Porsche Turbo at Watkins Glen
Unless you're a professional racing driver, the chances of ever going to Watkins Glen International in the States are slim. One-time home of the American Grand Prix and host to just about every type of track-based motorsport the US has to offer, Watkins Glen International is nevertheless buried away in the lush farmlands and picturesque lakes district of upstate New York; it's about five hours' drive from New York city or an hour's flight from Philadelphia, and it doesn't seem terribly well serviced by major roads.
And yet Porsche took the time and trouble to get us out to the circuit that boasts of being 'the soul of American road racing' because that's where it was launching the new 997 Turbo to the US media, and generously decided to extend the invitation to a few assorted Europeans and south Americans. The choice of this particular venue was very deliberate – this was the first place that a turbocharged Porsche 911 ever raced on American soil. The event was the 1974 Watkins Glen 6-Hours and a Carrera RSR Turbo driven by Herbert Müller and Gijs van Lennep came second overall, beaten only by a Matra MS 670C sports racer prototype.
In common with the town it's named after, Watkins Glen International isn't a ritzy venue. You approach it through arable farmland along roads dotted either side with white-painted clapboard houses, and even when you get to the gate you're wondering if you've really arrived at one of America's best-loved tracks, everything is so low-key. Drive into the centre of the circuit and there's no pit garage complex, just a low concrete wall on the other side of which team areas are painted onto the tarmac. And the race control tower on the start/finish straight is so modest in stature it wouldn't look out of place at one of Britain's smaller, poorly funded track facilities.
It's very well maintained, though and, with its abundance of trees and grass, it's attractive too. Not that there's much time to appreciate the beauty once you're out on track because Watkins Glen International is both fast and in places quite technical. And in the experienced hands of David Murry, Porsche driving instructor and successful racer in the US, especially behind the wheel of Porsches, and my chauffeur for a couple of 'hot laps', a 997 Turbo on road tyres can be made to travel pretty much as quick as a Carrera Cup race car on slicks around here.
Porsche is making a big deal about the Tiptronic S transmission for the new Turbo and so Murry and I are in an auto for the hot laps. He demonstrates why it's quicker to 60mph than the manual by engaging Drive, holding his foot on the brake pedal, watching the boost pressure build on the gauge to the point you'd expect the transmission to detonate, then jumping off the brakes – the Turbo spears towards the end of the pit lane with all the anger and violence of a cricket ball leaving the hand of a fast bowler.
From the end of the pit lane you plunge down to one of the lowest points on the track at turn 2, before swiftly rising through the Esses where the lateral forces generated by the Turbo are sensational. That reassuring sense of grip is important as Murry approaches turn 4, because the barriers are paint-grazingly close; it's blind as you then thunder out onto the straight, so Murry's local knowledge is another thing to be grateful for.
On the Back Straight, the slick-shod Cup cars hit 156mph before the brakes are banged on for the Inner Loop chicane – in the Turbo we're reaching around 153mph, according to Murry. He also reckons that the Turbo's brakes, optional carbon-ceramic PCCB discs on this particular car, are superior to many race cars he's driven. The bruise across my torso from where the seatbelt dug into my body attest to the brakes' effectiveness.
Turns 5 and 6 blend into a lazy reverse 'S' that dips down like a rollercoaster through the Chute to the lowest part of the track, known as Toe – it's at the pointy end of a complex called The Boot. From Toe it's Uphill, literally, where the Turbo's mighty torque (501lb ft on overboost) and awesome traction work to your advantage. You need both those attributes again through tight turn 8 and technically challenging turn 9, beyond which the Turbo again begins to pick up an extraordinary amount of speed in a very short distance along the straight to turn 10.
Murry's using fourth gear and all the track width through turn 10, but suggests a little dab of the brakes on the entry to turn 11 which spits you out back onto the start/finish straight. A second, 3.4-mile flying lap allows Murry to demonstrate turn 1, The Ninety, another rollercoaster of a corner that demands lots of grip and plenty of confidence in the handling of your car.
Not until near the end of Murry's first lap did I notice that he wasn't using the Turbo's paddles to manually shift gears – Tiptronic S is such a well developed auto that it changes down into corners and holds onto revs when it knows you're on a charge, which is why Murry just left it in 'D'. Jumping out of the Turbo there was no aroma of overcooked brakes (nor any sign of them on the track), while the Michelin rubber was merely lightly burnished as if used for taking Gran back to the nursing home rather than attacking a demanding circuit for a couple of hours.
Road cars, even alleged supercars, often suffer on circuits, but here at Watkins Glen International the new 911 Turbo gave a sizzling demonstration of the depth of engineering that goes into Porsches. Its performance was every bit as angrily aggressive as you could want from a production road car and its outright pace a match for many a competent race car – that's one hell of an achievement when you consider you're sitting there in leather-lined, air-conditioned, Surround-Sound comfort. And as for those brakes, they are the standard that all other sports car makers should aspire to (just imagine an M3 that could still stop after half a dozen laps...).
At the earlier European launch of the 997 Turbo Porsche was doing the big sell on the Tiptronic S transmission to the assembled journalists, but was met with a tall wall of cynicism, particularly as Walter Röhrl elected to do his terrifyingly quick demo drives in a manual. But having witnessed how well the auto box works in the hands of a racing driver on a track, with the lever left in D and the electronics doing a spectacularly effective job at sorting through the ratios to make the best of the engine and the chassis, I'm left wondering if Tiptronic S really isn't the Turbo gearbox of choice, even for the keenest of drivers.
The only grumble about the whole Watkins Glen adventure was that we couldn't spend more time out on the track – this place may be remote, but that doesn't stop it from being so popular that not even the might of Porsche can book it for more than a couple of hours at a time. If you're ever out that way, it's definitely worth a detour.
Do it yourself
Fancy some laps of Watkins Glen International? Well for $25 you can take your car (or more likely, your rental) around the track behind a pace car to get a feel for its layout and its lines.
And that's not all you can do. Before it was held on a proper circuit, the Watkins Glen Grand Prix was raced on the public road through the middle of the town and out into surrounding farmland. The first race was held in 1948 and was the first motorsport event to be held in the US post-WW2.
It's still possible to drive the original 6.6-mile Grand Prix course (albeit not quickly) by following the commemorative signs erected around the route. And while you're driving the course, try imagining how nuts you would have to have been to race along it in cars capable of 150mph or more but running on rubber barely the width of bicycle tyres and with brakes that would have trouble stopping a Tesco's trolley.
Then there's the International Motor Racing Research Center. It's a grand title for what at first seems little more than a motorsport library, but once you start delving into its rare books, cuttings, photographs, movie footage, race programmes and memorabilia, you suddenly discover that an entire afternoon has gone AWOL. Interesting cars are often on display inside, too, and currently you can buy raffle tickets to win a beautifully restored 4.2-litre mk1 Jaguar E-type – now that'd be a way of touring the States.
Pictures by Brett Fraser