I Deal in Lead, Friend

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Thanks to the internet and our Google overlords, there exists now the ability to instantly map a drivable route from hither to yon, anywhere in the world.  That is a tantalizing enough time-waster.  What weaponizes this capability, though, is that after the route is drawn, with a mere flick of a wrist and the click of a left index finger, one can adjust that route and make it far more personal and compelling than the usual freeway haul.  I succumbed to my weakness for this particular electronic brand of hooch again today.

As a result, I’m suddenly rereading an old novel that I’ve long adored, and planning a trek through the region where the story took place.  But here’s the best part—I’ll be making the journey in the newest addition to my car family, a 1992 Porsche 968 coupe.

I found the car with the help of autotempest.com a little over a month ago.  It was residing at a small, performance-oriented, premium-makes dealership in Wylie, TX, a Dallas suburb.  Its proprietors call it simply “Dallas Motorsports.”  I called, asked a few questions, got a few answers, and shortly thereafter emailed with an offer.  There didn’t seem to be much interest.  I was disappointed, but moved on.  I’d been eyeballing 968s for a long time, always having loved how rare they were, how contemporary they look even now, and how from the front, they whiff faintly of 959.  But I wasn’t going to overpay on a near-quarter-century-old four-cylinder coupe that most folks don’t even recognize.

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Two weeks later or so, I glanced back at the dealer’s website, just on a lark.  Wouldn’t you know it, the car was still there—but the sale price had changed to exactly what I’d offered.  I called back and closed on the car.  All that remained was the matter of picking it up and getting it home.

For nearly the last two years, I’ve had to travel about a week per month for work.  One of the several places I’ve been going is Fort Walton Beach, Florida.  Nice, right?  Even nicer, getting there from Des Moines via airplane involves connecting in one of two places: Charlotte, or…Dallas.  Can you say “pick up your Porsche on the company dime?”  Yes, please.

Planning time.  Sitting in front of Google Maps, I plug in the dealer address and my home address.  A long drive home, certainly, but nothing I haven’t done before.  Nothing really appealing on the route, though: Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Kansas City, home.  I personally prefer to avoid Oklahoma—the entire state always looks like it got wiped out by a green-sky thunder-nado yesterday, and no one is bothering to rebuild because they’re expecting another one tomorrow.  No thanks.  Click, flick, drag.

Fort Smith, Arkansas.  Now that’s a decent spot.  I remember flying into the regional airport there back in pilot training.  Real nice FBO–great lobby and delicious pulled pork sandwiches, along with really smooth, clean tarmac.  Always liked that place.  There’s a Holiday Inn Express in town – book it.  I’ve been working nights, so my body clock will be mixed up, and I can’t plan on driving too far on day one.

Look at these roads in northwest Arkansas, though.  Lots of wiggle to them.  There must be mountains.  Mountains, you say?  In Arkansas?  And suddenly my inner monologue rolls into a measured, steely drawl.  It says, “I don’t like you, Payne.  I don’t like a man who carries a sawed-off semi-auto 12-gauge full of double-ought because he doesn’t want to miss.”

My brain is echoing the voice of Bob Lee Swagger, a brilliantly-named character from the mind of author Stephen Hunter, introduced in the novel Point of Impact and contemporized in the based-on-the-book film Shooter.  While Mark Wahlberg did a nice job in the lead role and the movie was certainly entertaining, the Swagger of the novel was as deep, powerful, and haunted as Bruce Wayne, except with a Remington Model 700 and a southern drawl instead of a black suit and cape.  Whereas the climax of the film centers around an anonymous mountain range, the climactic action in the novel takes place in the Ouachita Mountains of central-western Arkansas.

Now looms a chance to see (and carve) those mountains, and I won’t be passing it up.  This feels like some real car-writer stuff—flying off somewhere far from home to pick up a rare, ancient automobile that no one cares about but me.  Planning to drive said automobile hundreds of miles home through the hometown of a favorite fictional character.  I’m channeling Peter Egan and Jamie Kitman this month, but Stephen Hunter is riding shotgun.

And to think, this adventure all sprang to life from some squiggly lines on an internet map.  What a glorious time to be alive.

 

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Porsche Parade 2015

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Porsche Parade 2015 was the first national-level Porsche event I had attended since Rennsport Reunion IV at Leguna Seca in 2011.  It was pretty amazing how much had changed for the brand in that interim.

At Rennsport, the North American Porsche faithful beheld the 991 for the first time.  The most lust-worthy item at dealerships was still a 997—the Speedster.  The newest Cayennes and Caymans were merely midcycle refreshes of the types’ originals, and the Panamera was a toddler, just two years old.  The 918 Spyder was still in its concept phase, with production yet to begin.

Fast forward to Parade, and it is almost as if we are looking at an entirely new manufacturer’s catalog.  991s are everywhere in all forms, including Turbo S and Targa 4S.  The Macan, not even a blip on the radar back in Monterey, is the hottest-selling Porsche in the land.  918 production is complete, and the crown jewels of the contemporary new-Porsche show are, in ascending order, the 981 Boxster and Cayman (especially in GTS form), the new Boxster Spyder, and the glorious new Cayman GT4—the Cayman the enthusiasts have cried out for since day one.

Of course, while it is a wonderful showcase for all things new, Parade is very much a celebration of what has come before.  Right next to the GT4 in the main hospitality room sat a 1973 Carrera RS 2.7, its ducktail agleam in deep, gorgeous, original-spec Viper Green.  Outside on Saturday I snapped a great picture of a 356 Speedster flanked by the stunning West Baden Springs Resort Hotel.  And just before leaving on Sunday, I stumbled upon a unicorn-rare 928 GTS, also saddling up for its trip home.

Reflecting on what’s new and what’s classic served to highlight for me the key difference between Porsche now and Porsche back-when.  I often daydream about a Porsche showroom in 1995, when every car was low and sleek, and the three-pedal configuration was the norm instead of the exception.  The 968 was the ultimate iteration of the front-engine, rear-drive four-cylinder 924/944/968 line, and it still looks new today.  The 928 was singing its glorious V8 swan song in winged 5.4-liter GTS trim.  And the 993 Turbo had just arrived, sporting the first all-wheel-drive system seen on a forced-induction Porsche not called the 959.  Every single car in that showroom was a worthy engineering accomplishment, and all remain sought after to this day.

Now the Porsche showroom is massively different.  You’ll find one Macan there—just one—that the dealership won’t sell because it must be kept on hand in order to momentarily slake consumers’ lust.  Outside are many colors and varieties of formerly-top-selling Cayenne, from the now-base Diesel to the GTS to the Turbo.  Plenty of Panameras in varying trims are scattered about for the four-door-sedan (but-different) crowd.  Of course there remains a sprinkling of 911s, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an enthusiast-targeted single-clutch Carrera coupe or a (PDK-only, argh) GT3RS.  The Boxsters and Caymans sit off to one side, attracting longing stares from passerby but few real buyers.  And there are no Cayman GT4s on the lot—those are limited-production and completely sold out.

I once read in a Porsche publication somewhere that around two-thirds of all Porsches ever built remain on the road today.  As Porsche builds these larger, tech-laden cars, I think that percentage is going to go down, and that’s what’s truly being lost here.

One cannot argue with the numbers—any Cayenne Turbo, even a first-gen one, would beat that RS 2.7 around any track with a straightaway on it, let alone the Nurburgring.  But there’s a reason that Cayennes have and will continue to depreciate to nearly nothing, while an RS 2.7 is worth, well, just look.

No matter how special a Macan is, a 911 will always be more special.  No one will throw a tarp over a Macan and keep it in a garage for decades at a time, intending to someday restore it to like-new condition and relive its glory days.  There will be no historic Macan racing in 2060.  Instead, like any other consumer product, once its lifecycle is complete, it will be destroyed.

This the appeal of a Porsche-crazed enthusiast, not the reasoned logic of a CEO, of course.  Porsche was not a healthy company in 1995—it is thriving today, and that’s a good thing.  But something needs to keep the soul of the brand intact.  It won’t be a Macan drawing the crowd in the hospitality room at Parade 2060—but Porsche must ensure that something does.

My solution?

Build more of those sold-out GT4s.

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2015 Indianapolis 500

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I was raised on the Indianapolis 500.  When I was a wee lad, my family would journey to my great aunt’s summer house in northern PA for every Memorial Day weekend.  Sunday morning, we would wake, have breakfast, seed the vegetable garden, and then gather around an ancient box of glowing cathode ray tubes for the race.  Even as a frenetic child on his summer vacation, I was transfixed.  For those hours, I would just gape at the race in awe.  The cars were so conspicuously fragile, the speeds and danger so obviously great, the crowd and the track so massively huge.  I knew nothing else about the sport save that once a year, they did THIS, and to me, that was enough.

A succession of Mears and Unser victories marked those days for me, with a couple interjections from a man named Fittipaldi.  Years later, I confessed to my wife that the only reason it took me so long to propose to her was that I needed to pay off the new wheels I’d put on my car—17” Fittipaldi Flames—before I could buy her a ring.  (She’s since forgiven me.  Just ask her about it.)

As I grew up and the pace of life increased, I still tried to keep up with the happenings at the 500.  I remember the changing of the guard taking place in the early 2000’s, as the older Indy vets gracefully gave way to a younger generation of stars: the made-for-TV smile of the fence-climbing Helio Castroneves; the entitled, yet fiery and determined Marco Andretti; fan favorite and Vin Diesel lookalike Tony Kanaan; the fast, witty, and wily longhaired Brit Dan Wheldon; and the Italian-name/Italian-face guy that somehow spoke in Scottish brogue: Dario Franchitti.

I was living in Las Vegas in October of 2011, but I wasn’t at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway when we lost Wheldon—instead, my wife and boys and I were at Leguna Seca for Rennsport Reunion IV.  Still, I remember the moment atop that glorious hill at that glorious track when a voice came across the PA system and announced the news.  I remember feeling a deathly chill and audibly gasping, “What???”  My next coherent thought was of Dan’s pretty wife and young boys—I remembered seeing them, just a few months before, reacting joyously after Wheldon swept past the still-rolling wreckage of JR Hildebrand’s car to take the lead just before crossing the bricks for the win at the 500.

That crazy finish was made even crazier by the fact that Wheldon didn’t even have a ride for the remainder of the 2011 IndyCar Series season.  Bryan Herta’s racing team didn’t have deep pockets and had thrown together a car and a driver just for the 500.  As a result, Wheldon logged the 500 win, then went right back to doing race commentary on the SPEED channel.  More important was the work he was doing as a driver-consultant for chassis-maker Dallara, who was in the midst of producing an all-new chassis for the IndyCar series, set to debut in the 2012 season.  The chassis was later named “DW12” in Wheldon’s honor, and rightfully so.  With Dan’s help, Dallara had done a spectacular job and ushered in a new and fantastic era in IndyCar.

The new chassis created such an aerodynamic void behind it at high speed that leaders at Indy were now completely unable to hold the lead for long.  Challengers could lurk in the low-drag wake behind the leader, and then ‘slingshot’ past when exiting a turn onto the long straights at Indianapolis.  The 2012 500 saw an all-time record 34 lead changes, and a race that in past days had been at times relatively placid at the front suddenly became a never-look-away, white-knuckle rivet-fest for all 500 miles.  That 2012 race wasn’t decided until Takuma Sato spun out from under Dario Franchitti in turn one of lap 200.  The 2013 race finally placed Tony Kanaan atop the podium.  And the 2014 race gave us an American winner for the first time in 8 years: Ryan Hunter-Reay, on the back of his almost unbelievably ballsy, nearly-into-the-grass, lap-197 pass.

Raised on Indy and now hopelessly addicted to Indy—and finally living within a day’s drive of Indy—I   could not pass up the 99th running of the race.  I bought tickets and convinced friends and family from four different states to come join me.  We drove into town under a very light rain and found a $10 parking spot on a Georgetown Road front lawn.  The rain gave way to sunshine as we walked the remaining distance to the track entrance.  Along with lots of other people.

So…many…other…people.  I’ve been to professional racing events before, but 20,000 or 30,000 people at Mid-Ohio or Leguna Seca is not remotely in the same league as a quarter-million folks at Indy.  Heck, a top-attended pro or college football game doesn’t even merit HALF as many attendees as the 500.  The scale of this event is truly enormous, epic, massive, incredible—something words on a page can’t describe.

We meandered through the IndyCar Fan Village, checked out the 2016 Camaro (and a unicorn 3-pedal SS) that Chevrolet had on display, and eyed the bright-green Honda Civic Type R concept.  For a few moments, I stood close enough to Hunter-Reay’s 2014 winning car to bask in its victorious yellow aura.  Then we strolled back to our seats for the traditional pre-race pageantry, so important at the 500.

My favorite moment of these festivities was during the driver introductions, where the assembled multitudes loudly—and rightfully—booed lead IndyCar Series d-bag Will Power.  I knew right then that I was among good folk!  Speaking of good folk, Jim Nabors has stepped aside as official “Back Home Again In Indiana” singer, and instead Indiana University alums Straight No Chaser did an excellent job in his place.  Jordan Sparks gave a solid national anthem (though either she finished early, or the A-10 flyover came in late—so hard to get that timing just right).  Mari Hulman George, as she has done for as long as I remember, gave the ‘start engines’ command, albeit this time with help from one of her daughters.  And then the Corvette pace car ducked into the pits, the green flag dropped, the engines roared, and…Sato crashed.  A glorious early summer day at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

I won’t bore you with an amateur recounting of all 500 miles, but the best radio line of the day was from Turn 3 man Jake Query, who summarized the Chevrolet-engine dominance with this clever quip: “The Victory Banquet may be the weekend’s formal affair, but a bowtie is required attire for this race!”  For me, the best result of the day was seeing low-key Ganassi man Charlie Kimball put together a brilliant drive, starting 14th on the grid but finishing on the podium in 3rd.  Charlie is now batting a thousand when it comes to achieving a podium finish at IndyCar races that I’ve attended (Mid-Ohio 2013, 1st place).

Next year will, of course, be the 100th running.  The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be showing off a host of upgrades, Helio will still be looking for his fourth win, Marco will still be trying to break the Andretti Curse, Tony will still be playing up his ‘fan favorite’ status, and Sato will surely crash again.  I’ve already got my tickets, and as sixty-five percent of the US population lives within a day’s drive of Indianapolis—no excuses, I’ll see you there.

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Wish I Could Migrate With the Wildebeests

There’s a problem in the automotive world, and it’s not that automakers are forsaking the enthusiast driver.  In fact, one could argue that now is as good a time as any to be an enthusiast—at least on paper.

The problem is that the enthusiast options exist— but ONLY on paper, and not in tangible, glistening candy apple red reality.  Dealers don’t stock enthusiast-appeal specs and trims, because in order to make money, dealers have to appeal to the mass market and be able to close a needy, yet skittish customer by sending them home in a new car TODAY.  That means filling their lot with boring, interchangeable, beige/white/silver/grey-on-black, automatic transmission, all-wheel drive models with DVD players and oversized twenty-two-inch rims wrapped in compromised all-season tires.

If an enthusiast is interested in something better, something interesting, something like, say—an Ecoboost Mustang coupe with stick, performance pack, and non-black interior.   Or a 6-cylinder front-wheel-drive Chrysler 200 with a non-black interior, or a 1.4T Jeep Renegade with steelies, 4×4, and stick, or an absolute base-model Fiat 500X 1.4T with stick and front-drive…I could go on, but unless they’re lucky, the enthusiast will not be able to test-drive any of these examples (all of which, according to automaker websites, are obtainable).

Who is going to make the $50k leap on buying a stick Chevy SS when they’ve never had a chance to drive one?  What about the $40k leap on a BMW 228i coupe with stick (late edit: most recent R&T says BMW “lost their way” with the 228i—sounds like it’s not even an option worth considering anyway)?  The point is, it’s a tough sell to get a consumer to throw all that cash at something they can’t see or touch before they’re stuck with it.

This creates a cyclical effect, where STEP 1) makers produce a performance trim level/option package, STEP 2) dealers don’t buy it because it doesn’t suit the mainstream, STEP 3) enthusiast customers can’t see it and touch it so they don’t buy it, STEP 4) the maker stops building it, and then STEP 5) enthusiast consumers cry out that the maker doesn’t build any exciting cars.

In my mind, this cycle is what led Toyota to become the world’s top-selling automaker—after making such gems as the 2000GT and the Supra, the brand eventually shed all pretense of building anything interesting or innovative and instead focused on pushing as many keyfobs for staid, beige vehicles across dealer desks as possible.  Well, what’s wrong with that, you ask?

I’ll tell you.  Part of building and selling cars is selling the consumer on a dream about getting something—not just anything, but a great BIG something that is significantly better than what that consumer has now.  Lately, Toyota is participating in the 24 Hours of Le Mans, collaborating with Subaru on the FRS/BRZ, whispering rumors to the press about a liaison with BMW, and overall trying desperately to inject themselves with an exciting viability.  Why are they doing this?  Because they realized that if they stopped trying to excite, and innovate, and push the envelope, and showcase the dream of better-ness (all things they essentially HAD stopped doing for a while in the mid-to-late 2000’s), eventually their engineering would become dull and passé.  All of those sales numbers they took for granted were suddenly in danger of disappearing because their products were teetering on the precipice between bland and inoffensive to downright non-competitive.  If that happened, they would no longer able to offer something any better than what the consumer already owned, and even their most shameless sycophants would begin to question them.  This very thing happened recently to Honda with the 2012 Civic—a great case in point, and perhaps another indicator that helped spur Toyota to act.

Enthusiast consumers are stuck with this vicious cycle, though, for two reasons.  First is the flawed, mass perception about car-buying—that it must be as fast a process as possible.  This forces a dealer to stock exactly what the lowest common denominator would want to act on and go home with that same day.  This is a doubly destructive practice, as it often saddles that customer with something other than exactly what they want, which leads to regret or anger about the purchase, which leads to a widespread culture of consumer distrust regarding dealers.  The second reason is the politically connected National Auto Dealers Association, which ironically lobbies lawmakers to pass legislation that maintains and reinforces this flawed status quo.  A prime example is NADA’s recent effort to shut down Tesla’s direct-sales model.  I do not mean to suggest that dealers are all evil money-grubbing middlemen, but rather that their incentives are flawed.  The clever manufacturer would provide some additional incentive for dealers to push enthusiast models.  After all, in the long run, the enthusiast models (and their owners) are what burnish the brand image.

Unfortunately, we’re not there yet.  So, sadly, like Calvin says, “Life is full of precluded possibilities.”  The wildebeests might be out there, but they might as well be in Africa as close as most enthusiasts will get to them.

 

 

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