Racing a Porsche 968 Part 5: Willow Springs and the VARA High Desert

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So to recap, I got a phone call from my friend Casey Putsch and bought a broken Porsche 968 Racecar (Part 1), enlisted my pal at Eurotech Performance, Bill Losee to fix the broken drivetrain (Part 2), Shook the car down under the watchful eye of Classic Datsun Motorsports’ Les Cannaday at Spring Mountain (Part 3), Changed out motor mounts and fabricated a new dashboard while adding STACK gauges and digital sensors (Part 4) and got saddled up with a 37’ RV, a flatbed trailer and three daughters for Willow Springs and the next race.

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The drive was crazy. I had never driven something so large before. Think Friday afternoon traffic on the 5 to the 14 — which leads to Rosamond, CA: home of Willow Springs International Raceway and Edwards Air Force Base. In an effort to do the weekend on a lesser budget, I had contacted Joe Hill, proprietor of Share My Coach and arranged for the rig that would be hauler, hotel, restaurant, office and workshop for the race weekend — and it felt like all of it going down the road with three daughters walking around, making food, asking questions…

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It literally took 4 hours to get there — including an emergency stop to re-secure the car on the flat bed. The rear facing camera, monitored on a video screen on the dashboard of the RV revealed that the car was inching forward. So we stopped, I re-secured the car with the tie downs and made sure it was put in First gear. It had been in Second… Needless to say, I kept one eye on the monitor the rest of the trip. We arrived at Willow Springs after sunset, so I had to set up camp and paddock in the dark. Thankfully, some friends who I know through VARA, recognized the car on the flat bed as being us, and came over to lend a hand in getting us situated. Certainly a great thing about club racing — it’s truly a great big family. At least until the green flag drops…

We got the RV on its stilts to level it on the desert floor, got the car and tools unloaded and parked on the paddock service road and finally cracked a cold one with a few pals. Certainly the advantage of having the RV there is you stay onsite — and plenty of others do too. There is much camaraderie in the evenings — and help always there too when you need it. After some minor revelry, I retired to the master bedroom of our RV and watched laps of “Big Willow” via YouTube on my phone. The track itself is fast. Two long straightaways, long high gear corners, great elevation changes and sporty lower gear chicanery. But the corner that struck fear into me was turn 9.

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Turn 9 at Willow has a pretty nasty reputation. Several videos I viewed were crashes. The corner itself is a decreasing radius right-hander that leads to the front straight. Many experienced drivers have told me about a water tower that sits several miles away and point to that landmark as the “turn-in” for the corner. During this particular weekend, I just watched the entry, apex and exit cones planted trackside. The videos were horrific. But the story is always the same: the car comes down the back straight, carries plenty of speed into turn eight, which is slightly banked and allows higher speeds; then trying to carry more speed than necessary, the car “runs out of road” and gets into the gravel. No biggie, right? Nope. Many try to “save” or “correct” the “off,” which either leads to the car catapulting itself back across the track and getting upside down or digging into the gravel on the outside and barrel rolling. Scary stuff.

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Sadly, I do not remember my dreams very often when I wake, but I would imagine that my dreams were alternating between hot laps and turn nine. I awoke rested and immediately donned my driver’s suit and shoes. Being like race-guy, I wrapped the sleeves of the suit around my waist and tied them off. I had bought instant coffee for the trip (as I would find out later, the RV had a coffee maker) and made a cup and went out to the car.

The morning sun was bright. To avoid excessive moisture from overnight in the race car’s removed side windows, I had set my easy-up tent to its lowest standing position to shield the car from the elements. I raised the legs of the tent and proceeded to check my tire pressures. I had brought my old tire gauge — and as I would find out later, it was malfunctioning. I took the readings and saw that the tires were only at 20 pounds. Hmmm? The car had spent a few months in my garage, but wow! Really? So I went and got my portable air tank and added about 8-9 pounds to each tire. My run group was 3, so the first practice was fairly early, somewhere around 8:30 am.

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My oldest daughter, Josie, came out from the RV at my beckoning, and helped me strap in and turn on my cameras. I fired the engine with about 8 minutes before the scheduled session and idled in First gear over to the false grid in the Willow Springs pit area. There were some interesting cars in my run group including a Jaguar XK120 racing car, a Porsche 911S, some 240 Zs and a Porsche 930 Turbo with a rookie “X” on it amongst others.

We got the signal to head out from pit lane and took a recognizance lap at lower speed. The sun was bright, the air temp was nice and it felt good to be back in the car. As we zoomed down to the green flag, it was time to put all that video learning to good use. The car felt great. I love the noise of the 3.0 liter-four through the Borla exhaust. The gearbox felt crisp and went back and forth like a hot knife through butter! By about the third lap, I could really start getting on it. My tires were warm, the track had heated up a bit and it was time to stretch the “Fraulein’s” legs! Banging the shifter down to Third then easy into Second for the tight left turn 3 corner leading up the hill, the car just tracked marvelous — but then…

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As I crested over the hill leading to the back straight, all the sudden I felt the rear end slide out. It wasn’t drastic, but it was a familiar feeling: tires. Either I had a tire going down or something in the suspension was an issue. “Crap” I whispered to myself in the helmet, and moved off the racing line, with my arm out the drivers window indicating that I was “slow.” Puttering around the rest of the circuit to the pit lane and back to my paddock spot, I was figuring the cost of a new Toyo R888 for the right rear — which of course could be purchased and mounted right there in the paddock. The pit lane people seemed to be confused, as I tried to point my way out of the pit lane — not going back on track.

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I pulled up to the RV and killed the motor, undid my belts and began to climb out of the car. My daughter, Josie, walked up. “What’s the matter?” she asked, realizing I had left the session early. “Do any of the tires look flat to you?” “No?” she responded… Hmmm? I pulled off my helmet and HANS device and began to inspect the car. Everything looked fine to the eye. So I hopped back in the car, sans helmet and headed over to the tire guy in the garages in pit lane and borrowed his air gauge. Aha! Stupid old piece of junk, tire gauge! It was literally taking readings about 10 pounds low! I had nearly 40 pounds in these tires! Needless to say for this particular track, I should be running about 28. Thankfully this was the culprit. We would be ready for the next session. I should also mention that my pal Joseph Mills at AutoMeter recently gave me a gift of a really nice pressure gauge for future endeavors!

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The afternoon qualifying race was a hoot! The entire session was a back and forth dice with an Austin Healey and a Porsche 930. Both had me on the straightaways, but I was catching right up to them and making passes — or at least “took looks” through all the corners. In the interest of clean racing — and the fact that I was not about to dent up the car — I negated “fighting” for corners. The rule is generally the front tire of the opposing car must be past the middle of your door to own the corner. One thing that I didn’t realize at the time is that these cars were in a faster class than my C-Production class. All the cars I was supposed to be racing against were already behind me. Regardless, it remained a fun bit of “pack racing.” Everyone was respectful, but I have to admit it was frustrating to have these guys easily in the turns, and have them walk away from me on the straights. The 968 was no slouch. On a couple of occasions I was neck and neck on the front straight with the 930, and even took him once going into turn one. All said, after this session, I was chock full of adrenaline.

The evening was nice. I made bone-in ribeyes, over coals with mesquite smoking chips, on the full size Weber kettle that I stowed in the RV from home, while the wife and daughters prepared the sides. We ate at the table inside the coach. It was spacious and nice. It was even spacious enough to include a dinner guest, Ron Carter of GeoSky GPS. We shared a bottle of wine and the family and I retired early, anticipating the morning’s final practice before the race. We woke early to the sounds of engines firing. Coffee and breakfast muffins followed. The final morning practice was uneventful as I ran alone and focused on the racing lines of the track.

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The race will follow in Part 6, along with a parting of the ways. Stay tuned…

About the author

Tom Stahler

At eight months of age, Tom Stahler sat in a baby stroller in Thunder Valley and watched Chuck Parsons and Skip Scott win the 1968 Road America 500. He has had the car bug ever since. He has won several awards, including the Motor Press Guild’s Dean Batchelor Award and the International Motor Press Association's Gold Medal for his writing and photography. When not chasing the next story, Tom drives in vintage road racing events and spends time with his wife and three daughters in Orange County, California.
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