by Mike Parris
Porsche 917K at Riverside
In March of 1980 I was assigned, as a staff photographer at Argus Publishers, to meet L.A. Times owner/publisher Otis Chandler at his private warehouse to photograph a couple of cars from his collection. There were no exterior signs or indications of what lay inside the building, but it held Duesenbergs, Porsches, motorcycles, an Olds woody like one Chandler had as a teenager, and an assortment of other beautiful collector pieces. After taking photos of a Porsche 904 and a Speedster, Chandler asked me if I would like to come out to Riverside Raceway the following month to photograph his 917-K, the one Steve McQueen drove in LeMans. How fast could I say, “Yes.”
When arriving at the classic road course a couple of weeks later, I found that Chandler had rented the track for the day, brought his 917-K, his Mark Donohue 917-30 Sunoco CanAm car, and his then-current 935 twin turbo IMSA spec Porsche. He was licensed for IMSA competition and had his co-driver John Thomas with him.
After photographing all three cars, Thomas said that Chandler was thinking of selling the two 917s and he wanted to get an audio recording inside the “K” before it went to a new owner. So I donned my helmet, strapped myself in the “passenger seat” of the 917-K and grabbed the tape recorder. Once John was situated in the pilots slot the crew closed the swing-up door panels and he proceeded to fire up the big flat twelve. It fired up with a loud “rip” that sent a sharp chill up my spine and god, did it sound great. Slipping the clutch he brought it out of the pits and got up to a reasonable speed, still letting the transmission oil and tires warm up first. He went through a series of accelerate-and-brake motions to get the brakes up to temp also. After one cruising lap he began to pick up the pace significantly, double clutching in to every corner with the crash box and smiling as the flat twelve powered us out of each apex. Coming out of turn eight and on to the long back straight, Thomas was now in full throttle mode with that glorious sound ripping from dual open headers—right behind our helmets. Touching 180 mph before the dog-leg at the end, Thomas hit the brakes for turn nine, fighting the 917’s steering and man handling it through the corner. It might not have been the best mannered of vehicles but my goodness, those twelve singing cylinders.
By lap four, Thomas was bringing it hard through the esses, down to first in turn six and on the throttle to the off-camber turn seven. He was laughing out of seven and kept both of us grinning from ear to ear, just hearing the big twelve rev. What g-force, what acceleration and what a scary chassis and brake combination. What a car. What a great day.