There are several routes a car company can take to convince customers that its new technology performs. While some companies pour money into flashy commercials and placing cars in rap videos, Volkswagen has taken a decidedly German approach-racing.
Cars pounding around racetracks may not appeal to the Hollywood crowd, but it certainly gets enthusiasts talking. VW decided that racing one or two TDIs just wasn't going to cut it, so in an effort to get maximum exposure the company decided to create a racing series. I guess thirty cars all on the same track really nails the intended message.
VW invited young drivers to audition for the series. If selected, drivers had to come up with a $35,000 buy-in. Some drivers we talked to had spent that much in the previous season on tires alone in different forms of racing. Drivers were also encouraged to find sponsors, with VW allocating the hood and front fenders to the sponsor logos.
During the season, they were coached on every aspect of being a professional. Coaches worked with them on everything from dealing with the media, fitness, and of course race craft and driving. There isn't really another series like this in the United States that gives young racers this kind of opportunity. The series may be good for the brand, but North American racing in general will be stronger for it.
VW invited members of the media to experience what the competitors experience on a race weekend, so a few of us were invited to Portland International Raceway for a weekend of racing and a day of driving the cars. Helmet in hand, I sprinted to the airport for the driving experience of a lifetime.
Getting in the car is an act of contortionism. First, you climb over the door bars, swinging one leg over and basically sitting on the cross tube. From there, you bang your head on the roll cage as you slide sideways and drop your backside into the deep bucket seat. While you regain your senses from the drop and blunt impact to the cranium, you realize you still have one appendage outside the vehicle. Tucking your knee to your chin and accomplishing a pose that would make a yogi jealous, you finally find yourself in the office. It is all business in here-no cup holders in sight, and the stereo has been replaced with a console full of switches. One big switch is marked PUSH, which we were sternly instructed not to do. I was later informed it's the fire suppression system which will cover the driver with nonflammable foam in less than a second. Apparently, a suppression system would be effective in as little as three seconds, but if it shoots out in less than one second it doesn't give a prankster enough time to lean back out of his buddy's car without also getting covered in foam.