It's not every day a Volkswagen Beetle goes flying through the air. However, during one September weekend in Southern California, rallycross fans were treated to just such a sight. It was the seventh and eighth round of the Red Bull Global Rallycross Championship (GRC), where Volkswagen Andretti Rallycross unleashed the car on which its pinned its hopes for next year and beyond: the VW Beetle GRC. It's not just a literal leap, but also a figurative one from the beginning of the 2014 season, when the team fielded two Polos rented from a Swedish team, Marklund Racing.
The idea was to use this year as a learning process to build up the team and infrastructure. The driver choices were a good start: Scott Speed (the last American Formula One driver and experienced NASCAR racer) and Tanner Foust, Top Gear U.S. co-host, renowned stunt driver, rally driver, and drifter. Foust has enjoyed considerable success in this series, having been champion for the first two years and runner-up last season.
Speed won his first-ever race in GRC at the beginning of last year's season, prompting what was meant to be a one-off drive into a full calendar and scoring a second victory toward the end. "I love (racing in GRC)," Speed says. "It brings me back to when I was racing karts as a kid. The cars are just like super karts."
The Red Bull Global Rallycross Champion-ship held its first race during the X Games in Los Angeles in 2010 and began its first full season in 2011. The 2014 season ran 10 main races, all in the United States—except for the opener, which was part of the Top Gear Festival in Barbados.
A typical race weekend includes practice and then qualifying for several six-lap heats of four cars, allowing drivers to earn a bonus point or three depending on where they finish. After the heats come the two semifinals. The top three from each semifinal advance to the main event. The remaining cars go into a Last Chance Qualifying (LCQ) session, where the top four move on to the final.
All the tracks, ranging in length from half a mile to a mile, are temporary. So there's a variety of layouts with dirt or tarmac surfaces, a signature jump, and a "joker" lane. The joker lane tends to have a faster inside line that adds a level of strategy, as it can only be used once. Leading drivers tend to take it on the first lap to extend their advantage, while others wait to use it as their best chance for a late pass.
The Port of Los Angeles meet in San Pedro is the season's only doubleheader, with two main events and double the corresponding heats. Going into this weekend, Speed is third in the championship, trailing the leader—Nelson Piquet Jr. (of F1 crashgate fame)—by more than 50 points and 15 points behind Second-Place Ken Block, gymkhana driver extraordinaire.
With each win worth 50 points, the championship is still open. The team opted to keep Speed in the Polo, while giving Foust, who has had a fraught season with only one victory, the job of development racer for the new Beetle, something the driver is not exactly happy about. "Ultimately, I'm a racer," he says. "I want to win. I don't like doing developing on the track." And this is a tight circuit. "Even though I'm driving a Beetle, it feels like a huge car on a little track."
This is the first year Volkswagen Motorsport and Andretti Autosport have participated in GRC. A VW Polo was raced by Marklund one weekend last season, but the manufacturer was not actively involved at that stage. Behind the scenes, though, the VW/Andretti partnership was taking shape.
In late 2012, Andretti Sports Marketing ran the final GRC race in Las Vegas. "I really liked it. I thought it had a lot of potential," says Michael Andretti, who still exudes the same charisma he did as a champion driver. "We're going after the millennials. The biggest problem in racing today is that our demographics are getting older, so we have to go where we hopefully have sustainability."
It was also at the Vegas race where Andretti met Jost Capito, head of Volkswagen Motorsport, who saw the series as a way to attract more attention to the VW brand. "When you're selling small cars in the United States, you have to look to how you can attract customers. And motorsport is always quite good [at accomplishing this]," Capito says. "But we had to find out what the opportunity is for small cars to be involved. Rallycross is the fastest-growing motorsport in the country right now, and interesting and attractive for small cars."
The VW Beetle GRC car rolled out of its trailer on Friday morning, covered in bright-yellow Rockstar Energy Drink sponsorship decals. Interestingly, not a conflict of interest, given the Red Bull-branded series. It shares the same body and chassis as the third-generation road-going version, but that's it. A bespoke 1.6L turbocharged engine propels the car from 0 to 60 mph in just 2.1 seconds, making it probably the fastest Beetle on the planet.
Its practice debut was cautious, though, posting the second-slowest lap time. In qualifying, the Beetle showed more of its might as Foust finished seventh fastest. But the true test would be the first four-car heat.
The series has an F1-style standing start. After a sequence of red lights, a solid row of green lights signifies the start. It's an exciting moment to hear the engines bouncing off their rev limiters. The crowd stands up and peers at the field to see who will get off the line first, which is crucial for gaining the inside line and not being swamped by door-banging competitors.
During the first standing start, Foust's left foot slips off the clutch pedal, causing the car to roll forward enough for the other teams to complain. Once the heat is under way, he's chasing the leader when a 5-second stop-and-go penalty for the false start is imposed, planting him right at the back. By the closing lap, he challenges Third-Place Bucky Lasek (in a Subaru WRX STI), riding right on his tail but finding no way around.
Drivers dread being on the back foot in these early stages, as the fast-paced schedule creates a snowball effect. Foust will be starting the semifinals at the back, where paint swapping is almost inevitable. However, he's happy. "The Beetle is pretty exceptional right out of the box," he says. And he's surprised with the improved feeling from when he first tested the car in Italy a couple of months before.
Saturday's semifinals begin and the Beetle sees its first bruises of the weekend. Contact with Piquet and Austin Dyne knocks the heat exchanger out of place. Chrome accents are missing and there are scrapes all across its wide front. Foust finishes Fifth. Next stop, the LCQ, where a spot in the top four is vital. Foust and the Beetle do better than that, taking a maiden win while raising cheers from the crowd and bolstering the team's confidence.
A good start during the main event brings the chance to challenge hard for Block's third position. A female fan shouts "Go on, Beetle" as the car slides by the grandstands, showering the crowd in rubber and dust. But with only two laps to go, steam billows out from under the hood and the Beetle's newfound supporters let out an audible groan.
Debris from Block's drifting car hit the Beetle's intercooler, creating a chain reaction of escalating temperatures. The ever-sharp Foust cut the ignition in time to save the engine. Volkswagen Motorsport engineers from Germany make up a small percentage of the team this weekend and the car is ready in time for the first practice session of the next race schedule, where it goes sixth fastest.
On Sunday, things are looking good as Foust places the Beetle fourth in qualifying. Even the heat begins well. The Beetle rockets off the line, prompting cheers from the crowd. Suddenly a spark plug tip breaks off and ricochets around the engine. On the fourth lap, the stricken Beetle is passed by Block. Foust pulls the car off the track soon after.
Back in the garage, the team scramble to repair what they can, but rather than take a chance and destroy the engine in future sessions, they decide to retire the car.
The run was brief, but the potential was shown. Foust in particular takes several highs from the weekend, including a third fastest time up to that point. "The car is wickedly fast," he says. "It's got the whole paddock nervous. It's a crowd favorite and shows so much promise that you can't walk away from here upset."