Porsche drivers with need for speed get LA playground

Hugo Martin
Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles — A former golf course near Los Angeles International Airport has been converted into a playground for adrenaline junkies and gearheads.

Porsche has opened the Porsche Experience Center in Carson, Calif., a $60-million playground for gearheads.

Porsche Motorsports North America has opened a $60 million facility where car lovers can hone their driving skills on a 4.1-mile track, featuring a 3/4■-mile straight away, banked curves, water hazards and a slalom driving area.

The 53-acre facility — called the Porsche Experience Center — was designed to entice car fans to invest in pricey new German-made sports cars or to simply hone their driving skills with one of 77 high-performance Porsches stored at the track.

But the price is steep: A 90-minute session on the track in a 718 Boxster, with a driving coach in the passenger’s seat, costs a minimum of $384. The price can go as high as $950 for a 90-minute session to drive and compare two cars, such as a Porsche 911 turbo and a 911 GT3.

Because some of the cars are valued at more than $100,000 apiece, all drivers must sign liability waivers.

“It’s all about the brand,” said Detlev von Platen, a member of Porsche’s executive board. “We want to create an environment where you can feel, touch and value our brand.”

A 50,000-square-foot building at the facility includes a restaurant, a car museum, conference center and a “laboratory” with Porsche driving simulators, where drivers are charged $35 for a 30-minute session.

Restaurant 917 provides a view of the new $60 million Porsche Experience Center in Carson, Calif. The facility provides a high-performance venue for car enthusiasts and Porsche customers.

Porsche also envisions the center to be a fun zone where car aficionados can hold bachelor parties, corporate meetings or even weddings. A viewing area has been added where average Joes can watch the cars race around the track free of charge.

Porsche chose Los Angeles for its motorcar theme park because California is the largest car market in the world and a quarter of all Porsche sales come out of Southern California.

The facility was built adjacent to the intersection of two freeways and is the second such Porsche track in the U.S.

Drivers aren’t allowed to bring their own cars on the driving course. But local car dealerships can direct would-be buyers to the facility for a high-speed test drive. The fleet of cars at the facility include the 911, Panamera, 718 Boxster, 718 Cayman, Macan and Cayenne.

“You can bring your customer to this playground to show them what their car can do,” said Klaus Zellmer, president and chief executive of Porsche Cars North America.

The facility also includes a room where Porsche buyers can check out leather swatches and paint colors to design their own cars from the manufacturer.

Among the track’s features is a slick downward slope that is continuously sprayed with water. As drivers roll down the wet pavement, a hidden hydraulic plate randomly kicks the back tires to the right or the left. Drivers are forced to react quickly to straighten their cars on the slippery surface.

The track also includes a curving, low-friction handling course of polished concrete where drivers can practice keeping a speeding car under control even when the wheels have lost their grip.

To ensure safety, parts of the course are bordered by concrete barriers and a crew member stands at the entrance of the course to limit the number of cars on the blacktop at one time.

Last year, a crash at Walt Disney World Speedway killed an instructor, working for Petty Holdings, who was a passenger in a Lamborghini that hit a guardrail after the tourist driving the car lost control.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration fined Petty Holdings nearly $7,000 for the incident. Disney has since demolished the track as part of previously announced transportation upgrades for the Walt Disney World resort.

Local car dealerships can direct would-be buyers to the facility for a high-speed test drive.

The Los Angeles Porsche center opens only a year after Porsche rolled out a $100 million facility in Atlanta with a shorter track, at 1.6 miles, but a larger 220,000-square building that can accommodate up to 1,000 people. The Atlanta site is the North American headquarters for Porsche with 450 employees.

The Atlanta operation drew 36,000 visitors in its first year, and Porsche executives predict the Los Angeles center will bring in at least 50,000 road warriors.

Driving tracks are gaining traction around the country, although many are open primarily to members with deep pockets, such as New York’s Monticello Motor Club.

In the desert south of Coachella, Calif., a gas-station magnate built a 344-acre theme park for car collectors and speedsters. The facility, known as the Thermal Club, includes a 5-mile track, surrounded by land where car collectors can build villas to house their most cherished vehicles.

Most of the facility is set aside for members only but BMW has carved out a 32-acre portion where drivers can rent and race a BMW.

About a dozen villas have been built, with another dozen under construction, said David Jenkins, a sales representative at the Thermal Club.

“So many people have expensive, high-end performance cars but nowhere to drive them,” he said.