Every year my wife and I try to go to South Carolina to visit one of my sisters, hang out by a beautiful lake, and do nothing for a week. This year was no different... until it was. This year my sister had a calendar conflict that would have her in North Carolina on the weekend we wanted to travel. We were trying to reschedule when my brother-in-law piped up and said we should bring my wife’s new Golf R and meet them in North Carolina; we’d have dinner and my wife and I could follow them back to South Carolina. Sure we could do that. Why were they going to North Carolina? My brother-in-law is a new member of the South Carolina chapter of the Porsche Club of America, and his club was going to be on a weekend drive. Suddenly I couldn’t get my bags packed fast enough.
The ride down to Banner Elk, NC was your typical vacation commute of responsible driving on typical American interstate highways. The Golf R was just finishing up its official break-in period so we didn’t want to beat on it; just yet. The R, while defining Hot Hatch, is the perfect vacation cruiser for two. Heated seats for the morning, a back seat for you quick access items like a soft sided cooler, and some snacks; and as much stuff as my wife wanted to take on vacation all fit in the hatch without folding down the seat. The comfort setting on the DCC is not quite soft enough to eclipse the deteriorating seams in the road surface that have reached speed bump status, but it is much better than the kidney shattering race mode setting. In any of the three settings all the power you could ever need is at you right foots disposal just awaiting your command. Short uphill grade on ramp from a rest area in the mountains of Kentucky? No problem. Drop the hammer and you’re passing people before you have to merge. Ease off the throttle and you are back in a comfortable anonymous hatchback disguise.
While past long drives have usually left me irritable, cramped, and exhausted by the time we exited the interstate near Johnson City, NC I was feeling fresh and ready for the twisty stuff up the mountain into Banner Elk. From planning the route I knew Banner Elk was about 3,000 feet higher than Indianapolis and I was really paying attention to how the R felt under load, turning, accelerating, and how it responded to increased gradient. It was smooth; very smooth. The computer, and turbo removed all drama from the climb and allowed me to focus and enjoy the drive.
As we pulled into the Best Western Mountain Lodge we were greeted by the lovely sight of a parking lot full of Porsches. There are worse ways to end a long day of driving than walking around looking at a collection of Porsches, but I’m not certain there is a better one. That evenings dinner was a relaxed affair where everyone sat around talking about cars, and about good drives they had. The realization that they were going to allow us to follow them through the mountains the next morning; even though we didn’t have a Porsche, was like being told on Christmas Eve that you’d be getting that shiny new bike, but you couldn’t drive it until the next day. I wasn’t certain I’d be able to sleep.
The next morning that Christmas feeling remained. As I was up early I drove the R alone to the gas station to fill the tank. I didn’t want our car to be “That Guy” who ran out of fuel and needed to stop. While I was getting excited for the day, my wife was getting anxious. Maybe she was worried about being able to keep up with the pack, or maybe I’m a better driver than I am a passenger, but when I returned to the room she was having second thoughts about driving and told me I should. Despite trying to reassure her she’d be able to keep up, she said I should do it and handed me the key.
Jen never hoons, so I could understand some of her reluctance. It was a brand new car, she had never pushed it, or any car, to; or even near its limit. This wasn’t going to be a track day, but it was all the unknowns that were stacking up on her. I accepted the key and tried to suppress a boyish smile all the while internally I was all Whoohoo! I was also vowing to get my beautiful wife to a driving school like Miles Ahead, or even a proper track day at Mid-Ohio; so if an opportunity like this came again she could show the boys what she’s made of.
The Sun was officially up, and the real mountain dew was starting to evaporate. I was trying to get my brain into driver mode and contemplating things like grip variations due to temperature differential between tarmac in sun litght or shadow, but the parking lot was full of Porsches vying for my attention. I walked through the parking lot turned paddock as one of the owners I met the night before was washing his colorful custom painted 944. An older gentleman a few cars away was getting a jump start on his 996, and further up the lot another is adding oil to his classic yellow Carrera. Meanwhile; my brother-in-law’s pristine new racing yellow Cayman waits at the ready cued in front of the hotel with a couple of GT3's
As with all group events there was plenty of milling about and I was becoming a bit impatient for the drive to start. Thankfully we soon gathered for scheduled pre-drive discussion where the circuitous route was briefly and vaguely mentioned. There was no map, no GPS coordinates for the navigation system; it was going to be a simple follow the leader, until the leader stopped. Someone snickered that we should just follow the smoke and burnt oil smell from the aging Carrera if we got separated and everyone moved off to their rides. Not much of a briefing, but I’m sure my wife was even happier she’d given me the key.
The long line of German engineering headed toward the center of the ski village that is Banner Elk when the last three cars, of which we were one, immediately got separated from the lead group and had to play catch up. With no directional instructions and only tail lights to follow I tapped the mode button on the center console and selected Race mode on the display and for only the second time switched the automatic transmission over to DSG flappy paddle mode. in normal traffic Race mode and automatic setting is a bit too much. While the car sounds better it holds the revs too long before up-shifting, and down shifts can feel abrupt. Interestingly the abrupt down shifts, during braking to a normal stop, can give a lunging feeling during deceleration; a feeling that is probably worse on the passenger. Also; if in regular traffic you use the DSG paddles you always feel the need to shift. I usually drive a 5 speed which feels natural to me, but at first the flappy paddle seems distracting as I was trying to feel for shift points. The day before when I drove up the mountain in automatic it felt like the computer was being a bit to conservative for my taste. On this day, here in the mountains, all of that was gone. Playing catch-up the Golf R came alive. In Race mode using the DSG I could hold the revs to the redline before shifting, or utilize the engine to enhance braking now made smooth by the more aggressive tack, much like a manual.
Within five or so my group caught up with the rest of the cars just as they were pulling off for a fuel stop. I wasn’t “That Guy”, but the group leader was. I was glad for being caught up and a quick break as being quite unfamiliar with the route and the car were stressful enough without being way behind. Once all those that needed fuel were ready; the lead Carrera took off and we were at it again.
The long train of cars took off down the winding tarmac, as passerby’s craned their necks and pointed. Some of them may have never seen a Porsche in real life and now they were exposed to more than a dozen purring softly as they passed, and then growling up into the hills. Way in the back in the only car that didn’t belong; my wife and I had the windows down and the radio off; enjoying the quickly warming air. Knowing full well the Soundaktor was accentuating the in-cabin auditory symphony. I was happy for having it. Modern cars are so quiet and insulated that it makes obnoxious exhaust too tempting, but here in the R was playing the tune for my ears; letting me know how hard I was pushing without offending everyone else. The blips and pops reverberating with the shifting, and I don’t know what is the car and what is the Soundaktor; I’m chasing Porsches through the mountains and I don’t care. Up a gear with a simple flip of a finger, blip, and another, all while never taking my hands off the steering wheel. Down the hill a road sign reads the next corner is right-hand and 25 mph. Off throttle, downshift, pop, downshift, pop; touch of brakes, downshift, pop; turning in confidently with two hands. I’m not looking at the speedometer but we’re at least ten over as the G’s load up and the R just takes it. I grunt against the seat bolster and what VW could market as a G-meter my wife begins to make a keening noise from the passenger seat. The road straightens for six car lengths, just enough for redline, blip, up a gear; and back off throttle, downshift, pop; brake, downshift, pop; turn in; squeal. She’s OK. I know she’s not above telling me to slow down. With a change of incline the stiffened suspension sucked up the transition better than our bodies compressing into the seats, blip, upshift; head back against the seat back as we look into sunlight defused by trees; wind roaring past the windows, blip, upshift to forth before off throttle, pop, downshift, pop; turn in too fast on an off-camber peak negative G’s lifting us as the car grips anyway we turn down the hill hard against the bolstering, blip upshift. The G-meter having recovered says “whoa”. though I could tell it was a “I’m having fun.” woah, not an “Oh God, Oh God we’re all gonna die!” type of whoa.
We drove on that way; blipping, popping, and keening for at least an hour through roads less traveled than, but just as twisty as the Tail of the Dragon. At some point we crossed into Tennessee and into Roan Mountain State Park where the lead Carrera pulled in for a photo opportunity. I consciously park where the R wouldn’t muddy the group photo. 944,911,GT3, 911 convertible, Boxster, Cayman all backing in to their spots with varying degrees of skill. Most of the drivers milled about as the official club photographer readied his equipment. It made for quite a sight for the more casual park visitor, and a local Porsche owner stopped just to say hi when she’d seen all the others gathered there. After a fifteen minute brake we all climbed back in our rides and headed back into the mountains of eastern Tennessee.
On and on we drove, blipping, and popping into the afternoon. The road eventually straightened out and I was able to finally pass all but the lead two Porsches and allowed them to slide back past as Jen took their photos. All the drivers waved in turn, most of them smiled, but some of them had the look of what can only be described as; “Was that a Volkswagen that just passed me?”
I was more proud of Jens Golf R than I had been of any car I had ever driven. It handled the twists and turns; off camber, and on with such poise, and without drama that my driving confidence was only bolstered. I not only didn’t miss the clutch pedal, but being able to use both hands on the wheel reduced fatigue, and only made me want to learn how to left foot brake.
All the drivers eventually broke off and went their separate ways while I followed my brother-in-law to lunch, and then South Carolina. With only two cars our pace only picked up. Nothing crazy, we were aware it wasn’t a track; but there was an obvious transition as we were feeling out the cars and adjusting to later and later braking.
Not having a co-driver with pace notes is a distinct disadvantage to driving aggressively on the road. Only once in the following week did I feel like I had gotten it all wrong. The yellow signs that tell you direction and speed rating of an approaching turns do only that. Sure its a right hand turn and a recommended speed is 25mph. but what’s the grade? The road camber? Does the road have a shoulder or is there a cliff inside?
On one blind right-hander my brother-in-law barely tapped his brakes late allowing his PDK to do all the work and he turned in aggressively. I followed suit. In all the previous driving; downshifts to first gear was a shift too far. I didn’t need to be that slow and it would scrub too much corner speed. This particular corner should have been handled like this:
Off throttle, downshift (3), downshift (2), heavy brake; downshift (1) turn-in (HARD) straighten for less than a heartbeat turn-in again (hard) for the second apex; unsteer as the car transitions to an uphill gradient accelerate upshift (2) then turn left.
Instead I took the blind double apex like this:
Off throttle, downshift (3), downshift (2); not enough brake. I’m late the corner is already blown. I’m too fast, too wide; my instincts kick in but they are dialed in to the wrong car. This is high performance and AWD. My instincts were honed in a sporty RWD. I can see the second apex but I’m already pushing. I’m on the centerline and my brain is anticipating the rear will break loose, and I let off the throttle. The R has plenty of grip, but off throttle in this case only induced more understeer and now I’m straddling the centerline rounding the second turn and decelerating up the incline. Mad. Embarrassed. Mad. I got the car back under me and stamped down the emotion as my brother-in-law disappeared up the mountain. My brain was then spinning on two different axes. One was negotiating the road ahead while the other was analyzing what went wrong, why, how to not repeat. That is when I decided right after my wife has a track day I should go have one of my own.
All photos by the author. I can be found here on OPPO, On Twitter @I’m_JustJim and on Instagram: Just_Jim13