There’s not much for tourists in the heel of the boot that is Italy. No big cities, no centers of culture or museums stuffed with Renaissance masterpieces. But if you’re an automaker working on something new, this is where you want to be.
Since 1975, car makers have been heading to Apulia, near the coast of the Ionian Sea, to test their wares at Porsche’s Nardò Technical Center, which celebrates its 40th birthday this month.
Built by Fiat and bought by Porsche in 2012, the center’s open to all vehicle manufacturers (for a price, naturally). The region’s mild climate allows for year-round testing and offers 20 tracks that provide everything you need to see just how well a car works.
There’s a 3.9-mile handling track with 16 curves, great for testing performance, reliability, and tire quality. The special pavements track has rails, cobblestone, pot holes, long waves, and washboarded sections for testing noise, vibrations, harshness, and durability. The tire laceration road simulates “extreme conditions.” The rolling track simulates driving on a low friction surface—like ice—with parallel rows of steel rolls. There’s a workshop and office areas, and systems to test car’s corrosion resistance.
But the real star at Nardò is the high-speed circular track. It’s 7.8 miles around and 2.5 miles in diameter. The outer lane is banked at more than 12 degrees, so at 150 mph, the centrifugal force is effectively canceled out, making it easier for test drivers to mash the gas pedal into the floor for hours at a time. That’s useful for testing the endurance of production cars as well as the viability of entirely new ideas. This is where the VW concept car W12 Nardò drove 4,810 miles in 24 hours, putting up an average speed of 200 mph.
Of course, much of the testing that goes on at Nardò is more mundane, taking care of the everyday stuff cars need to do to keep their owners happy—hit a pothole without falling apart, driving in the sun without overheating. That’s a good thing. But a place that lets you drive 200 mph for an entire day and night? That’s worth a birthday party.