Racetrack Confidential

A trip around Virginia International Raceway in a Porsche 911 Carrera 4S

LAT PHOTOGRAPHIC

The late Paul Newman once called Virginia International Raceway “Heaven on earth,” and as I pulled my weary, worn-out pickup truck into the parking lot for a day of interviews with members of the Shenandoah Porsche Club and a try at its 3.27 miles of road course racing, my adrenalin began to spike. I was surrounded by Porsches. I began mentally flipping through scenes from Steve McQueen’s 1971 movie Le Mans, until a lone Porsche 911 Carrera 4S parked off to the side crashed my reverie. If I could just take the reins of all that horsepower, I thought, I would be the cool guy I never saw in the mirror.

Someone must have read my thoughts. As if on cue, driving instructor Rick Ebinger handed me the required helmet and told me to hop in. Though I wasn’t going to get to take the reins, I was looking forward to what I thought would be a leisurely, Sunday-type drive around the track, so I eagerly tucked myself into the passenger seat of the steel gray Porsche. (Only those who have completed Driver’s Education are permitted to drive at VIR, so my only option was to ride shotgun.)

Now, I don’t know how much experience you have had being launched in an Apollo spacecraft, but by the time Rick had shifted into second gear, I understood the meaning of “propulsion.” He counted off the increasing speed as we approached our first turn, making a hard left. It had to be a hard left because there was an earthen berm straight ahead. I knew he would have to downshift to take this turn. He didn’t. I normally don’t take a hard, 90-degree turn at 50 miles per hour, but I can now say I have. As we headed down a straightaway, I could hear Rick counting: 80, 95, 100. When we blew past 115 mph, I thought I had more than enough information. As the speedometer edged up to 125 mph, I heard high-pitched screams, sounding as if they were coming from someone sitting right next to me. Then I realized … they were coming from inside my helmet.

Rick stopped accelerating around 132 mph, a little short of the max 184 mph this Porsche can handle. He calmly asked me if I was ok. I responded not so calmly that because he was driving, I felt it more important that he was ok.

We sped through the Oak Tree Turns, a series of quick lefts and rights near a giant oak at the highest point on the property. Moving along the next straightaway at over 100 mph, we quickly approached other cars on the track. The drivers motioned for us to pass. As we passed the first car, we noticed that he first car had a big “X” on the back, identifying the driver as a rookie; a non-verbal warning to other drivers to be extra cautious when passing. But we were beyond caution.

As we rounded the last set of curves, nearing the welcome sight of the start/finish line, I thought that would be the end of my adventure, but we zoomed by the line for another go-round. Evidently, Rick was disappointed in his first lap’s speed and thought he could improve upon it. He was pretty quiet on that next run, fully concentrating. (I was pretty much speechless.) Besides, when your gluteus maximus is skimming about eight inches above the asphalt at 100 miles per hour, you tend to question whether you made that last insurance premium payment, not chat up the driver.

I brought home a nice, souvenir photo. In it, I’m standing by the Porsche after the ride, my hand casually posed on the door. I do look kind of cool but, the truth is, I was leaning on the car. After that ride, there was no way my wobbly legs were going to hold me up. As exciting as it was riding on the VIR road course, driving it must be more so. Porsche owners say that, by driving at VIR, you learn to become one with the machine. That has got to be one powerful feeling.

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Note: The large oak tree, which was the hallmark of VIR, broke at the base last July. Many drivers, among them Richard Petty and Roger Penske, caught the shade of that oak as they rounded the curve of the track.

To read our feature story about Virginia’s Porsche clubs go to www.VirginiaLiving.com/dream/

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