JUL 01st 2015

Chris Harris's FoS weekend: meeting heroes and driving the Porsche LMP1 98

If the very best way to enjoy an event like the FoS is to rank each experience in order of importance and jaw-dropping disbelief (because the people you get to stand next to at this place will always leave me jabbering for air), then this year was all the wrong way ’round for me.

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I arrived, signed-on, scurried around to meet my film crew and then had to interview Richard Petty. I am so fortunate to often be in the presence of motoring legends, but I can count on the fingers of one had the number of people who carry with them that indescribable aura of simply being ‘the man’, and he is one of them.

He was wearing the hat and the race suit and the boots and he was leaning on the real Plymouth Superbird from 1970: ‘Six hundred horsepower back then from a Hemi was something – we won six races and the championship, then they outlawed it.’

And then before we cut the cameras, I asked him if he’d be driving up the hill wearing his cowboy boots. The smile was huge: ‘Son, only time I take off these boots is when I’m sleepin’ – have yourself a great weekend!’

And that selfie has made itself straight onto the downstairs toilet wall. That room being the one that offers the most fierce competition for wall-space.

Chris Harris Fos Richard Petty

I knew there would be more pinch-yourself moments, but nothing would come close to meeting The King.

Driving racing cars you have never before clapped eyes on up a rather tricky driveway on cold tyres is what makes the Festival such a challenge. You need to go fast enough to experience the machine and entertain the crowd, but avoid interfacing with static objects. Luckily the only racing car I drove this year was a complete honey – the Porsche LMP1 98.

This was entered into the 1998 Le Mans race but didn’t finish, and its history is both complicated and fascinating. I need to go back to my textbooks and make a few more telephone calls, but as far as I can tell, the chassis tub was a TWR Jaguar and the powertrain is pure Porsche GT1. It is a beautiful machine and its driving position, pedals and steering are gratifyingly heavy and reassuring. But I especially enjoyed the gearshift – this was one of the last pre-paddles-era machines and it perhaps demonstrates why Porsche will struggle to roll-out a 919 for this event in 2032. You pull the lever to change up, no clutch needed, you push it to change down. You can feel metal cogs meshing through the metal rod that connects the lever to the gearbox itself. It comes from a time when the transmission was the most likely component to fail in a 24-hour race and was therefore massively strong.

One of the Porsche mechanics looking after the car said he thought it was wonderful, but it was a bit of a trial in the workshop: ‘the front of the car is British, so imperial sizes, the rear is German, so metric.’ I assume they have two bags of spanners.

Chris Harris FoS Joest porsche

Next up was a set of interviews with other NASCAR drivers – Bobby Labonte, Mike Skinner and Kerry Earnhardt, all of whom displayed enormous humility at being part of such an event, and who to a man stressed that people needed to see the machines up close to dispel the Euro-myth that they are nothing but antiquated trucks. The current 2015 Chevy of Labonte has a 1000hp V8. It costs $125,000 and needs a rebuild every 600 miles. The front suspension components are some of the most beautiful forgings I have seen.

All of the drivers had adjusted their compromised street circuit geometries as best they could, but still the toes and cambers looked precarious. Kerry Earnhardt, driving his fathers 2000 Chevy Monte Carlo took a different approach, his wheels were entirely asymmetrical, but no worries: ‘I’ll just lay elevens all over the place, like you do in them videos of yours.’

Next was the glorious Singer, the reimagined Porsche 911 that was making its Goodwood debut. I’ve always wondered whether the Singer would still look as special in a paddock of P1s and LaFerraris. I think the footfall answered that concern – the thing was mobbed all the time it was there. Even K Block Esq came over to see what all the fuss was about.

Up the hill it was brilliant fun – powerful enough to leave a suggestion of a slide through the first two rights and then stable the rest of the way. I’m a long way from being the fastest person up the hill. I don’t like hitting hay bales and flint has a negative effect on coachwork – especially a hand-built half-million dollar beauty like this.

Chris Harris Joest Porsche FoS

But it’s the people that make this place. I cannot tell how special it feels to sneak inside the drivers’ enclosure, nor how difficult it is to resist staring at your heroes and asking if you can touch them, just to check this is all, in fact, real.

I asked Mark Webber if we could just go and drive some fast road Porsches fast, for the sake of it. He said ‘Sure’.

Many, many people came and said hello and how much they enjoyed this website and how much they enjoyed the videos.

It was just a very enjoyable few days, and like most people Monday felt like an enormous let-down afterwards. Still, only three-hundred and sixty odd days until we can do it all again (and Revival in 10 weeks, ed).

Photography by Phil McGovern

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