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.

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