By John Oreovicz
DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. –- Most of us have, at one time or another, dreamed of driving a Porsche in a controlled environment where a sports car can really be pushed to its limits.
Thanks to Porsche Cars North America, that dream is now a reality.
With convenient, airport-adjacent locations in Atlanta and Los Angeles, the Porsche Experience Center (PEC) offers enthusiasts an immersion into the world of the legendary German marque. Most importantly, the Porsche Driving Experience provides an opportunity to get behind the wheel of the latest and greatest Porsches in the company of a professional instructor to tackle a variety of corners and conditions.
Porsche’s U.S. headquarters have been based in Atlanta since 1998, but in 2015, the company unveiled a new campus to house its 400 American associates. Located on 27.7 acres near the longest runway serving Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (and currently under expansion), the facility also includes PCNA’s official classic restoration shop, a coffeeshop/snack bar and upscale dining.
Porsche customers can visit the Porsche Exclusive Personal Design Studio to select custom paint and interior material options for their bespoke build, as well as pick their car up with new vehicle delivery.
PEC Los Angeles, sited on 53 acres visible from I-405 near Los Angeles International Airport, opened in 2016.
What Experiences Are Available?
Perhaps the highlight of every Porsche Experience Center (there are 10 worldwide, with an 11th under construction near Toronto) is the Porsche Driving Experience, which features:
- A one-mile (1.3-mile at PEC LA) Handling Circuit “designed to mimic a canyon or country road” that includes elevation change and a variety of challenging turn combinations.
- A hydraulic kick plate that randomly sends the back of the car into a skid, testing reaction time, hand speed and overall coordination.
- A polished concrete, low-friction circle or skid pad soaked by sprinklers where drivers can learn to invoke understeer or oversteer from the car (and ultimately learn and practice drifting skills).
- A short low-friction handling course, again on polished concrete, where those driver-induced vehicle dynamics can be utilized.
- An off-road course, which crosses a ravine through a 40-degree descent. PEC LA also features an ice hill on seven-degree grade with a wetted epoxy surface.
Both U.S. PEC facilities also include an acceleration straight, which is also a great demonstration of launch control systems and braking capability. There’s also an open area where slalom and gymkhana courses can be set up.
Any licensed driver 21 years or older is eligible to participate in the Porsche Driving Experience; there’s also a five-hour Young Driver course available for ages 16-21 that teaches vehicle dynamics at a more basic level and focuses on awareness, hazard recognition and strategic response.
Of course, the Porsche Driving Experience comes at a cost, but it’s surprisingly modest. A 90-minute session with a drive coach goes for as little as $365 in a 718 Boxster or Cayman, up to $875 for the mighty 911 GT3, which is a thinly disguised version of the Porsches that compete in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. Almost every model in the Porsche lineup is available to drive.
What’s It Like Out There?
I made a short detour on my drive to Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta last month for the Motul Petit Le Mans to visit PEC Atlanta. Porsche kindly arranged for me to drive a 718 Cayman GT4 ($101,200 retail price, 414 horsepower, 0-60 mph in 3.7 seconds, 189 mph top speed), a car that Car and Driver said “oozes driver involvement, and tickles all the right senses.”
It’s also the road-going version of the Cayman GT4 Clubsport that races in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge Grand Sport (GS) class.
Group outings at PEC generally follow a scripted program, but individual experiences are tailored to the driver. I chose to start on the handling circuit, just to get the feel of the car. As promised by the media reports, the 718 GT4’s most remarkable feature might be its steering, which gives the driver great feel for the road. That’s on top of its impressive acceleration, braking and cornering limits, all of which are logged and documented on the car’s dashboard through the Porsche Sport Chronograph system.
To my surprise and delight, my drive coach was Jimmy Reid (pictured), who was a mechanic on Mauricio Gugelmin’s car for PacWest Racing in the CART IndyCar series in 1997 and ’98 at the same time I worked for the team. I remembered he was a keen kart racer back then, but I had no idea his driving skills would eventually take him to this kind of role for Porsche. It was fun to catch up with him, soaking up his advice while enjoying the opportunity to drive a high-performance sports car.
I’ve probably logged close to a million miles driving on the road, but my seat time on a racetrack or closed-course conditions is minimal. Having an experienced instructor alongside like Reid who can articulate vehicle dynamics and the sensations they create for the driver as they happen is really eye opening. When I rode as a passenger with him for a couple of laps of the handling circuit at the end of my session, I felt like I had been using about a third of the car’s capabilities.
I did feel good about my performance on the kick plate test, and eventually got to where I could hold the Cayman GT4 in a state of drift for a full 360-degree lap of the low-friction circle. Every minute in the car at PEC provides lessons in car control that could pay off in emergency situations in the real world.
In the virtual world, PEC features the latest in racing simulator technology, allowing anyone to book time to drive a variety of classic and modern Porsches on many of the world’s great racing circuits. Rates are $40 for 30 minutes, $75 for an hour.
Ready to take the next step? Porsche offers one- to four-day track experience programs at Barber Motorsports Park near Birmingham, Alabama, with professional instruction from the likes of Hall of Fame sports car racer Hurley Haywood.
The pair of Porsche Experience Centers attract around 50,000 visitors every year, and it’s easy to see why. There’s something for Porsche enthusiasts of every age. And there’s no better way to understand the mystique of driving a Porsche than to get behind the wheel – something that the Porsche Driving Experience makes remarkably accessible.
Porsche just unveiled the GT4 RS version of the 718 Cayman at the 2021 Los Angeles Auto Show, with 493 horsepower and a 0-60 time trimmed to 3.2 seconds. I wonder when that will be available to drive at the Porsche Experience Center?
For more information on the Porsche Experience Centers and driving experiences, visit porschedriving.com.