It has become a tradition. Every three or so years, since the start of the new century, the Porsche faithful gather to celebrate Porsche’s legendary competition record with a one-marque version of Goodwood’s Festival of Speed. This time around Rennsport IV was staged at the famous mountain top Laguna Seca course overlooking the Monterey Peninsula on the Central California coast, where no less than 400 racing Porsches turned up; many of them truly historic, and some of them from Porsche’s own museum.
And, while an undertaking such as Rennsport is the product of many people, its birth was due to the passion of a single man; the late Bob Carlson. Porsche Cars North America’s longtime PR representative, he had a vision of encapsulating Zuffenhausen’s motorsport history through an event that was nothing less than a living museum, where the cars could not only be seen, but could be seen being driven hard on a race track, they way they were intended to be.
In a way, Rennsport was, for the American historic and vintage community, an intellectual departure from the norm, in that it didn’t so much revere the Porsche racers as “works of art,” but rather celebrated their careers as “tools” intended to boost Zuffenhausen’s image (and that of their owners) at the tracks, in hillclimbing and on the rally stages of the world. Put another way, what Bob Carlson did was to remind us of their true purpose, something all too often forgotten in the bidding wars found at auction houses today, where these vehicles have become trophies of a rich and successful life.
After Carlson’s death, there were fears that Rennsport would die with him. However, the movers and shakers at Porsche Cars North America kept the faith, and in the process produced the most successful yet rendition of his dream, for which they are to be congratulated. Even so, there very existence of the Rennsport tradition is a reminder that manufacturer participation in motorsport is not an altruistic excise, but one driven by commercial corporate goals, a fact evidenced by the ties between the 911 theme and the introduction of the Type 991, the latest version of the venerable and iconic Porsche bestseller.
It is this latter fact which leads us to look forward and not backward to the future of Porsche’s competition fortunes. Ever since 1998, when Norbert Singer’s 911GT1 98LM won Le Mans outright, Zuffenhausen has focused its motorsport efforts on the customer-driven production car arena with its 911GT3 program; the only exception being, the RS Spyder project which flourished for three years in the American Le Mans Series under Roger Penske, and which subsequently showed the way at La Sarthe in the LMP2 division.
Now, however, it has been decided to return Porsche to the forefront of sportscar racing in 2014, through a new prototype project stressing alternative energy sources as mandated by the rules package which will go into effect that year. The only problem with all of this is the effect this will having on the racing future of Porsche’s Volkswagen Group partner Audi, whose record as a winner in the prototype sandbox has made it a sales leader in the road going universe.
At one point earlier this year it seemed that Audi might abandon the sportscar scene for Formula One, leaving the way clear for Porsche to “its thing.” With the decision to scrap that tentative plan, the VAG board is facing the possibility of having to fund two multi hundred million Euro projects to have two of its brands compete against each other on a highly visible stage where defeat could compromise reputations at a time of economic distress.
Many within the sport see no problem with this, noting that the two potential combatants will be demonstrating different approaches to energy conservation and therefore will not be affected by the dictum that there can only be one winner in a race. In a world where the decision to purchase or not to purchase is largely the function of favorable impression, pitting Audi against Porsche is at best a hugely expensive gamble that those responsible for VAG’s financial well being might not want to take.
Fortunately for those of us on the sidelines where we have to make no such choices we can take refuge celebrating the past in grand style thanks to Bob Carlson and Rennsport –may there be many more.
Bill Oursler, October 2011
Images Copyright and Courtesy of Porsche Cars North America