Though the 996-generation Carrera is often overlooked by club racers when the E46 M3 is the hot ticket, these two contemporaries have a kinship. Powerful but far from overpowered, small by modern standards, fairly agile, stout, and potentially expensive if something goes wrong.
Each has its shortcomings. The E46 has its big three — rod bearings, VANOS and subframe reinforcement — and the 996 has its intermediate shaft bearing. However, while the E46’s shortcomings are often seen as expensive hurdles worth covering, the Porsche IMS bearing is treated with real apprehension.
There’s some reason for this. Nobody wants a catastrophic failure because these motors cost a pretty penny to rebuild. However, the whole car isn’t always that much more. Considering the affordable prices of the first water-cooled Carrera currently commands, some take their chances.
Several years ago, Nic Gerardi decided to take his Volkswagen Jetta to local NASA events in the Phoenix area. After a moderate amount of modification and a dozen or so events, he was successful in masking its less-than-athletic nature, but it never felt completely at home at the track. “I wanted to know what it meant to do this sort of thing in a car designed to do it,” he recalled.
He picked up a base 2001 Carrera — 3.4-liter, rear-drive, basically no options, black. The lightest of the 996 generation came to him less than pristine. However, it was clearly better suited to track work, so he decided to make it something he could gel with.
It was also just over 20 years of age, so to make it track-ready and robust, he replaced the IMS bearing with a retrofitted piece from LM Engineering and freshened up the footwork with OE suspension arms and bushings, as well as H&R Street Performance coilovers. All this was done in just four months.
The steering is nicely weighted and rich with information, but it’s less appreciated when all it communicates is frustrating, slow-speed understeer. “At that point, and pace, the car was mostly neutral, but favored understeer. It proved to be somewhat helpful, because it encouraged me to develop trail-braking skills,” he added. Less than perfect, but the stability was necessary to his development as an intermediate driver at that stage.
The aim then was to add grip and consistency without using too much tire. So he could get a good feel for his habits, he chose a moderately sticky tire, which, he felt, wouldn’t mask its tendencies. He threw on Apex SM-10 wheels and Continental Extreme Contact DWS in 996 GT3 sizes.
The first few times out, the car still pushed, but more predictably. With Pagid RS29 pads and stainless-steel brake lines, the stickier rubber, and the safety equipment provided greater peace of mind. A four-point DAS Sport bolt-in rollbar, a Recaro pole Position ABE seat, and an OMP six-point harness gave Gerardi the sense of security he was after.
After mild amounts of weight reduction, The 911’s weight distribution and reasonably low weight of 3,175 pounds with driver have helped the pads last. After 45 sessions on track, they are only half-worn! While the cost of entry is higher than some cars, at least the consumables costs don’t add up too quickly. The next big handling improvement came in the form of Toyo R888Rs.
“The amount of front-end grip seemed to increase much more than the rear. I think better bite from the Toyos coupled with the fact my pace had increased significantly meant that the car now heavily favored oversteer as its dominant handling characteristic. I drove it like this for multiple events and struggled the majority of the time with mild oversteer when transitioning from the brake to the coast period,” Gerardi added.
To help quell this, he found himself inducing a little understeer at turn-in to settle the rear sliding.
Though imperfect, this setup gave him the foundation to push fairly hard for the next dozen track days. Eventually, frustrated with this handling flaw and looking for a new challenge, he decided to try to make the car eligible for Time Trial 5 with a set of factory 996 C2 wheels. Narrower and less staggered than the previous setup — these stock wheels measuring just 17 x 7 and 17 x 9 — the footprint was reduced some, but he counteracted this reduction by adding Maxxis RC-1 semi-slicks. By this point, he’d learned the 996’s behavior well enough to run some R-compounds.
“Despite having the correct weight/horsepower ratio and having class-legal tire sizes, the car ultimately didn’t meet the TT5 requirement of having less than 264 factory rated horsepower,” he said. Undeterred, he continued moving in this direction and added GT3 sway bars in an effort to tailor the weight transfer to quell the car’s oversteer.
Switching to Maxxis tires and adding sway bars proved successful during his next event. By softening the rear sway bar and stiffening the front, the car felt a bit more inclined to push on corner entry, which is fairly easily countered with trail braking, but it was much more stable during that tricky midcorner transition. However, trying this setup at Chuckwalla, a track he was less familiar with, proved frustrating.
“The car was very imbalanced — sometimes understeering and oversteering in the same corner. After a frustrating weekend at Chuckwalla, I did quite a bit of research regarding 996 suspension,” Gerardi said. “What I found was that my H&R Street Performance coilovers utilize a 210 lbs./in. spring for the front and a 260 lbs./in. spring in the rear; significantly softer than basically every other coilover option available for the 996. Many GT3 and Cup drivers report utilizing 1,000 lbs./in. and 1,200 lbs./in. springs with JRZ dampers. After a few weeks of research and discussion with folks within the 996 community, I came to believe the majority of my car’s handling issues is due to the spring rate being far too soft— causing excessive front/rear weight transfer when manipulating the brakes.”
Why did the car surprise him at Chuckwalla?
“I suspect I couldn’t see the car’s flaws at Laguna Seca for a few reasons. First, I’m familiar with the track because of dozens of hours training on the simulator on that track. So, line choice and braking points were pretty much automatic by the time I first drove there. Second, about half the corners on the track have significant amounts of positive camber, which makes it easier for the car’s rear to remain stable through the corners. Finally, there are almost no long, sweeping corners at Laguna. Midcorner coasting is basically non-existent there. Chuckwalla on the other hand, has very few corners with camber, multiple long, sweeping turns that require lots of maintenance throttle and a series of minor adjustments, and that I found myself pretty unfamiliar with the track in CCW configuration. I’ve since run hundreds of laps on the simulator at Chuck and can see how my poor line choices contributed to the car being very unsettled,” he added.
The 996’s promise is now overshadowed by the possibility to run a Z4 in TT5 — a cheaper option with a proven modification list he can easily copy. Alternatively, he can spend the additional ten grand to get it up to a competitive place in TT4, but as it’s still not handling to his liking, he has a few reservations.
“As the car sits right now, the 996 is perfectly fine up to about eight tenths. Beyond eight tenths, the amount and sluggish rate of both fore/aft and lateral weight transfer makes it very tricky to hustle without feeling wayward and a bit uncontrollable. Driver mods could certainly mitigate this, but the setup is not ideal,” he clarifies.
Is the car worth the investment? In terms of control and communication alone, Gerardi feels it’s hard to match.
“The 911 forces you to critically evaluate your driving techniques like no other car I’ve driven. It rewards you with loads of traction on corner exit, emphasizes the benefits of early throttle application, and forces you to be very mindful of weight transfer through the braking zones and into corner apexes. It is an engaging, active, and intuitive car that fosters good driving habits. Additionally, the robustness of the car adds to its appeal.
“A well-maintained 996 requires very little in the way of durability mods to survive a weekend of 20-minute sessions at typical DE pace, not to mention that you’ll look pretty cool doing it,” he said. “However, I speculate that a driver who already possesses a high degree of skill with FR cars may find transitioning to a 911 frustrating at first since the dynamics of the car are quite different.
Let’s take a step back and look at this from a philosophical angle. Even if Gerardi decides to shelf this particular project, it has served him well as a tool to develop his driving. This raw 911 has taught him not only how to manage a finicky car, but he’s been able to put his general approach to modification to good use with it. As he’ll admit, he doesn’t regret making the investment.
By starting out with safety mods, then making specific, incremental alterations to improve the car in a digestible fashion, he’s been able to learn exactly why his car does what it does. While that can be practiced in any particular machine, doing it in an old-school 911 with all its idiosyncrasies deserves a special award.
|Owner:||Robert “Nic” Gerardi|
|Weight:||3,175 lbs. with driver|
|Engine/Horsepower:||3.4-liter Porsche flat six-cylinder/264 hp at wheels|
|Suspension Front:||H&R Street performance coilovers, Factory GT3 adjustable sway bar.|
|Suspension Rear:||H&R Street performance coilovers, Factory GT3 adjustable sway bar.|
|Tires Front:||Maxxis RC-1 225/45/17 (R2 compound)|
|Tires Rear:||Maxxis RC-1 255/40/17 (R2 compound)|
|Brakes Front:||Factory rotor diameter, factory calipers. Pagid RS-29 pads, GT3 brake ducts, ECS Tuning stainless-steel brake hoses.|
|Brakes Rear:||Factory rotor diameter, factory calipers. Pagid RS-29 pads, ECS Tuning stainless-steel brake hoses|
|Data system:||Garmin Catalyst|