Porsche CEO Matthias Müller for The Financial Times Germany
I’ve never been that much of a car guy, but after an exhilarating assignment last week for the Financial Times I may change my tune. The job was to head up to the Santa Maria Airport, about an hour north of Santa Barbara, to photograph the new CEO of Porsche, Matthias Müller, during an interview the FT had scheduled during a multi-day press event hosted by the company to promote the new 911 Carrera S. The assignment went well. I was able to photograph him during the interview and was also granted sufficient time at the end to shoot a couple of quick portraits, including this one, with him sitting in the driver’s seat of one of the new models with half of the exterior shell removed to show the inner workings. Herr Müller was very cooperative and the result was a cool photo. My plans after that were to hop back into my little Nissan Sentra and hit the road. Then Helene, the writer, asked me if I wanted to go for a test drive. Say what?
At first I thought I actually might get to drive the car, an idea that made me both excited and a bit apprehensive, considering the value. That wouldn’t have been out of the question had I been one of the journalists staying at the local hotel, many of whom, including Helene, were given a vehicle to drive themselves to and from the hangar where the event was hosted. Instead, we were both treated to ride alongs with a guy by the name of Walter Röhrl, who I later found out was once voted the greatest rally car driver of all time, having won 14 World Rally Championships in his career. Now in his mid-60s, Röhrl is the senior test driver at Porsche and the guy they retain to show off the vehicles to journalists and important guests at events such as these. Behind the hangar, they had repaved a section of runway to create a closed course track. Helene went first, disappearing behind the building and returning moments later, saying nothing more to me on her return than “You should be scared.” I smiled and hopped in, still not quite sure what to expect. Walter greeted me and we rolled around to the back side of the building and crawled up to the starting line. He made some comments to a couple of guys tending to the track and then, pressing a couple buttons, informed me of the settings he was changing. I nodded, pretending to understand. He may have, at first, thought he was driving around an auto journalist, but probably not for long. Meanwhile, finally realizing that we were really gonna race this thing, I decided to pull out my iPhone to get some video of the ride from my perspective.
“Here we go,” he said, putting his foot to the floor. Off like a rocket, in seconds we were peaking at 150 mph on a long straightaway that appeared to come to a sudden end not too far in the distance. “Holy shit,” I thought, as my body pressed back into the leather seat and I fumbled to turn on the camera function on my phone without taking my eyes off the road. The camera began to load and then immediately crashed, reverting to the home screen. Damn. The road was about to end, and the car screeched to a near stop twice as fast as it had taken off, pushing me forward into my seat belt, before sending me sideways nearly touching the driver as we took a hard right around a bend and then accelerated into a series of curves. I tried for my camera again, and again it failed. I had just used it to take photos in the lot before climbing in. Why was it failing now!? The car lunged left and, I as soon as I pressed into the door, reversed course and pulled me back toward the middle, accelerating and braking through a series of curves. Somewhere in there I tried my camera once or twice more, but still it failed. Screw it, I thought, I’m not missing this by playing with my phone. At one point, I was certain the car was going to go up on its right wheels, or at least go off course, but decided to put my faith in the driver. Another short straight-away and a curve or two later and the ride was over. Somewhat stunned and not really knowing what to ask, I inquired about the top speed and the horsepower, 150 and 350 respectively, as we rolled back toward the hangar. Röhrl then held up his pinky finger and told me in a thick German accent, “The car is like an extension of my finger. I just think what I want it to do, and it does it.” After that drive, I believed him.
I drove my Sentra with aggression on my three hour drive back home. The next day Helene sent me a link to Rohrl’s Wikipedia page, where I learned exactly whose hands my life had been in the day before. Wow. It was quite the experience riding in a high-performance car with someone who can really make it perform. Time to start saving my pennies. I think I might be a car guy after all.
The camera on my phone resumed working normally later that day. Guess I’m just going to have to remember this one.