There seems an undying cultural fascination with playing a Mulligan for those teenage years that most of us figure we probably sliced into the rough. This rose-colored rear-view implies that period of our lives would have been a ball, if only we'd been a bit smarter.
Thing is, you've got to get smarter first, which is exactly why those years are tough. VW recognizes the importance of helping kids grow up as a critical ingredient of its TDI Cup pro series, a development series for drivers between 16 and 26 years old.
VW's plan with the series is to showcase its TDI technology in a way most consumers wouldn't expect-in racecars-while helping aspiring young racers develop into bona fide professionals.
We could be excused for thinking that would mean coaching a bunch of kids on the finer points of phrases such as "It was one of them racin' deals," and "It is what it is," with post-graduate study in areas such as, "Trash-talking without mentioning anyone by name." For example, "We was runnin' good 'til the 67 car come down on us." Oh yeah, and of course, there must be some training on how to speak in the royal "we" form at all times. "We were late for the start because we were in the bathroom," would be the ultimate example.
Instead, VW's series is helping drivers mature by polishing their driving skills with coaching and by helping them learn the importance of bringing the car home in the points when a win is not in the offing.
"We didn't have anything like this when I was coming up," observed Ward Burton, who added that he was 24 before he strapped into his first racecar for a contest at his local South Boston (Va.) Speedway. The 2002 Daytona 500 winner was on hand to support his 16-year-old son Jeb, who like me was a guest driver at the season-opener. The event, at Virginia International Raceway, was run in support of the Grand-Am series, so prospective future employers filled the paddock during the TDI Cup race.
Playing the part of the hard-ass teacher who the kids complain about but come to appreciate later is Champ Car series refugee Jan Heylen. Just like my old algebra teacher, Mr. Keith, Heylen has no patience for slacking. "Wake up!" he barked during a mandatory driver's meeting, flinging a pen in the direction of a student he deemed insufficiently attentive. I remember being on the receiving end of those projectiles, but c'mon, racing is a hell of a lot more interesting than algebra.
For the drivers, some of whom aren't far removed from having mom shuttle them around and keep them on time, the overriding theme of the TDI Cup's driver development program is one of personal responsibility. Drivers must attend meetings on time-or the 'rents will pay a $150 fine. They must go over their cars after each session with a checklist, logging any damage, which they must pay to repair. They are required to wash their cars themselves after every track session, emphasizing that their car is their responsibility, and not a problem to be dumped off onto the normally overworked and underappreciated technicians who keep the cars on track.
AIM data acquisition provides each driver (sometimes damning) evidence for comparison against baselines set by their fastest peers or by Heylen. With the unblinking computer recording their every move, an array of cameras providing the Sports Car Club of America chief steward a constant view of on-track action, and with Heylen and co-instructor, off-road racer Mark Miller, circulating on the track with the students, personal accountability is inescapable.
Kids can escape from driving errors revealed by the data. They can't escape judgment errors revealed by their car's damage, they can't escape focus errors in meetings, they can't escape maturity errors in the interactions with one another, VW executives and sponsors. They are coached in all of these aspects with the goal of polishing their professionalism to make them presentable to prospective employers.
This season-long immersion in the heightened expectations of the adult world aims to bring them to understand that there is more to being a professional racer than impressive stick-and-rudder skills. But while professional maturity is the goal, boys (and for 2009, girls too) will be boys. When Miller's explained the "slow in, fast out" theory, saying "You give it up getting in to get it back getting off," the driver's meeting dissolved into snickers.
The 2008 season opener played like an example of what not to do, with all but three of the cars finishing the race with damage, some of it substantial. See it for yourself in VW's documentary of the season, "Racing Under Green," which the company plans to put on Apple's iTunes store, as Audi did with its own fantastic "Truth in 24" documentary about the 2008 24 Hours of Le Mans. Be prepared to witness some stunningly irresponsible and destructive driving that was the hallmark of the series' first season.
But in just a year, not only has the series matured, but so have the drivers, some of whom are back for another shot. This year's newcomers, who won the first two races of the season, are better too, reports Heylen, so the overall quality of the racing is improved.
Spending a weekend with the drivers as a peer-though my VW hosts were unfortunately unable to rewind my age to match that of my competitors-it turned out that these guys, and girls, are fast. Fellow guest driver Burton and I struggled to match their speed, a circumstance that Heylen assured was a consequence of the competitiveness of the series, and I ended up 24th of the 27 drivers in the race. During the race, most of the action was thoughtful, with the potential consequences in mind, so the resulting bent sheet metal was minimal.
One driver reported forgoing a passing opportunity, after Heylen had told the drivers that he could see crashes coming seconds before they occurred, when bad decisions were made. He had drafted up behind two competitors who were driving side-by-side down the straight. Their tow gave him the speed to sweep by both of them when they reached the next turn, but thoughts of going three wide brought Heylen's voice to the driver's mind: "I can see it before it happens," and so he declined the opportunity.
Excelling in these closely matched cars demands such discipline and focus, traits which will serve a professional driver well in any later series. Open-wheel racing remains a realistic destination for TDI Cup drivers, Heylen says, but it is probably a preparatory series for sports car racing. Which, not incidentally, is where most of the future job opportunities lie for today's teenagers, if not for today's 40-somethings.