We've been hearing about it for years-America will be going diesel, Audi Style. Even Driving Miss Daisy will be a convert. The replacement for the all-conquering, record-breaking, Le Mans-winning R8 came in the form of the R10 "Vorsprung durch Technik" Diesel which promptly won Sebring on its maiden voyage in 2006. Fans of Chicken Little were quick to squawk that the success of the Audi diesel was the end of racing as we know it. No more grunt and scream of a hi-rev powerplant-who wants to hear a woosh anyway? The R10 brigade wooshed its way to another diesel triumph in 2007, but saw the string of overall wins snapped last year. Ingolstadt had to make do with the LMP1 class laurels in an incident-filled race but came from a long way back to finish on the same lap as the winning Porsche RS Spyder.
Still, one cannot argue that Audi has put its stamp on sports car racing in a unique and almost unheard-of manner for the last decade. Ferrari, Alfa Romeo, Jaguar, and most certainly Porsche are what we grew up seeing on the grids. Once in a while BMW would field a top-level effort. Before 2000 it seemed unthinkable-Audi? Ingolstadt did it almost effortlessly with a consistent reliability that seemed unnatural. All those wins at Le Mans, Sebring, circuits around the planet. Records come and go, become history and fodder for forum chat, bragging rights at the bar, and so on. However, what emerged from this decade-long Oktoberfest is a cultural turning, making driving a diesel hip. No major manufacturer can ignore a market that will demand sporty diesels as opposed to stinking taxicabs and that garbage truck you can't seem to pass. Porsche even finally got hip to the fact that its Cayenne was losing market share and has dropped a VW rudimotor into its four-door box. The epic battle at Le Mans for the last two years has been about image, of promoting diesel technology between two large manufacturers. Peugeot and Audi both want to win races, but come Monday morning, it's just sell baby, just sell.
This year will be a year of transition. The budgets for big-time motorsports teams have been reduced to the point that only the most important (commercially viable) will be contested. For Audi, those two are Sebring and Le Mans with the new R15 TDI. From a PR point of view this poses a problem in the States. For the last two years the R10 has been featured heavily in advertising showcasing Audi's diesel technology. Now with the introduction of a number of platforms becoming available with TDI, the flagship of that technology will disappear from these shores after the 12 Hours of Sebring. A quantum of quandaries.
Last October, Audi took to the highways across America with a rolling TDI roadshow dubbed the Audi Mileage Marathon. A3, A4, Q5 and Q7 diesel variants all got time in the spotlight. Even the hot shoes of Audi Sport got into the script with Le Mans record holder, Tom Kristensen, taking a stint with the invited hacks and scribes that drove the marathon.
We at ec are, if anything, inventive when it comes to road trips. Prior to last year's 12 Hours of Sebring, invites went out to the media to attend the race and see the new R8 coupe with the big-banger V12 TDI. Audi made it more enticing with a fleet of Euro-spec Q7 TDIs to sample. Readers of my past columns might recall that I had planned to drive a 1962 VW with 21,000 original miles back from Sebring. When that seemed like a not so good idea, I asked Audi for a Q7 TDI. Shockingly, they agreed. My companion, Lizett Bond, tends to cover more of the equine subjects with an occasional foray in to more cultural subjects, but she's more than versed in what makes for a good ride. She had her assignments and I had mine. And with that, we landed in St. Pete and headed out to partytown, home of the annual 12 Hours of Abuse for man and machine.
The race itself was thrilling stuff with Peugeot and Audi slugging it out for the top step, and Porsche and Acura within striking range should either falter. They did, and the Penske Porsche went into the record books. The morning after what went down the night before at Sebring is usually forgettable and mostly artificially induced. Lizett wanted to get on the road and packed the Q7, while I attempted to work by having coffee with Allan McNish and Dindo Capello.
Following the 1984 running of the Daytona 24 Hours, I drove with the late Len Frank back to L.A. in a Saab turbo. The appearance of the Swede in the south was met with curiosity amid mostly indifference. The most memorable quotes came from a gas station attendant a few miles outside Houston who had never heard of Saab. This time I was curious how the Q7, diesel motor and all, would be received by those who had interest or were already familiar with the only Q7 variant currently available here (meaning gas).
The delta by dawn was the objective but by leaving Sebring in the afternoon, the best we could do was getting almost to Highway 61. A black Q7 with red letters proclaiming "Hey, I'm a TDI" was not a distraction on the road. The background, however, was.
As darkness fell, things got a little spooky on the panhandle. Scanning across the radio we find a station right out of the '30s or '40s playing "Jerusalem Gospel Music." A host with voice of southern timbre, right out of a Jack Kerouac novel, reading, "Man was born of woman's womb." It was an awesome station that began, fittingly, near Tallahassee and stayed through Mobile. I expected to see Billy Jo McAllister's ghost thumbin' or Hank headin' back to Alabam'. Biloxi came and went after phone calls to the Hard Rock Hotel resulted in no answer. It was after midnight-what time do the rockers turn in on the Gulf Coast anyway? Highway 61 was only a few miles away.
One problem arose quickly. The mandated low-sulpher diesel fuel wasn't readily available in many parts of the country and the south was no exception. We were careful to find a station when the tank hit the halfway mark. On a few occasions, the gauge hit almost empty before the right stuff could be found. The southeast had been hit by a series of raging storms that caused major flooding. The kind of weather the Quattro system had been built for and the Q7 TDI had plenty of ground clearance. After desperately seeking Starbucks at the mouth of 61, the goal was the bright lights of Memphis. Leaving Baton Rouge and getting to Jackson came first though.
Natchez provided me with my first view of the mighty Mississippi. The oldest city on The Big Muddy, Natchez was founded in 1716. A local suggested The Pig Out Inn Barbeque for eats-mouthwatering barbeque, easy on the pocketbook, eclectic dcor, and the best local eavesdropping hands-down. Next stop, Port Gibson, one of Grant's first conquests after crossing the Mississippi River during the Vicksburg Campaign of 1863. Grant stated that the town was too beautiful to burn and left it intact. Port Gibson is a good spot to pick up the Natchez Trace Parkway. The original Trace is alive with the ghosts of travelers who followed that ancient trail running approximately 500 miles from Natchez to Nashville, Tenn. If you stand quietly on the path it seems possible to hear the sounds of generations of people and animals traversing the historic track. We followed the Trace to Jackson before doubling back on Highway 20 to Highway 61.
Then cruise control started acting up and it became evident that we'd picked up some bad fuel. Because of the storms there were a number of stations that had run low, and the bottom of the barrel can hide some evils. By the time we refueled, the bad had worked its way through and cruise was back in control.
Our destination was the Madison Hotel in downtown Memphis, which was the Tennessee Trust Bank at the turn of the century. The Madison is a few short blocks from the Mississippi with a view of Mud Island. Driving into Memphis to the strains of the Mystery Train soundtrack helped set the mood. Our first order of business was the Sun Studios Tour. Yep, Morse threw out the tour book and we're off to do one of the most touristy things in Memphis. The birthplace of rock and roll, where 18-year-old Elvis Presley first sang "That's all Right." Since the tour book was gone, we weren't tourists. Yeah, right. First things first and not to be outdone, that means a photo of the Audi in front of Sun Studios. A certain someone parked a MINI Cooper there for the same shot. OK, so we were there too. Sun Studios is usually jammed and they run a tour every few minutes.
Graceland wasn't on the itinerary... too touristy. We still had the Stax Museum on our agenda however, the jewel of Memphis in so many critical and cultural ways. It's on the "other" side of town, right across from the home of Memphis Slim, which is in the process of restoration. The sign says so. The Stax Museum is on the original site of the recording studio. What was once a tiny record store in the old Capitol Theater at the corner of McLemore Avenue and College Street, became Stax records in 1959 and launched so many careers; Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett, too many others to name. Since it is a self-guided tour, the proper blues traveler must be prepared to spend some time there.
Meanwhile, the Q7 TDI inspired confidence in a subtle manner, the 3.0-liter V6 has mountains of torque in a platform that displays good-almost sporting-road manners, with brakes that would stop a DTM S4. Through gales of wind and horizontal sheets of rain, our security was never in question.
Next stop Clarksdale, at the crossroads of Highways 61 and 49. We'd agreed before the trip began, no CDs, mostly local radio. Heading out of Memphis we discovered a gem, WEVL 89.9. Bashful Bob and his "Sho Nuff Country" show are the real deal, a DJ with a deep southern accent playing such icons as Ralph Stanley, Porter Wagoner, Buck Owens. He also streams live on the Internet. Ahead, the infamous sign posts and then the crossroads. It was raining as we drove in. The Delta. The real blues.
The Clarksdale we drove into was a far cry from Lomax's description of the New World. The streets were deserted, the wide green lawns he wrote of were mostly crabgrass. It felt like a ghost town. But it's not. Cat Head Delta Blues and Folk Art is just a few blocks from where the Dipsie Doodle once jived and boogied. A few blocks in the other direction are the Ground Zero Blues Club and The Delta Blues Museum. The Clarksdale train station, where Muddy Waters may have begun his journey to Chi-Town, is near Ground Zero. Clarksdale is also home to the King Biscuit Blues Festival, The Juke Joint Festival, and The Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival. It had a famous resident or two besides Tennessee Williams' father. Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, John Lee Hooker, Son House, and Sam Cooke to name a few of the more familiar. Morgan Freeman is a partner in Ground Zero. Bessie Smith died in Clarksdale in 1937, after being refused admission to three hospitals for treatment of injuries resulting from a car accident. She bled to death while her friends sought hospital admission for her.
If Clarksdale seemed depressed, it's positively thriving compared to Helena. The Delta Cultural Center is here, home to "King Biscuit Time," the KFFA radio show begun in 1941. "Sunshine" Sonny Payne broadcasts Monday through Friday from the Cultural Center. Helena hosts several music festivals during the year including Mother's Best Music Fest and the Wild Hog Music Festival and Bike Rally.
In usual fashion, at this point, it was time to motate to Paris... Texas, that is. We chose this destination in honor of the film Paris, Texas, written by Sam Shepard and directed by Wim Wenders, with no film footage shot there. In the morning it's Dallas to visit friends, then the routine route back to L.A.
The Q7 TDI was about as right as you could ask for a weeklong traveling companion. Comfortable, efficient, and without the usual fatigue after hours behind the wheel that's more the norm than the exception. The good news for Audi is that more than a few inquired about the availability of the TDI and when it will go on sale. The bad news is it should have been last year.
Random Happenings In The World Of Motorsport
* Grand Am: For those who were tired of seeing the Ganassi team in the winners circle of the Daytona 24 Hours, the normal programming was interrupted by the Brumos Porsche, mainly due to brilliant and determined driving by David Donohue. And on the 40th anniversary of his father's win at the 24. Not bad. This was also a huge win for Porsche Motorsport North America, which built the winning motor. The new Penske was powered by Weissach and this didn't sit well with many. Roger by golly had a fast car but at all the wrong times. Interesting that now that Penske has entered the world of the prototurtles, Porsche has gotten some breaks from Grand Am.
* ALMS: The series hyping itself as green is more red these days. A diminished car count, fewer manufacturers willing to spend, and one of the top draws bailing after Sebring in the form of Audi. Even with Peugeot making a return trip for Sebring, the carriage may turn into a pumpkin. Oddly enough, the racing of what's left may be one of the best seasons in the short history of the series. Dyson has switched to Mazda, the Acura teams are pushing like they have something other than family competition, and then there's always GT2, which is a show all by itself and deserves more coverage on TV than has been allowed.
* Formula One: What could I possibly write about F1 that has not been dissected, discarded and disposed of only to come true that isn't done in what seems to be thousands of outlets elsewhere? Nothing.
So with that out of the way, the question here is why have an F1 team based in the U.S. (near Charlotte, actually) and called USF1? With no race on the calendar, what exactly is the point? Promote American technology and products abroad to a world that already drinks Coke and Pepsi? The talk out of the FIA these days has been cost control and capping budgets. F1 is not adding to the grid but subtracting, as only nine teams will line up for 2009. Glory days indeed. Many outside F1 don't see the value of BMW and Mercedes continuing to pour millions down the sinkhole. Of course, Ferrari is a horse of a different color.
* Le Mans: Despite a weakened economy, les 24 Heures du Mans is a gift that keeps on giving. Do well there and you can milk it for the season. Peugeot and Audi will go after the top slot again, and with production car diesel sales easily outdoing the gas bags, it's good for them. And the wild card, dark horse, whatever, may well be the Aston Martin LMP1. Never count an operation overseen by David Richards out of anything, and if Prodrive has shown anything in the past, it's how to adapt from one form of motorsport to another. And isn't it great knowing that GT cars have air conditioning as standard equipment? This should do wonders for future development on production car a/c units, which have always been too large and cumbersome. Still, the thought of a driver passing out from the heat inside a closed GT car reminds me of one of the more memorable lines from Le Mans when Steve McQueen is asked if he is fit.
* Le Mans Series: What recession? Supposedly a team count has entries of just under 50 cars, including an Audi R10 TDI to be entered by a private team (look for a lot of Ingolstadt folk on holiday in their pit) along with a huge GT field. Skeptics doubt the legitimacy of the grid size and for good reason. As to how much funding is really out there for discretionary racing... maybe they just budget better than we do. I doubt it though.