A Tale of Two Perspectives: The Glen, a 996, and a 982
I recently had the pleasure of spending a long Father’s Day weekend with none other than, yes - my father, at Watkins Glen International. If you have been before you know what a pleasure it is, but if you have not, you better get going. Watkins Glen, NY is a charming upstate community, and has anything one could ever want in a town some 6 hours from the Big Apple. The downtown is cluttered with classic nostalgic Americana, with most of its 1950/60’s architecture still preserved, and is surrounded by four things not often found together in the same 5 mile radius; a state park, wineries, a lake, and of course, a world famous racetrack. Think of it – one could go for a hike through Watkins Glen State Park and see various waterfalls Saturday morning, go for a relaxing sail around Seneca Lake (the largest of NY’s glacial finger lakes) later that afternoon, pop over to one of over 60 wineries that surround the lake for a tasting and dinner that evening, and then go see a NASCAR, Indy, or IMSA race on Sunday (depending on who is in town). Now, if that does not sound like the perfect weekend to you, I do not know what does.
Watkins Glen etched its name in the automotive history books by hosting a road race through the village streets in 1948, which was the first road race held after WWII. In 1956, a permanent raceway was built perched on top of a nearby hill with vistas overlooking the town
and Seneca Lake. It was originally a 2.4-mile track, but has since evolved to become a 3.4-
mile circuit with 11 turns and 140 feet of total elevation change. The track today is hands down one of the best tracks I have driven so far, and is easily the best track in the Northeastern United States. A wise instructor once said, “The nicer the facilities, the crappier the track, but the crappier the facilities, the better the track”. This holds true at Watkins Glen International (no offense).
I understand this is a bold statement and that I have yet to drive on many of the world’s most famous tracks, but in terms of accessibility, it is quite exciting to have such a track nearby.
Now, let’s talk through what makes “The Glen” so great from the seat of the two very different cars I got to drive; a 2017 Porsche 718 Boxster (982) and a 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera (996). These cars could not be more different. The 982 is a turbo-charged mid-engine 2-liter flat four and the 996 is a naturally aspirated rear-engine 3.4-liter flat six. You may have known this already, but what makes it all the more interesting is that the 996 is slightly track spec’d featuring a half-cage, racing seats, six-point harness, OZ racing wheels with a set of Dunlop Direzza’s, racing brake pads, and adjustable KW Variant 3 coilover suspension. Meanwhile, the 982’s highlights are the Sport Chrono package, which provides control over the chassis, engine, and transmission performance through a button on the steering wheel (which I believe is a must feature), and Porsche’s famed PDK automatic gearbox. There are many differences to tally up, but I must mention the few similarities. Both cars produce 296hp and are near-enough similar weights at around 3,000lbs (100lb delta).
How do these differences translate to the track, and which one is better?
Well, coming down the main straight and into Turn 1 you are barreling down at around 125mph in 4th gear to a downhill right-hander. This is an easy corner to get wrong. It is a faster corner than one thinks or often feels comfortable taking it at, but luckily if taken too hot it is forgiving, with tons of run-off when tracking out. Both cars take this corner well, using their weight and the embankment of the turn to dip the right wheels of the car onto the rumble strips that signal the successful clipping of the apex. Tracking out you are led downhill about 40 feet to the base of the famous “Esses” (Turn 2-4). In the 982 a bit of lift in 3rd gear and maintenance throttle settles the car nicely before you squeeze on the power towards your 60 foot uphill ascent (hitting 4th at the top). The 996 on the other hand, favors an early shift to 4th, which helps balance the car before the turn, and prepares the car to be in a better power range at the top of the hill.
The Esses are an intimidating series of fast slight right-left-right turns with great effects from gravity. As you crest the hill after the second apex you are welcomed by the nearness of the right guardrail as the car drifts towards the last slight right. The 982 feels safer and better balanced through this section, while the pendulum of the 996’s rear weight pushes your comfort zone further than desired. Maintenance throttle is key here – by all means, DO NOT LIFT.
At this point, the back straight has begun before you have even started going in a straight line. You hit 5th gear in both cars as you are tracking out onto the straight. In these cars you hit a terminal velocity of around 130mph before eyeing the rapidly approaching “6” braking sign. Hard on the brake, downshifting from 5th to 3rd (the 996 skipping 4th and going right to 3rd), you are now entering the inner loop, or “Bus Stop”, which is another intimidating corner that one often takes at a slower speed than necessary. It is easy to brake too much before entering the turn, which forces you to get back on the gas too soon in order to get through the corner. The Bus Stop is a chicane that favors momentum. However, take too big a bite out of the curbing on the first apex, and you will miss your second. It is a delicate dance, but the 996 takes advantage of these corners with its added weight over the rear driving wheels, providing additional grip as you power out. The 982’s dynamics are more like a gyroscope thrown against a wall – recalibrating to stay upright and level throughout. Overall, nothing gained, but nothing lost.
You are now on the curvy decent from the highest point in the track, to the lowest – yes, that 140 feet total elevation change mentioned earlier, into what is known as “The Boot” (a place that NASCAR skips). Out of the Bus Stop and into Turn 5 you maintain throttle around a long sweeping right hand turn. Set your steering wheel at the desired angle and do not budge from that spot. Squeeze the throttle down like a stick of toothpaste until it is all gone to dial the car into the embanked late apex and accelerate out to a sharp downhill. The 996 is in a good power range here in 3rd gear, but the engine finds itself running out of revolutions just before the next turn. Similar to Turn 2, an early shift into 4th after the Bus Stop sets you up in advance for better gearing, and the engine braking of 4th to 3rd provides an additional bonus to scrub off speed on the sharp descent before Turn 6. The PDK of the 982 allows for more flexible gearing, being able to shift into 4th after coming out of Turn 5, and quickly blipping back down into 3rd for the next turn. Now people rave on and on about the brain of PDK in Sport+, “Leave it in automatic, and it knows better than you how to do the rest”. I tried both, and I disagree. In this corner especially, I found that the automatic brain of PDK would change gears too late by shifting at my turn-in point. In manual mode, I am able to select the gears I want and take greater advantage of the transmission to slow the car. This is much needed as you feel the wane of the stock front brakes from fighting the G’s of the car. Meanwhile, the race pads on the 996 still feel as solid as the earth’s core.
When braking for Turn 6, you feel like you are going to skid straight off the track into the barrier ahead, but the later you lift and turn, the better off you we will be. Not only will you be at a better angle to hit its late apex, but your sphincter will also thank you for the less room needed to track out – as there is little to no room between the exit curbing and The Glen’s famous Sky Blue barriers. Turn in too early, and you leave yourself with nowhere to go. After turning, hold the wheel left to drift out down a quick straight and you have finally hit the lowest point in the track, but not for long. This low point quickly ascends a steep hairpin right, known as “The Toe”. Here is where you feel the greatest difference between the two Porsche’s. Getting back on the power after hitting the late apex of The Toe is sluggish in the 996. In 3rd gear, at about 4000rpm, the naturally-aspirated 3.4L struggles to find torque. Foot to the floor and nothing happens until you eventually find power again around 4500rpm, but only after have finished climbing another 20 feet. You could file your taxes in the time it takes the car to get up over that slope. Alternatively, 2nd gear would not be beneficial either, as you would be too high on the power band where peak horsepower quickly tapers off. Either way you are getting a lot of nothing. The 982 on the other hand, with the help from the turbo, has plenty of punchy torque to get you up the ascent and gaining back speed. The younger-fresher brother does not skip a beat.
Once you get accelerating again, it is another straight jaunt and you are up to 4th, but back down to 3rd before a 90-degree right turn. This 8th corner sculpting out “The Heel” section of The Boot is a technical corner. It is seemingly straightforward, but better when taken at slower speeds as a more accurate line rewards you with the ability to get back on the power sooner. An eager early apex cuts off your track out, and you end up fighting the front tires in order to keep four-wheels on. Both cars handle the corner equally. Not long after tracking out from Turn 8, you are at Turn 9 – one of my personal favorites. It is not quite a hairpin, but a wide 180-degree left-hander with a decreasing radius. You are completely blind to the apex with only your senses and some visual reference points to guide you. Hang out wide as much as possible before turning in, and put on the power once you feel locked in with the apex. Once you know you are on-track to hit the apex, you can really start to accelerate as you graze across the circuit to a very natural feeling track-out point. A rewarding corner when you get it perfect, and you feel that more in the 996 than the 982. It just feels right.
After a small straight you can hit 4th just before the fast left that is Turn 10. Here, depending on your speed, a dab of brake or a slight lift and you can finally get that early apex out of your system. The turn is nicely cambered at the apex, providing a snug feeling between you and the curbing. Exiting the corner there is ample room to go wide with just a slight shift in the road camber. The 982 takes this corner faster thanks to its weight balance and a momentum that keeps you in peak boost. While the 996, although slower, feels smoother.
After the corner, you feel encouraged to go faster, but quickly come upon the final corner. While exiting Turn 10 keep your wheel turned to quickly get as far left as possible, which will set you up for the 90-degree right turn onto the main straight. A shift into 3rd reduces the car’s excitement from the previous turn as you jet across the pit-in blend line (if no one is there) onto the semi-late apex. It is tricky to get the car composed enough to get close to the apex, but the closer you are the better off you are on the exit. Tracking out from this turn, you are distracted from the long straight ahead of you in order to focus on your good friend, the wall. You can see that many other people have met the wall before, evidenced by the many paint and black skid marks that line it. Straighten the wheel once you feel you have safely avoided this meeting, and you are on the main straight back to Turn 1. The 982 feels better and more controllable through this section, and is livelier down the straight.
Watkins Glen has a great flow and rhythm that is hard to find on other tracks (at least in the Northeast). It suits Porsche’s well. Now, is the 982 or 996 better? Well, they both do different things well, and on this track you can tell where each one flourishes. The 982 feels overall even keel, but the wider power band, with no apparent losses of power anywhere on this hilly track, leaves it at a far greater advantage than its naturally aspirated older sibling. That being said, the chassis dynamics of the 996 provide a more pleasing experience. Driving a 911 well on its edge is like no other, and the added stiff suspension and tightly buckled harness really makes you one with the car. This back-to-back comparison has wet my whistle to want to experience a modern Cayman GT4, or even any modern 911 on the track. A combination of the 982’s power delivery and the chassis dynamics of a 911 must be match made in heaven, and the popularity of the GT4 and GT3’s seems to suggest there is something to that.