Not long after I started Gears, Guns, and Grub I had the opportunity to do an interview with Jack Olsen. Jack is a Hollywood screenwriter who also happens to be a car guy to the core. Being a car guy, Jack needed a space where he could fine tune his projects (specifically his 72 Porsche 911). As most of us with humble suburban garages can attest, space is a premium. Jack has been able to seemingly maximize every square inch. So much so in fact, that his garage has been featured in videos and publications countless times. With Project Viper coming into full swing, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my little slice of garage heaven. With that in mind, and realizing that our readership has grown so much in the past year, I’ve decided to share Jack’s interview once again. Enjoy!!!!
If you’ve ever done a simple Google search for terms like “perfect 911” or “ultimate garage”, there is a very good chance that you have stumbled across the name Jack Olsen. Years of pure determination and the pursuit of perfection has resulted in numerous articles, videos, and web articles, on both Jack’s 1972 Porsche 911 and his amazingly functional 2 car home garage. Jack has also put together a web page outlining the process at 12gaugegarage.com
Jack was gracious enough to agree to an interview with me at Gears, Guns, and Grub. I hope you enjoy our interview. Also be sure to click on the many links to view some of what Jack has accomplished. Enjoy the interview:
For our readers that aren’t familiar with you, can you tell us a little about yourself?
Sure. My name is Jack Olsen and I work as a screenwriter here in Los Angeles. But if you want to know what I’m REALLY interested in? Well, my hobby/weekend car is a 1972 Porsche 911 that I originally bought in 1999 and have been driving and racing ever since. I also like building stuff — both for my family and for my kid’s school.
Let’s talk about your Porsche. Watching the Petrolicious video “Porsche 911: One Car to Do It All”, I loved hearing about your long-term history with the car, and the pursuit of your perfect all around vehicle. Can you walk our readers through a little of the history between you and your machine?
Well, as I said, I originally bought it in 1999. At that time, I’d never even sat inside a 911. But we all know how things can spiral with cool gear and all those discussions on the internet. By the time I was ready to pick the car up, I’d learned a great deal about the history of the model and the company that made it — and I’d also already booked my first track day. I’d found the car in Indiana, so my first drive was taking it from there back to Los Angeles. A friend came along for moral support, but I never let the poor guy even take the wheel. The 911 and I were pretty tight, right from the beginning.
And by the end of that first track day, I had a whole new wish list for the car. I’d driven karts as a kid, but had largely forgotten about it in the decades since. But when I got out there on a track, a lot of my priorities for the car rearranged themselves to line up with that karting experience all over again. More than anything, I wanted to do work on the suspension. It wasn’t a slow car to start with, but the 911 has had so much development work done on it over its 50-year history that I knew there were some great options to make it significantly quicker.
At the same time, I wanted it to be a car I could daily drive. So I couldn’t take the smart path of simply buy a successful track car that someone else had already sunk their retirement funds into. I wanted the thing to be capable on a track, but also comfortable enough to tool around canyon roads and even go for trips to the grocery store. So I found a way to make air conditioning work, and kept a leather interior, but also came up with aero pieces I could bolt on for track days and take off again for the drive home. It might be easier to simply own one car for the track and one for regular driving, but I’m hard-headed about some things.
Another video “You Can Only think About One thing” features your race history and the remarkable things you’ve been able to accomplish on a relatively low budget. Do you have any advice for others with relatively little mechanical background and tight budgets?
In both my day job and my hobby, the constraints can seem frustrating — but they actually help in eliminating the kind of paralysis that can set in when you have all the options in the world open to you. When my wife and I had our first kid, I knew that my days of well-funded club racing were coming to an end — at least for a while. There was just no way I could tell her that I was going to be disappearing for seven weekends a year and feel good about myself. So I took that limitation and turned it into a project. I would just go to my one local track, and I’d focus on making my particular car as quick as it could be at that one, particular track. My initial goal was to be faster than anyone else I’d meet with my same power-to-weight ratio. I knew my budget was not going to allow any kind of crazy power mods or one-set-a-weekend tires. So I got humble and talked to a lot of people who knew more than I did. I ended up finding a guy who is phenomenal with suspension and chassis tuning. And then I learned to save as much money as I could by learning how to do a lot of the work on the car myself.
One nice thing about simply looking to improve your lap time at one particular track is that you don’t have to be on any particular schedule to get there. In club racing, you break something and you often have to find a way to get the car up and running again in time for the next event — which can mean writing much bigger checks than you need to in order to not lose your place in the standings. Since I’m only competing against myself, I’m in less danger of getting into that ‘whatever it takes and I’ll hide the receipts from my wife’ mindset. As long as my lap times keep coming down, I figure I’m on the right path.
Plus, there’s something I’ve really enjoyed about the simplicity of finding every last hundredth of a second in my particular car at this one track. It’s led to finding low-budget ways to test aerodynamic add-ons, and it’s encouraged me to find cheap-or-free ways to whittle down the weight of my car. It’s easy to get lost in the fun of finding just a little bit more when you were certain a year ago that you’d already found everything you could.
It’s icing on the cake when I learn that my relatively-low-powered car can beat the lap times of much newer and much more expensive models, even when they’re driven by professionals. I’ve narrowed my focus down to my local track, Willow Springs Raceway, and its particular idiosyncrasies. My low overall weight and well-developed suspension will embarrass a lot of well-known sports cars at this track, in part because I know exactly what it takes to get around this particular (high-speed, with lots of sweepers) track effectively. And since I drive my car to the track and run it on actual street tires (not just DOT-legal ones), I can make convincing apples-to-apples arguments for why modern production cars are often great but are still much too heavy. My lightweight car is hard to beat when it comes to sustained cornering speeds.
How often do you have the opportunity to race? What type of events do you typically run?
I haven’t done wheel-to-wheel racing in several years. My focus has been on time-trialing, and I go about 8 times a year. The nice thing about Southern California is that you can race year-round. My quickest times come in December and January, where the cold makes the air a little denser and my little motor makes as much power as it possibly can.
It’s fair to say that you’ve gained quite a bit of popularity for the amazing garage you’ve put together. Have you been surprised at the response, and just how many times has the garage been showcased in magazines, calendars, web pages, etc.?
Yes, I’m still surprised that it gets the attention it gets. And I’m still surprised by how lucky I was to get the design working so well, considering I’m not at all trained in that sort of thing. The constraints are what made it do-able, I think. I started re-doing my garage when there was a writers’ strike in 2007. So the first constraint was financial. I had no idea how long it would be before the strike was resolved and I could start working again. So I was not able to spend much at all. Another constraint was space. I’m in the city, where even a 20×20 garage is a luxury. There is no possible way to go any bigger in my case since two of my garage walls sit right on the property line. So I had to think about how all the space I had could be utilized most effectively for all the different things I’d be doing there.
The thing I didn’t foresee was that the practical solutions I was being forced to come up with would hit such a note with other guys. It turns out, there are a lot of people out there who can’t tear up thousand-dollar bills all day long in order to get the shop they want. So my more-modest set of solutions resonated with a pretty broad demographic. But still, when I click on some of the analysis tools on my web page and videos — and see the numbers of people in places like Eastern Europe or Africa who are studying what I’ve done — well, it still surprises me.
How long have you been working on the garage, and do you ever consider it finished?
The bulk of the work was in 2007 and 2008, but then I’ve slowly gone through and re-thought some of the larger components. It will never be finished, honestly. But it’s like a lot of things where the first 20% of the time produces 80% of the results, while the last 80% of the time is spent finishing off that final 20% of the job. At this point, I don’t have any plans to change any of the benches or tool storage or big things like that. The place does what it needs to do pretty well. But there are always little fixes in the works for one thing or the other that’s bugging me.
Articles I’ve read claim unbelievable numbers in terms of how little you’ve had to spend to reach the current state of the garage! For me, it’s inspiring to know that this type of space can be built well within reach of a lot of everyday enthusiasts. Can you review with the readers just how much you’ve roughly spent?
I’ve spent about $3,500 on everything in the place, excluding the tools themselves (and the Porsche). That includes the lift, the flooring, and all the cabinets. But the real investment for me was time. Since I couldn’t afford new cabinets or benches, I got good at picking up damaged industrial stuff and then found ways to repair or repurpose it in order to fit into my plan. The reason the shop is painted in such a consistent way is to cover up the fact that my cabinets and benches come from so many different starting pieces.
The side benefit of this beggars-can’t-be-choosers approach is that it forced me to learn a lot of new skills in order to get everything put together. So I learned to set tile when I put in the floor. And I learned to weld in order to build benches and tool storage. When I decided I wanted a lift, I found a way to adapt an industrial hydraulic lift table to the task, cutting into my concrete pad so the top of the lift could sit flush with the rest of the floor. I learned to make forms and pour concrete that week. It’s a skill that’s come in handy since then.
Now, my wife would make the point — and it’s a valid one — that if you took the dollar value of my hours that have gone into the shop and added them up, the place is no longer a miracle of economy. But some guys can spare money more easily than time. In my case, there was always a way to stay up a little later at night or get up a little earlier in the morning. That’s the thing I had to spend.
What would you say is the one part of your garage that you just can’t live without?
Well, the thing that has surprised me the most is the lift. I thought I’d be using it maybe once or twice a month — that’s why I wanted it sunk down into the floor. But I use it MUCH more often than I expected. Especially as I get older, it’s a real treat to be able to bring things up to me rather than be down on my knees on the hard floor. Even working under the dash is easier when you can stand to do it instead of crouching.
But the ‘design’ decision I appreciate the most is the amount of workbench surface I put in. I’ve fit 10 different work surfaces into the garage, which might sound crazy. But for the way I work, I know that one bench would fill up in the first hour of a project and I’d be kneeling on the floor or pushing stuff out of the way so often that the whole job would lose momentum. I have benches that fold down from the wall, and one that even lowers down from the ceiling. It’s surprising how much I use all of them — especially on bigger carpentry or metal fab projects. Having just one bench would make me lose my mind, I think. Crazy as it sounds, ten seems just about right.
If you had to leave our readers with one piece of advice for putting together their ideal car, or shop, what would it be?
Well, cars can be a lot of things to a lot of different guys, so I’m not going to give much advice on that. ‘Find the car you love and don’t ever sell it.’ But when it comes to a garage or shop, my big piece of advice is to keep the idea of storage and the idea of workspace as separate from each other as you can. As soon as you let the floor of your garage become storage space, you’re slipping down a slope and it’s going to be hard to get back to the top. ‘The floor is not a shelf’ is worth repeating. I like having a lot of tool and supply storage in the garage. But I work hard to keep things like holiday ornaments or lawn mowers or bicycles out of it. I built a shed for most of that stuff — and I found other solutions for the kids’ bikes and toys. A working space shouldn’t be something you need to move a lot of clutter out of every time you want to get something done.
Beyond that, tailor your workspace honestly to your own work habits. The world thinks I’m an obsessive-compulsive neat-freak, based on the pictures they see. But that’s only because I came up with a shop I could clean up easily after it (inevitably) gets buried in tools and debris from one project or another. I am a messy worker and something of a pack rat. But I came up with a way to operate my shop that lets me keep those tendencies from getting out of control. I know this might seem counterintuitive, but having an organizational scheme — a ‘place for everything — means I waste a lot less time finding stuff and moving stuff before I can even get a job started. It did mean an investment of time up-front, but it’s paid off in all the years since then. My shop is never more than an hour away from looking like it does in the picture. And that makes it a place I’m much happier doing work in.
Here are just a few links so that you can learn more about Jack, his car, and his garage!