Jeff Gamroth has been building Porsche 911s since he was 15 years old. His shop, Rothsport Racing, is one of the preeminent Porsche preparers in the country. This year his team took the 911 way out of its comfort zone at the NORRA Mexican 1000 Baja race. Not only did two of his 911s finish, they made it back in decent shape!
Both vehicles were posted up on display at the Luftgekült air-cooled Porsche themed car show in California, still rocking Baja dirt, in transit back from the race to the Rothsport garage in Oregon.
I caught up with build boss Mr. Gamroth himself and Jeff Zwart, a storied racer in Baja, rally and elsewhere, and well-known Porsche enthusiast who drove one of the two Rothsport-prepped 911s at the Mexican 1000, to find out what it was really like to run rear-engine rear-drive performance cars through the rocks and sand and silt of Baja.
(Full disclosure: These conversations have been edited and organized to omit mumblings and maximize clarity. I spoke to Mr. Gamroth and Mr. Zwart separately, asking them a lot of the same questions.)
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The 2017 NORRA Mexican 1000 had a wacky and wonderful grid of competing vehicles, including a VW camper van, a 1959 Triumph TR3 that had competed in the first NORRA event half a century ago, a Ford Galaxy, a Chevy Nova, a ’57 Chevy and two air-cooled Porsche 911s.
The Porsches competed in the Vintage Production Car class, put down 320 horsepower, weighed around 3,200 pounds, packed nine inches of suspension travel and hit 106 mph over dirt according to one of the drivers.
Both cars were among the 130ish that finished, out of a starting grid of 260.
Jalopnik: So you’re the man behind this bone-headed brilliance?
Gamroth: “Me and my guys. I’m not taking all the credit! ...We started in May of last year and with the concept, and executed, and raced ’em last week.”
Jalopnik: Were these cars built specifically for Baja or were they hanging around from another event?
Zwart: “These were cars that were totally built for the race. Jeff [Gamroth] had an ‘itch’ to do this event, and build a 911 to do it. Then... he got another partner, Cameron Healy, [who was] the one who asked me to drive.
Healy contacted me probably back in October and said to ‘I’ve never done the Baja, I like driving cars with you, if you said you’d do Baja with me I’ll sign up for the Mexican 1000 and we’ll do it.’
And I’m like, oh, we’re gonna do it in a 911?
For me, in my world, if I can do something in a 911, it’s just... more... it validates it better for me? Naturally, you’re kinda concerned that it’s actually a ‘good choice,’ but they seriously built two amazing cars.
They’re pretty much Cup Car standards when you look at what they are, and we literally had no mechanical issues whatsoever. Went through the whole event on one set of tires, so real tribute to BF Goodrich [both vehicles ran DOT-legal KO2s, sized LT215/65R16], and really everything just worked really well.”
Jalopnik: What was the scope of the build?
Gamroth: “There’s isn’t really anything… that we haven’t touched.”
“The sheet metal on the outside of the car is all original. We have a fiberglass rear bumper that’s one piece instead of the three-piece PVC, but, the front bumper, fenders, doors, everything is all original. The tubs are highly reinforced, strengthened here and there, and tubing adding in the right places. Obviously a full FIA-legal roll cage, so we can run SCCA, RallyCross stuff, or anything like that. We want to be able to have the cars be usable, other than just for Baja.”
Jalopnik: So the plan is to keep running these cars?
Gamroth: “Oh yeah, we’re gonna keep running with ’em!”
Jalopnik: What’s been done to the engines?
Gamroth: “It’s a very mildly built [3.6-liter six-cylinder]. It’s very broad torque, very reliable, 320 horse, really good torque; stock is 247, it’s got my own intake and exhaust on it with MoTec management, six throttles.”
Zwart: “I was actually pretty mesmerized by [the engine.] ...You start pulling gears, third, fourth, fifth gear, and that thing is just diggin’ deep and pulling. It’s like, okay, I can do this.”
Jalopnik: And suspension?
Longer shocks gave the Rothsport 911s nine inches of travel, as much as the front half of a Chevy Colorado ZR2.
Zwart: “Tuthill, out of England, which ran the East African Safari, helped set up the car[’s suspension.] Nobody can quite imagine the beating it takes. To reinforce the car for the beating, you end up pretty heavy. With us all in it, full fuel, it was around 3,200 pounds. So you know it’s a lot of weight to manage in a rough situation.”
Jalopnik: So what were the trouble spots?
Zwart: “Anything deep- silt. And deep sand.
A 911 naturally has great traction, it’s just that if you don’t have any ground clearance… when you start sitting on the skid plates, the drag that it creates it just buries itself. So, I pretty much got stuck once a day.”
Gamroth: “The main thing was getting stuck. Because of our ground clearance and two-wheel drive. We didn’t have enough time to get the four-wheel drive developed enough.
These cars started out as C4s, and we turned em back to two-wheel mainly because of gearing. We couldn’t buy gears for the four-wheel drive front, ring and pinions, and you can’t get away with stock gears. They’re too tall. Maybe you could have, but, based on what I know now, I’m glad we went the way we went because gearing is important.”
Zwart: “It was really the ground clearance situation. You kinda had to kinda study some situations. I got out and walked one area, just to see... when we were chasing people we could see them drop into something and watch them slow down, watch them rock around, and we’d kinda go ‘there’s something over the edge there I better go take a closer look at,’ haha.”
Jalopnik: What would you do differently if you were going to run these cars in Baja again?
Zwart: “911s are fantastic, but, you know when you put ’em way up in the air they kind of hit a tipping point, and it’s not a real comfortable position for ’em. So I would obviously like to have more ground clearance, but when you think of having no mechanical issues whatsoever, [the build] was really something very positive.”
Gamroth: “I would go AWD and have ring and pinions made. Get close gears made. We’re gonna change a little design here and there on some of the skid plates to gain some ground clearance. But, other than that, we didn’t actually break anything.
The cars actually, for the pounding they took, they were amazing.”
Jalopnik: What did people think of these things when they saw them in Baja?
Gamroth: “[NORRA was] awesome. They did a fantastic job. They brought us up, the Porsches, and they actually said: ‘there’s a pool going around on how far you guys will make it.’ We were all going- ‘Yeah, well, we’ll see.’
We got mad props. We gained a lot of respect, I will say. Everybody was very cool.
We were around a lot of the same cars all the time. And so, those guys all said ‘hey man, keep going! You guys are awesome!’ They’d go by us in some of the gnarly, really, rough stuff. And on the high-speed stuff we’d just smoke ’em and they’d say ‘every time you guys went by, it was just awesome.’ They loved it!”
Jalopnik: Most memorable moments?
Gamroth: “The road went to the right, and I went straight because I couldn’t see. I was passing another car in his dust, and we didn’t adhere to the rule ‘drive what you can see.’ I flew off about a four-foot embankment, took out a cactus, took the mirror off the door and, landed, kept going. Pulled back onto the road. Luckily it wasn’t, uh, worse than that.”
Zwart: “For me, with a team that’s not really done the Baja 1000, you just want to get everyone to the finish and make sure that happens... For a rookie team to come in and finish both cars, that was awesome.
The off-road guys saw us on the first day and a lot of ’em know me, and came up and said ‘oh that’s really great you’re running 911s! You’re never gonna finish.’
And, my last stage, I passed eight off-road cars. I was there to make a point- not only that the 911 could get down there, but we could whoop a few people along the way.”