Follow by Email

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Watching Brumos at Laguna

Andrew Davis in the Brumos #59 Porsche 911 GT3 Cup said what he liked best about starting in the Grand Touring class on the pole was looking at all the cars in him mirrors and they kept getting smaller and smaller.

            It felt like returning to the warm and welcoming embrace of good friends. After a seven-week sprint to finish a Corvette history, I needed a Porsche racing fix. I charged the batteries in my cameras, blew the dust off my long lenses, and headed up to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to return to Porsche Racing History—this time, made live in front of my eyes.
            The Rolex Grand-Am Series came to Laguna on July 9 after missing the West Coast venues in 2010. The crowd and the racers were glad to see one another again. Some racing fans criticize the Daytona Prototypes for having a confusing sameness about them, although with the variety of engines—Porsche, Ford, Chevrolet, and BMW V-8s that powered them—the cars certainly sounded different.
            But it was the cars a bit further back in the field, the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup cars competing in the Grand Touring class, that pulled me from quiet Santa Barbara to gloriously noisy Monterey.
To summarize the race succinctly, the Brumos team out of Jacksonville, Florida, always a formidable racing operation with a huge, important history running Porsches, did not disappoint. Covering the race for Excellence magazine’s website, gave me a purpose beyond the longer historical view I’ve been taking since starting this bigger project. It also gave me the excuse to spend time in the Brumos pits, watching and photographing people I will interview later this year for the book.
            I’ll make the two-hour-forty-five minute long race story short; the battle came down to what became a short sprint race after a full-course yellow on lap 88 of the scheduled 107-lap contest. The circuit went green again on lap 95 and seconds later another car went off, throwing the entire track under yellow immediately. A quicker clean-up got racing started again on lap 99, and Brumos team members watched driver Leh Keen with a mix of excitement and dread. Regulations introduced four races earlier reduced the fuel tank capacity by nearly 15 percent, enough that during full-green flag race, teams needed a third pit stop for fuel. Those 11 tours under yellow came late in the race and drivers lapped at an average 50-some miles per hour instead of racing at nearly 90 miles per hour. Keen crossed the finish first in Grand Touring. He and co-driver Andrew Davis added another Porsche victory to the more than 28,000 that I’m going to have to write about in this book.

Brumos co-drivers Leh Keen, left, and Andrew Davis share in the thrill of victorty at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca on Saturday, July 9, 2011. Keen and Davis won Grand Touring class in the Rolex Grand-Am series event at Laguna.

            One of those in the pits through it all was Brumos and Porsche racing legend, Hurley Haywood. Winning co-driver Andrew Davis summed up what it meant to work with Haywood: “To have Hurley as our mentor is tough. Because he’s done it all. He’s won a hundred races. He’s set a hundred lap records. He’s taken a hundred poles. Or more!” It also means that when Haywood tells the Brumos drivers something now, it’s because he’s experienced it before.
            Hurley Haywood’s contribution to Porsche Racing History is one more element of what this project is about. So is the second 2011 season GT victory that Keen and Davis earned for Brumos in California. As one observer said, “It’s great to see the Brumos colors on a 911 again.”
            The interview list grows. The database expands. It’s really good to be back.
            Stay tuned.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Phased Re-Entry

I’d say the Auto & Technik Museum Sinsheim is The Ultimate Guys’ Museum, but that is giving it short shrift. This museum is privately owned and funded, and military history is a particular fascination of the owners. Scores of mannequins are accurately clothed in period-correct apparel. How can such an enormous collection of expensive technology be in private hands? The owners hold the worldwide patent on the connectors used to hold building scaffolding together and in place.

It’s been a week of home work before getting into book work. My wife Carolyn and I moved just before I left for Germany. I know—talk about perfect timing! Circumstances and opportunities always intrude on life. But it literally was just before. I finished my last load into the new house, took a shower and headed to LAX to fly to Frankfurt the next morning.

So returning to Santa Barbara involved not only finding where I had packed clean clothes. It also meant getting Internet access set up, rearranging furniture, and reconnecting with friends.

Now I’m going to loop back half a week to our last full day in Germany. Jerry and I went to one of the most eccentric museums. Well, no—it’s not really a museum. It’s a huge collection of transportation and technical things that also is populated with hundreds of mannequins dressed appropriately to what is around them.

This place is huge—as the pictures will suggest. It measures 30,000 square meters, that’s about 350,000 square feet, and on display is everything from an Air France Concorde jet to mini-cars to huge (and vastly entertaining) mechanical orchestras to war-time vehicles to locomotives to showcases of women’s fashion from the turn of the 20th Century.

There are two restaurants, an Imax Theater, and an incredibly well-stocked gift, souvenir, CD/DVD, and bookshop. If you go, take plenty of one and two Euro coins. There are lots of opportunities to get the mechanical orchestras to play, or even to swivel the gun turret of a German Tiger tank.

The two supersonic jets are an Air France Concorde and an Aeroflot Illyushin. Visitors can go into each by way of a spiral staircase. Go on a cool day.

Dioramas such as this one are scattered throughout the collection. Everything is spotless. The cars and the clothes show no dust. Imagine the maintenance challenge!

Yep! That's a Los Angeles Police Department "Cruiser!"

Fun for the whole family! Swivel the turret! Aim the gun barrel!

Running on compressed air, this Orkestrion plays cardboard music rolls that feed continuously through the machine at the near end. There are hundreds of songs available.

If you go, plan to spend at least three hours. Some areas have signs explaining what you see, mostly in German, though there is some English. Other areas just let your imagination carry you away.

Back in Santa Barbara, I’m settling into my new routine. I’ll begin transcribing interviews for the book next week and with each, I’ll add to the blog updates one or two of Jerry’s photos of these folks. I am eager to get to their stories. As I do with most of my books, I plan to let these people who made the history tell you about it in their own words.

This last shot shows the view from my front deck at 6 o’clock this morning, just before sunrise. Now you can see why I had to grab this place while it was available. Yes, that is the Pacific.
This weekend promises fun. One of my hobbies is making wine. Friday we are bottling our first vintage of Pinot Noir, from 2009. We’ll have about 85 cases when we’re finished. Our 2010 vintage is in oak barrels till next year. My partners in this adventure and some friends are gathering for a late lunch and we’ll taste our “product” from the bottle for the first time. I’ll report back.

Stay tuned!

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Not-Quite-Final Wrap-Up

I want to give you one last image of how things often are at the Porsche Museum. Down below the lobby, in a corner of the garage, museum staff have parked a 997 GT3 (in white) next to their red 959, alongside their silver 996 GT2. Each day we pulled into or drove out of the garage, we never knew what we would find shuffled off to one side.
We fly back to the U.S. tomorrow. I’m going to wait to do a real wrap-up of my experience during this coming week after I get home. I have a lot of pictures for you—from last weekend, and from this one, as we were tourists in Southern Germany. So some will come today, the others in the next couple days.
We arrived 26 days ago and on one hand it feels like nearly four weeks. But on the other hand, it feels just like only four days. When I think about the information we have gathered, I am stunned. So many times—especially during the past two days—we all have looked at each other and said, “I never have heard that. I never knew that.” Porsche’s photo archivist, Jens Torner, always is looking for photo collections and he came across two mechanics hired in Porsche’s earliest days. For two weeks, Jens and I kept talking about these men and we got to interview one of them on Thursday, the other on Friday.
Friday’s conversation was with Egon Alber, who started with Porsche in 1943. Some of you may know that when World War II ended and the Allies divided up Germany’s care among themselves, Stuttgart fell in the American Zone. There are famous stories about the U.S. Army taking over Porsche Works as a motor pool overhaul facility. But previously published reports always led everyone to believe the Army stationed a company or at least a platoon here to work on American trucks. Not so.
According to Alber, there were just four or five Americans, led by a Captain Thompson who hired—yes, he paid them—as many Porsche mechanics as he could to keep American vehicles running. Because most of the trolley service in the area was destroyed, Thompson sent trucks each morning to pick up the workers and at night his men drove the workers home. They got breakfast and lunch at the motor pool and often they took home leftover food. Alber said Thompson was a real hero to many of the mechanics.
Before the war, Porsche employed 180 people, most of whom moved to several locations in Austria to work in a safer environment when it really got bad in Stuttgart. Alber said the only thing that hurt the men was that the Americans had to search them each night as they left. It was policy. Alber said not one of the mechanics would have stolen from the Porsche factory or the Americans. As Porsche’s Austrian workers began to filter back into town, Thompson hired them as well. When the American’s pulled out, the workers threw a party for them.
As I begin to transcribe these interviews, I’ll begin to post some other pearls and some of Jerry’s photos of these men as well.
Meanwhile, here are a few more images from my "home" with Dieter and Sonja for these 27 days. 
Across the street from their home is a wonderful park. At night owls call from a tree near their home. 

Looking southeast from the terrace, nearly all of Stuttgart is in the front yard. Several evenings have been nice enough to eat dinner out here. With dark falling at just before 10pm, it makes for a relaxing evening. 

This afternoon, we got a spectacular storm with hail for more than 30 minutes. You can see some of it accumulating in the garden. Visibility fell to about 100 yards. An hour later, the skies cleared and now, as I write this nearly at midnight, I can see stars.

Oh, and speaking of stars, for those wondering whether Leica came through with miraculous overnight repair, "Rock Star" Reilly’s M9 arrived from Solms repair and it works great.

Stay tuned.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Precision Machines, Large and Small

I've used Leica cameras since 1967, and in 1968, I shot riots in Paris, France, using cameras like those two I'm pointing out, the Leica MP, and the black Leica M3 and M2. For photojournalists in the 1960s, they were our workhorses. Small, discrete, lightweight, with the ability to focus precisely in low light—ever notice how all the worst riots happen after dark?—these cameras saved our lives by getting us the pictures, earning us our rent money, and occasionally deflecting a whack by a police baton or a flying stone. This half of Leica's family tree brought back memories.

For those of you who don't know me well, I've been a photographer about twice as long as I've been a writer, and for many of the 43 years I've been making pictures, my camera of choice has been Leica. I love their precision, I love the quality of their lenses, I love their balance, and the way they feel in my hands.

Photographers who have driven a 911 understand this; and 911 drivers who have shot with Leica M cameras get this: The Leica M is the 911 of photography. Throughout this three-plus week work trip so far, the similarities between the two companies and these two products has struck me repeatedly. What each of these machines do is remind you that you can do better, either to make better photos, or to drive better through a turn. They force—okay, I'll use a bad pun, they drive you—to do better at what you're doing.

My friend Jerry Reilly shares my fondness for Leica and he arrived in Germany with a couple lenses and two Leica M digital bodies, one of which quit on us soon after he arrived. Porsche's head of archives Dieter Landenberger is a talented, energetic, and accomplished photographer himself (he won best of show in the annual Auto Motor und Sport photo contest, top prize for which was a Leica!) and he recognized our challenge. We wanted to make a big series of photos of each interview subject so we can have recent photos of each individual for this book, and possibly stitch them into a kind of video an e-book version of Porsche Racing History further down the line.

Dieter phoned Leica, north of Frankfurt, and today was our day to Journey to Mecca. Andreas Dippel, manager for Press & Public Relations, treated us royally, getting us first to customer service where the shutter of Jerry's M9 was pronounced dead-on-arrival. Andreas hurried us through the process, introducing us to the head of M9 technical repairs and the camera goes under his surgical care first thing Thursday morning.

History kind of stops you in your tracks. My Porsche Racing History collaborator Jerry Reilly talks with Andreas Dippel, Leica manager for Press and Public Relations, about the two cameras Dippel has pulled out of the company historic vaults for us to see today on our visit to Leica headquarters at Solms, German.

Once back at World Headquarters, Andreas then led us on a tour past all phases of Leica lens and camera body assembly. It is extraordinarily high-tech low tech. By that I mean, there are perhaps as many as a hundred proprietary machines and processes and computer programs that the 180 technicians use to hand-build every camera, from the D-1 point-and-shoot up to their flagship S2 single-lens reflex digital (yours for only 18,600 Euro without lens—that's roughly $25,000 at today's exchange rate. Because the processes are Leica "property," we couldn't shoot in the assembly factory but Leica also has opened a Leica boutique at the front of the factory where these photos are made.

As we wrapped up the visit, Andreas excused himself for a moment and returned with two treasures from the vault. Both are shown here; one is the camera that belonged to one of the engineers on the Hindenburg. The engineer perished in the fire after its tragic crash landing at Lakehurst, N.J., on May 6, 1937 but his Leica camera was recovered from the wreckage. The other saved the life of a British photojournalist covering the war in Vietnam. A bullet hit the camera just below the viewfinder, smashed part of the camera, and ricocheted away.

According to Andreas, this camera belonged to the chief engineer of the Airship Hindenburg which crashed and burned upon landing May 6, 1937, at Lakehurst, NJ. The chief engineer perished in the fire. Rescue crews and investigators found his camera in the wreckage. It now is part of the Leica historic collection and will be displayed at their new museum in Wetzlar when their new factory opens in 2013.
British war photographer Tim Page has a lot of good things to say about Leica cameras, not the least of which is that this one saved his life. The story, as I got it, was that Page was aboard a US PT boat in the Gulf of Tonkin that mistakenly got strafed by American fighters. The sturdy Leica castings deflected the bullet.

At this point, the Leica "museum" is little more than a family tree at the bottom of which are the earliest cameras produced by founder Oskar Barnack, and at the top, the latest digital models. But Dippel reminded us of Leica's coming return to its hometown of Wetzlar, (just 8 kilometers away,) with plans for a museum to show the hundreds of treasures in the Solms vault. Plans have been approved and ground breaking is scheduled for next month.
This is "our" office in the Archives. My recorders are right in front of legendary engineer Hans Mezger, and Jerry Reilly's Leica is poised to shoot a continuing stream of images. In some cases, we have enough to make a major motion picture, coming soon to a theater near you.

The last photos I'm including here is one that shows how we are doing this book at this point. I record each interview on Olympus digital voice recorders - that way, if one fails, or if a battery dies, I have the words on the other recorder. On top of that, I tested both of them thoroughly before I came over and each records voices slightly differently. With sometimes challenging accents, it's a real help to have two versions of the same word or phrase. Dieter has essentially turned over the archive library to us for our interviews. Yes, others work in there, researching various projects, but the cooperation we have gotten from archives staff and our interview subjects has been incredible.

On the right, Porsche engineer Hans Mezger returned for a second conversation with us Tuesday, and he brought us up to date with his racecar and racing engine developments till his retirement in 1993. The good news for Porsche fans is Mezger continues to this day as a paid consultant and he joked with us that he works longer hours now than he did when he was still an employee.

Engineer Hans Mezger ponders a question. I initially create all my questions in the MacBook, record the answers on the two digital voice recorders, and make notes along the way so I remember key phrases and new bits of information.

What have we learned? What did Hans Mezger tell us about why Indy efforts failed in 1989 and Formula One failed in 1990? The answers—and these are answers now that have had the benefit of four other interviews to fill in holes—surprised me. Am I going to tell you? Absolutely—in the book.

That's what all this is all about.

Stay tuned.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Friday the Thirteenth Proved Lucky for Our Side

First the statistics: By 5 p.m. this afternoon, we'd completed our 21st interview. We have five to go. I've recorded slightly more than 46 hours on two nearly identical Olympus digital voice recorders. And we have learned and learned and learned so much, and we have heard such astonishing stories!

Wednesday, May 11, began with Tilman Brodbeck. Tilman headed Porsche Exclusive during his final years in Zuffenhausen. Having started his career as a body engineer specializing in aerodynamics, he was the man responsible for the tiny chin spoiler underneath the front bumper of 1972-and-later 911s, and for the stylish (and often imitated) burzel, or ducktail spoiler on the rear of the 1973 Carrera RS 2.7. 

All right, this is an unrelated photo. But I'll be posting more photos from our interviews in the days to come. Here I'm standing in front of Porsche's state-of-the-art paint center, which makes a fine background. This portrait, taken by Jerry Reilly, may wind up being the author photo in the book.

During the 1970s, he worked on developing the 924 as a Volkswagen project and then continued on with it when the 924 returned to Porsche's management. Restless at the end of that time he contemplated leaving the company but instead transferred to the front office as executive assistant for Ernst Fuhrmann and then for Peter Schutz. These two were the Yin and Yang of the 911's future, with Fuhrmann wanting it gone and Schutz re-energizing it. Our conversation with Tilman centered mostly on Porsche's philosophy of racing during these times. He told us that perhaps the only sentiment Fuhrmann and Schutz shared was that "Racing is the most important thing for Porsche."

Following Schutz, we met Christof Dimter who was one of the developers of the racing PDK transmission in the early 1980s. As a Master Mechanic inside Porsche, Dimter assembled the first 928 four-valve engine, and he told us that "Porsche throws you in the water to see if you can swim. They won't let you drown, but if you can't swim, you're not a Porsche person." He described developing the PDK as similar to every other project at Porsche: "Things are thought out to eighty-five percent. And the rest happens in development." His particular development led to a miniaturized PDK transmission for Formula One. But FIA rule makers outlawed it before it ever raced!

The afternoon wound up with current motorsports head Hartmut Kristen. He gave us nearly three hours of his time. Kristen worked first in marketing and has graduate degrees in engineering and economics, so he brings a wide, worldly perspective to motorsports past, present, and future. When he became 911 product planning chief in 1985, he understood the Porsche philosophy clearly: "Change as much as necessary but as little as possible." Before we got him around to the subject of racing, he added, "Ongoing development of the 911 keeps life interesting. A perfect 911 would be almost boring." He characterized one of the most significant contributions that motor racing makes to any automaker. "You have a clear challenge and a clear deadline: The next race is in two weeks." Regarding Porsche's new thrust toward hybrid power in its race cars, he told us some board members have been hesitant. "Does it have a future?" they have asked him. His answer: "It is the future. If we don't do something creative now, there is no future. The question for us is this: How do we get the same performance out of less energy? If we improve efficiency, we can't help but improve performance."

Yesterday, we made a road trip up north of Cologne to meet another legendary racer, Willi Kauhsen. Willi raced many times in the US so his English was better than ours in some cases. As we listened to him describe racing 917s or taking government officials for rides through city streets his seasoned perspective and sense of humor merged so powerfully that he had tears streaming down our cheeks. Kauhsen drove in 1970 and 1971 for the "alternate" Porsche factory team, the one run out of Salzburg, Austria, by Ferry Porsche's sister, Louise Piech (Ferdinand’s mother). Kauhsen watched time and again as Porsche racing engineers made suggestions and recommendations to the official factory Gulf-sponsored team run by John Wyer. But Wyer had his own engineers and his own ideas so Porsche’s internal thinking was generally applied to Porsche Salzburg, and often the two teams competed against one another, both for resources and for race victories. Kauhsen’s stories of how this worked contributed a lot to my understanding of how Porsche racing functioned from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. 

When I wrote my first Porsche book in the early 1990s, Porsche Legends, many people I met told me I should interview Gunther Steckkonig. I missed him then, and again, and again, until this morning. He was worth the wait. Steckkonig started at Porsche in 1953 as a mechanic, but one with special talents. A few of his bosses watched him and pushed him. Eventually, he was pushed out of Porsche's door to learn from Mercedes-Benz so Porsche could hire him back with experience different from every other Porsche mechanic. "In that time," he told us, "technical specialists did the whole car. That gave us a big volume of knowledge." That vast wealth of information turned him into a technician and a consummate racing and test driver who held the record at Weissach's test track many times in many different cars. One of his most interesting experiences was an 84-hour endurance race that started in Liege, Belgium, went to the Nürburgring to run 10,000 kilometers, and ended back in Liege. He brought with him the final engineering report on that event, itself a "big volume of knowledge", that particularly appealed to my colleague on this project, Jerry Reilly. Jerry owns the Marathon-winning car from that year, and in Steckkonig, he found answers to dozens of long-vexing questions about his car.

We ended the day with an old friend, Norbert Singer. Norbert is one of the most creative racing engineers anywhere in motorsports. Not only is he extremely imaginative but he also has a particular talent when it comes to reading racing regulations. He can understand not only what is specified but also what is not. As a result, many of his cars in past years have pushed the technical boundaries of what a car could be and do at that moment. I've interviewed him three times before but always left with some questions unanswered or some holes in those things we covered. This was the opportunity to tie up loose ends and Norbert generously walked us through obscure bits of his history for more than two-and-a-half hours. What we learned could—well, it will—fill a book. 

Tomorrow, Saturday, we're off to inspect the competition. We'll visit Audi's museum in Ingolstadt on Saturday, and head down to Munich on Sunday to see the German Transportation Museum which has a special exhibition right now on the history of motorsports. 

I promise I'll take lots of pictures.

Stay tuned. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

My Fascination Deepens as our Interviews Continue

This Typ 64 won for "oldest Porsche" during Sunday's great celebration that I described in the previous post. It was one of three assembled in 1939 for a planned race from Berlin to Rome. The race never happened and the cars remained with Porsche till after the war. Then one was destroyed, another nearly so, and this one survived, almost exactly as it is here. 

Monday morning started with the news that Norbert Singer still was in Belgium at Spa and, as a recently elected official of FIA, he needed to go to another racing circuit that afternoon. So our interview with him has shifted to this coming Friday at 1 p.m. That's all the better for us because Singer is a great storyteller with a wonderful sense of drama and, since he is our only Friday afternoon interview, we will sit in rapt awe listening to tales until sometime Saturday morning.

This is not to say that the rest of Monday was disappointing. How can you feel cheated when you get two hours with Hans Mezger, the Engine Maestro of Porsche? But with Hans, we barely got started and soon after we began, we hatched a plan to follow up with him next week. Mezger's career with Porsche began with the assignment to work with Mr. Wulf in engine design. Mezger had completed his graduate degree in engineering and, upon completion of his degree exams, he had 25 job offers. Ironically, not one was from Porsche. So he came here and knocked on the door. His reception was good news and bad. Mr. Wulf was in charge of diesel engine design for Porsche tractor division. Wulf told Mezger he would be designing new valve gear. Mezger admitted that he really had hoped to go into racing engineering and Wulf sent him home. But two weeks later, Egon Forstner, the head of technical calculation for Porsche called Mezger and hired him. There his first job was—again—valve gear, but this time, it was to revise the legendary Fuhrmann Typ 547 four-cylinder Carrera engine. That complicated engine set Mezger up for the rest of his career.

Following Mezger, we met Eugen Kolb. Kolb joined Porsche in 1953 after working at neighboring Reutter Carrosserie, preparing body panels for a prototype Studebaker that Porsche was preparing. When Kolb moved around the corner to Porsche, the company put him straight to work turning the 550 "Buckelwagen," the "humpback" prototype, into the racing car everyone knows and admires. His body-building skills kept him in the racing department and as Ferry Porsche's nephew, Ferdinand Piech, arrived in 1965, Piech's interests were in minimizing drag and achieving the highest top speeds. His philosophy was that tapered long bodies could accomplish that feat best and Kolb became the Long Tail man. He stretched the back ends of 906s, 907s, 908s, and 917s in the 1960s, and then provided aerodynamic tricks to improve the top speed of 956 and 962 coupes in the 1980s.

This morning, Tuesday, we renewed an acquaintance with Porsche designer Tony Hatter. Tony styled the 993 version of the 911, the last of the air-cooled models from 1994 through 1998. In the mid nineties the racing department decided it was time to win Le Mans again and to that with a car styled to reinforce Porsche’s brand identity—epitomized by the 911. So Tony was tagged to design the 911 GT1, a sleek, zoomy futuristic spaceship of a car that looked pretty much like the 993 from the front and like no 911 you ever have seen from the rear. Tony stayed on to do the 1997 and 1998 versions of the car, which won Le Mans in June of that year. He drove to the museum today in a car he found in one of my other books, the 911 Porsche Color Buyer’s Guide. And as Tony joked, he wished he had read that book before he bought the car. It needed work then. But we saw—and heard—it today and it was glorious.

We ended the day with more than two hours time with Helmut Flegl. He was the young talented engineer assigned to manage the 917 project from the start. He was 26, and he had to tame its challenging aerodynamic problems. He told us stories of dealing with John Wyer and his team to improve the body shape that helped keep the racer on the ground at speeds up to 380 kph (238 mph). Flegl also directed development of the luxurious and powerful 928 (which another of our interview subjects Walter Naher, took to Bonneville, Utah, and supervised its official run to 170 mph on the salt.) Flegl then got drafted to take on the ailing Indianapolis projects twice. It gave him a sour view of USAC the first time, and a sour view of his own management the second time. Then, of course, that management was dismissed, and Flegl stayed on.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, we have a full day starting with Tilman Brodbeck, an engineer who became administrative assistant to Ernst Fuhrmann, Peter Schutz, Arno Bohn, Heinz Branitzki, and Wendelin Wiedeking—that's more than 30 years of chairmen. I think his perspective on how Porsche's philosophy of racing has evolved should be interesting. Next is Christof Dimter who co-developed the racing PDK transmission with a team of others; and our final conversation tomorrow will be with current competition director Hartmut Kristen, who will bring us up to date with Porsche's latest thinking.

Stay tuned!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

A Surreal Experience

There is nothing quite like trying to keep up with Hans Herrmann and Jacky Ickx through traffic. This is specially true when Herrmann is in a 917K and Ickx is driving his 1976 Le Mans-winning 936 Sypder.  On the Autobahn. Into a tunnel. 

German Police blocked our side of the autobahn and stopped the other. We passed thousands of motorists who were parked on the opposite side of roadways. Some looked excited when we passed, honking, waving, taking pictures. Others looked a little less enthused. We shot through three separate tunnels en route to City Hall. Following a 220 mph Le Mans winner on public roads was a surreal experience.
It was easy for me. I was just holding the route card for my driver, former racing director Peter Falk, who was driving the 1983 Paris-Dakar 4-wheel-drive 911SC Typ 953 that he helped invent. Our excuse was a huge celebration of 125 Years of the Automobile in the German province of Baden-Wurttemburg, home of Porsche, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz. Each of these manufacturers pulled treasures from their museums to make a total of 125 cars that drove a 17.5-kilometer route from the Porsche Museum to the Mercedes-Benz Museum to the center of Stuttgart and the city hall.

My most capable pilot, Peter Falk, at the wheel. The 953 rode on tall bias-ply off-road tires meant for desert racing—in 1983. So on the road, this car jumped skipped and around, changing lanes at its own whim. I would have loved to drive it. And I was glad I didn't have to.
The parade started at 11 a.m. and the pace alternately stalled and sprinted, some of the cars reaching speeds above 200 kilometers per hour (125 mph) on three separate autobahn stretches. Through the city, crowds closed in on the cars narrowing roadways to single lanes lined with men, women, children, and thousands of cameras. When progress stopped, people recognized Herrmann in the 917 and Ickx in his 936 and ran out to get autographs. We haven't heard crowd estimates but it's easy to imagine as many as 25,000 people lined the parade route and another 10,000 to 15,000 came to City Hall square to see the cars and greet the heroes.  

Heading toward the Mercedes-Benz Museum still on the Autobahn. We rounded a corner and came to a halt as thousands of spectators had crowded the road to take pictures. 

We dive back into interviews Monday with a full slate of great and important talent: Norbert Singer, engineer extraordinaire, was responsible for everything from 935s to efforts in the Indy Car series. First thing after lunch we talk to another legend, Hans Mezger, who ran the Race Car Development Department. His work started before—and included creating—the 917 that Herrmann drove and the 936 that Ickx drove in the parade. Last on our schedule tomorrow is an unsung, and never-interviewed, engineer, Eugen Kolb, who is father of long-tail aerodynamics. Those extraordinary-looking racers with the back ends stretched out and tapering to a sliver are the work of this man. His cars routinely went 20 to 30 mph faster along the Le Mans Mulsanne Straight than the cars with the close-cropped tails. 

Stuttgart Neuschloss is the home of many of the state's ministries and division offices. Today it was host to the launch event for a summer-long celebration of 125 years of manufacturing automobiles in this part of Germany. This 917K, in a livery like that of Hans Herrmann and Richard Attwood's 1970 Le Mans winner, was a star of the day's events. Hans Herrmann drove the car.
We have, in all, ten interviews to accomplish this week, so, unglamourously, most of Friday and much of Saturday was spent researching for these upcoming conversations. There's so much to learn and so little time!

Stay tuned.

This was my ride Sunday. Many people have called it one of Porsche's loudest race cars. I couldn't hear them. This was Porsche's 1983 entry in the Paris-Dakar Rally, the 4-wheel drive 911SC, also known as the Typ 953. 

We interviewed each of these guys this past week. From left, rally hero Walter Rohrl; mechanic/racer Herbert Linge; mechanic/engineer and now historic collection manager Klaus Bischof, and racer Hans Herrmann. They still laugh at our jokes, so I guess we did well! 

One of Mercedes-Benz most fascinating combinations was this W196 race car on its specially-built transporter capable of speeds up to 170 kilometers - 105 miles per hour. This was a replica built by a devoted Dutch enthusiast several years ago. Owned by Mercedes now, it normally is on display in the museum. Amazingly, compared to American car events, there were no ropes around cars and no intrusive and abusive security guards. Visitors could look in windows and get very close to cars. But everyone was respectful - no one opened a car door to peek inside.

Friday, May 6, 2011

A Red Letter Day

Thursday has been a red letter day. Starting in the morning with one of my Porsche racing heroes, Roland Kussmaul, we learned a fascinating bit of his early history at Porsche. Every new hire at the company does a two-year apprenticeship. Because he already had mechanical experience and engineering training, for his training time between 1969 and early 1972, the company started him in the Konstruction program. He worked on tanks—Panzers—that Porsche designed and developed for the German military. One of his first tasks was to fabricate new pedals for a prototype Panzer. His boss told him tanks moved with hydraulic assistance to turn and stop the tracks. Light pressure was all that was needed. 

Kussmaul had done some racing and wanted to be a racing engineer, so he fabricated a set of pedals that weighed about 5 kilograms—perhaps too much of a racing application for a combat vehicle, but they did the job. He installed them, other engineers did a test, and everything was fine. Then sometime in the afternoon, another engineer, not quite so familiar with tank operation got in, slid down into the operators chair and fired up the engine. Unfortunately, the previous operator had left the Panzer in gear, so it took off at a respectable pace. Toward a brick wall. As Kussmaul explained, this other engineer was not so familiar with the concept of hydraulically assisted brakes so he jammed both feet as hard as he could on the brake pedals, breaking them off. That's break, not brake. It wasn't until a few meters outside the wall that the panicked engineer found the ignition key and shut off the engine. Kussmaul laughed today as he described the perfect silhouette of the tank through the brick wall. His boss, whom Roland described as a very calm individual, looked at him and said, "Herr Kussmaul, perhaps Panzer Konstruction is not the right match for you." The next day, Kussmaul was learning Porsche's techniques for car manufacture.

Next on our calendar was Walter Naher. This quiet calm man could have been Kussmaul's boss in the Panzers. Instead, he worked on chassis engineering for a number of Porsche's racing and road cars. When Ferdinand Piech still was working at Porsche, he would get other manufacturer’s exotic cars, special sports cars, for a long weekend, and drive them hard to get impressions of what the company's competition was doing. The cars came back to the factory and the next to drive them was Naher, who was expected to evaluate them, as well, and report his conclusions to Piech. This led to a career developing competition and series production vehicles meant to be better than anything from other manufacturers. He was one of the three men who developed the "self-correcting axle," the famous "Weissach Axle" for the rear end of the 928, to turn it into one of the best handling front-engine/rear-drive cars ever. He worked on 956 and 962 models and spent a lot of time with Norbert Singer on the 2708 Indy Car project. He was a race engineer at more than a dozen runnings of the 24 Hours of Le Mans. We had only two hours with him. It would have been easy to continue talking with him till next Wednesday.

Last of the day was Manfred Jantke, who was PR and Racing Manager from 1972 to 1982, and then strictly PR manager from then until he left in 1993. Before coming to Porsche, he had been a journalist with Germany's premier enthusiast magazine, Auto Motor und Sport, and also had raced for a number of private owners and teams. When an offer came from Porsche, he had to consider it long and hard: On one hand, he had tremendous freedom as a journalist, driving everything, free to write what he thought, and available to race a variety of cars for generous owners. But he always had been, as he put it, "outside of the wall." He wondered what it was like to "know everything, not just what people like me would tell you now." He planned to stay four or five years and instead he left after 20. He experienced incredible repeat victories in the American Can-Am series, and then again with 935s, 956s and 962s at Le Mans and other venues, as well as incredible frustration in the company’s Indianapolis and Formula One efforts. His stories had us laughing and holding our heads. His perspective was very broad and very deep. He is the first individual that either Dieter Landenberger or I ever have heard who explained how a forty-year racing legacy came to an end in two years time, first with the withdrawal from Indianapolis racing and then a year later from Formula One. It is one hell of a story. 

Tomorrow, Friday, is an open day. Porsche is preparing for the 125th Anniversary parade on Sunday, so we all decided to not confuse things by trying to get interviews scheduled. Jerry and I will sneak away in the afternoon to go visit another competitor. We'll go to Sindelfingen, across town, to see the Mercedes-Benz museum.

Pix tomorrow. I promise. Stay tuned. 

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Back to the interviews.

Jerry Reilly is trying on "his" street-legal 1998 GT1 for a fit before Sunday's parade. This is in the glassed-in restoration shop on the ground floor of the museum.

 The Archive is a comfortable, well-equipped place to work. Information of all sorts is close at hand.
Everywhere you look in the Archive there are treasures. This was the 550 Spyder "patent model," presented to the federal court in Germany at the time Porsche wished to sell full-size 550s to racing customers throughout Europe and America. The model remained with the court until the judge who had reviewed - and approved - the request retired from service. Then he called Dieter Landenberger, explained what he had, and asked if Porsche wanted it back! Dieter said he never had driven faster in his life than he did to get to the judge's office.
This is a necessary inspection of the legendary 908/3. Leg room for the passenger is severely limited. Even the driver should be short.

After two days working in the Archives and in the museum, we got back into the swing of interviews today with two great ones. This morning, we spent nearly two hours with Hans Herrmann, who is utterly charming and is a great storyteller. Hans is most celebrated for his incredible luck. This had much more to do with surviving the dangers of racing in the 1950s (when he started) and 1960s, when one driver died each month on average, than his successes as a driver, which were considerable. As one example, Hans, and co-driver Herbert Linge, were racing in the Targa Florio. The race comprised 11 laps around Sicily's Circuito Piccolo delle Madonie, over public roads lined with crowds and buildings and railway crossings. At one point they rounded a blind curve at 100 mph and found the train crossing gates down. Hans never lifted, pushed his co-driver's head down, and they and their low 550 Spyder slipped under the crossing gates. The train missed them by less than 10 meters. 

In the afternoon, we got to spend nearly two-and-one-half hours with Herbert Linge. Amazingly, Linge started with Porsche as one of eight mechanics hired in 1943. During the war he got a student exemption as an engineering candidate but he was drafted just as it ended, so he returned to Porsche where he became the company's first mechanic for the U.S. market. American importer Max Hoffman gave Linge his Cadillac convertible and Linge drove from New York to Florida to Chicago to Washington, DC to Denver to Minneapolis tuning and fixing customer 356s in the early 1950s. Porsche and Hoffman recognized that this car was a tough sell since Americans (then and now) were used to big cars and big engines. 

Both Linge and Hermann spent a lot of time with each other, so it was fascinating to ask each of them to talk about the same event. Getting both sides of the story was an illuminating exercise. 

This coming weekend will be a very big one in Stuttgart. Germany celebrates the 125th anniversary of the automobile, and on Sunday, the German car manufacturers are emptying their museums and collections of cars to parade through town. Porsche itself will contribute an impressive 50 cars to a parade that will total 125 cars. The route runs from the Porsche Museum across town to Mercedes-Benz, and from their to Stuttgart City Hall. Dieter is planning to get both Jerry and me into cars—me as a passenger in the Targa Florio-winning 908/3 (provided my tall frame will fit), and Jerry, himself behind the wheel of the one-and-only road-going 1998 GT1.

The cars Porsche is pulling out is staggering, as is the roster of drivers coming to drive their own history: LInge; Herrmann; Paul Ernst Straehle, Jr; Derek Bell; Jacky Ickx; Walter Rohrl; Marc Lieb; and several others. Dr. Wolfgang Porsche will drive 356 Number 1, and the parade will include a privately owned Type 64 from 1939 up to the most recent Porsche Trans-Siberia Rally Cayenne, 14 race cars in all.

And yes, I'll shoot photos like a demon possessed! 

But now I have to stop. Dieter is hosting a symposium on the 1900 Hybrid car, led by its re-creator, downstairs in the museum. There will be pictures.

Stay tuned.