Race cars have been a bit foreign to me. Over the years, I’ve paid attention to one thing or another, but my attention seemed to drift toward road cars. But then, just a couple of weeks ago, a few events set in motion, and I’m thinking quite a lot differently. Thanks to a few emails and some luck, I took a ride in my first race car, a Porsche 996 ex-Grand Am car, owned by Tom Hassett.
I know Tom through a family connection, as him and his wife are family friends of my dad’s younger brother. Thanks to my aunt, I got in contact with Tom, and eventually decided to meet up with him to possibly ride in his 996 on September 10th, when the Porsche Club of Northern New Jersey (PCNNJ) would be holding a track day at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville. So, I got in touch with Nick about it, and we agreed to go down there and see what was going on. This being my first time inside the actual complex, I was a bit overwhelmed at first. We eventually found a place to park, then walked around the paddock of the Lightning track, where private events are usually held. We first found Mike Yura, a friend of Tom’s, at his trailer, which included a Spec-Miata (owned by his brother) and a gorgeous 997 GT3 (which had been renamed the “GT3 Rx, for his pharmacy profession), covered in various track stickers, including that of the Nurburgring and Spa. We’d found the right place.
Eventually, Tom showed up, and we got a look up-close at his car. The car in question is an ex-Grand Am Porsche 996 class-GS car. In plain English, this means that it was stripped out to the barest essentials, and given suspension and brake upgrades, as well as a new intake and exhaust, and a chip for the ECU. While I’m not sure how much the engine was putting out, the fact that the car itself weighed less than 2800 pounds certainly didn’t hurt the situation. He’d told me in an email exchange that his car was very, very loud–he wasn’t kidding. While he was out on the track after we arrived, we took pictures as he drove in class Red, both of us could hear his car drowning everyone else out from the other side of the track. Even the other race-prepped cars weren’t close to this noise. After a quick talk with the club officials, we were allowed to go out with Tom on the track as passengers, so long as we signed some waivers and found a helmet and pants (which we soon did). Nick went out first, and simply said, “Dude, you are going to enjoy this.” I took him seriously, and after an hour’s wait (and a quick stint at the go-karts), I ran back to the paddock and met Tom, where I retrieved my helmet and a pair of pants, and got out on the track.
The experience started when I put on a five-point racing harness for the first time. Tom fired up the 996, and the thunderous exhaust note just feet behind my ears told me one thing: “Time for some fun.” I then noticed a new noise at the line for the track. Tom explained that it was a racing clutch, which tends to put out more of a racket than a normal one–he put the clutch back in, and the noise suddenly went away. The organizer opened up the track, and Tom went for it, pinning me to the seat harder than anything else I’ve ever sat in. I’d been given an airplane barf bag as well (didn’t need it), and kept that in the back of my mind as we started to scream around the track, chasing a silver M3 that passed Tom when Nick was in the front row seat. The acceleration was linear, and Tom’s driving was something to behold–he darted for every cone on the track, and stayed behind until a driver up front gave the go-ahead to pass. The engine sounded amazing as we darted around corners and charged up the main straight. The funny part was, the speedometer wasn’t working (Tom mentioned that if he disconnected the ABS, the speedo would function normally, but on a track, I think ABS might be a bit more useful than reading your speed), so I had no idea how fast we were going until we asked someone else how fast they went on the main straight! Tom kept passing other cars–we were the fastest thing on the track, save for a blue and orange 996 which managed to get in front of us a third of the way through and spit rubber on the windshield. The entire time I was in the car, I was constantly thinking to myself, “This has got to be a dream, and I don’t want to wake up, ever.” In essence, the entire experience, from getting there and meeting Tom, and having a look at his fantastic Porsche race car, to sitting shotgun in my first-ever race car, to experiencing a racing driver pushing the limits of an ex-Grand Am 996, I was elated, and to say that I want to get involved in this club in due time is a big understatement.
Special thanks to Joyce Leipsner Davis for getting me in touch with the Hassetts, and special thanks to Tom Hassett for the experience itself.
-Albert S. Davis