Porsche has been courting current and potential customers with adrenaline-filled track days for more than a decade now, but things were a little different when the program first began. In the early days Porsche used a General Motors test facility in the U.K. to demonstrate the potential of its cars. "We suddenly realized we were paying GM over $2 million per year," says James Taylor, the project leader for Porsche's Experience Centers.
The experience days were hugely popular but customers had to do battle with test drivers from other brands. It was far from the highly refined Porsche experience that Taylor wanted to deliver. "I made a presentation to the board in the U.K. to go it alone and develop our own facility. It didn't take long for them to say yes," he recalls. "We found a site next to the Silverstone Grand Prix Circuit and it opened in 2008."
That Porsche Experience Center, the first of its kind anywhere in the world, proved so successful that it has since become a blueprint for Porsche across the globe. Taylor is now based in the U.S. and is overseeing the development of similar experience centers that are now under construction in Los Angeles and Atlanta.
Even Novice Drivers Will Feel Fast
In contrast to the Porsche plant at Leipzig, which features its own FIA-approved racetrack, the Silverstone Experience in the U.K. has never been about going fast. Instead, its goal is to demonstrate the latest technology and allow drivers of all abilities to experience the feeling of a car at its limits.
In the late '90s Taylor visited a vehicle safety facility in Vienna run by the father of F1 driver Alex Wurz. It was targeted at new drivers, but Taylor quickly spotted the potential of an "ice hill" that consistently reproduced a low-grip surface. "In just 10 seconds you could demonstrate the difference between different types of cars," he explains.
"The idea for Silverstone became a hybrid of a road safety center, a vehicle demonstration center and somewhere where you can have fun. We wanted people to be able to learn something about themselves and the cars," he says. There are various types of tracks and activities available including a nearly two-mile road course, an off-road area and a low-friction handling course used for teaching precise car control.
Customers drive Porsche's own cars and can try everything from an early 911 to the latest GT3. Silverstone is home to around a hundred cars, with every current model represented.
An Ice Hill in Los Angeles
The objective from the beginning was, "not to go faster but to go better." The handling circuit at Silverstone is designed to mimic a challenging country road with a mix of 2nd- and 3rd-gear corners with different cambers. A decent driver in a 911 should lap at an average of around 55 mph. "Our deal with Silverstone gave us access to the Grand Prix circuit," says Taylor, "but we found that just 4 percent of customers were choosing to use it. People soon recognized that we were offering a different kind of experience to a traditional track day."
This philosophy will be carried forward to the U.S. centers. By December of this year, Porsche will have imported more than 200,000 cubic yards of soil to a 53-acre site in Los Angeles to give the designers the scope to be creative. Porsche hired noted track designer Hermann Tilke to optimize the topography and layout. Elevation changes have become a Tilke signature and will be a key feature of both facilities.
Although Silverstone is the blueprint, the U.S. Centers will assert their own character. The Los Angeles facility is twice the size of Silverstone and will feature a half-mile-long straight to demonstrate launch control and braking potential, together with a larger dynamic area where drivers can experience lane change maneuvers.
One notable feature that will be copied from the Silverstone setup is a unique kick plate mechanism that can throw a car into a slide in either direction. Porsche instructors use it to teach students how to recover from unexpected spins through the use of counter-steering. Even the most skilled drivers can get overwhelmed at moderate speeds, so the uninitiated can learn useful techniques at surprisingly low speeds.
The Los Angeles facility will also have an ice hill, a feature being denied the Atlanta venue. "We want people to have a reason to visit both U.S. facilities," says Taylor. "Atlanta won't have an ice hill but its off-road section will be much bigger than the one in L.A. It's about using the local geography to the best effect."
It won't be made of real ice obviously, but a slick surface that can be altered to mimic various low-traction situations. Water jets built into the ground provide drivers with visual barriers that won't scratch a thing should you fail to negotiate the obstacle course.
Your Own Personal Trainer, Chef
Everybody who attends the Silverstone Experience Center is greeted by their own instructor who guides them through the day, a concept that will be replicated in the U.S. Porsche calls them a "Driving Consultant" and most are either ex- or current racers. Their role is to tailor the days to meet the aspirations and talents of the client. Upon request, they can even help customers specify their next Porsche, although the Experience Centers do not retail cars: The customer is always referred to the appropriate dealer.
Another feature likely to be replicated is the quality of the food. Although race fans may be accustomed to scarfing down burgers come lunchtime, Porsche likes to do things differently. Experience Center visitors can expect at least three courses prepared by a resident chef. "When you develop your own facility, you're judged the whole time," explains Taylor. "Our customers expect to eat well."
Taylor admits, though, that each center will tailor its offering to suit its situation. Silverstone's relatively isolated position ensures that most visitors enjoy a day trip, but both U.S. facilities will be much more accessible.
"If you were to put a pin in a map for the best place in the world to do this, then you'd end up with the L.A. site," says Taylor. There are 10 Porsche dealers within one hour's drive and the site is equidistant from the affluent areas of Beverly Hills and Orange County. Over 600,000 people will pass everyday on the 405 Freeway and over 18 million people live within a 100-mile radius.
The Atlanta facility is scarcely less accessible. Porsche has calculated that there are 8,000 hotel beds within a five-mile radius and no shortage of wealthy customers with the cash to spend on a new toy. The facility will even be licensed to operate 24 hours a day, while the action must cease at 8 p.m. every night in L.A.
The Fun Begins in 2014
With the L.A. facility due to open in the final quarter of 2014 and Atlanta to follow in early 2015, Taylor is facing a hectic 18 months. "Part of me would have liked to stagger the openings a bit," he admits, "but this is a really important time for us. We have a real opportunity to talk to new people, and the arrival of the Macan will only accelerate that process. It's all about creating a framework that puts the enjoyment back into driving."
There's little doubt his new audience will get the message. Unlike most racing schools at existing facilities, the Porsche Experience Centers will have the distinct advantage of being built for customer interaction from Day One. Anyone who's visited the Silverstone Experience Center already knows the difference, and come next year U.S. customers will, too.