They were all crazy. Nuts, really. All 15,000-plus of them, these foaming-at-the-mouth Porschephiles worshipping at the altar of all things Zuffenhausen, the home of Porsche.
They stood in rapt attention as five-time 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Derek Bell scribbled autographs and posed for picture after picture, standing beside Porsches he drove to victory there and at the Daytona 24 hours, where he won three times.
They chatted up Porsche hero Vic Elford – “Quick Vic” they used to call him. He reminisced almost modestly about his amazing 1968 season. That year, after becoming European Rally Champ in 1967, Elford won the Monte Carlo Rally and then the next weekend won the Daytona 24 Hours.
After that, Elford took second at Sebring and followed in May with what some call an epic victory at the Targa Florio. Was it the greatest win in Targa history? Who’s to say? We know this, though: two weeks later, he won the Nürburgring 1,000 Kilometres and then in July he made his F1 debut in a Cooper T86B. He surprised everyone with a fourth in a lesser car on a soaked track.
The truly committed at the fourth Rennsport Reunion knew every detail, every nuance of every race Elford and Bell and Brian Redman and all the rest of these greats contested going back decades. Yes, there were scores of big-name racers on hand for this Porsche festival at the famed Laguna Seca Raceway – officially known as Mazda Raceway – in Northern California.
“Nothing really quite like it anywhere,” said Bell, between autographs and chit chat. “It’s just different, special. It’s just so great to see everyone here.”
And, of course, the cars. The Porsche museum in Germany shipped over a bunch of important historic models, but that collection was only the starting point. Hundreds of other Porsches from all eras were on borrow from their owners across North America. Many of them took to the track to race head-to-head on one of the trickiest circuits on the continent. I wandered through a special museum display in the paddock that featured famous 911s throughout that model’s history – going all the way back to original 1964 911.
If you eat, breath and live Porsche, the Rennsport Reunion – Rennsport for racing – is heaven, pure, unadulterated heaven. But then, this festival was largely though not exclusively the well-executed dream of a man who, while not quite a saint, was certainly well loved in Porsche circles. That would be the late Bob Carlson, a long-time Porsche public relations executive.
I knew Bob pretty well. We grew up within a mile of each other in Northern California’s Silicon Valley, and while Bob was eight years my senior, we shared many touchstones of youth, many shared experiences of California in its prime in the 1970s. Bob, soft spoken yet passionate about his vocation and avocation, loved Porsches almost as much as he loved auto racing.
A few years back, before he passed away in late 2008 after a battle with cancer, Bob told me about his idea of putting together a Woodstock for Porschephiles. It was all sparked by two events that occurred in 1968, one on the West Coast, the other out East.
Carlson, then Porsche Racing’s public relations co-ordinator, was at the famed Monterey Historics held at this racetrack every August. The featured marquee: Porsche on its 50th anniversary. Later that year at the equally wicked race course known at Watkins Glen in New York, Porsche Racing legend Brian Redman was staging what he called a 50/50 event – to celebrate 50 years of Porsche and 50 years of racing at Watkins Glen.
Crowds at both were enormous and it stuck Carlson and Redman that there might be an appetite for what has become Rennsport Reunion. The tag line reads “Porsche performance, passion and pride.”
The Reunion came together first in July, 2001, at Legendary Lime Rock Park. Thousands drooled over some 300 Porsche racing cars and they mingled with the likes of racing legends Roger Penske, Hurley Haywood, Jacky Ickx and more. Before it was over, Carlson and Redman knew they were onto something so big it would need a new home.
What better place to go for No. 2 than Daytona Speedway where so many great Porsche drivers have gone onto victory. The year was 2004 and again the thirst for this sort of extravaganza was palpable. The cars were there, some 600 Porsche race cars, along with racers, team managers, celebrities and Porsche lovers the world over. Three years later, Rennsport Reunion III returned to Daytona and it was an even bigger success.
Bob Carlson lived to see his baby explode upon the Porsche public’s consciousness. But after three visits to the East Coast, this time around it seemed sadly ironic that Rennsport would land at Laguna Seca where Carlson first imagined such an event. This track is a two-hour drive from Carlson’s childhood home and the site of many races where Bob both worked and played amongst his things – fast, sexy, beautiful, interesting and sometimes quirky race cars, Porsches in particular.
I’d not been to any of the first three and could only imagine what was in store this fall. My imagination fell short of reality. It’s shocking, really, to see 300-plus Porsches scattered about the dry basin of the track here at Laguna Seca. All day, the track itself was bustling with races – club races, serious sports car events and so on and so on. They were all there, the 956s and 962s, a 917 and of course the all new 2012 911.
I mean, Porsche is in the business of selling cars, correct? And the latest iteration of this icon is coming to dealers next year – bigger, faster and, as all the Porsche sales and marketing types will tell you, better in every way.
Porsche Canada president Joe Lawrence was on hand to talk about how important this 911 is to the company. As we all know, Porsche has expanded its range to include SUVs – the Cayenne – and hatchbacks – the Panamera. The plan with this 911 is to offer solid proof that Porsche hasn’t abandoned is sports car roots in favour of the bigger sales numbers that come with selling trucks and four-door cars.
But the thing is, the likes of Derek Bell and Vic Elford and Brian Redman never raced Cayennes and Panameras and no one today does, either – not seriously. It’s hard for most people to become fully passionate about prosaic rides that are practical and profitable, but can never be fully at home on a banked corner on any racetrack in any truly serious race.
So while there will surely be a Rennsport Reunion V and probably a sixth and seventh, I left Laguna Seca wondering is some day Porsche will have morphed the brand into something profitable and successful, but not so lovable – not for thousands and thousands of sports car crazy Porschephiles.
SEVEN 911s THAT ROCKED THE WORLD
So which seven 911s in Porsche history would stand out from all the rest? Fair question and one we asked Achim Stejskal, who heads the Porsche Museum in Germany. Here’s his list in chronological order:
1964 Porsche 911: The first four-seat Porsche sports car was not originally intended to replace the legendary 356, but that’s what happened when 356 production ended in 1965. Some might argue this first 911 is the cleanest design of them all and I’d be among them.
1967 911 R: The “R” stands for “Race” and this one was part of a small series of 911s which were intended to be super-light and very fast.
1973 911 RSR: With 300 horsepower, some have said this 911 was the star of the 1973 sports car racing season.
1976 934: This one was based on the 930 Turbo, but almost everything except the body shell and rear spoiler was changed or modified for performance.
1986 961: This made its track debut at the 1984 24 Hours of Le Mans where it finished seventh.
1998 911 GT1: In its racing debut, this car won the GT1 class at Le Mans.
2011 911 GT3 R Hybrid: This 911 has an on-board flywheel capable of spinning at up to 40,000 rpm, storing energy for short power bursts at the push of a button – as race cars need when passing. The GT3 R Hybrid used this system and performed well during the last racing season.