seth ruden

The 944 is an inherently versatile platform for nearly any activity, to those who know its capacity. Its economical, gets great fuel economy. Its practical, can fit 4 in a pinch. The hatchback trunk is huge and has a greater capacity for hauling than is immediately perceived. But there is one way that the 944 has come into its own in recent years, bringing our heroic model to grassroots motorsports.

American LeMons or Chump Car racing offers an easy point of entry into a very expensive pastime.  Effectively, a $500 (net cost, you can sell parts off the car to get back to the cost target, and safety equipment, including brakes and tires, etc., is not factored into the equation) car is entered into endurance racing for over a dozen hours against other modest cars in a heated battle. This is a tremendous use case for the transaxle car. Many of us entered this model line, as it was inexpensive, yet if the 944 offered a great performance potential well at a given price point, this is it. It’s a simple three-step plan for us who know the model well enough to campaign it: Get a beater, sell everything that’s bolted down, build and race it.
Naturally, Porsche is great at Le Mans, the most winning team in the series history, with 1-2 2015 wins this year in the new 919. But the 944 did in fact run at Le Mans in 1981 carrying seventh place overall and spending the least amount of time in the pits. With these credentials, it seems like a slam-dunk, right? Not so fast. What makes the 944 so inexpensive in today's world is what makes it a bit treacherous in real life racing.

As most of these crap-can racecar candidates on Craigslist are nearing the end of their service life, many of them are simply exhausted. That’s the challenge… Endurance racing stretches the limits of reliability. While 944s are very robust when maintained correctly, there are some areas that can be dicey for any car in the model line. Enter Shawn, a west coast 944 fiend who has been in the game a long time. Shawn has around 3 transaxle cars in his street fleet at present count, a 951 which has been prepped for the track, an S2 cab, and a grey market 82 944 with some choice bits and trim on it. Shawn`s house is more or less then a 944 intensity zone, and he has a barn of parts capable of sustaining the campaign of a 944 in grassroots motorsports.

Porch racing is born with an '89 8V model, Shawn and friends start winning races and Car and Driver magazine calls these guys “The Team That Rehabilitated the Bad Reputation of LeMons Porsches”. High praise, and Shawn agreed to share some of his insights with this magazine on how to make a 944 track ready. 
Lets start this fairly high level.  If you want to be successful with a Porsche… any Porsche; the golden rule of Porsche ownership is still in place when starting on an endeavor like this. Always buy the newest and nicest one you can afford, and this extends into setting up a race car: As part changes in Porsches typically are evolutionary, buy the newest and best parts from the model line, but keep parts groups (oil pumps and coolers, suspensions, etc) modular, parts groups certainly do exist, and there may be limited interchangeability in some cases. There are some very interesting and specific nuances that require attention, but with a close eye, this can be the key to both longevity and sustainability in running your track mule. Shawn has other critical takeaways from the experience in grassroots racing that he offered as heuristics for extracting reliability out of the machine, such as assembling parts in modules, like the factory did it. This practice may initially appear to be counter-intuitive, but yields valuable results. Shawn`s take on this methodology was to assemble the engine, torque tube and transmission on the ground, to be sure to get all the bolts, shafts and linkages secure and to torque spec before lifting it as a package into the car. This ensures that there are no issues with reassembly and fit of all necessary hardware and delivering a more solid car, increasing reliability in the race.

Image courtesy of team EKR Racing
Shawn gives most of his special attention in engine race prep to the major rotating mass of the motor, using the stock short block. The 1983 crankshaft, which has cross-drilled bearings is a good starting place. Alternatively, later models can be drilled and should be polished, but left unlightened (lightening the flywheel is enough to get where you want to go). The main bearings are quite beefy so you should be fine there, but the rods… well, herein is the key: change and prep them to go the distance before racing. There is one major weakness that’s been clear since people started putting sticky rubber on a 944: Rod Bearing Failure.  The high lateral g-forces of cornering  (especially on race tires) will typically move more oil around that large sump than we want. Once the oil starts being distributed around the pan, it can uncover the sump pickup and now we have cavitation and starvation of the oil pump. This is essentially the worst thing that can happen inside the motor in that moment, and it’s exactly when that rod bearing starts to walk. This engine, further stressed, may be done for, often needing parts and machine work that is beyond the cost of a running replacement. Worst, it brings all the fun to an end.
Lunch, anyone?
Shawn employs tried and true methods here, using a late 944 pan and baffle from the factory, combined with a few aftermarket solutions. The first is running a ring around the oil pickup strainer. This ring will keep the strainer pulling oil from the most bottom part of the pan. The next is the trap door, a hinged plate that traps oil in the center of the pan. Also running a ½-1 liter of oil over full is how to properly manage this condition to prevent catastrophic failure... but there is one other pain point that Shawn addresses while he is in there; The oil pickup tube itself. 
This part, holding the strainer on one end of a long steel tube and the other attached to the block is exposed to some stress of our under-balanced and overgrown four cylinder. This vibration from the unequal mass at one end can create metal fatigue and then crack the tube and commit the engine to Valhalla. The solution is to weld a brace with a reinforcement for the fastening location on the tube.

The 4 steps here; the baffle, hinged trap-door, pickup ring and pick-up reinforcement keeps everything flowing and allows for a reliable rod to keep things spinning without drama. Its cheap insurance and even then, Shawn changes rods every 3-4 races to keep things nice and tight. In addition, the turbo oil cooler as a module can be adapted to the NA car, which should go a long way to reduce oil temps in the heat of battle.

Naturally, the Achilles heel of the model is still the timing belts. Shawn cautions: “There are so many critical components that run off that, from the oil pump to the water pump”, beyond just the cam… use all the special tools and torque to spec. Despite having done the job hundreds of times, this can sometimes still go wrong, follow the procedure to be sure it`s bang on. 
Image care of Technoduck
Otherwise, running a used engine is completely fine, once inspected. Shawn advises refreshing the cylinder head… decking of the head and cam housing to the minimum thicknesses can add a slight bump in both compression and valve lift, which may make up for some lost power in the 30 year old power plant. You can also run a late NA cam on your 8v motor, which has more lift. If more power is needed, going with the 16 valve motors offers a bit more usable horses in the power band with no significant impact in fuel economy. Beyond that, realize that he 944 is momentum car, it is better to keep the speed up, rather than trying to modify it to get a ton more out of the existing power-plant. Don`t remove all accessories like the balance shafts to shave a few horsepower or pounds, as the benefit of doing so may make the car less reliable. However, some things like deleting heater cores may add reliability, but be sure to maintain the water flow. This is where things can get tricky…keeping it stock or more stock-like is the guidance.

Thus, spending on suspension makes sense, where possible. Good used Konis, on 250lb springs with the best sway bars you can find cheap is the right ticket. Alignment after any suspension work on the car, and the faster you go, the more critical is becomes. Be sure to bring the torsion bars down a bit and a corner balance wont hurt. Brakes on the NA cars will do fine, with Hawk blue pads and OEM rotors (cryo-treating is a good investment here for long life). Of course, running high quality fluids isn’t a bad idea and accepting that consumption may be high. Tires are up to you at this point. “Your first race, [passing] tech and safety wont be easy, and you’ll spend the same money either way” so to make things easy, make passing inspection a focus and an ideology.
Get your ebay on.
Shawn has a few other garage prep suggestions, as well… in the shop is the place he starts:

Work with as much organization as possible, its key to productivity and reliability. Do things in chunks or stages, such as lifting the car and setting up for the following day the night before the work begins. Setting easily achievable goals keeps things moving along allows you to divide and conquer based on tasks. It’s the mentality that having the car up in the air and ready for the actual labor sets the stage for the most efficient and precision work. The extra planning of a proper executive approach is laying the build out before the first ratchet click. As endurance racing is made easier by preparation, which takes time, spreading the work out over the team is a smart way to segregate duties and costs. “One guy can’t win the race for everybody, it is a team sport, and you’ll never be in the top 10 without commitment”.

Last, when you’re out there and giving it the proper race flogging, realize the strategy to go incrementally faster might end up laps behind. When you get to the practical details of endurance racing, conservation is key; its going to go a lot better if you drive at 8/10s, rather than all-out. Shift at 5500 rpm, Shawn doesn`t go WOT in most of the straights, which allows him to go further on a tank of fuel… speaking of fuel tanks, there are three. The early cars had a steel tank, turbo generation cars have a plastic one, and there is a late tank, with the most capacity, over 22 gallons in total. Less time in the pits allows for a 944 to use the factory formula, finishing the race using efficiency as the overall strategy. Said another way, Shawn’s approach is to not put you into the pits and keep the driver as comfortable as possible. “If you can keep a driver going through one full tank of fuel, it will be grueling, especially with the conga line full course yellow flags”. So be comfortable in there. Adult diapers are optional. 
You cant buy a much better car on CL than a 944 for this purpose, and combining this with the fact that most people are either afraid of the transaxle`s complexity, or without the actual intimate knowledge of how to make them tick. To be fair, these are complex cars, even for us who know our way around them. This is our advantage to exploit. “These cars are so easy to drive, so well built, that they may drive OK with a smaller failure. But break one link in the chain and that might take out something important. 



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