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Dream Job: Meet Porsche's No. 1 Test Driver

How Lars Kern became responsible for making every Porsche feel like a Porsche.

You want to be Lars Kern. You want his life. You want his job. You possibly want to have his baby.

He does not light up a room. He just glides in, vaporizes into the chair next to you with a little smile that says, yes, he is well aware he won the life lottery. Ed McMahon showed up at Lars Kern's door, and instead of a big cardboard check from Publishers Clearing House, Kern got something better: He is Porsche's test driver. Driver, singular.

Of course, Porsche has other test drivers. That guy test brakes, this guy tests traction control, those guys drive through man-made storms to test windshield wipers.

But Lars Kern tests everything on every model Porsche builds, start to finish. He is involved from the first pen stroke of a design, through building test mules, to endless laps around the skidpad to driving the cars as fast as they will go on the Nürburgring Nordschleife, the narrow, tree-lined, terrifying, invigorating German track that Jackie Stewart appropriately dubbed the "Green Hell." Kern knows each of the 73 turns—or 154, depending on what source you cite and what you consider a "turn"—as well as you know your driveway.

Who else besides you does all that at Porsche, Lars?

"Nobody, actually," he says. "I'm the only one." His unwritten job description would say he is in charge of making Porsches feel like Porsches. Sports cars, electric sedans, SUVs, even race cars. All of them.

Kern, just 32, is lean and unassuming, quick-witted, humble, with a slick, shaved head, presumably for aerodynamics, and a fashionable few days' growth of beard. Lars Kern videos are beyond popular on YouTube: He is the Ken Block of the Nürburgring. Yes, of course, you can ride along via in-car camera as Kern sets a class record in the Porsche 911 GT2 RS MR (6 minutes, 40.3 seconds) or the electric Taycan (7:42) or the Panamera (7:38).

But if you really want to get a feel for what Kern's life is like, go to YouTube and search Lars Kern and Billy Neal. An Australian blues singer and sax player, Neal wanted to take some laps with Kern in a 911 GT3 RS but appears to change his mind about three turns in. His ride happened to take place during one of the sessions when the Nürburgring is open to civilians, who often drive high-performance cars badly and low-performance cars even worse. Few seem familiar with rearview mirrors.

Billy Neal's vocabulary is limited but expressive, and helpful subtitles make certain you don't miss a word. "Jesus Christ almighty!" is a favorite, but not much else can be printed here without a lot of dashes and exclamation marks. His most expressive comment: "F---! Oh f---! Oh f---! F---! F---! F---! F---! F---!" And the inevitable, "Ooh, f--- man! I think one lap is going to be enough!"

Although the record-setting runs in properly prepared Porsches—accomplished during periods when the company rents out the track—are undeniably impressive, watch the way Kern handles the entirely streetable GT3 RS, wearing slacks, shirt sleeves, astoundingly quick hands, traffic appearing around the corner going 75-mph slower than Kern is. This is what he is meant to do: blast past rented BMWs so fast that the driver's toupee flutters in the breeze. Kern careens. He's a careener. But he never puts a wheel wrong.

As it turns out, Kern made his own luck, though there was an element of right-place, right-time as he ascended through the ranks.

Kern did not come from a racing family—far from it. His father thought racing was "a waste of money." So if he couldn't race, he did the next best thing: race on the computer. And if you're from Muhlacker, Germany, and the Nürburgring is less than three hours away, that becomes your home track, even if you've never been there. He turned dozens of laps. Hundreds, thousands. "Probably a hundred thousand," he says. He knew each turn and every straight and their names: Hatzenbach, Flugplatz, Schwedenkreuz, Aremberg, Bergwerk.

So when he finally did get a shot at racing at the Nürburgring, "I knew the track by heart," he says. "At least I thought I did." He paid $2,000 to rent a ride in a Renault Clio. He learned that looking through a windshield is different than looking at a computer screen. "I'd think, 'Is this the corner I think it is? There's a tree there, and there was no tree on the computer. '"

His time on the computer paid off when he and his family attended a car show. There was a driving simulator there, and veteran Bernd Schneider, who had become a touring-car racing master after three seasons in Formula 1, had set the fast time. "Go ahead and try it," Kern's mother told him. "It's what you do all day anyway."

Kern received a letter after the show: He was the fastest, even beating Schneider. As a prize, he was invited to run a race with Schneider. Kern was 16.

It cracked open a door. After learning the basics in autocross, Kern attended a Volkswagen racing school. He did some rallying and was the youngest driver to compete in the Transsyberia Rally, finishing fourth in an underpowered Suzuki. "I always did well," he says," but I was never the fastest. I seldom took risks. After all, I was paying for most of my rides myself."

By 2009, he was racing, and winning, in the amateur Porsche Sports Cup, but he had neither the money nor the time—he was studying for his engineering degree—to move up the ladder to pro competition. He worked as an instructor for the Porsche Driving Experience and from there was plucked from the ranks in 2012 to become an official Porsche test driver.

Then the official Porsche test driver.

First with passenger cars, then with competition cars; he is involved in the development of all of Porsche's racers. And he tests the cars in Porsche's museum periodically: He's driven the 917, the 919, the Formula 1 cars. See? Do you want to be Lars Kern yet?

Not that it's all balls-out on the Nürburgring. His central mission, as mentioned, is to make Porsches feel like Porsches, be they Boxsters or Panameras or Cayennes. And although he's an engineer, he's the first to admit he's no specialist.

So this is how it works, we guess: He drives a Cayman slowly, then more quickly, then very quickly, and comes in and tells the bank of engineers awaiting his return that the Cayman needs, say, stiffer springs in the front.

Right?

"No," he says. "That's exactly what I don't do. I'll tell them that under braking it does this, under acceleration it does that. They know the car, they know better than I do what must be done."

We also suspect that when Kern is out there ripping around the Nürburgring, it must require utmost concentration. And we're wrong about that, too.

"Usually I'm thinking about, 'Do I need to stay here another night?' Or, 'I wonder what's for dinner?'" he claims. Even so, his consistency is astounding. He drove the Panamera Turbo for eight timed laps, all between 7:38 and 7:41, a three-second spread, the stock tires wearing more and more each lap, Kern compensating for the wear. Apparently while contemplating the chicken or the veal.

Indeed, the lack of home time is one of the few career drawbacks for the German, a dedicated family man with a wife and daughter back in Weissach, where Porsche's Weissach Development Center employs 6,500 and has its own test track. But still, Kern must travel. The Nürburgring, where Porsche tests 16 weeks a year, is three hours away, and when we first made contact with Kern in Germany last summer, he had been testing nonstop at Monza in Italy and was fast asleep on his couch when our first interview was scheduled.

Kern is fully awake as he climbs behind the wheel of a red 2020 Porsche 911 Carrera S. He looks so comfortable. No wonder: He had input on the seat design and placement. "This is my office," he says. "I don't want to be the guy sitting at a desk from 9 to 5, collecting data."

During our drive, Kern points out subtle aspects of the 911's performance, which must be Porsche-like at both 15 mph and 150. "I try to think of the customers and how they'll use the vehicle," he explains; the requirements are different for a 911, for a Panamera, for a Macan.

And for the all-electric Taycan sedan, a car Kern did not have much interest in until he drove it. "I wasn't eager to do a lap of the Nordschleife in an electric car," he admits. "But it was totally different from what I imagined." The passenger cars Kern tests are just that: They are fitted with a rollcage and a racing seat but otherwise stock. The Taycan lapped in 7 minutes, 42 seconds, topping out at 160 mph. Of all the vehicles he has helped developed, Kern is most proud of the Taycan.

Kern stresses a point he made earlier in our conversation: There is a difference in a test driver and a race driver. "As a test driver, I don't like to take chances," he says. If he wads up a test car, Porsche has likely lost a great deal of data. And it's also likely he may not be home for dinner.

Multiple Porsche race drivers have tested with him at the Nürburgring. Some are a bit faster because they're pushing the envelope, slamming the rumble strips on every corner. But they aren't learning a lot about the car. They are also used to having massive aero downforce and slick tires, and they tend to slide around, which costs them time. But look at Kern's hands in the many YouTube in-car videos of his drives at the Nürburgring: a gentle grip, economy of motion, extremely quick but usually tiny inputs when needed.

This is not to say Kern doesn't enjoy racing, because he does. He competes in maybe 18 races a year back home in Germany, and for the 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship, he flew over to be the third driver for the Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R, with regular drivers Scott Hargrove and Zach Robichon, for the past season's four endurance races: Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and the season finale, Petit Le Mans at Road Atlanta. It was the lone Porsche in the GT Daytona class.

The Pfaff Porsche was slow all weekend, inexplicably giving up at least a half-second to the faster BMW M6 GT3, a Lamborghini Huracán GT3, and the late-race leader, the Keating Team Riley Mercedes AMG-GT3.

Kern knocked out his stints with the precision you'd expect. It was a different world, though: For much of the racing Kern does back home, such as the 24 Hours of Nürburgring, the GT3 cars are the fastest and constantly flash their headlights as they pass slower traffic. At Petit Le Mans, the GT3 cars are the slowest, and he had to watch out for Prototypes lapping the old-school 2.54-mile road course a full 12 seconds faster than the GT Daytona class.

Running fourth, Kern just wanted a podium finish, but he and his teammates were simply unable to catch third place. Resignation was setting in—some back-slapping, a good strong run, we can drive the car onto the trailer—when, on the last lap, the leading Mercedes ran out of fuel. Podium accomplished. And it helped the team finish second in season points, tied with the Turner Motorsports BMW, which won the race.

Kern will be back in a race car in less than two weeks at the Rolex 24 at Daytona (January 25-26), again in the Pfaff Motorsports Porsche 911 GT3 R in the GT Daytona class, partnering with Canadian racer Zach Robichon, Porsche factory driver and former "Young Professional" Dennis Olsen, and another veteran Porsche factory shoe, Patrick Pilet, who has competed in the 24 Hours of Le Mans for the past 11 years. The team was solidly in the hunt in the three-day Roar Before the 24 mandatory practice, clocking in at sixth quickest in the last of seven sessions, just 0.355-second behind the best of the 18 GTD cars.

Kern says he enjoys the circus that is endurance racing; he is always happy to arrive, but he is always happy to go home. The next day after Petit Le Mans last fall, he was back on a plane, back to Germany, back to his family, and back to a job he loves.

"I'm where I want to be," he says. "I can't imagine doing anything else."

Meanwhile, the rest of us can only imagine what it is like.