Although the R Gruppe mission sounds harmless enough, the organization has become a lightning rod for haters from all four corners of the car world. To the august Porsche Club of America, R Gruppe is populated by a bunch of yahoos with no respect for tradition. To the hard-core racers who dominate the Porsche Owners Club, R Gruppe is full of poseurs who'd rather look fast than go fast. To early 911 aficionados who haven't been invited to join the club -- membership is limited to about 300, and members are booted if they don't continue to measure up to unspecified standards -- R Gruppe is a gated community reserved for arrogant snobs. To high-dollar collectors, R Gruppe provides a prescription for replicars and fakey-doos that cost more to build than they're worth on the open market.
Operating on the assumption that any group that's managed to offend so many diverse constituencies must be doing something right, I decide to join R Gruppe for its eleventh annual Treffen. The weekend begins on Thursday with a track day at Buttonwillow Raceway Park, a club circuit about two hours north of Los Angeles. In keeping with R Gruppe's street/track philosophy, only a couple of cars are full-on racing thoroughbreds, most notably Mike Gagen's wicked-fast, black-primer RSR look-alike -- a '69 T packing a 3.6-liter engine from a '95 993-series 911 and rear tires wide enough to bridge small rivers. But the ambience is laid-back and low-key, unlike a serious race weekend, and Treffen organizer John Gray seems as happy telling me about his 911 as he is playing hero race driver out on the track.
"Anybody can take their car to the shop and say, 'I want this, this, this, and that,' and then write a check," he says, explaining how he tricked out his metallic green '70 with an idiosyncratic collection of parts ranging from an S-spec engine and SC suspension components to lug nuts off a Volkswagen Vanagon. "Some guys will spend years hunting down an authentic part, and then, right next to it, they'll hang something that they whittled in their garage."
As I wander around the paddock, I have a hard time zeroing in on the demographics of the group. Gray is a fifty-seven-year-old senior software engineer for Wells Fargo. Gagen is a retired air-traffic controller. Ron Wolfe, who's created a Frankenstein he calls a 912R -- a beast you won't find in any Porsche menagerie -- is a forty-one-year-old physical therapist who slaps a beanie on his head the instant he pulls off his helmet. Thorsten Klein is the effervescent young designer who recently styled the interior of the Porsche 918. Although his R Gruppe car is back in Germany, he's driving a 911S Targa owned by SoCal chaptermeister Ray Crawford, who's a paramedic/firefighter in downtown L.A.