Porsche's Los Angeles Experience Center: A theme park for car lovers

When I drove to Los Angeles from my Bay Area home recently, my wife and 12-year-old daughter visited Disneyland. I headed to my ideal theme park: the Porsche Experience Center in Carson.

There are no lines at the Porsche Experience Center. There are 77 shiny near-new Porsches, one of which was reserved for me: a beautiful cobalt blue 911 GTS.

Anyone 21 or over with a driver’s license valid in any state or foreign land — plus $585 — can do the same. (Different cars and packages are offered at different prices.) The money’s good for 90 minutes with a Porsche and private coach at what the company calls a “53-acre sports car playground.”

There’s a twisty-turny 1.3-mile “handling circuit.” There’s an “acceleration straight” that functions as a drag strip. There’s an ice hill, an off-road zone, a soaking-wet, slippery skid pad and more.

My GTS rumbled at the starting line of the acceleration straight. I had the fully loaded model, with 450 horsepower, 405 pound-feet of torque, a 3.9-second zero-to-60-mph time and a price tag well north of $150,000. The base car comes with a manual shifter, but this one was equipped with the Porsche Doppelkupplung setup, which smoothly combines manual and automatic modes.

The strip runs nearly a mile before reaching a 33 percent banked curve modeled after a freaky turn at the famed Nurburgring racetrack in Germany. My coach was an amiable young man named Ricky Downton, who grew up outside Atlanta fixing cars with his older brother.

“OK, we’re in launch mode,” he shouted at me from the passenger seat. “Press hard on the brake with your left foot. Push the gas pedal flat to the floor. Flat!”

I released the brake. The car rocketed forward. G-forces thrust my back into the seat while crawling traffic on an adjacent highway blurred into gray mist in my peripheral vision.

I heard Downton yelling at my right foot. “Keep it flat! Keep it flat!”

My spirit was willing, but my body betrayed me. A rush of adrenaline was accompanied by a tiny twinge of fear. Before I could beat it, my foot involuntary lifted itself a mere millimeter off the pedal for a nanosecond. I managed a disappointing 110 mph.

On the handling circuit, it became clear that the Porsche Experience wasn’t just a place to drive a hot car. In 90 minutes, you can learn to drive more like a pro.

I’ve always thought of myself as a good driver. But my coach humbled me in no time.

I hit the corners too fast. I hit the corners too slow. I hit the brakes too heavy, or too light or not quite at the right time. Same with the gas. I under-turned, and I over-turned.

My biggest problem is a common one, even among sports car owners, Downton told me. It involved my eyeballs.

Instead of following the road hundreds of feet ahead where the twists and turns would be taking me, my eyes too often were drilled into the curve I was headed directly into. That forced me to brake too hard, adjust my steering to compensate, lose speed, and look clumsy while I got back on track.

Most people, Downton said, are “looking at the bumpers of the car in front of them. You’ve got to train yourself to pick up your eyes, look what’s happening ahead of you.”

Simply by raising my eyes, I improved my circuit performance considerably, moving through it smoother, and faster, with more confidence. These sorts of lessons — transferable to public highways — are available at driving schools across the country, as well.

But the center is meant more than anything to boost the Porsche brand and sell more cars. Opened in 2016 on an old golf course at a cost of $60 million, the Porsche center is one of five worldwide, joining Atlanta; Leipzig, Germany; Silverstone, England; and Le Mans, France. Shanghai is next on the list.

There’s a Porsche store on site, of course, with Porsche hats and shirts and sunglasses; a cafe; and a high-end restaurant. The center’s lobby serves as a museum showing off historic Porsches, including a version of the famed 1,580-horsepower 1973 Porsche 917/30 race car, the one with the gigantic rear spoiler wing that looms over the vehicle like some comic book creation.