It all happened so fast, but I guess that's to be expected in a car that does 0-60 mph in less than 2 seconds. By the time my brain finished processing the sheer magnitude of the dirt jump in front of us—a of the two-story launch pad that serves as the centerpiece of the Port of Los Angeles GRC course—we were airborne, sailing over the 70-foot ramp with a panoramic view of San Pedro Bay through the windshield.
I braced for a kidney-crushing impact on the other side, but the suspension simply soaked it up like a pothole, and once the tires reached pavement, we were back at wide-open throttle, approaching triple-digit speeds in the time it takes to let out a breath.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to spend their time behind the wheel of the world's most capable sports cars tend to be a jaded bunch when it comes to performance—we somehow become acclimated to 1.2 g of lateral grip and sub-4-second sprints to freeway speeds. But this Beetle is on an entirely different level, combining off-road and road-racing capability to such a high degree that it gives me an entirely new kind of appreciation for Tanner Foust's skill behind the wheel. He seems nearly clairvoyant when it comes to car control, anticipating the VW's behavior two maneuvers ahead. Still, it's clear that both car and driver are working together to achieve the performance I'm witness to here.
"The GRC Beetle is just a ridiculous car," Foust told me before we headed out on track. "Like any race car, it is purpose built, but its purpose is fairly chaotic. It's got to handle a launch from a standstill, hold around 2 g's of grip on tarmac with a 10-inch tire, take jumps that are as long as 200 feet, and be good on the gravel with what are essentially racing slicks."
That's a fairly disparate skill set from a car setup standpoint, making Global Rallycross as challenging for the race teams as it is for the drivers. I sat down with Foust and Graham Quinn, lead engineer for Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross, to talk shop about the series and their GRC cars before heading out on track for a ride-along hot lap of the Port of Los Angeles circuit just before this season's championship event.
The Anatomy of a Global Rallycross Car
"Fundamentally, you need a suspension with kinematics that focus on stability," Foust says. "So roll centers, anti-squat, and anti-dive characteristics need to be tuned in a way that allow you to really control the car without so much spring rate, because you need soft suspension in order to get grip on the mixed surfaces of the course. Then you get into the black magic of all-wheel drive with mechanical differentials. While you want to have a stable, flat car for the road course, because the differentials are essentially locked, you need to have some load transfer to the outside wheels to help push the car around corners."
Like many series, the cars' setups are a balancing act, with the teams searching for peak performance within the confines of the series rules. Though not a spec series like GRC Lites development class, GRC cars must conform to a multitude of different design regulations throughout.
"There's a limit on how much we can change—like on the front bulkhead to accommodate the engine and gearbox," Quinn says. "We're also limited on how far we can tilt or move the engine from the stock location—it's very close, within 20 millimeters or so." These cars also use production chassis that are strikingly similar to those of the models sold to the general public rather than a tube chassis designed to closely resemble the road car.
While the chassis might be similar to the models on dealer showrooms, what's housed in them most certainly is not. Andretti Rallycross' cars generate 550 hp from an induction-limited 2.0L turbocharged motor, the specs of which are kept under lock and key to prevent other teams from gaining a competitive advantage.
Those high-strung mills are hooked to six-speed sequential transmissions that send the power to all four corners. Gear ratios and differential setups are unrestricted provided the power goes to all four wheels, and the minimum overall weight is 2,990 pounds. "Thousands of man-hours go into the chassis just to add the safety features," Quinn explains. "And the installation of the rollcage also makes the car much stiffer than the road car."
Although the teams must work within the confines of GRC rules, there's also a lot of room for an individual team's engineering to play a significant role in the success or failure of their campaign. "I think the driver's door and taillights might be only things off the normal car," Quinn adds.
The GRC Series
Though Red Bull Global Rallycross is still in its infancy—its inaugural season was in 2011—the series is starting to catch on with American fans, and is said to be one of the fastest growing motorsports in the United States. "I first saw Rallycross in 2009, and I went over and did an event in Europe that same year," Foust explains. "I was amazed that there was no content coming out of it—it's such a charismatic motorsport. We wanted to bring the racing to a younger generation, so I worked with Andreas—who is a team owner here—my manager Brian Gale, and Chip Pankow to bring the series to the U.S." Years later, the rights to the series were bought by Colin Dyne, who would later get Red Bull involved, in turn bringing the television broadcasters into the fold.
While the driving disciplines are similar, the GRC series differs significantly from stage rally due to the course lapping format rather than Point A to Point B racing. The key advantage here is that, rather than fans catching a glimpse of a passing car every few minutes, they can watch the entire race unfold from one vantage point, making the series a more compelling prospect for both spectators and television audiences.
"I love stage rally and I raced here in the U.S. for eight years for various manufacturers," Foust says. "But one of the great selling points of rallycross is that from any seat, you can see the whole track. And I think that's what makes it appealing to a younger generation, and even people who aren't necessarily racing 'fans.' Maybe they're X-Games fans and they know some of the drivers, or maybe they just think the cars are cool. We're hoping all those 'hooks' will help continue to bring new fans into motorsport."
Wedged into a carbon-fiber race seat with my racing harness secured, Foust gingerly exits the padlock after getting the thumbs-up from his crew chief. Like most race cars, the interior of the Beetle is all business, a point that is driven home by the beefy rollcage that surrounds us and the ever-present howl of the race-spec gearbox.
Foust gooses the throttle a bit as we head out to the staging area. "Car's got a lot of pickup," I joke, hoping Tanner will catch my Blues Brothers reference. But the cacophony going on around us makes in-car communication nearly impossible, and his focus is clearly on the task at hand anyway. "You good?" he asks. I am.
The launch feels like we've been shot out of a cannon. Because of the inherent design of rallycross tracks, there are very few straight sections, and passing can be difficult as a result. So that makes the start of the race particularly crucial; a holeshot can be the difference between the top podium spot and no podium at all.
But like the jump we'd encounter later, the launch proves to be just one piece of the puzzle. Foust is constantly busy behind the wheel, counter-steering, banging through the gears, or coaxing the back end around with the handbrake. Heavy on throttle, stomping on the brake pedal—there isn't a moment when he isn't managing weight transfer and grip.
Foust would go on to win every heat he ran the following day, but the championship would be awarded to his teammate, Scott Speed. While Foust had a strong season on the whole, a disastrous showing in Atlantic City that saw him DNF would cost him the points he needed to stay in the lead for the championship. And despite giving Speed a run for his money at the Port of Los Angeles finale, the points gap would prove too wide.
That's a good problem to have for team Andretti Rallycross, though. "We had a great battle between our two drivers this season," Quinn says. "We're just going to continue refining our program going into next season. The cars are running really well, which is great, but the other teams are also catching up. After winter, we'll find out where we are again—that's just how it always works."