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Carrera GT: Even Jay Leno can't make it funny

Thu, 05 Dec 2013

When I heard that one of those celebrity-based half-hour TV shows dug up the video of comedian Jay Leno spinning a Porsche Carrera GT at Talladega Superspeedway at 182 mph, I knew it would awaken some memories that resulted in emails like, “Say, weren't you there? Pretty ironic given the Paul Walker deal, huh?”

Yes, huh. Man, what a strange day that was. It was my first drive in a Carrera GT, and it was done delicately, and I'll tell you why in a moment.

Porsche's late and very much lamented public-relations head in the U.S., Bob Carlson, always reminded me of William H. Macy's Jerry Lundegaard character in the movie “Fargo,” but he knew a public-relations opportunity when he saw one. Racer Mark Donohue set a closed-course record for race cars, driving a Porsche 917/30, to a speed of 221.120 mph at Talladega on Aug. 9, 1975. Ten days later, he would be dead after a crash while practicing for the Austrian Formula One Grand Prix.

Fast-forward 30 years. Mark's son, David, was solidly in the Porsche camp. And Porsche had this new Ferrari-fighting sports car, the mid-engined Carrera GT, with a V10 pumping out over 600 hp.

Carlson figured: How about we get David to come to Talladega over Labor Day weekend and set some new records? We'll even bring out Norbert Singer, long-retired head of Porsche racing, who was there when Mark set the record. No way the GT could outrun the 917 (it'd need at least 200 more hp; Mark's 917 had close to 1,000, and 20-inch-wide tires, Singer told me) -- but there are plenty of records we can set. And how about we get Jay Leno out here to drive it, too? He can set the “world's fastest comedian” record, achievable since John Force isn't actually a professional comedian.

Which is why I spent my Labor Day, 2005 weekend in Talladega, Ala. There was only one other reporter there, and he was assigned exclusively to Leno, so the story was pretty much mine.

I wrote the story. When it came out, Jalopnik, the website, made fun of it, but Mike Spinelli wrote the analysis, so who cared?

There was an underlying edge to the story that indeed was punctuated by Leno's long, terrifying spin down the front straight, caused when he got closer to the wall than he wanted, and lifted. He didn't hit anything except a cone, and there was some discussion of trying to convince everyone that it simply didn't happen -- after all Leno, the “Tonight Show” host, didn't actually tell NBC that he was going to go drive 182 mph -- but several of us said that wasn't going to work. Porsche wisely let the chips fall, and Leno made fun of himself, as he always does, and not the car. This may be a good place to mention that I have ridden with Leno in a race car -- at Daytona International Speedway, not Talladega -- and I would not call him a natural talent, but he is certainly competent and careful.

After the spin, he told me, “For a comedian, I did fine. I mean, I think I could beat Carrot Top. Put me against Roseanne or Rosie O'Donnell, and I'll be competitive. But for a race-car driver -- well, that's David. Not me.”

So Leno admitted to making a Big Mistake, taking it on the chin -- pun intended -- for Porsche. But it was not entirely his fault. Not at all.

The Carrera GT can be a treacherous car. The two models used at Talladega were already tired press cars. Porsche shod them with Michelin slicks, similar to the company's 24 Hours of Le Mans race tires, but with beefier sidewalls to withstand the 33-degree banking. Donohue finally gutted out a wide-open lap of 196.301 mph. When he came in to the pits, he was all done. Donohue is too professional to say it in an interview, but he was shaken: He said that it was one of the most difficult cars to drive he's ever experienced.

This is what I wrote: “The Carrera GT, at speed, 'is intense,' Donohue says. 'There's a narrow line around the track. I don't have a choice of going high or low; I'm just guiding the car. You place it the best you can and let it tell you when it really doesn't want you to make any more input.' The Carrera GT doesn't like to be corrected.”

I have at least 100 laps around Talladega. In a comfortable car, it is maybe the easiest oval track in the world to drive fast, far easier than Daytona. The Carrera GT was, is, not a comfortable car.

Which is why I have never come close to taking one to the limit the couple of times I've driven one. I'd do fine against Carrot Top, too, but when David Donohue -- who, four years later would win the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona for Brumos Porsche, holding off Juan Pablo Montoya in the race's closest-ever finish -- tells me the Carrera GT scared him, I knew it would friggin' terrify me.

Not that I haven't been terrified often. It would take both hands to count the number of times I spun a first-generation Dodge Viper on a racetrack until I finally figured it out: Tear into a corner, stop, turn, tear out, using the million foot-pounds of torque to make it appear you were actually moving at high speed the whole time. But when the Viper spun, it let me know it was about to. The Carrera GT, I gather, doesn't so much.

Which may be one reason that the car driven and crashed by Roger Rodas and in which Paul Walker was riding arrived to its first owner in Beverly Hills, Calif., on March 12, 2005, with 25 miles on the odometer. Six owners later, when it last passed a California emissions inspection on Sept. 4, 2013, it had accumulated only 3,333 miles.

That's about 33 miles a month. Yes, it was a collectible, but the mileage doesn't exactly suggest a fun driving experience. Or maybe it is, right up until it isn't.

After all, before he spun the car, I asked Leno what it was like to drive the car around Talladega.

“If your erection lasts more than four hours,” he said, “consult a physician.”

By Steven Cole Smith