I first became aware of the Porsche mystique when I got the sports-car bug back in my youth. I took up rallying in a stylish but mechanically dodgy Triumph TR-4 and began attending road races. Back in the late '60s, Porsches were bathtub-shaped and showed their VW bloodlines. But they flew around the track, and as much as I disliked their styling, I was impressed by their speed and reliability.A STREET-TRACK HYBRID
Being a sucker for a pretty face, I spent years thrashing around in sports-car hell before I wised up. Aside from the aforementioned Triumph, there was a Corvette that rattled and leaked. Next came an Alfa-Romeo GTV-6 that gushed oil and crunched second gear. Even the Japanese invasion offered little solace. My pretty Datsun 240-Z was well bolted together, but it needed better shocks, an aftermarket exhaust, and other add-ons to provide the performance that matched its looks. After I added those things, of course, they broke, and then the Z started to rust.
I finally bought a Porsche in 1987 and have never looked back. I am now a P-car addict and attend regular meetings -- weekends at road courses -- to commune with my fellow slaves to speed.
The three Porsches I have owned have been solid and reliable, of course. But I discovered that the real joy in these things is modifying the basic car with go-fast parts. Beginning with a '95 Carrera that turned into an all-out racer complete with composite bodywork and a screaming 390-horsepower motor, I went on to convert another 911 into a rare 3.8-liter RS Clubsport. At only 2,650 pounds and with 298 hp on tap, it's perfect for weekend racing -- yet it's still street legal.
Lately though, my wife has complained about the uselessness of the RS (race seats, a roll cage, stiff springs, and aluminum bodywork hardly befit a daily driver). I began to wonder if there was another Porsche for slightly irrational people with day jobs like me (I'm BusinessWeek's Washington bureau chief) who want to cut loose on weekends. I found the answer in the 996 GT3, a limited-production model (base price is $104,000 and only 800 will be sold) that's a true street-track hybrid. The GT3 is lighter than a stock 911, has a beefier suspension and quicker steering, and sports a 380-hp engine. There's no backseat, no spare, and a tiny gas tank. On the road the car still gives a firm but acceptable ride. Folks, this is my kind of car.
I took a GT3 test car out to Summit Point Raceway, a 2.4-mile circuit in West Virginia, and entered a "driver's education" event sponsored by the National Auto Sport Assn. NASA people are a congenial group of enthusiasts that offer drivers the opportunity to hone their skills on the racetrack.
It was a revelation. The GT3 corners flat, the close-ratio gears were perfect, and the engine provided turbo-like acceleration. As I rocketed down the front straight at nearly 150 mph, I realized that there was so much more that the GT3 could give with a little more familiarization and some stickier race tires. Afterwards, I peeled the magnetic numbers off the car, packed my race gear, and drove home thinking that life in Porscheland is sweet.
This car -- the last and best of a 996 line that will be supplanted by an evolutionary series in 2005 -- is what Porsche is all about. It melds the rational side of your brain with the goofy adolescent side. And it does it in a mechanical package that defies the stereotypes about sports-car exotica. By Lee Walczak