My First Taste of an Air-Cooled 911

Just walking up to it, this 1989 Porsche 911 Carrera 4 looks like any other of the countless 911s I’ve seen and had as my wallpaper background on my computer. As much as I’ve been an apostle of the gospel of the 911, I’ve never driven one. I’ve never taken a sip of that air-cooled Kool-Aid. It changes now.

Why has this car recently skyrocketed in price? It can’t be that special. It must be just a trend. That’s how it should be. The 911 prices must come crashing down, so that I can afford one. Seriously, you guys aren’t missing anything. You can find your fix somewhere else.

It’s red. Bright red. Guards Red, Porsche calls it. Supposedly, they thought this hue looked so good, they didn’t want to spoil it with a clear coat, so the clay bars turn pink when you wax it.

The door closes with that 911 kk-shunk. Everything in the cabin looks like an 80s Porsche. The same dials, gauges and wheel are in my 944, but everything issue of place in here. It’s familiar yet foreign. Like eating authentic spaghetti in Italy. Even the smell is intoxicating. Can they make candles out of this?

Starting it up, the key is on the left. I knew this, but I’m still caught off guard for a second. My left hand didn’t know how to twist the key. An airy roar hits my ears. I’m told to treat the throttle and clutch like I’m learning manuals for the very first time. Feel that friction point, then gently let on the throttle. I obey, recognizing how quickly these have appreciated.

I’m sitting in a different car than any other I’ve ever sat. The cabin feels airy but cramped. I’m sitting upright and my feet angle in toward the center, pressing each floor-hinged pedal gingerly.

We leave town heading south for a twisty road. The map say County Road R, but the signs say G. We follow them anyway. My new wife is riding shotgun, and the 911’s owner is in chase in my 944 behind, so I take every corner with caution remembering every review I’ve read that says the rear can step out if you’re not smart. I am not very smart.

Looking out the windshield of a 911 is like staring down the barrel of a handgun. Each headlight hump is part of the sights aiming the car down the road.

This road is fantastic. It follows Lake Michigan’s Green Bay south out of Egg Harbor. It winds around while the lake twinkles in the sunset off to the right. Mansions set back from the road line the left. Sunlight sparkles the road through the leaves. Light, dark. Light, dark. I can’t decide if I want my Wayfarers on or off. It’s an essential question in this car. I leave them on.

Each corner teases me to test the 911’s limits, but I’m conscious of my own lack of skill. Ignore the price; just drive the car, I tell myself. But the price is difficult to ignore, even for the owner.

The flat six revs weightlessly under throttle stabs. I click it down to second, jam the right pedal. It scoops you up, then sprints to redline. On intuition only, I change gear precisely when need to. Each and every time. The H-pattern feels tilted toward the driver instead of straight on, but it’s advantageous.

Whhhrrooooo-aaaaaarhhhhhh!!! Wind it out. It has power, but you use it all. It isn’t intimidating, but looming behind a docile front is a car you can feel has a hit list.

The wheel tingles like everyone says. When I take my hand off the wheel I can still feel a phantom jitter. I grin.

After too few miles we find a boat launch parking lot and pull off into it. I get out and say, “This is everything anyone has ever said about it.”

This article was originally published on


MINI Car, Max Fun

When I bought my MINI Cooper S, I was a strapping young twenty-year-old college student/car enthusiast. I was moving off campus in the Fall and would therefore need a car to get around. I wanted the most fun and interesting car I could get, but there was a catch: my parents were helping me buy my first car. And by “helping” I obviously mean in exchange for the full price of the car, I would be supplying an I-O-U napkin with CAR written on it. Since my napkin didn’t hold much actual monetary value, concerned-parent requirements were imposed. Safe, reliable, no convertible, no rear-wheel-drive.

Those constraints ruled out a lot of my favorable options. Minnesota is terrible to cars in the winter, so I played ball. I couldn’t get a Miata, no cheap Porsche, nor a funky old Volkswagen or ancient Saab.

As the interesting options fell away and my boy-racer dreams were slowly being crushed, I was left with one fun option: economic-derived hot hatches. Safe and practical, yet deceptively sporty. I looked at GTIs, Mazdaspeed3s, and WRXs. Speed3s were a tad too expensive and were prone to horrible rust; WRXs were too molested; I was too picky finding a GTI (Tartan seats on United Gray paint was a must). But then I stumbled across some MINIs and found that they were cheap and abundant. I was sold. They were fast, fun, safe, reliable, cool little carts that could be practical enough if I folded down the back seats and lied about their existence when people asked for rides.

My search eventually led to a 2006 MINI Cooper S in decent condition. I was smitten with this car that most people dismissed as too impractical and scary small. All the while I zipped around city traffic, darting between cars and drawing angry car horns. I owned it for two years, addicted to the whine of the supercharger, winding it up whenever I had an excuse, or for no reason at all. When I lifted off the accelerator pedal, the dudes from the Rice Krispy box danced in my exhaust: Snap, Crackle, Pop! “Why does it keep making that popping sound from the exhaust?” my passengers would often ask. “Because it sounds awesome,” I would reply.

As an auto enthusiast, the MINI was an excellent first car to own.  It performed  all the normal-car duties demanded of it, but in a style only the MINI could pull off. I’m not one of those nutty people who names their cars and gives them personalities, but I affectionately called her Elizabeth.

I took Elizabeth camping at Road America two years in a row, managing to pack a tent, sleeping bag, chair, coolers, and a fire pit into the back with the seats folded down (as my friends in their Porsche coupes had little room save for carefully stacked wood they had in the back, got to have even weight distribution, am I right?). That much handy equipment hadn’t been in something that British since Julie Andrews wrangled a few naughty children with only what she had in her deceptively roomy hand bag. If anyone ever said this car was too small to be practical, I can happily prove them wrong with pictures of a full armchair snuggled in the back. And the car was just special enough for me to be seen as a committed car-nut among other expensive and rare cars that were there that weekend. My MINI and I were accepted.

One of my favorite memories from my time with Elizabeth was one bright Sunday afternoon in early spring. I was going for a drive with my human girlfriend and I decided to drop by the local Jaguar, Audi and Porsche dealerships. I came to the end of the row of brand new F-Types and turned the corner to go down the next row. At that same moment, another MINI Cooper came around the end of another row. We both stopped and faced each other. In the opposite car sat a guy about my age and his girlfriend. All four of us burst into laughter at the sight of our doppelganger. We continued on, passing each other row after row as we explored the neat cars the dealerships had on display. To this day I still wish I had gotten out and greeted my twin. We could have been very special friends.

I ended up selling Elizabeth after I graduated from college. It wasn’t her, it was me. I wanted to trade up to something a little less reliable, a lot less new, a little more sporty and a bit more fun: a Porsche 944. But that  doesn’t mean I was happy to see my MINI go. I still miss her frequently. I get excited each time I pass a MINI on the streets, trying to catch the eye of the driver to convey that I too had once owned a MINI, that I was a part of their club. Maybe someday I’ll own another MINI, but I’ll forever be a MINI-evangelist.

A version of this article was originally published on

Missing Road America

Road America is nestled in an unassuming part of rural Wisconsin, east of the southern tip of Lake Winnebago and just over an hour each from Madison, Milwaukee, and Green Bay.

I’ve been going there for nearly a decade, but for the first time I wasn’t able to make it there this year. I pined for the track, for the smell of gas in the morning, for Ferraris and Corvettes and Porsches strewn about the grass in makeshift parking lots, and the endearing local sports bar that serves excellent wings. It’s the only sports bar in Wisconsin where instead of Green Bay Packers jerseys they instead have autographed racing suits and Art Deco race advertisements adorning the wall.

The landscape is surprisingly rocky. Fieldstone farmhouses are scattered around the countryside. Road America’s track dips and tumbles through hills and forest, unofficially known as America’s Spa-francorchamps. Deep woods and sandstone escarpments are obstacles for the drivers and spectators alike. I’ve often pitched tents in the heart of Road America’s land, surrounded on three sided by track, but it’s felt like I could be up in Northern Wisconsin away from civilization.

From a hill in the middle of the track between turns 5 and 6, you can prop a chair and watch racers rocket through the woods on a downward slope toward turn 5’s sharp left, then roll up the steep hill under load, braking before the top to prepare for turn 6. Then a minute or two later they roar past you on the left, turning right on turn 14 to climb the hill up the main straight to the start/finish line.

It’s history comes from road racing in nearby Elkhart Lake in the 1950s. The original route is still traceable today, going right through downtown and out to pass through cornfields. Today you can follow it guided by grey historical markers, but the speed is usually limited to 35 mph.

Road America has been home to road racing since 1955, hosting Le Mans prototypes, NASCAR stock cars, Indycars, Spec Miatas, road cars and everything else in between. The annual schedule hosts IMSA, NASCAR, and Indycar races along with several vintage festivals for both cars and bikes.

Its history and origins are even chronicled (with a fictional twist) in a series of books by B.S. Levy. The Last Open Road, his first novel, is honored with small decals decorating the bumpers of several cars at the track.

I started trekking to Road America a decade ago, when my father took me to an IMSA race back during the ALMS era. I remember that first year because it rained. The then-untainted diesel Audi LMP prototypes spat large rooster tails through the woods down to turn 5 while my father and I stood mystified and soaking wet. It’s become a perennial father-son bonding opportunity for us.

About five years ago I started camping at the track for three or four days with a few friends (my dad still made his way over for race day). We would wake up at 7:30 a.m. to thundering V8s charging around the track during morning practice. I stood sipping french press coffee with bleary eyes while 20 feet in front of me an original mini cocked its inside front tire around turn 8 lap after lap. It was a phenomenal way to start the day. Another time my friends and I basked in the afternoon sunlight, dozing on the hill next to turn 5 while chest-thumping Corvettes sang us a lullaby.

This past year I couldn’t go. I live in Minneapolis, a five hour commute from the track. I was planning my wedding, and had other obligations to family and friends as well. All of that crammed up my schedule. I knew I would be too busy this summer to make it over to Elkhart Lake, but I was nonetheless devastated. Luckily my good friends still attended this summer and had the courtesy of sending my photos of all the fun they were having while I was having not nearly as much. I felt like a kid who had all his Christmas presents taken away.

Next year will come. I’ve been spoiled by a decade of Road America events, but I never took it for granted. Next year I will love it all the more. It is a tradition I resolutely plan to continue as long as I can, pushing it onto my children and grandchildren if I can, until they outlaw driving and racing altogether in an autonomous dystopia.