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Feel the Fear and Drive it Anyway

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

By Beti Spangel

Larry had owned his 1999 911 Carrera for several months now, and I had yet to drive it. It intimidated me. Not because of the horsepower, but because of that stupid clutch.

Back in the 1970s, when I was a teenager (do the math), my mother had an old VW Beetle. On the backside of its lifespan, the car wasn’t road worthy. It was, however, suitable for the dirt track that wound its way through a deserted junkyard nearby. 

If memory serves, it was a four-speed, and my best friend and I took it for a tear through the junkyard. I’ll never forget the first time I shifted – got it from first to second – and it didn’t stall, buck, or otherwise explode. 

I never got it out of second gear that day, but no matter. I had successfully shifted

Eventually I got my learner’s permit and properly mastered driving a standard, but developed an unreasonable fear of the clutch. It was aptly named: Each time I took my foot off it and tried to engage first gear, I could feel my heart clutch in my chest as I bucked forward and stalled. Over and over. It became a dreaded game of chance. I stalled many a car on a hill, to both my horror and that of the driver behind me. 

I had already been hearing about how rigid and tight the aftermarket clutch in the Porsche was from Larry. He was definitely getting the hang of driving it but I had allowed an unreasonable fear to manifest itself in my brain. I was terrified I would stall it, break it, run someone over, or live the horror of unsuccessfully getting through the middle of a busy intersection.

We drove the car into town for some errands and Larry said, “You drive it back.” “No, thanks, I’m good,” I replied, feeling my heartbeat quicken.

After another stop, he said, “Come on, you really should try it.” I looked around the parking lot and saw way too many things for me to hit: other cars, mothers pushing strollers, handicapped parking signs, the store itself. Plus there was an incline to get out of the lot and onto the street, and I began to have flashbacks of rolling backwards, of my father’s panicked voice. (“Whoa. Whoa! WHOA!!!”)

Wait a minute. I drove a packed pickup truck hauling a 16’ trailer loaded with farming equipment from New York to Mississippi! By myself! And I was letting myself be intimidated by this bug of a car? I didn’t think so.

“Okay,” I said. “But let’s go someplace where it’s more open and flat.” We headed to an empty parking lot at the local college and traded places.

I stepped on the clutch, expecting it to fight back. It didn’t. I put the shifter in all six gears, to get the feel of where each one fit. I went back to first and aimed for that magical combination of left-foot-up-right-foot-down inherent in standards everywhere.

The car started to roll forward smoothly. I came out of the lot and onto the road. Second gear was easily attained. So far so good. 

Experience has taught me that third and fifth are NOT interchangeable, and I hate getting one when I’m shooting for the other. I slid into third and started to pick up some momentum.

The roads where we live are fairly straight and level. The speed limit to most people is, let’s say, a guideline. I came to the end of the street and turned right onto the open main road, towards home. First, second, third, fourth, all good.

It shifted smoothly. I put my right foot down. I could feel the car lower itself and hug the road as I went from fifth into sixth. And I flew.

Yep. Wow.

Beti Spangel and her husband, Larry Phillips, recently joined Porsche Club of America after Larry’s purchase of a 1999 Porsche 911 Carrera. Determined to support her husband’s passion for 911s and find her own, follow Beti’s stories of their (mis)adventures from the perspective of a Porsche greenhorn. Read her previous column here.

Photo courtesy Porsche

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