It’s been a few weeks, but the kick plate at the brand-new Porsche Experience Center in Atlanta still gives me nightmares. I did exactly what they said — approach at 20 mph and steer to keep the car straight after it happens — yet I still found myself in the most violent, uncontrollable spin I’ve ever experienced. It went on and on and even seemed to change direction from clockwise to counter-clockwise. I spun. And spun. And spun.
This ordeal came courtesy of a device — the first installed on US soil — that delivers a violent kick to a moving car (hence the name) to induce a spin. A computer waits for the second the victim’s rear tires cross over a rough, grippy strip, at which point it violently kicks the strip with a hydraulic punch in a randomly chosen left or right direction. The best drivers recover, more or less, from the kick and keep the car on something resembling a straight line. Novices have their internal organs spun around in that fine German blender known as a 911 GTS, which happened to be my steed at the moment. (You can also be sent reeling in all-wheel-drive Panamera sedans, Boxsters — anything, really, in the inventory of available current-model cars at the new facility.)
The kick plate is meant to humble drivers a bit, to show them that no matter how good they are on the track (or how good they think they are) surprises can still send you into the tire wall, or worse, the trees or oncoming traffic. Granted, there aren’t many cases in the real world that might induce these sorts of nauseating gyrations, but the point is clear: You have to learn to think fast and react properly during any bout of roadway mayhem, whether you’re navigating a race track or an icy patch of freeway. “We teach them to react to a car sliding and spinning, so they can walk away a better driver,” says Brian Cunningham, chief driving instructor.
Ultimately, the new, 53-acre, $100 million Porsche Experience Center — built just a few hundred feet from one of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s runways — is primarily intended to demonstrate performance, stability, and safety features of the company’s cars. Things like traction control, cornering capability, stability control, all-wheel-drive, etc. The track has the kick plate, a slalom course, a skid pad, a low-friction course, a 1.6-mile main track designed by Formula 1 track architect Tilke Engineering, and an off-road challenge for the Cayenne and Macan SUVs. It’s not a driving school, per se — the Porsche Sport Driving located at the full-size Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, serves that role — but is rather intended to show drivers how cars perform in actual road conditions. The main track mimics country roads more than it does Monza or Monaco. Though you can blaze around there at a very brisk clip, and have quite a lot of fun doing so, it’s not so fast that helmets and emergency crews are required. (West Coast types: Porsche will be opening a similar, and even larger, facility in Los Angeles next year.)
There aren’t many cases in the real world that might induce these sorts of nauseating gyrations, but the point is clear: You have to learn to think fast and react properly during any bout of roadway mayhem.
While demonstrating Porsche’s trick tech is the key mission, making drivers a bit better also ranks highly. Critically, the kick plate, as well as the other challenges, are designed to get drivers to learn to think about what they’re doing — which is often harder than you might suspect. Professional hot-shoes know how to react in fast-moving situations, but that comes from years of practice and years of working up through greater and greater challenges, as well as natural talent, of course. Relative noobs like us, however, tend to panic, flail about, and pretty much hope for the best when chaos materializes. That’s what happened to me on the kick plate. After two tries, I was only sort of starting to see how to do it. But once I began thinking about what to do — steer into the skid, look where you want to go — my recover smoothed out. Slightly.
I had better luck on the low-friction course, which is a tiny, glass-smooth circuit with multiple tight turns that are kept perpetually wetted-down. The idea here is that your car loses traction instantly and it’s your job to keep it in some semblance of control to make it through alive (or at least, not in the weeds). It’s basically a beginner’s guide to drifting, and it’s great fun. But it’s also something every driver should experience, especially teens. You experience firsthand not only how severe and instantaneous the impact of lost-traction can be in wet or icy roads can be, but you also get a sense of how the right set of non-panicky reactions can steer you out of trouble. It’s empowering and, potentially, life-saving.
Out on the main track, you can stitch together everything you’ve learned in the other segments, and throw in a dose of heavy braking and precision gear-shifting. “The main course has a very interesting geometry and lots of variety,” Cunningham says. “There are different degrees of turns, elevation changes, camber changes — everything you’d see on any country road. It’s a multi-tiered simulator for everyday life. You can hone your steering, anticipation, coordination and vision, and just get faster and faster with every lap, so you can get the most out of your own vehicle back home.”
Visitors can make a whole day of it — the center also has a restaurant overlooking the track and the runway approach as well as a collection of rare Porsche race cars and a retail store. There are also high-fidelity racing simulators and, for the weekend racers, fitness coaches who can measure your reaction skills and stamina. Rates start at $300 for a one-and-a-half-hour experience in a Porsche Boxster and shoot up to $750 for the same amount of time in a 911 Turbo or 911 GTS. Those fees are pretty much a bargain, considering the instruction you receive within that time — stuff that could pay very high dividends down the road.