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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. 

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