The 911 Carrera S fires down the straight that parallels the 405 Freeway, shoving me back into the driver’s seat. I am not giggling at the snarled traffic just a few feet to my left – there is no room in my brain for that. My foot holds the accelerator hard on the floor, 420 turbocharged horsepower are flinging me forward, and my attention is focused like a laser on the billboard that is my braking marker. At these speeds, I do not want to be late on the brakes. My mind is riveted to the task at hand.
A lift off the gas, moderate pressure on the brake pedal, a hard left to drop into a recreation of the steeply-banked Karussell hairpin from the legendary Nurburgring’s Nordschleife circuit, and my driving coach in the passenger seat is urging me already, impossibly, to feed in more throttle, more power, more speed.
The 53-acre Porsche Experience Center adjacent to the 405 freeway in Carson is one of two in the U.S.; the other is in Atlanta. (Photograph provided by the Porsche Experience Center)
I tell the panic center of my brain to shut the heck up, look through the corner, nail the gas hard and the Carrera drifts slightly sideways and climbs up and out of the banking, the rear end sideways and driving hard. The tires graze the edge of the road and we fire back down the straight, and I’m thinking, that was good but nowhere near perfect, please, please, can I do this about a thousand more times. . . .
This experience is available to the public at the new Porsche Experience Center in Carson. The $60 million, 53-acre facility opened late last year and has already drawn more than 10,000 visitors through its doors. It is one of only two in the U.S., a handful in the world, and even among that small number, is unique in that it is the home of the company’s North American racing operations. Porsche recently allowed the Business Journal to tour the facility, experience the driving training curriculum, and interview Andre Oosthuizen, vice president, marketing, Porsche Cars North America, Inc.
Porsche technicians prep racing vehicles and restore vintage race cars behind the glass wall as visitors watch. Porsche also places race cars, replicas and production cars in the lobby for visitors to examine closely.
“The Porsche Experience Center is, for us, a vision to realize our brand connection with our followers, our customers, our enthusiasts,” Oosthuizen said. “In an age when we’ve been challenged with the electrification of vehicles . . . nobody necessarily needs a sports car on a day-to-day basis. So for us, it’s a method to emotionalize, to engage, educate people, give them a really deep dive into the technology. And it’s an opportunity to demonstrate those technologies in a controlled, brand-appropriate, safe environment.”
To accomplish this mission, the Porsche Experience Center offers a series of circuits and testing grounds for drivers to experience surface conditions that would be unsafe on a public road. Polished and epoxied pavement, further slickened with water, and a steep, wet, downhill slope allows drivers to experience spins and locked brakes and to find out what a car does under those circumstances. Drills marked out with cones on the broad, flat expanse of the skidpad teach you how to avoid obstacles, snake your way through a slalom course and really use the brakes to their limit. The handling circuit simulates a mountain road; the acceleration course, a drag strip. It is fun, but it’s not just a game; time spent in one of the 90-minute driving sessions, which start at $385, really does make you a better driver in a panic situation.
Andre Oosthuizen is the vice president of marketing for Porsche Cars North America, Inc. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
In addition, rather obviously, Los Angeles traffic doesn’t allow many opportunities to experience what a Porsche really can do. And Southern California is home to many (and legendary) Porsche dealerships, places that are revered in the community of the marque’s enthusiasts. The Experience Center serves as a real showcase for the dealerships. Not only are the cars gorgeous in the showroom, but letting the customers really experience the performance is a convincing way to seal the deal. After a helicopter tour of Los Angeles, Oosthuizen said, the Carson location’s desirability was easy to see. It was close to Los Angeles International Airport, easily accessible via freeway, and Watson Land Company and city officials at Carson were happy to help make the deal work.
The 50,000-square-foot building houses nine conference rooms, with one large enough to accommodate vehicles. The store offers high-end Porsche products like sunglasses, luggage and purses, as well as model vehicles that previously only could be purchased in Germany. The Porsche Speedster Cafe echos the design details of that iconic car; Restaurant 917 is a five-star dining experience with menus crafted in Germany from the same leather used in the company’s vehicles. Driving simulators allow you to experience famous tracks from around the world (and the handling course just outside the door); for the discerning client there is a personal design studio where you can sit with a consultant and customize your new Porsche in any manner you choose.
Preparing for a test drive. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)
What makes this particular Porsche Experience Center unique is that it shares space with the Porsche Motorsport North America operation. Porsche always has supported customer-racing programs, and around the world to this day, it is rare to find a sports car series without a class for the production race cars turned out by Porsche. Porsche Motorsport North America had grown into three different buildings in Santa Ana, and the company decided to bring the racing operation onto the Experience Center site.
One large room of the facility is a spare parts inventory for the production race cars. In a stroke of marketing genius, the actual workshop is visible to the public. Separated by a floor-to-ceiling glass wall, all of the work of preparing race cars, restoring priceless vintage race cars for private collectors, goes on where the public can watch.
The Porsche 917 Restaurant is located on the second level. The name and decor were inspired by the legendary 917 racecar, which gave Porsche its first overall wins at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 1970 and 1971. (Photograph provided by the Porsche Experience Center)
During our visit, technicians were restoring the Porsche 962 that Mario and Michael Andretti drove at the 24-hour race at Daytona in 1984. Porsche customers and enthusiasts can press their noses against the glass to see the exacting, detailed work that goes into race car preparation and restoration, as well as getting a close-up view of incredibly historic cars just on the other side of the glass. The car that won the Dakar Rally in 1986 was on display, with a huge sign warning technicians not to wash it – the car is shown as it came off the course, original dirt a badge of honor.
Cars from the company’s museum in Stuttgart, Germany, are shipped to the center and put on display for six months to a year. Some cars are not behind the glass wall, but are displayed in the expansive lobby. The company wants visitors to get close to the vehicles, to really get a feel for their size, the cramped driver accommodations, to develop a sense of what it would be like to pilot one down the Mulsanne straight at Le Mans at well over 200 miles an hour.
On display during our visit was perhaps one of the most famous racing cars Porsche ever built – the soft blue and orange 917K (kurzheck, or short tail) in the livery of Gulf Oil, the type of vehicle that starred in the Steve McQueen movie “Le Mans.”
An overhead view of the Porsche Experience Center. (Photograph provided by the Porsche Experience Center.)
This very car’s real-world exploits are mythical to Porsche enthusiasts. In 1971, on the challenging, dangerous and fast public road Circuit of Spa-Francorchamps in Belgium, Mexican driver Pedro Rodriguez used this car to set a world lap record for closed-course competition and – with co-driver Jackie Oliver – a world record for average race speed, en route to the win.
The car is visually stunning from a distance, more so from up close, and as you stand there and appreciate what happened all those years ago, in this very vehicle, the absolute best the company could create, the racer becomes a vehicle for the visitor to connect in a very real way with a monumental accomplishment of the company’s past.
Those moments on the track, experiencing the company’s latest car, or the moments in the showroom, reminiscing about the company’s past, are entirely emotional. And they are exactly why the Porsche Experience Center exists. Immersing the visitor in the company’s environment, it generates a connection, not with a specific car, but with Porsche itself.
(For more information about the Porsche Experience Center, visit: www.porschedriving.com.)