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.
The TDI Cup car fires up like any other Jetta; a quick jerk from the starter motor and it springs to life. The motor mounts are much stiffer, so there is more vibration in the car, but still less than my old Mk II with polyurethane mounts. Shift the DSG tranny into Drive or Sport, and you're off. Acceleration in the pits is swift, but there's a speed limit in here. I quickly get an idea of how direct the steering is. Small twitches are instantly translated to direction changes. When the pit wall ends, I drop the pedal, and the rush of torque is staggering. This thing isn't that much lighter than a standard Jetta because of the full cage, but it feels quick. The first few turns I take at extremely conservative speeds. I've made mistakes on cold race tires in the past and I'm not going to do that again. These Jettas ride on Michelin slicks, reportedly the front tires off of a 911 Cup car. It takes a little while to get some heat in them. On the back straight we got the chance to open up a bit, and the torque hits hard in your lower back again. A few more turns taken at increasing speed gets the heat going. Blasting through the gears on the front straight shows just how fast the DSG is. Hitting nearly 120 mph, I see the braking markers come for the quick right-left chicane. I dive on the pedal, cinching the R8 calipers onto massive front rotors. Apparently the rear tires didn't have as much heat as the fronts, and I head into the chicane slewed a good 30 degrees sideways across the track. The car is easy to control and brake feel is phenomenal. I drift all the way into the corner with slight counter steer until the turn-in. I rotate the car a little more... and it almost looks like I meant to do it.
The car changes direction with ease in the chicane-even with a shift in the opening right-hander on the way out doesn't upset the car. I back up another gear in the short shoot going into a hard right. The car sticks with a ferocity you can't experience on street tires. Accelerating hard to the outside of the track, I lift for another right. It gets a little unnerving as you're lifting right at the exit point just before your next turn-in. I get in early and stay inside coming up to the next left, which the car handles flat-out. Plenty of room to let it run to the outside, but get it back to the left for turn 7, the most entertaining turn on the track. I struggled with that one all day. It looks like a 90-degree bend, but just doesn't act like it. It leads onto the back straight, so exit speed is paramount.
There are a couple big bangs from the suspension working, lots of wind noise, and the back straight ends in a fast left-right combination which is straightened out into a big braking zone for 11 and 12, which are classified as two corners but really involve one big, graceful, fast arc. Get them right and you end up speeding onto the straight right next to the wall. A little late and you end up speeding into the wall right next to the straight.
The cars are amazing. It makes you think how many people drive their Jettas back and forth to work or the grocery store every day, not knowing the kind of potential wrapped up in them. While the suspension calibration may be different and they're running on full slicks, in the grand scheme of things, these cars aren't that much different from our new long-term tester (see the next page).
Volkswagen says these cars achieve roughly 24 mpg even under full race conditions. According to their calculations, each car will run the entire season on one tank of diesel. As amazing as that sounds, it doesn't surprise us that much. Diesel is the hot ticket right now in endurance racing partly because of less time spent in the pits. We hope the success of the TDI Cup series will inspire VW to move into more forms of sports car racing in the U.S. Not only would it be a great transition for the company, but also for the group of young drivers in training.
Interview : Liam Kenney
Confessions of a Cup racer
Sixteen-year-old Liam Kenney was one of the lucky qualifiers when Volkswagen held driver trials for the TDI Cup race series. We sit down with him briefly and talk about the series, how he got here, and where he wants to go.
EC: How did you get involved with the Volkswagen TDI Cup?
LK: I got involved the same way as anyone else. I saw the advertisements and thought racing a diesel would be a milestone in my career, and a milestone it proved to be. All you have to do is send in a video and some material about yourself and you're in the running. It's something I feel every driver could benefit from.
EC: How much racing experience did you have previously? What kinds of cars did you race before this?
LK: Before the TDI Cup I raced pretty much only formula cars. I started in karts when I was five and moved up through the ranks until I was 13, and moved into a formula Renault 1600. I ran this car for a full season and enjoyed a lot of success in it. After that, I moved in to the formula Renault 2000, which is a 210-hp, thousand-pound beast as I'd describe it. I scored 12 podiums and three wins that season, looked for somewhere to go after that and found the TDI Cup my best option.
EC: How do the TDI Cup cars compare to previous cars you've raced? In particular, how does racing a diesel car compare with racing a gas-powered car?
LK: To be honest, coming out of formula cars into a 3,000-pound sedan is a big change. But the TDI proved to be a great place to make that leap. The car never felt slow or heavy. The diesel engine pulled its weight forward amazingly for being an almost-stock engine. It has almost no turbo lag and it starts on power from about 1400 rpm up. It's really a great engine that people should take a serious look at.
EC: Give us a quick driving review of the Jetta TDI racecar. How would you describe the handling, braking, shifting and predictability?
LK: The Jetta was great from the first drive on. It has VW's cornerstone DSG transmission, which to me was one of the most impressive things about the car. It shifts quickly, blips perfectly and worked flawlessly all season. I'd never buy a VW without it. Handling was helped by Porsche Cup Michelin tires and despite the car being front-drive, it never had the plowing understeer you'd expect. It was very neutral, but the suspension was a bit on the soft side-that's something VW is revising over the winter. The car almost felt like it was AWD in its handling ability, which, to be honest, caught me off guard the first few times I drove it. The brakes were outstanding thanks to being sourced from the Audi R8. They were responsive and had hardly any fade even through our races. If they can stop an R8, they're more than adequate for a Jetta I'd have to think.
EC: How does the series itself compare to other series you have been in? Have you ever had this kind of education in racing previously?
LK: The TDI Cup series provided a level of competition not seen in any of the other junior ranks in racing. The fact that there were 30 identical cars and the drivers were all on a very similar level made competition close and exciting. It was a learning experience like no other for me and I learned things this season I never expected to. VW really hit the nail with this series.
EC: What was it like approaching potential sponsors? Where they excited about the prospect of being involved in something as new as a diesel racing series?
LK: I really think the TDI cup gets something other series don't when it comes to attracting companies. This series presents a new technology in a well-marketed atmosphere that helps make it a boon for sponsors. I had really good luck interesting people in the series because it cuts the image of racing being only for sub-5-mpg fuel burners. People are really interested by that and it's something that I think is revolutionary.
EC: What's the environment in the pits like? Is it all business among the drivers, or is it a little more relaxed?
LK: One thing I noticed is that at the same time that TDI is an all-business, out-there-to-win environment, it's also relaxed. The drivers know at the end of the day we're all teammates in the series, so while we're still out there to win, outside of the car we're all at the very least decent to each other. Which is certainly better than any other series I've been in, I have to say.
EC: You were a promising driver before starting this series, but do you feel the TDI Cup has opened a few more doors or maybe put you on a few more teams' radar that you wouldn't have been on otherwise?
LK: I feel the TDI Cup has opened more doors for me as an American driver than any other series Stateside could deliver. Factory involvement comes nowhere else really on the open-wheel route here in the States, so VW's involvement makes this series something valuable to any driver, especially those looking to head to Europe.
EC: What are your plans for next year and beyond?
LK: For next year I'm looking at options all over the world, including the Star Mazda Championship and Formula ADAC masters, powered by VW, and some other overseas options.
EC: Will your next personal car be a VW, maybe even a diesel-powered VW?
LK: I'd love to get myself in a VW. Now that I've driven the racecar I'd love a TDI, but sadly, the resale value is too much for this 16-year-old.
EC: Here's your chance to make your sponsors happy and tell us who you would like to thank.
LK: First, I'd have to thank my parents, my family and friends and crew members who have supported me. I'd also like to thank VW of America for all they've helped me out with, ViON corporation, TRAX International, Speed Secrets, Allsports Grand Prix in Dulles, Va., OG Racing, GAM Printers, Zeffirelli Ristorante Italiano, and Chick-Fil-A of Dulles Town Crossing.