Beach party

This year’s Rennsport Reunion at Daytona was a celebration of Porsche racers, featuring the largest gathering of the 917 witnessed since its heyday
By Howard Walker

They are all here. The Pink Pig. The psychedelic long-tail ‘Hippie Car’. Steve McQueen’s movie car from Le Mans. The fearsome Sunoco Can-Am Spyder with its 1500-plus horsepower flat-12. Fifteen of them in fact – the largest gathering of Porsche 917s ever assembled in one place since 1970.

And with them came their drivers. Brian Redman and Vic Elford. David Piper and Richard Attwood. Derek Bell and David Hobbs. All eager to tell anyone who’d listen, terrifying tales of the car’s towering power, evil handling and insane 240mph top speeds. “What was the best part of driving a 917? That would be getting out in one piece,” deadpans Redman.

Then there are the 956s and 962s, being celebrated for their quarter of a century of competition. The Al Holbert/Bell Lowenbräu Special 962. The original Rothmans 001 test 956. The Miller High Life 962C. Maybe 18 in total. Their drivers, too: Jürgen Barth, Vern Schuppan, Chip Robinson; Hurley Haywood.

For three days in November, inside the lofty banking of Daytona’s International Speedway, Rennsport Reunion III paid homage to Porsche’s finest racing machinery, both on and off the track.

“Look down the pitlane and it’s Le Mans 1972,” says Sean Roberts, former Rothmans PR guru and kingpin of Group C racing. “And it’s not just seeing the cars, it’s also the characters who drove them. It’s a wonderful event”.

This is the Reunion’s third running. Held triennially, its roots were formed at the Porsche 50th anniversary bash at the Monterey Historics back in the summer of 1998. Porsche North America motorsports and brand heritage manager Bob Carlson sensed the enthusiasm for a Porsche-only gathering and called in Brian Redman’s Intercontinental Events group to pull together some historic cars and big-name drivers, and Rennsport Reunion was born at Lime Rock in 2001. It moved to Daytona and the Florida sunshine for the 2004 festival.

“It’s not a huge event. We probably only get 15,000 people – mostly Porsche club members and club racers. But nowhere else can you see so many historically significant Porsches in one place. And it’s a powerful brand-building exercise for the company,” explains Carlson.

Just a stroll through the Daytona paddock confirms that. Parked in the sunshine, unfettered by barriers or minders, are the four legendary 917s that Carlson had shipped over from the Porsche museum in Stuttgart; the number 22 Le Mans-winning 917K, the Martini Longtail, that infamous 917/20 ‘Pink Pig’, and the prototype 16-cylinder 917-027 Can-Am Spyder.

It’s the first time the Spyder is being shown in the States and the sight of four banks of four air intakes poking out of the 917’s fridge-freezer-white bodywork will steal your breath. Then you start to ponder its potential power output. If a 917-30’s 5.4-litre turbo 12-cylinder could crank out up to 1500 horsepower, what would a 16-banger offer if you turbocharged it? 1700? 2000bhp? Maybe it’s a good thing that the car never raced.

Chad McQueen is alongside the Spyder, explaining the inner workings of the 16-cylinder to his 12-year-old son Chase. It’s an emotional return to Daytona for McQueen. Back in January 2006, while practicing for the Rolex 24-hour in a Tafel Racing Porsche 911 GT3, he slammed into the wall destroying the car and most of himself. He shattered his lower left leg, fractured various ribs, and put a pair of fractures in his vertebrae. He was given the last rites on more than one occasion.

“I’m feeling pretty good, considering,” he says. “I got banged up pretty bad.” But that wasn’t stopping him getting behind the wheel of the 1975 Ecurie Escargot 911 Carrera RSR for an exhibition run.

His head turns instinctively at the sight of the famous blue-and-orange Gulf-liveried 917K as it rumbles past on its way to the garages. It’s the car his famous actor-father drove in the movie Le Mans; the very car that Chad rode in down the Mulsanne Straight at 125mph while perched on his dad’s lap.

“That’s why this event is special. How often do you see that car out and being driven?” says an enthusiastic McQueen.

These days the 917 is the proud possession of funnyman and Porsche fanatic Jerry Seinfeld. The comedian had planned to drive the car at Rennsport until he was called to do promos for his new animated film, Bee Movie.

“If Jerry turns up I’ll be happy to loan him my race suit. It’s the least I can do for loaning me his car,” says Sam Cabiglio, Seinfeld’s buddy and car manager, who was tasked with driving the legendary 917 for the demonstration laps.

He explains that after the car was used by McQueen, it was raced by Reinhard Joest in 1971 and 1972 and then bought by Brian Redman. Redman sold it in 1979 to Richard Attwood, who kept it for 21 years. Seinfeld added it to his collection in 2001.

“It’s a surprisingly easy car to drive. It has no temperament – it’s very linear. When you get on the brakes it stops straight. Of course, because of whose car it is, and because of its value, I don’t let myself do some of the stupid things I’m capable of,” says Cabiglio.

The sight and sound of McQueen’s old 917-022 hammering around the Daytona banking during the exhibition laps brings a lump to the throat of every Porsche lover in the infield. Cabiglio obviously isn’t hanging about, pulling 180mph, maybe 200mph around the banking.

“This really is a very special event. The fact that it only takes place every three years instead of every year only adds to its appeal,” says the ever-effervescent Derek Bell, who is splitting his time fronting a Speed TV show of the Reunion, signing autographs, and driving the red number 17 Jägermeister 962 IMSA racer.

Bell, who won at Daytona three times, and should have received a prize for having his name on the side of the most cars at the Reunion – I counted at least 10 – says his win in 1987 was his favourite.

He tells the tale of how he was sharing the Löwenbrau 962-10 with Chip Robinson and Al Unser Jnr in the Rolex 24. Two hours from the end, he’d done his last stint and handed over the car to Little Al.

“I was totally shagged out because it was so hot. But we were running up front, so I was happy. Twenty minutes later, they come on the radio saying Al Junior can’t do any more, I have to get in the car. Chip can’t drive because he’s also had enough. Here I am, my brain’s going, every muscle in my body is mush. I can’t even put my socks on.”

Bell suggests that his friend, team manager and newly retired racer Al Holbert does the last-but-one hour’s stint and he jumps in the car.

“The next thing, 30 minutes into Holbert’s hour, they’re on the radio saying that he’s coming in. Suddenly adrenaline takes over, I leap up and put on my clothes, get in the car and finish the race. Pure adrenaline. That was without doubt my most memorable drive here.”

The highlight of the Saturday afternoon’s proceedings is the Concours d’Sport where the most significant cars are lined up on the pit road and judged in an informal concours d’élégance. It’s more an excuse for the crowd to get up really close to the cars and their drivers.

David Piper is holding court alongside the well-worn green and white 917 he’s owned and campaigned since 1969. It’s the car in which he and Attwood scored the 917’s second-ever victory, winning the nine-hour Kyalami event in 1969.

Piper’s car very nearly didn’t make the Reunion. When its container arrived at the docks in Savannah, it sat for a week while a team from America’s Homeland Security X-rayed every piece.

Sean Roberts, who was handling the shipping of the 917, along with Henry Pearman’s Rothmans 956-001 and Miller 962C-02, said he tried everything he could think of to speed up the process.

“I attempted to explain to the officials that a gentleman of Mr Piper’s age and standing is not normally connected with al-Qaeda. It was all very nerve-wracking.

“And while David’s car eventually came out without a speck of dust, Henry’s looked like they’d been driven through a field.”

Event organiser Redman was happy signing autographs, despite having his arm strapped up. He’d taken a tumble off a skateboard while entertaining his grandkids. At the age of 70. His non-organising Daytona duties included racing the orange Jägermeister 962-138.

“I have great memories of Daytona. I managed to win here in a BMW CSL in 1976. At about five in the morning it lost a valve and went to five cylinders. I still drove it flat out using 9000rpm and it was faster on five cylinders than the fastest RSR Porsche. Fantastic,” he says.

What was it like driving the 917K at 220mph back in 1970 when he finished second with Jo Siffert in the Daytona 24 hours?

“Let’s say the 917 grabs your attention. It was hard going into the banking before they introduced the chicane. Monza had its Parabolica where you let the car find its own height on the banking, but at Daytona you are pulling the car down all the time. If you got behind a long-tail 908 in 1969, it looked like the car was sliding, the back would be out at an angle.”

Sunday at Rennsport is race day, and it includes two impressive bouts in the big car challenges. In the ‘Mulsanne’ group, essentially for 962s and 935s, the young American Porsche factory driver Patrick Long powers the former Busby Racing Miller/BFG 962C to the chequered flag – his first time in a 962 (see panel) – fending off the 962s of Mark Hotchkis and Lloyd Hawkins in the process.

In the hard-fought ‘Weissach’ group, Jim Torres in his thundering big yellow 1972 917-30 Can-Am racer eventually out-manoeuvred Phil Daigrepont in his silver Martini 908/03 to win, after swapping the lead 11 or 12 times. Daigrepont spun out going into Rodríguez Turn.

“We plan to be back at Daytona for the 2010 Rennsport Reunion IV,” says Bob Carlson. “Everyone loves it – apart, maybe, from the guys in the 356s.”

Long tale
From new Spyder to 962 – Porsche’s American star goes old-school

Rennsport Reunion III provided a unique experience for 26-year-old Porsche factory driver Patrick Long.

Normally you see this talented young American behind the wheel of Porsche’s contemporary RS Spyder LMP2 prototype.

But at Rennsport, Long got the chance to drive the former Busby Racing Miller/BFG Porsche 962 in the ‘Mulsanne’ race – the first time he’d sampled the 750bhp, turbocharged 962. He even won the race.

How do the 962 and its spiritual successor the Spyder compare?

“It’s like night and day really,” says Long. “With the Spyder there’s really only one way to drive, and that is to the sheer limit of the aerodynamics. With the 962 and its turbo, there are so many different ways to drive it. Which is what I love. But things happen so much quicker. The bottom end is just an explosion of power.

“But you really have to anticipate the lag by getting on the throttle earlier than you want, knowing that the turbo needs to spool up. It’s a timing game where you push the throttle and wait about two seconds for the boost to come in.

“The big difference, though, is in the braking. The carbon brakes on the Spyder, and the [lighter] weight of the car, will pull it down in half the distance of the 962.

“I certainly have a new respect for the guys who drove 962s at Le Mans. The car is hard work – I think the last time I drove a car without power steering was a Formula Renault single-seater back in 2002 and it had tyres a fraction of the size. After half an hour in the 962 I was soaked in sweat!”