Cherie: Fuel for My Driving Passion

She came into my life right before Christmas in 2009. The large multi-car trailer carrying her from Chicago to Portland, OR was too large to make the turn into my residential neighborhood street. So my then-husband drove me down to West Burnside Rd., where the carrier had found a pullout next to the cemetery there by Sunset Blvd. 

My journey to Cherie all began one fateful morning while walking to my fourth-grade class. That morning, I made a vow to myself that I’d drive a Porsche someday. It took about twenty-five years to fulfill that goal. In late 2009, my active “Porsche Quest” started with a search for a 993 (a mid-90s 911 model) and then reoriented to the Cayman S, because its mid-engine layout provides a more balanced dynamic platform for high-performance driving. At the time, I was getting back into hard-core Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) autocross competition, and the first-generation Cayman S was envisioned to be an A-Stock killer.  

While I’d gotten into autocross racing back 2003, I set aside the sport for a while after my daughter was born in 2006. By the time she turned three, though, I was itching to get back into high-performance driving. My daily driver, a 2000 Mitsubishi Eclipse GT, unfortunately wasn’t a competitive machine. Also, I’d just had a banner year running a design and development consultancy with my then-husband. So, I made a successful pitch to spend money on my life-long Porsche dream, and the plan went into effect. I shopped for about three months all over the country before finding a 2006 Cayman S on eBay, equipped with the most desirable performance options (PASM, Sport Chrono, and, of course, manual transmission). In a gorgeous Arctic Silver Metallic with black leather interior, she embodied race car cool. 

And I fell in love with her from the moment I rowed through the gears as I fetched her home from the side of the road. The Cayman S is one of the most communicative and sweetly-tempered driving platforms out there. It says what it’s doing and then follows through, responding adroitly to all inputs. Her name came to me quickly: Cherie. Yes, a French name for a German car — I don’t know why, it just fit. 

Memorably, an early, spirited drive just on a local highway resulted in a cylinder misfire and engine shut-off. Through the years, this would prove to be her sole technical weakness: ignition coils/spark plugs that dislodge when the car’s driven super hard. In the world at large, there are other technical concerns of the 987.1 platform (as this first-generation Cayman came to be known to Porschephiles): turns out, rotating the 911’s six-cylinder engine 90 degrees without fully sorting out its oil delivery and consumption wasn’t the very best idea. However, my Cherie never had a whiff of a problem in this department.

Cherie brought me into new circles, and fundamentally changed the course of my life. In 2010, as hoped, I started out competing in the SCCA autocross season. I mounted a great set of tires for AS class on gold Allegherita lightweight rims, and the two-tone combination was a sight to behold.

Competing at an SCCA National Tour event:

Game face on:

That spring, it suddenly hit me — I now had a worthy car that I could take to the track! I looked around for options and ended up enrolling in an HPDE event organized by the local BMW club and held at my local road racing track, Portland International Raceway (PIR). HPDE stands for “high-performance driver’s education” — a forum where drivers can fundamentally get better at driving at the limit of their vehicle’s capabilities in a safe, controlled environment. HPDEs were about to take over my life…. 

I’ve always loved driving, from the first moments I got to learn how from my dad, and take the wheel. My Dad was a car guy, more on the passive side with Car & Driver and Road & Track magazine subscriptions, plus a hot VW GTI in the garage and later on, an Audi A4. We even went to see funny cars and drag races a couple of times when I was a kid. Growing up in the suburbs of Chicago, driving was a constant need; once we had our licenses, my friends and I would often just hop in the car to cruise around our suburban ‘hood, or jump onto the highway to explore downtown Chicago.

Now here I was about to drive my very own Porsche at a road racing track! That first amazing HPDE passed in a blur of learning challenges and pretty much non-stop fun. At the end of it, after receiving an absolute avalanche of driving advice and criticism, I dared ask my instructor, “Was there anything that I did well?” He responded, “You climbed the learning curve faster than most!” OK, whew! 

Rounding a corner:

That first year, 2010, I did a total of eight HPDE track days, as well as sixteen autocross events! At the beginning of that year, my first marriage also ended, sadly, and I was glad to find an outlet for myself. My autocross experience happily gave me a great handle on driving concepts and I dove into the track with both feet. On my second day, I was “solo qualified” and on my third, I was moved up to the intermediate group. During that year, I also went to events at Oregon Raceway Park, a super technical track in Grass Valley, Oregon, sporting elevation changes and exciting driving dynamics in both directions. My four-year-old daughter sometimes joined me for a weekend, and I’d hire a local babysitter in Grass Valley to come out and watch her while I drove.

For the start of the 2011 season, I drove down to California in March to experience Thunderhill Raceway. The winters are long and dark in Portland, Oregon, and driving events don’t really get underway until May. That second year with Cherie, I did 13 HPDEs (!!) which involved something like $3000 in attendance fees. I also got together with a new partner, Jeffrey, who was hugely supportive of my driving habit. He dubbed himself my “pit crew” and happily accompanied me to many events, watching my daughter and serving up lunches and hugs. 

Thunderhill in the rain:

I was even happy while changing tires:

I also started my 2012 season with a two-day event at Thunderhill in April, this time towing a little camping trailer so that Jeffrey and I could stay and be comfortable at the track. During that visit, I had the plasure of restoring some driving mojo to a lovely lady I’d just met; she ended up trading in her BMW for a Cayman S based on our fun experience together. Shortly after that, I was invited to become an HPDE instructor myself, via a Porsche Club of America training program. This development was a huge boon because instructors pay only a nominal fee to attend a track day since we work throughout the day by providing dedicated, individualized driving instruction to newer drivers.

Towing a camping trailer — people we passed on the freeway were taking pictures:


Every track day with a marque club has a similar rhythm, albeit with its own unique content. Driving is never exactly the same twice, which is one of its most beautiful qualities. Days would begin by arriving to the track around 7:30 am, with an initial tech inspection followed by a driver’s meeting. Usually, there would be four 20-minute driving sessions each day. As an instructor, I’d get four sessions to do my own driving with other advanced drivers, and I would join my assigned student when they’d drive during their four sessions. I usually offered my student a chance to ride in my passenger seat, to calibrate their “butt dyno” and give them a taste of the good stuff. We’d have a break for lunch, quaff water all day to stay alert and hydrated (I’d usually pound a Red Bull at the circadian dip around 2 pm), and the day would wrap up around 5 pm. There rarely would be any incidents such as crashes and breakdowns, although it was always possible. Blessedly, nobody was ever seriously hurt at any event I attended (although I sadly can’t say the same for every vehicle).  

Skies over PIR:

My assigned HPDE students usually had zero-to-little track driving experience. Their first session, with me in the passenger seat providing instruction via the intercom I’d install in their helmet, would involve learning the track’s line and general HPDE protocols, as well as addressing very basic good habits such as proper seating position, hand placement on the wheel, and most critically, looking ahead & up down the track’s line instead of getting fixated watching the zone closer to the car. For my own first driving session, I’d usually invite my student for a ride along. I’d warm the tires up for a lap or two driving at maybe 7/10ths, then begin to get serious.

PIR is a pretty basic track of 1.9 miles involving twelve corners (with the chicane), with no elevation changes and only ever run clockwise. Turn one happens after the long front straight where we get up into fifth gear and hit 110-120mph, followed by heavy straight-line braking into a right-hander chicane that bends left again and opens into corners three and four. Go over that little bump in the concrete between corners three and four. Then track out from four…gentle tap of the brakes to settle the front end…then make that smooth right turn into five and quickly make sure to track back out to the right to line up for the sick late-apex left-hander turn six. Then it’s hard braking and downshift to second for the right-hander turn seven, and little jog of eight that leads onto the back straight. Stay close to the wall, be as straight as possible through the nigh-undetectable turn nine, full-throtlling up into third, fourth, maybe even fifth gear again and watching the speedometer climb — then wait, wait, wait to the last second to apply heavy, hard braking to enter turn 10. I spent many, many track days at PIR working intensively on the 10-11-12 turn combination that finishes the lap and drops you back onto the front straight. Left into ten, right into eleven, trail brake and curve right into twelve…. Ah, so good! Nod at the lead flagger on the start line, and track back out asap to the left wall to maximize the big straightaway! Yep, I know that track better than the back of my hand.

In 2013, I ended up adding another track, Pacific Raceways, to the driving mix, as NASA (the National Auto Sport Association, that is) launched a Pacific Northwest franchise and recruited me to be an instructor. Their events were pretty cool because they offered “Time Trials” where your car gets fitted with a transponder, and lap times are recorded as part of a class-based competition. In our region, I was perennially second place to a souped-up Mustang driven by a fellow instructor, and have a bunch of silver medals to prove it. That fellow seemed nice until one day he was coaching me in my passenger seat at my request when he suddenly grabbed my steering wheel instead of providing verbal instruction. I really don’t know if he did that because I’m a woman or because he wasn’t too comfortable speaking English as a second language, but just: no! 

Readers might be wondering, what it was like to be a “track rat” (as we like to call ourselves) as a cis het female person? In my own anecdotal observations, women drivers comprise maybe 5% of HPDEs participants, while most autocross events might have more like 15% representation. I’ve personally never really cared about being an outlier for my gender; I am what I am and I like what I like. My fellow instructors and advanced drivers were uniformly respectful and friendly.  My main concern along the way was getting students who wouldn’t take me seriously as an instructor. Fortunately, I felt that vibe from my students only very rarely; and if there was the slightest whiff of that condescension at the start of the day, it’d take approximately 60 seconds (that is, half a lap, or less) of being in my passenger seat for any doubts on their part to completely evaporate. There’s simply no pretense involved when it comes to skilled driving.     

My sweet Cherie was an incredibly reliable machine. I developed her capabilities gradually over the years, while diligently keeping up with her regular maintenance such as oil changes and fluid flushes. The first mods in 2010 were a short-shifter kit, wheel spacers, braided steel brake lines, and a front sway bar. I had a little hidden trailer hitch installed behind the rear license plate in order to tow a set of race wheels & tires to the track. It’s super easy on the Cayman to change out the stock brake pads for track-worthy brake pads when you swap the wheels. I got that routine down to about 20 minutes for all four corners. In 2014, I had a Recaro race seat and a Schroth 6-point harness installed, which delivered a huge upgrade in driving comfort and overall ability to push her to the limits without exhausting myself. 

2014 saw the arrival of another driving organization to the Pacific NW region: Hooked on Driving (HOD). This was a positive development, since HOD takes a more customer-oriented view of HPDEs than other marque clubs and automotive associations. HOD serves nice lunches and generally treats its attendees very well. Instead of being “instructors”, we were labeled “coaches” and advised to provide a more supportive attitude while developing the driving skills of attendees. The Motorsports Safety Foundation also started up a series of courses for driving instruction, and I eventually became a “Level 2 certified” high-performance driving instructor. 

2015 was a relatively quiet year for us on the HPDE front, with six track days. Jeffrey and I married in January, honeymooned in Spain that summer, and generally prioritized more time on our motorcycles that year — which is another wonderful sporting activity he introduced me to that I absolutely fell in love with (which doesn’t have a place in this story, however)!

Then, the spring of 2016 was a big leap forward for Cherie, as I spent the entirety of a big corporate bonus on a lightweight flywheel, performance clutch, limited slip differential, and top-end rebuild of the engine. Somewhat confoundingly, though, I was recruited in the middle of that year for a big job based in Sydney, Australia. Jeffrey and I packed up our belongings, rented out our house, and moved to Australia for an adventure. A Porsche Club friend let me park Cherie in his temp-controlled garage — battery removed, set up on blocks — for a nominal monthly fee. I wish my Cayman could have gone to Oz, too; however, in the end, we were only outside the country for about fifteen months. (And that’s yet another story for another time….)  

After returning back to Portland in the late fall of 2017, Jeffrey received a devastating cancer diagnosis. He passed away just eight weeks later. Enveloped in grief, I returned to the track. I’m grateful for the driving community that held me up and kept me engaged in life as I dealt with that tragic loss. My first track day instructor, with whom I’d developed a good if complicated friendship, invited me out to an ORP Club event. I ended up becoming a member of this private group in mid-2018. Instead of offering an HPDE format with instructors & students, the ORP Club is simply a playground for experienced drivers to get all the track time you can eat between 9 am – noon and 1 pm – 5 pm. After years of instructing, I really appreciated being able to dedicate driving days to maintaining my own headspace and focusing on my own driving skills. I didn’t care much about the added expense. 

In 2019, installing a full cat-back race exhaust on Cherie transformed her mid-engine burbles into veritable roars. No longer a subtle sports car flying under the radar while driving around town, I was master of a howling, spitting beast of a machine. I could barely wipe the grin off my face the entire time I was behind her wheel. Sadly, the newly-loud sound made my dogs miserable so I could no longer take them with me to events. Hearing my music (besides that produced by the exhaust, that is) became more difficult, too. Still, zero regrets about that modification! 

ORP is a very different track from PIR. It’s 2.3 miles long, with fifteen corners and some serious elevation changes, and it can also be run either clockwise or counterclockwise. I do prefer its clockwise direction, even though that fifteenth corner that leads into the front straight is a puckery, off-camber, car-eating corner, and indeed the CCW direction grew on me over the years (primarily for its novelty factor). ORP is perhaps the most technical track on the west coast, with some very complex corner combinations. I especially love its stunning right-hand “bowl”, which is a big loop that you drop into straight downhill before doing a double-apex right-hander, followed by exiting into a wicked left-right-left combo of turns — then charging back uphill into a mini-straight. The track’s many nuances require tons of shifting between second, third, and fourth gears — and has several “gotta believe” moments where you need to trust the track’s still in the same place it was the last time you came through because you sure can’t see that next corner on the other side of the hill you’re charging up.

A fellow track buddy chasing Cherie at ORP:

And the perennial truth is, time just marches on. We all know what happened to the planet in early 2020, and most HPDE events were cancelled that year, although ORP Club kept on. I gained a new romantic partner that spring, Armand, who happily shares my love for cars (and motorcycles). He joined me at the track in my Cayman for his first high-performance driving experiences, including learning how to drive a manual transmission properly. (He was badly misled years ago by somebody who taught him that one should never use the brake and the clutch at the same time. Uh, say what?? To date, somewhat hilariously, the biggest disagreement we’ve ever had involves debating the merits of manual versus automatic transmissions.) 

Somehow, though, I barely drove Cherie at all in 2021. I had to admit that I found myself thoroughly plateaued in terms of advancing my own driving skills in the Cayman. My lap times at all my regular tracks were profoundly repetitive, as I was working to eke out 0.1 or 0.2 second improvements here and there, and only when I had a stellar lap. I started to pine for a high-horsepower machine, while feeling guilty for thinking any negative thoughts about my beloved Cherie. While I thought I might own her forever, I had to acknowledge that it was time to part ways and create space for new experiences. I certainly did not want to keep a high-performance driving machine parked, quiet and lonely, in the garage.        

So Cherie went on sale in early November 2022, at almost the same price I’d paid for her way back in 2009. I very much hoped to pass her into the hands of another high-performance driving aficionado, and a few months later, that’s exactly what happened. In an amusing final turn of events, the auto hauler that arrived to carry her down to a Porsche Club guy in Texas was too big to turn into my current neighborhood, and I had to drive her down to where the carrier had parked on the side of Burnside Rd — just seven miles east on the very same road where I first picked her up. Cherie continues to be a beloved track beast, and I’ve even been promised some pictures from an HPDE she’ll be doing at the Circuit of the Americas next month. 

Cherie taught me so much — providing fire and fuel for one of the biggest passions in my life to date. She was with me for a grand total of thirteen years, which is exactly as long as my longest human relationship to date. While I climbed that first steep learning curve quite quickly, I continued to dedicate myself intensely to this difficult sport in order to keep inching forward up the subsequent slopes. I took good care of her mechanical needs myself in various ways, and relied on quality shops for everything I couldn’t handle. I learned how to transmit driving knowledge and contagious passion for the sport while retaining my own beginner mind and always seeking to learn from those around me. Ultimately, her last big lesson to me was another opportunity for the universe to show me what’s always necessary: accept, and let go. 

By the numbers, over 13 years comprising 11 driving seasons:

  • Miles put on the car: 40,223
  • Track days: 81.5
  • Autocross events: 26
  • Sets of performance tires purchased: 10
  • Different tracks driven: 5
  • Joy generated: Infinity

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