Watch Thomas Merrill Slide a Frightening Spec 911 at Sonoma

Thomas Merrill’s exploits haven’t gone unnoticed here. In addition to providing us with some very technical insight into what makes a Trans Am Mustang run quickly and how to hop curbs in a Spec E30, Merrill’s been kind enough to tell us how a Spec 911 needs to be treated to go quickly. A classic Porsche 911 isn’t everybody’s idea of a good time, but once a driver casts aside their apprehensions, sets the car up properly, and adopts a few new techniques to handle a rear-engined car, these old Porsches can be an enormous amount of fun—and friendlier than their reputation suggests.

Photo credit: JWE Motorsports

The car shown here is a Spec 911 built by JWE. The basic underlying structure of the car is pure production car. The class allows a chassis from 1969-1989, which is then caged, fitted with JWE’s fiberglass body and an IROC tail, and stripped to a class-minimum weight of 2,350 pounds including driver! As a light car, it makes good use of the 260 horsepower provided by a Motec-injected 3.0-liter engine and its raucous bark. The power is sent through a 915 gearbox to a GT limited-slip differential, complete with a differential cooler. With a very broad powerband and wonderful traction, the Spec 911 does miraculous things with a frankly unimpressive amount of power—but this car is much more than the sum of its parts.

It provides a unique cabin feel as well. The interior is tastefully decked out with a custom Motec dash, Sparco or Recaro seats, Schroth belts, a Momo wheel, a racing radio, a SPA fire system, and air jacks. Without turning the classic 911’s interior into something vaguely futuristic, they’ve retained the basic ambiance while adding some modern touches for greater safety.

The interior is subtly modified with modern goodies. Photo credit: JWE Motorsports

A collection of choice suspension components make this lightweight very agile and quite predictable. Sanders torsion bars, Bilstein shocks, JWE swaybars, adjustable spring plates, and solid bushings are just part of the impressive footwork. It’s apparently quite a stiff setup; hopping over subtle bumps at speed. When done in conjunction with a trailing throttle, throws the car into a quick slide. Never do these slides result in a spin, nor do they force Merrill to back out of the throttle, but it might limit confidence. He can keep his pace up, but his hands need to correct the oversteer almost instantly. Simply put, this car looks to be on a knife edge, and this is most apparent during a series of corrections through Turn 1 (6:28). That would be enough to make most men whimper. Perhaps that reputation exists for a reason.

“The cars are more and more unstable as the corner speed comes up, so you have to manage the rear with maintenance throttle at high speed,” adds Merrill. It’s not a task for the meek or the slow-handed. That high-speed nervousness is only part of the handling package—the car has a tendency to plow in the slower stuff. “If it’s set up well, it will understeer in the slower corners; allowing for aggressive corner entry technique,” he notes. It’s a car that requires lots and lots of steering input, and yet, asks its driver to tip-toe on a very fine line.

At each corner sit Braid wheels housing AP Racing calipers, which clamp stock ’84 rotors via Pagid pads. It’s not a hugely complicated setup, but considering the weight, the relatively narrow tires—215- and 245-sections front and rear, respectively—it’s enough to stop the car consistently. For racing’s benefit, it still ensures reasonably long braking distances which encourage overtaking. Merrill showcases the ability of these brakes when pouncing on the 997 GT3 ahead after it makes a frightening mistake in Turn 10, where the careless are severely punished. Even though Merrill commits to braking quite late, he nips cleanly down the inside of the GT3 and rotates gently into Turn 11. With that combination of weight, a sweet but manageable level of power, and a lively chassis that rewards talented hands, the Spec 911 looks like a cost-effective way to frighten oneself.

However, by changing the rubber and making a few setup changes to complement the new levels of grip, the car becomes a little friendlier. After fitting the car with Hoosier R7s, Merrill stiffened the rear with a thicker swaybar and went out to pass half the field on supposed “setup” laps. Evident from the footage above, the car is remarkably stable in high-speed corners, and doesn’t require Merrill to chuck the steering wheel to facilitate rotation in the slower corners. “They’ve changed to the Hoosier R7 and it has drastically improved the driveability and widened the setup’s sweet spot,” remarks Merrill.

Clearly, these cars are a touch on the demanding side, but with the right setup, the right rubber, and an experienced driver in the seat, they are absolute rockets. Now, the 265 horsepower is used to help facilitate direction change mid-corner, and still enough for stellar acceleration at the corner exit. This well-rounded car seems to have the right power-to-grip ratio to challenge, reward, and thrill the driver.





About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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