Airgas-Safeway turns heads with Porsche team cars

The young team, which is known for its leader, Chris Horner, is a noticeable presence in Utah, driving hybrid Porsche Panamera team cars.

The fledging Airgas-Safeway team is still seeking competitive clout in the pro peloton. But the squad has attracted major attention — if only in the race caravan — at the Tour of Utah.

The first-year team and its exuberant owner, Chris Johnson, secured the use of two 2015 Porsche Panamera hybrids as team cars for the biggest race of its short tenure.

Subaru is a race sponsor and there’s the usual assortment of manufacturers represented among team vehicles, from Kia to Volvo. But it’s a safe bet to assume the two $110,000 high-performance, four-door hybrid sports cars with 380 horsepower are a first in the sport.

“I think cycling is a perfect type of audience; a lot of cyclists drive Porsches,” said Johnson prior to the stage 3 start on Antelope Island State Park. “It’s a very nice, high-end clientele within the cycling world.

“I think cyclists can appreciate it. It’s a hybrid. It’s obviously energy efficient. It’s good for the environment. And it has style. Everybody is just turning their heads. We want to keep it fun, and it is a really practical car.”

Johnson drove one of the Panamera models to the event from San Francisco, with a friend piloting the other.

Team cars traditionally are wagons or crossovers with substantial interior space and wide rooflines for carrying at least a half-dozen bikes and plenty supplies. Each of the Panamera vehicles carries three bikes with a unique rack system.

“While the Panamera is not a traditional station wagon, it has a pass-through,” said Johnson. “There’s an incredible amount of space. I’m sure it was designed more for golfers than cyclists, but as a professional cycling team, we are taking advantage of its space.

“Typically, we like to carry more bikes, but you have to respect the vehicle. Were using a Porsche-branded racks made by Thule. We’re using the full-frame mounts.”

Although Johnson didn’t calculated his gas mileage while driving to the event, he estimated it achieved just under 30 mpg. The cars made it the more than 500-mile trek from San Francisco to Elko, Nevada before requiring additional fuel. Each has a 21-gallon gas tank and a eight-speed automatic transmission.

“Yesterday [stage 2], we had some fun on the descent; I’m amazed at how it just holds the road,” said Bart Bowen, the team director and the former pro whose personal car is an Audi A6. “In the caravan it’s so smooth. There’s obviously a sport mode, but if you touch the gas, it’s too much. But in the efficiency mode, pacing the guys, it’s just classic.”

While the Porsches stand out among bike race vehicles, it’s not the first time a team has driven unusual cars. Several years ago, the ill-fated Rock Racing team used the gas-guzzling Cadillac Escalade sport utility vehicle during the Tour of California. It was a fitting choice considering its controversial owner, Michael Ball.

“I think his branding was a little more aggressive,” said Johnson about Ball. “We are trying to be classy and fun. Our image is like a fun, young team. And who doesn’t like to drive a Porsche?

Johnson said the team is trying to secure an arrangement with Porsche of North America to drive the Panameras again at the team’s next major presence, the Reading 120 in Pennsylvania in September.