the mechanic’s commands, but the belly of the car is too close to a ridge in the floor. I shout out a warning but the passenger window is closed and Darquea can’t hear me over the roar of the engine. We’ve literally gone three feet and we’ve already lost some paint off a Le Mans racer. But this is Ecuador and things are done…a little differently here.

The best type of car for the speed bumps and potholes on the streets of Quito would be a 4×4, but for a thoroughbred and very old car set up for racing on smooth circuits, this RSR handles extraordinarily well. The suspension works much better over the rough roads than I expected. Even so, the road noise inside the car makes even idle conversation nearly impossible. Noise aside, that gravelly bark from the engine just before each gear change has to be one of the best sounds in the whole automotive world. When Darquea stabs the gas to slide us around a tight corner, the raucous sound the Porsche makes is enough to make passersby clutch at their chests in fear.

We decide to shoot some photos of the car in front of one of the country’s oldest churches. Some people inside the building, however, don’t like this idea. With the sound of Darquea parking echoing off the lofty rafters through the open front church doors, parishioners may be thinking that a demon has torn apart the veil of reality on the steps by the entrance. A couple of non-plussed churchgoers come out and stand defiantly in shot, but the security guard I paid to let us take pictures steps in to move them along.

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Laying on the hot cobblestones with my camera in hand, I’m struck by the RSR’s flares and curves. The 911 has had an iconic shape since the day it was launched and (in my humble opinion) this wide-body example is its ultimate expression. It’s aggressive but still quintessentially Porsche, unlike the Group 5 935s and Kremer K-cars that came later.

I want to position the car in the best light, so I hold my arm out to see where the shadow falls. But there is no shadow! Ecuador is right on the equator, and there are no shadows here at solar noon. Quito is also situated high up on the ridge of the Andes and, at 9,350 feet above sea level, the thin air at this altitude affects performance as power is reduced and engines run rich and therefore hot. So another big modification Darquea made is a pair of huge OMP carbs on either bank of cylinders.

Breakdown, Polícia & Le Mans Again

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On the way back to the garage there is a cough and an ominous rumble from the engine. “Uh oh,” Darquea mutters as the car dies. It fires again for a few seconds but as soon as he takes his foot off the clutch, it stops. “Fuel pump,” he muses. Amid a sea of car horns and bemused looking onlookers, I get out and push us over to the nearest median in the middle of seven lanes of traffic. The local police soon wander over to have a look and notice that there are no license plates on the car. They write us a ticket as we sit here helplessly.

Half an hour later, a mechanic arrives and the test run ends at the end of a tow rope behind a Nissan X-Trail SUV. Darquea is unphased, though. He has full-time mechanics to look after the car and has plenty of time to get it ready for its first real event in nearly four decades.

Darquea previously raced with his son at the Classic Daytona 24 hours in a rented RSR. His newest plan is to enter the Pirate Porsche in the 2018 Le Mans Classic. That event is only open to cars that have raced there in the past, which is a great idea—although there might be a technicality over this car seeing as it ran illegally in 1975. Darquea is unsure if he’ll keep the car green or paint it black like the last time it was at the Circuit de la Sarthe. But this time he’ll make doubly sure that it has permission to be on the grid!

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