Behind the wheel of a Porsche Carrera 4S, hitting 66 km/h on an ice-covered track, I drive down a slight hill getting ready to make a sharp left. Through the two-way radio I can hear my instructor, 55-year-old Kees Nierop. He wants me to blip the throttle. "That's it," he says, "a little brake, now blip, blip."
Kees (pronounced "Case") is my Obi-Wan Kenobi – the Jedi-driver voice in my head guiding me as I try to execute some tricky winter driving. He won the 12 Hours of Sebring endurance race in 1983 and he is the only Canadian to have his name on a Porsche factory car displayed in the new Porsche Museum in Germany. It's his job to help neophytes like me at Porsche Canada's Camp4 Experience navigate the Mecaglisse race track an hour north of Montreal.
It's a Star Wars moment to be sure – almost science fiction – time seems to expand and elongate. I meditate on the situation. I've driven Rabbits, Camrys, Jettas, Volvos, cube vans, plenty of cars. Prior to this morning, however, I've never driven a Porsche. In fact, you might say I drive the "anti-Porsche."
I drive a Dodge Grand Caravan. What's it like to go from the Caravan to the Carrera 4s? It's like spending your entire life eating bugs, dirt and bilge water and then one day being given prime sirloin steak and a glass of 2001 Merry Edwards Pinot Noir.
You kind of want more steak.
At Camp4, students drive three types of Porsches on man-made tracks covered in ice and banked by cushy snow banks. Started in Finland in 1996, it allows both novice motorists and Porsche aficionados to experience driving at a high level. There are now Camp4 programs in Finland, Italy, Switzerland, China and Canada. Participants spend two to three days driving the Cayman, the 911 Carrera S and the 911 Carrera 4S on three tracks. About 240 drivers will participate in the program, which runs until Feb. 15. The price ranges between $5,195 and $6,195 and includes accommodation and meals at the Esterel Suites and Spa.
I've done a one-day media course. It's about to end and then it's a bus to Montreal and a flight back to Toronto and then back to the Grand Caravan. No more Porsche. I contemplate my options.
Option 1: Slow to a safe speed. Push my driving partner from the Porsche. Accelerate towards the highway and attempt a high-speed escape to the border.
Option 2: Get home. Sit the family down. Tell the kids, "Guys, your dad has good news and bad news. First, the good news: Your dad just bought a new Porsche. The bad news? I've put all your RESP savings into what daddy likes to call "911 Mutual Funds."
Option 3: Accept that a Porsche is "only a car." Happiness doesn't lie in material possessions. Find fulfilment in cultivating my inner life and a holistic connection to the world at large.
I'm inclined to go with "Option 1" as it guarantees more driving.
It feels good to drive a Porsche at fairly high speeds, to drift your car and play with understeer and oversteer and do stunts that would get you arrested on public roads. When Nierop says "Great skid," he's not being sarcastic. When drivers spin out into the snow bank, it's no big deal. After a day of driving, I feel accomplished.
Of course, that's due to Porsche Camp4's Star Wars, Industrial Light and Magic quality. We all think we're driving well but the reality is that the cars are doing a substantial amount of the work. For instance, if the car starts to go off course, the Porsche Stability System (PSM) kicks in and "initiates controlled braking of individual wheels" and automatically stabilizes the vehicle. We try drives with the PSM on and off. When it's off, the number of "spins" into snowdrifts escalate. We're also driving on street legal Nokian Hakkapeliitta 8 tires with 1.5 mm studs. These bad boys can make ice feel like dry pavement.
"Okay Andrew, now accelerate and brake and blip, blip, blip, now turn."
I try to make the drift, the same one I'd done almost purely on instinct my first time around, one more time – but I don't give it gas at the right moment and the Carrera 4S swings too far to the right. I don't hit the snow bank but I don't have the fluid drift that would have allowed me to drive right into the slalom without losing too much speed or time.
Nevertheless, Nierop is charitable: "Nice drive, Andrew."
While Camp4 is almost a fantasy camp for sports car enthusiasts, many of the techniques we've been introduced to can be used in emergency situations out on winter roads and highways. Later, as we walk from the track, I ask Nierop, if he could only give one piece of advice about driving in winter conditions, what would it be? He doesn't hesitate. "Eyes up. You have to look for what's coming. In these conditions, if you are waiting to see what's already happening, it's going to be too late."
Eyes up? Good advice whether you're driving a Porsche 911 or a Dodge Grand Caravan.
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