Standing at the back door of Mike and Yvonne Gagen’s San Diego home, I can see straight into Mexico. Night after night, hundreds of Mexicans attempt to sneak past America’s impressive border defences, to the land of opportunity. Whatever Standard & Poor’s might say, the USA is still miles better than most alternatives.
Built along a natural harbour, San Diego is a seafarer’s paradise. Entering the city on the legendary San Diego Freeway, we pass signs for navy bases, and the submarine station at Point Loma. Warships of the US Pacific Fleet at anchor in the bay are waterborne Star Wars technology: nowadays, low radar signature is everything.
San Diego is all about stealth. This is the home of Stiletto; an advanced hull design that ‘passively dampens the visible and acoustic signature’. Trapped air bubbles suppress stern wake energy, also reducing noise from movement and machinery. The Navy’s soon-to-be-scrapped Sea Shadow stealth project also lives in San Diego; moored in a once-classified submarine salvage barge at Mole Pier.
Stealth plays heavy on my mind as I follow Mike’s monster black Porsche down through Granite Hills, towards our city limits shoot location. Gagen’s gone for a seriously lowkey approach to this evening’s photo event; he’s driving there with the engine off.
Behind the wheel of our Nissan rental car, I’m struggling to keep up. Gagen’s a veteran track addict and Porsche Club of America instructor, with the stickers to prove it.
Despite my screaming of the auto gears in this Marlon-Blando Eurobox, the switched off RSR is getting away.
Maybe it’s sticky tyres and a stealth paint job stymieing my senses, but Mike’s machine seems to make better use of gravity. Hammering down Mount Helix at a decent rate of knots, the big black 911 seems more magnetically attracted to the bottom than my slabby silver hatchback. Yes, black is more magnetic; that’s what it is.
As the road levels out, telltale dash lights flicker through the RSR’s rear window. “He’s going to start it,” I shout to Lipman. Stabbing at the window switches, all attempts to lift the glass and seal our cabin are in vain. The starter whirrs, there’s a blip of throttle and peace is but a memory.
Thanks to a cousin stationed with the USAF in Suffolk during the Eighties, I’ve been up close and personal with A10 Warthogs, F16s and B52s on takeoff. This car delivers all the same sensations. Although we’ve all got smiles on our faces, I can’t imagine what the neighbours make of it.
Mike isn’t about to test their patience, though. Recently retired, Gagen has no intention of moving, so takes neighbourhood arrivals and departures pretty seriously. “I’m a peace-loving guy, so I like to treat my neighbours right. Most of the time, we move the car around on a trailer – it makes for better community relations!”
Thinking of others is Gagen all over. My first night ever in the USA was at an R Gruppe Treffen a few years back. The flight in had been hell; eight hours late, after a four-hour Friday slog from Chicago on a plane-coloured sardine tin. Walking into the mess hall at R Gruppe Central, our eyes met across the crowded room. Mike reached to one side, lifted a beer out of his nearby crate and offered it to this obviously distressed traveller. We’ve been firm friends ever since.
The compact R Gruppe is often labelled exclusive. Fact is, guys like Gagen are the norm. Internet forums resound with their shared build threads, and Mike’s Pelican Parts Porsche forum thread is where we first met back in 2005, except I didn’t know it was him. How could I, as I’d only ever read about ‘Ted’, and his white and green aerokitted 993 GT2 Evo? Two years later, the penny dropped. Mike picks up the story.
“I bought this car in 2002, as a 1969 T in white from Alain Jamar, long-time editor of the Porsche Owners’ Club Velocity magazine. It came with barely 1,000 miles on it since full restoration, with new floor pans, fresh paint, a 3.2 engine with close-ratio gearbox and Turbo brakes. Some people said it was too nice to track, but that didn’t stop me. I quickly found myself hooked on the Porsche Club of America’s Autocross programme.
“Soon, the white ’69 was pretty much unrecognisable. Bigger wheels with slicks, big tail, Brumos stripes; it was quite the makeover. We upgraded the suspension and brakes, and I got my racing licence in GT3 class.
“I was getting faster and, therefore, the car was suffering. I couldn’t get any more rubber under the RS rear arches, so I decided to supersize. Keeping the tall tail, the early body was flared front and rear in metal, with ground-effect front bumper and sideskirts.
“After a year of running the steel-steroid beast on slicks, I decided the body was too heavy. Other alterations, made with assistance from Jae Lee at Mirage International were a success, like the JRZ decambered coilovers with ERP 935 rose-jointed suspension, raised suspension points front and rear, cockpit-adjustable antiroll bars, high-speed CV joints, air jacks, a new rear cage with coilover mounts and a 3.6 engine installation. But the whole thing weighed too much, so I went to my buddy John Simone and we hatched a little plan.
“John is the go-to fibreglass guy down here in SoCal. I fancied the look of the 993 GT2 Evo, and John made it happen. The quality of John’s bodykit was above excellent; all Dzus fasteners and perfect gaps, beautiful lines: amazing. Only the glass rubbers gave it away. We painted it green and white, and went and had some fun.
“After the 993 look had been thrashed around Buttonwillow and other favourite tracks for a few years, it started to look a bit tatty. The time came to make a decision; restore what I had, or go a different way?
“Dave Bouzaglou at TRE Motorsports had started his Targa California road rally, and I quite fancied making my track 911 more street friendly. As I’d been through early car, 2.8 RSR and 993 looks, and Targa California was pre-’75, we dragged out pictures of 3.0 RSRs. I didn’t take much persuading.
“Rather than make a custom bodykit, we went with off-the-shelf AIR RSR parts with 15-inch rear flares, and an MA Shaw tail. The kit needed fettling to fit right, but I was pleased with the end result. As the look approached completion, the last remaining question was; what colour would it be? Surprisingly, my vision hadn’t stretched that far.
“I kicked some colour ideas around online, looked at race pictures and mocked up stripes. Eventually, we had to get some paint on, just to protect it. We went with black primer, a gold Carrera stripe, and left it like that for the thought process to mature.”
“This car is sick!” exclaims Jamie, as we careen down yet another hill towards our destination, engine off again. Thanks to a shared passion for aircraft, James and Mike have hit it off and the shoot’s a ton of fun.
Mike spent his working life around planes and pilots. Trained by the Navy, Gagen cut his air traffic control chops aboard a non-nuke aircraft carrier. “I remember one day, an SR-71 Blackbird popped up on my radar screen, in a huge turn over our operational area. We knew they were coming as they had told us in advance, but all I saw were six blips on my radar screen. Then it was gone.”
With a recorded speed of 2,193mph, the SR-71 spy plane remains a legend. Although Gagen has since worked with almost every military and civilian jet imaginable, nothing comes close on the awesome scale.
Visual parallels between the SR-71 Blackbird and the skunkworks RSR scream at even casual observers, as do their respective pilots’ penchant for speed. We’re coasting around these San Diego suburbs, but Gagen shows no mercy whatsoever on track.
These days, the 993 engine transplant is a popular approach, but most people opt to bolt in an engine from a crashed car, without the expense of rebuilding. Not Mike. The 1995 993 3.6-litre unit was balanced and blueprinted by drag buddy Vic Ofner, a veteran of Stuttgart’s factory 962 engine training courses.
Starting with pinned and winded crankcases, Vic added lightweight Carrillo rods and Supercup cams, with 964-like cam gears and RSR solid rockers. The piston sides were Teflon coated, while piston tops and valve faces were treated with a heat barrier. Modified valvetrain, adjustable fuel pressure regulator, high end spark wires and coil amplifiers, trick headers, a lightweight flywheel and a custom chip give the car 320bhp on 100-octane gasoline; 5bhp more than the 3.0 RSR engines were said to enjoy.
“I really enjoy tracking these modern engines,” says Mike. “You’re more confident in pushing to the edge when you know the fuel injection will be there. Injection is so much better than an engine running carburettors that suddenly drops a cylinder exiting a turn, reducing the weight transfer at a critical point. When I look at air/fuel ratios on the dyno sheets for this engine, I don’t know how you could ever tune a carbed engine to return the same. I had carbs on VW drag engines and I’ll never go back there.”
No one’s driving that hard today, though, and with a fixed custom race seat and a ten-inch height differential between big boy Gagen and my short-arsed self, I’m not driving at all. Given the noise of this track-only exhaust, I’m not too upset; I hear the jails down here are highly underwhelming…
Back at the newly named Casa Gagenheim, Mike brings out a rear trailing arm, bent by the energy of huge rear slicks. “A ’69 T chassis was never designed for the mechanical grip generated by 13-inch rubber on 18-inch rims. Learning to manage those forces has sometimes been a case of driving until it breaks, then fixing it better.”
Alongside Jae Lee at Mirage international, and Cary Eisenlohr at ERP, Mike names Hayden Burvill at WEVO as a big help in taming the momentum attempting to tear the wheels from his satin black speed sled.
Along with working as a sounding board for Mike’s chassis and suspension ideas, fellow autocross addict Hayden built the close-ratio 915 transmission, and supplied the modified shifter and shift linkage parts.
Gagen’s Blackbird might look rough and ready in places, but that embodies his ‘drive it, race it, drive it more’ ethos. Packed with high-end components like the cool shirt air con that plugs into a race suit, second-gen rollcage, custom rear interior panels enclosing a bespoke space frame rear end, six-point fire extinguisher, remote reservoir dampers and a set of handmade Harvey Weidman Fuchs street wheels costing over $10,000 with tyres, this car has not been a cheap exercise. Gagen insists he has no regrets, though.
“We had a good thing going with the 993, but it wasn’t perfect. For this iteration, we played with stuff we knew was wrong and made it better. Adjustable JRZs on 750/600 springs give a decent street ride, and the 15 x 11-inch front and 15 x 14-inch rear bias ply slicks feel great. The car is set up how I like it on track, and the paint continues to grow on me.
“If I was going to play some more, I’d put some proper top coat on it, add some 16-inch wheels and GY bias ply slicks, maybe replace the close-ratio fifth gear with a stock gear for freeway driving, but that’s about it; I’m pretty sure we’re done.”
Personally I doubt that, but I’m looking forward to what Mike does next. Take it from me; those San Diego rollercoasters really are a lot of fun.
This was taken from issue 79, for all Total 911 back issues visit www.imagineshop.co.uk/