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HomeCar CultureArtwork reveals insects’ role in the evolution of the Porsche 917

Artwork reveals insects’ role in the evolution of the Porsche 917

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Artist Heidi Mraz’s latest work, “Aerodynamics by Entomology,” uses 1,000 butterflies “to portray the metamorphosis of Porsche’s 917 from an unstable monster to an immortal race car,” according to the news release about the work’s unveiling this past weekend.

While Mraz chose butterflies, which undergo a transformation in their development, to illustrate the car’s evolution in her 4 x 6-foot work, it was another insect, gnats, that actually led to the car’s success.

“The little-known account of John Horsman’s epiphany and how he modified the 917 inspired me on so many levels that I felt the need to share the story through my art.” Mraz is quoted in the news release. 

Porsche's, Artwork reveals insects’ role in the evolution of the Porsche 917, ClassicCars.com Journal
Artist at work
Porsche's, Artwork reveals insects’ role in the evolution of the Porsche 917, ClassicCars.com Journal

Using butterflies as the medium was a natural choice. Symbolically, butterflies draw a variety of parallels to the 917’s story. They are an insect like the dead gnats that covered the car; both the 917 and the butterfly are lightweight, and each needed to undergo a metamorphosis in order to mature. Both are also symbols of immortality despite having short life cycles.”

The news release shares the story of Horsman’s discovery:

“In 1969, following a lethal crash at Le Mans, Porsche’s engineers and Works drivers took the dangerously unstable 917 out to the Osterreichring racetrack in Austria to see if they could determine why it tended to lift off the track at high speed. An excerpt from Gulf 917 by Jay Gillotti stated, ‘In hindsight, the handling problems that the drivers initially complained about with the 917 can be seen as rooted in the aerodynamics. It is also important to remember that aerodynamics for racing cars was still something of a black art in 1969. Formula One cars had only just sprouted primitive wings and ground-effect tunnels were still years away’.

“When the car returned to the pit, Porsche’s JWAE team manager and engineer, John Horsman, noticed dead gnats covering the car except on the rear spoilers. Horsman realized that this meant there was little or no airflow to the tail and therefore insufficient downforce to keep the car on the track at speed. Horsman quickly modified the car with aluminum sheets and duct tape and, on the next test drive, the Works driver was able to race around the circuit at record speed while keeping the 917 on the asphalt.”

“Now it’s a racing car!” driver Brian Redman reportedly proclaimed. 

Porsche's, Artwork reveals insects’ role in the evolution of the Porsche 917, ClassicCars.com Journal

And indeed it was. The 917 posted Porsche’s first overall victory at Le Mans in 1970 and won again in 1971 and, as the Mraz news release notes, “continues to be celebrated as one of the greatest racing legends of all time, despite a racing career cut short due to evolving FIA regulations.” The 917 also was the car featured in Steve McQueen’s movie, Le Mans, and the car comprised of butterflies in Mraz’s artwork is done in the famed blue and orange Gulf Oil colors.

“This extraordinary piece of art is made from approximately 1000 paper butterflies and other insects that match the iconic Gulf car’s blue and orange racing livery,” the news release points out. “Hand-cut, placed and pinned, the butterflies add poignant dimension and illusion of movement to the artistic portrayal of the 917.

We’re told Mraz selected chassis 917-022 for the portrait because of its iconic status, and because it was part of the Porsche 917 class at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance, where she was able to collect primary source information about the car. 

Next, she created an entomology-inspired piece, the 917 Specimen Box, that highlights each of the 917s with butterfly-shaped cut-outs created from photos shot while the cars were at Pebble Beach.

Working from a studio in Great Falls, Virginia, Mraz specializes in historic automotive projects and is in production of a feature-length documentary, Automotive Artifacts, which chronicles the behind-the-scenes work involved her artistic assemblages.

Larry Edsall
A former daily newspaper sports editor, Larry Edsall spent a dozen years as an editor at AutoWeek magazine before making the transition to writing for the web and becoming the author of more than 15 automotive books. In addition to being founding editor at ClassicCars.com, Larry has written for The New York Times and The Detroit News and was an adjunct honors professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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