Tuesday, May 24, 2022

[Event] Porsche Experience Center Atlanta

My wife and I flew to Atlanta at the beginning of May to visit my family. While we were in town, to mark my and my dad's birthdays, I booked a driving experience at the Porsche Experience Center (PEC) Atlanta for the two of us. 

Porsche opened the PEC in May of 2015, a huge $100m complex that serves a variety of functions. Upstairs it's the North American corporate headquarters; underneath you'll find an exhibition space, the Classic Factory Restoration workshop, an area for new car deliveries, Restaurant 356, simulators, gift shop, Porsche Exclusive design studio. And most importantly, the Driving Experience Center, a track complex for dummies like me to drive fast in a safe environment with quality instruction.

The PEC is right at the eastern end of the Atlanta airport's northern runways, and I've gazed down longingly every time we've flown in. I've been on the website multiple times but have never pulled the trigger for two main reasons. First is that the program is not a full-blown driving school (like the RS Adrenaline academy, or the BMW programs at Thermal), but rather a 90-minute experience. Which is fine, except when you consider the second factor - the cost. Double the pain when I'm treating two of us for our birthdays.

Porsche offers driving experiences in almost every car that they sell. They also offer some special programs to compare different driving experiences back-to-back: GT3 vs. Turbo, mid-engine vs rear-engine, 2wd vs. 4wd. Dad and I deliberated for quite some time on which program to choose, but eventually settled on the Carrera S. I was most interested in those classic rear-engine dynamics, something I've not experienced before. It was hard to resist the allure of the GT3 experience, but the price tag ($1000 vs $600 for the C2S) helped check my temptation. You can check out the programs for yourself here

Dad booked lunch for us at noon at Restaurant 356, so we arrived a couple of minutes early to park up and get the lay of the land. The parking deck was almost completely Porsches, employee leases mixed with press cars. Immediately I spotted this colorful corner. Lightning was challenging and we needed to get upstairs, so I apologize for the quality. My first time seeing the amazing GT4RS, the wheels are very blue in person and I appreciate it.

Lunch was excellent. The food was delicious and I had to box the truly enormous schnitzel so there wouldn't be any problems when we hit the track. We took our time and wrapped up in about an hour, which gave us another hour to explore the facility. I ran through the list of amenities already so I'll let you check out the photos.

In the exhibition hall they were showing the Colors of Porsche collection, an assembly of cars made with that most holy of Porsche designations: Paint To Sample (PTS). I'll let you match up colors to names but on display were:

  • Nardo Grey
  • Tahoe Blue
  • Azzuro California
  • Fern Green
  • Fire Red
  • Pastel Orange
  • Rubystar
  • Nordic Gold Metallic
  • Ice Green Metallic

Downstairs there were a couple more significant Porsches to see: some very boring-colored Carrera GTs with a 918 Spyder, a couple race cars, and a 993 Turbo that was fresh out of factory restoration and essentially brand-new.

At 2pm it was time to meet our instructors and kick off the driving experience. We carried out introductions on the patio and started discussing the formalities - program agenda, proper safe operation and etiquette. We talked about previous track driving experience and what goals / focus areas we had for the day. Dad and I admitted that we were cheating on our BMWs, and I told my instructor Cory that my focus was just to learn more about rear-engine dynamics and generally have a good time.

The driving area has five distinct driving exercises that we cycled through:
  • Handling course (outer perimeter of the whole driving area, ~0.8 miles)
  • Acceleration/braking/slalom area
  • Low-friction, wet "kicker" exercise
  • Low-friction, wet skidpad
  • Low-friction handling course (dry polished concrete)
While we both picked Carrera S, I was feeling a bit spicy and ticked the box for the manual transmission. I believe the C2S is the only car at the PEC that offers this option, and there was just one available at our time slot. I woke up that morning in a bit of a sweat, afraid that I had made a mistake - I have 90 minutes to learn a completely new car on a new track! These are fast cars, and a ham-fisted downshift when the car is loaded up on corner entry is a recipe for disaster. Why did I add this complexity on top of everything else?! Thankfully my concerns were alleviated by the rev-match downshift feature toggled on with Sport mode.

Dad and I were each in our own cars, and there were about ~8 other drivers doing experiences and sharing track space at the same time. To start, Cory and I nosed out on to the handling course and completed 4-5 laps to understand the course, get a feel for the car, and for Cory to see what skills I needed to work on. There was a lot to figure out on those first sighting laps - power, brakes, balance, turn-ins, shift points, lines - so the pace was gradual.

From there we rotated to the kick-plate exercise, where you drive at ~25mph onto a wet low-friction surface, and a hydraulic ram kicks the rear of the car one way or the other. We started slow and I was frankly amazed at how easy it was to catch the car and set it straight, considering all the mass hanging behind the rear axle. We repeated 5-6 times and then moved on to the wet skidpad.

The wet skidpad is a great place to initiate understeer and oversteer safely and understand what it takes to correct each. We spent quite a bit of time here, kicking the throttle to throw the rear end out, waiting a tick for the weight to transition, and then counter steering and applying throttle to control the slide and hang the tail out around the circle. By the end I was very close to controlling the slide, and completed a half-circle before having to bail out as the car in front of us went around and blocked the way. I was really impressed with Cory's instruction here, because he made a point of comparing the dynamics of the 911 to the cars I'm use to driving, particularly my Focus RS. "What you did there - that's what you would want to do in your RS, but with the 911 you need to wait a moment, and use the steering more than the throttle so set the car." Really impressive that he adapted his instruction for me in real-time, and it did make a big difference for me. That's exactly what I came for - to experience the rear-engine dynamics and see how the car behaves compared to everything else I've driven.

Next up was the acceleration and braking exercise. I think this is the place for launch control demos, in the manual car we had to do it a little differently. Cory flicked some switches and adjusted modes, and the car held at 3500rpm with the throttle matted and it was on me to dump the clutch. I can't bring myself to do that, even on someone else's car. The car actually responded better with a more gradual clutch release and wow, the "normal" C2S is a fast car these days. My sense of scale has been skewed since I started driving electric cars but I'd file it alongside the G80 M3 Competition as "really f*(&ing fast." I guess those are my levels. My E30 M3 is least fast; Focus is a building, manageable fast; Skyline is "fast as s#!t" when the turbos spool. The 911 seems to be on that next level with the G80 M3. Beyond that, at least in cars I've driven, are the Huracan Performante, Aventador SVJ, and fast Teslas.

Braking was strong on the stock steel discs, again not too much nuance, just mash 'em right up to the edge of ABS. I think the PEC is probably more used to hosting people with less track experience, who have never done full-effort track braking, so after a couple repetitions we did the slalom. The car was very composed and smooth through the transitions, right up on its toes, almost undramatic. 

The final "module" was the low-friction handling course. I have to admit, I'm not really sure what this was for. It's a very small and tight twisting course over slight elevation, and the surface is dry polished concrete. I drove it a couple of times on "sighting" laps, and it felt like times I've had to whip around a parking deck looking for a spot when I'm running late. Same < 20mph speeds, quick transitions, just driving with my eyes. We picked up speed but I actually found myself trying hard to induce the lack of traction, to take advantage of the low-friction element. Cory's main lesson in this module was making an effort to use the brakes to transition the mass of the car to the front tires to generate the grip required for turn-in.

To finish it up we went back out on the handling course to put all the skills together. This was my favorite part of the day, and of course it was the part that went by the fastest. I built speed and focused on incremental improvements, following Cory's commands and adjusting my lines until I was carrying a pretty good clip. I had total confidence in the car after our exercises, and felt great driving it just as I would my RS on a track day. Strong brakes with no fade, huge torque from the motor, smooth chassis transitions and weight transfer. After 3-4 laps at speed I could feel the tires starting to heat up and get a bit greasy through the final corner, closest to the building. Before long Cory sent me to the pits so we could switch seats.

If you read my report from the BMW Performance Center, you know that I love ride-alongs with fast drivers. Cory took us out and showed me where I'd left a lot of speed, and also some places where he is more comfortable putting Porsche's $140k car right up against a guard rail. To my credit I think I had generally the right idea in most corners, but overall his comfort with the car and pace were steps above. He told me that the manual cars are rarely dusted off for duty - customers don't request them - so he was happy that I specified it. He also said that clutches don't last long when they do see duty. Aside from those 3-4 hard launches, I think we were very kind to it.

And just like that, 90 minutes were done, gone in a flash. We pulled back in to the pits to meet up with dad and share the adrenaline high of doing fast car stuff. Dad and I got some photos, then puttered around the merchandise shop with our huge 10% discount, which I applied to a PEC Atlanta hat, saving $3. From there it was back into roundie to start the crawl home through Atlanta rush hour traffic.

I have to commend the PEC team, the experience was top-notch and... dare I say it? Worth the money. $600 is a lot of 90 minutes, but it was 90 minutes of in-car driving, in new and nicely-maintained Porsches, in a safe environment with excellent professional instruction. Compare that to a track day in my Focus - roughly comparable driving time (5x20 minute sessions), wear and tear on my own car, consumables, no instruction, for about the same price (1 day at Laguna, track insurance, fuel/consumables). 

We will certainly be back. I'm extremely pleased with the C2S - this was the right choice for what I wanted to do. I decided against the "this vs. that" experiences because I thought that 90 minutes was too short to build confidence in two cars; this proved to be the right call, and instead of getting sorta-comfortable with two cars, I got very comfortable with one. There was a 992 GT3 out there, and it sounded amazing, but I would not have learned anything additional driving that car through these same exercises. Plus, you have to leave something for next time! There do seem to be some "overdrive" (120 minutes) and longer-format programs available, I will look at those when we return. There was also construction going on next door and there are plans to expand the PEC, I believe completed as soon as next year.

Thanks for reading along, I hope you enjoyed this as much as I did. I highly recommend the program and one final shout-out to Cory for the best driving instruction I've received at any school so far.

Saturday, January 29, 2022

[Focus] Road trip!! Palm Springs to SF, the other fun way

Before I left home for the weekend I plotted my route for the entire trip, including the return leg. I didn't know what kind of mood I would be in after two full days of high-concentration driving, and whether I'd still want to explore, or just make a beeline home. The nice thing about both of my maps is that they offered multiple options to break away from the twisties and jump on a highway for a more direct route if my mood changed.

So I set an ambitious course for Monday to give myself the option. Even as I loaded up my bags to leave Palm Springs I didn't know how much I'd stick to the itinerary. In the end, I did it all. Here's the route:

Google map link: https://goo.gl/maps/FzsCY1EHcU47Tez2A

  1. I-10 out of Palm Springs to I-215 north out of San Bernardino
  2. West at the Cajon Junction to Long Pine Canyon Road into Wrightwood
  3. Big Pines Highway northwest through Valyermo, back roads to bypass Palmdale
  4. Elizabeth Lake Road northwest through Andrade Corner as it becomes Pine Canyon Road
  5. Left to stay on Pine Canyon Road, right on Old Ridge Route, into Gorman for fuel and food
  6. West on Frazier Mountain Park Road, continue as it becomes Hudson Ranch Road
  7. North on 33
  8. West on 58 to Atascadero, final fuel stop
  9. 101 north to the bay.
I didn't have any reason to go through Los Angeles on the return trip, so I decided to cut up between Big Bear and Mount Baldy, tracing through Wrightwood and the northeast side of Angeles National Forest. I always seem to do these road trips in the winter, and as a Californian I never think about weather. It's typically only as I get close to the grapevine that I remember... oh yeah, there is some elevation and cold here. Wrightwood hosts a couple of little ski hills, so I was not sure what conditions I would find. The weather for the surrounding days was in the 40s+ with no precipitation, so I told my Michelin PS4S it would be fine and hoped they'd believe me.

It was a slow start, with a considerable dump of rain on the opening highway leg of I-10 and I-215. Thankfully this cleared as I came up to the Cajon Junction, where I could lave the commute traffic behind. Almost immediately I was upon some great views and rock formations.

There was a "Chains Required" sign at the east end of Lone Pine Canyon Road, but with no white stuff in view I was dubious. I watched a dozen non-AWD sedans go by on what looked like normal tires, and decided to press on.

I saw my first patches of snow on Long Pine Canyon, little pockets up high in the hills on the side of the valley I was in, and then a little bit closer as I started gaining elevation. By the time I came into the back side of Wrightwood there was snow on the ground, but dirty enough to convince me that it had been cleared some time ago. One house on the left had a shiny C3 Corvette parked out front with the windows down, so I took this as a good omen.

By the time I reached the west side of Wrightwood, it was spitting rain and the Focus indicated 42F. There was a good amount of snow lining the road and a gravel mixture laid down some time ago by a road crew. I don't know if California uses salt... hope not. I had to stop for a photo in front of Mountain High ski hill.

I turned off of as CA-2 became the famous Angeles Crest Highway, picking up Big Pines Highway. I nearly lost my nerve at this point, as this road immediately had less traffic, more light rain, and substantial buildup of snow on the shoulders. After some tentative driving I started to go down hill and the snow lessened steadily.

It wasn't long at all before I was in a very different, very barren landscape. Unfortunately wild fire is an increasingly frequent occurrence all over the state, and this must have burned fairly recently, as there was almost no new growth at all.

Google street view shows that it looked quite different in 2017: https://goo.gl/maps/3CXvRz2cmttZTLus6

I pressed on, cutting west across the hillside and bypassing Palmdale to get to Elizabeth Lake Road. This was a relaxed drive in low hill country with some lakes and homes. At the Three Points junction I turned left to stay on what was now Pine Canyon Road. On this section of the road the center line disappeared and there was a heavy coating of gravel and sand. More than any other time on the trip, I was happy here that I was not in the Skyline, sandblasting the paint. The Focus has a clear bra and mud flaps that seem to have done a very respectable job dealing with the shrapnel. A good thing, because I certainly wasn't going to slow down for it.

Pine Canyon teed off into Ridge Route Road / Old Ridge Route, where I got these photos overlooking CA138 and Quail Lake. I used Gorman Point Road to continue avoiding I-5 and hit downtown Gorman for a fuel and lunch stop.

The cockpit. Yeah sure you could argue that EVs and autonomy are the biggest revolutions in the last decade of car tech... but you'd be wrong. It's Apple CarPlay, saving us all from terrible OEM infotainment systems. I've got Ford's CF shift knob, door 'spears,' gauge trim, and euro cup holder spicing up the interior. I must be getting old to say this, but the power lumbar support on the seats is excellent for these long road trips. It's not that one position is always more comfortable than the other, it's just that being able to vary the positions really helps with fatigue.

Dirt collecting in all pockets of turbulent air. I have to admit, with tire protection as my top priority, I was nervous pulling onto all of these dirt shoulders for photo ops.

After lunch and fuel in Gorman, I danced around I-5 and used Ralphs Ranch Road to get to Frazier Mountain Park Road, which I took westward. This road changes names a few times and routes through a few different cabin-y vacation towns: Frazier Park, Pinon Pines Estates, and Pine Mountain Club. I didn't see any particularly tall peaks, but it all had the feel of a ski town, just without snow. I'm not sure why you'd come to this area, which is not particularly convenient to... well... anything?

I was mixed in with local traffic for the first half of this stretch, and it was drizzling and wet. There were multiple warning signs along the way: chains required; some type of park pass required; bears. I ignored them all and hoped that I would not have to turn around and backtrack to I-5 (ew).

Once through Pine Mountain Club, I was suddenly on my own. The precipitation dried up, the road started curving, and it was pure driving enjoyment.

The best part came toward the end, once inside the Bitter Creek National Wildlife Refuge. I'm not sure if these cows are the main attraction of the refuge, but they were quite vocal, mooing belligerently as I snapped photos. 

It was all rolling hills and muted tones of yellow, green, and grey, in some areas nothing but seas of grass with distant mountains forming a backdrop. Serenely quiet too - aside from the cows.

Hudson Ranch Road dumped me back into CA33, which I drove on my trip down. This time I turned right to head north, back through Maricopa and Taft. This whole area is an oil field and for long stretches there is nothing to see but oil derricks. 

CA58 was so good the first time that I decided to take it back. This time there was no rain, and I had a cracking run at the technical climb on the east side. No traffic, just switchbacks. I also made an effort to take better photos, having done so poorly on the way down.

I think I said before that CA58 has a little bit of everything. The photo above shows the transition from the initial twisty bit to the flat, straight bit.

But the flatness is misleading, because the road goes up and over "whoops" that, with enough speed, float your bum out of your seat. You can sorta make them out above.

When you are through the flat straight bit, it flows and highway speeds are no problem. Lovely.

Eventually the ride had to end, and I connected onto 101 through the charming little town of Santa Margarita. One last fuel stop at Atascadero and it was cruise control and audiobook time.

I made it home without incident. The filthy focus, trunk full of tire repair sundries and spare oil, didn't need a bit of it. All in all: 1,121 miles and not a hiccup. Despite being in the driver's seat for 9+ hours I arrived home feeling refreshed, almost wanting to keep going to find the next new road. Almost. But all good things must come to an end, and it was back to work the next morning.

Thanks for reading, I know this was a long one. If you find yourself in a good car, needing to get from LA to SF or the other way around, I recommend any of the roads that I followed on this trip. And though I've said it before, I'll say it again... the RS is an incredible vehicle! A Swiss Army knife of capability. Daily, long-distance cruiser, fun on a backroad at reasonable speeds, fast around the track.