Every morning around the same time, road test coordinator Marc Noordeloos comes into my office with a clipboard holding a list of cars so I can select what to drive for the night. Most of the time, the choices that survive past the senior staff are fairly pedestrian-Jeep Wranglers, Chevy Tahoes, and a few gems from our long-term fleet. Every now and then something hot-a Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG or a Porsche 911-finds its way through the cracks, but even then I still dream of signing out something truly ridiculous. Petter Solberg's Subaru Impreza WRC racer. Or maybe a Pontiac Solstice drift car. Last week, it finally happened.
As nice as the base truck is, there's nothing special implied by the words "Volkswagen Touareg" written on a piece of paper. But if it then says "V-10 diesel," "Red Bull paint," "Pikes Peak hill climb," and "single-seater with roll cage," that's something different. I knew we needed to spend a weekend together, and since the senior folks in the office weren't too excited about dancing the roll cage jig, that wasn't going to be a problem. I grabbed the keys and ran to the proverbial starting line, only to see trouble in the pits.
How do I get in this thing? Between the dark steel bars of the roll cage, the darkness from the sticker-covered windows, and the many black belts wrapping the seat, this Touareg is a goth-rock dream. Just looking in makes me feel like I should paint my nails black and hate everything about the world. After a few deep breaths, I try to get in. I realize that Bo and Luke Duke had the right idea, but the General Lee was a whole lot lower to the ground than this Touareg. Five minutes and a few bruised ribs later, I'm finally in. Five more minutes and I figure out how to buckle up the four-point harness. Another two and I discover that it is indeed a five-point harness.
I drop the console shifter into reverse and realize that backing out of a parking spot is quite the adventure when you can't see any direction but straight ahead. The roll cage blocks what the rear-view mirror sees, which is just the inside of the stickers anyway. Side windows? They're covered too, and with the harness on, I can't turn that far anyway.
I reverse very slowly, and what could have been an expensive game of Bumper Cars turns out to be more stressful than it was costly. I then start the most dangerous descent in Ann Arbor - our six-floor parking structure - and by the time I get home, I'm so stressed out I need a nap. Which is a good thing, because it ensures that I'm well rested for the night's events.
Night one of the weekend is dedicated to a house crawl (think of it as a poor man's pub crawl) so Danny Sullivan's Volkswagen (his name is still written on the front fenders) won't be leaving the garage. But that doesn't stop me from coming up with a way to play with the truck. "A challenge is in order," I announce when the crawl reached my house, "who can get in the truck in under two minutes."
My buddy Logan, ex-owner of an Isuzu Trooper that starred in an automobilemag.com car shredding video a few months back, paves the way. Within seconds, it is decided that he will serve as an example of what not to do, falling to the ground elbows-first. Josh Cleveland's presidential descent (he's Grover's great-grandson) proves to be a valueless asset-he gets in, but needs help from two of us to pull himself out. My six-foot-three roommate, Mike, goes last and was tired of the bullshit. He sets his beer on the ground and jumps right in, feet first. "Impressive yoga skills, Mike, but you just one-footed tree trunked your lanky limbs around that steering wheel."
"Yeah, I'm not going to walk right for a week."
I wake up late the next morning with pains in my arms, head, and stomach. The first pain is a result of the roll cage, and the second due to the previous night's city-wide alcohol buffet. But the third is my big concern. I feel a little nauseous because I still have to explain to my girlfriend, Erin, that she will have to ride with me in a one-seat race car to Kalamazoo, one hundred miles away, to meet my parents. After a shower, a small sandwich, and a tall mug of black coffee, I head over to her house. "Heeey!!" Excitement is my only ally. I explain that dinner will be delicious, and fill her in on plans to hang out with some old friends later in the night. "There's just one catch, and it involves the ride there and a pillow." I explain that the seat bottom is gone because of the roll cage, but that the seat back and belts are still in place. Somehow, she doesn't mind and actually thinks it sounds fun. She's awesome.
An hour and twenty minutes later, I try to give her a tour of my home town. She doesn't seem impressed, and I finally realize why when she reminds me that the back windows are covered with stickers and she can't see anything. Good point, my dear.
That night, I have my only off-road experience of the weekend in a small construction site next to my bother's house. It makes me smile. I also have my first ride on the makeshift back seat and realize I can stop feeling bad for Erin - it's not so bad. The night also brings my first run-in with electrical issues, and I sit stuck at a gas station waiting for the truck to show any sign of life. No matter how feverishly I turn the key, no matter how many times I beg the TDI to clatter to life, no matter how many times I cut myself on the roll cage getting in and out to look under the hood, it does nothing. Not a ding. Not a beep. Not a light.
It mysteriously revives itself a few minutes later, starting right up as if nothing had happened. I shrug and explain to Erin, "it's a race car."
The next morning I'm hungry for a laugh, and Erin is conveniently hungry for a bagel. I help her strap into the harness and tuck-and-roll into the ex-back seat for a drive down the street to Tim Horton's. The lady at the window is rightfully befuddled, but doesn't even bother questioning the gold-and-red-bull-on-blue paint scheme. "Why you wearing that big harness, honey, you crazy or something?"
The excuse is again simple: "It's a race car," Erin tries to explain, "It's so I don't fly out the window if I crash." She grabs the small paper bag and hits the gas-er, accelerator-before any other questions come, while I chuckle behind the sticker-covered rear window.
On the way home, I realize how brilliant the V-10 TDI is on the highway. The Touareg sails along effortlessly with the help of air suspension set to comfort, and I can just tell that SUV drivers all around are jealous of my nearly-endless amount of torque. After dropping Erin off, I stop for a slice of pizza and eat it in the driver's seat. I'm one more check-mark closer to being ready to die - I've always wanted to eat pizza inside a race car.
But that's not enough. I need to set a record. Any record. Unlike your daily slog in a Chevy Malibu, driving a truck like this makes you want to do more than just drive home: defeat a mountain, pull a tractor through mud, win a long-distance race - something. Anything.
Without a race to enter, I knew it would be impossible to set a notable record, and there wasn't enough time to pull off some long distance feat. Ah, but where there is a race, there is beer. So, I thought, I would carry more beer in this race car than any competition-ready vehicle before it-four kegs. I don't care how many Budweiser logos are on your Chevy, Dale, Junior. It can't carry this much frothy goodness. It's a tight squeeze, but I fit all four in the rear and head across town to deliver them to a party near the University of Michigan campus.
People must see a lot of crazy things around college campuses, because my wild ride doesn't do much to impress the man at the beer store, nor the early arrivers at the party. The former just wants money for the beer, while the latter just want the beer itself. The giant Red Bull can going "chuga chuga chuga" is just a minor detail to all of them.
And it is a minor detail that brings my weekend at the races to a screeching halt. My freak electrical problem at the gas station in Kalamazoo has become a recurring event (accompanied by "check engine" and "running gear fault" lights), so I decide to leave it parked out of fear that it may leave me stranded. So much for grocery shopping in a full racing suit. It isn't worth being stranded in a cold, snowy parking lot while my fresh bread gets frozen. I'm quite obviously not as tough as I look. Then again, neither is the truck.
I arrive back at the office Monday morning with my head hanging low. I explain the situation, and we decide to park the Pikes Peak King for its last night with us. I'm devastated at the loss. Just like in sappy movies, a montage of memories of my love affair with the Touareg runs through my mind, in slow motion: The whole Automobilemag.com web gang piled in the truck, watching walkers react in horror in downtown Ann Arbor. Editor-in-chief Gavin Conway walking in the office one morning with a bandaged hand-the victim of a quick and rough weld job on the roll cage. My friends painfully climbing in and out. . .
Wait - I can't stand it. I need one last ride into the sunset, no matter how many lights are flashing on the dash! It's an effing race car, damn it, stuff is supposed to break! We should drive it until every last thing does break. What was I thinking yesterday? I was so wrong! Online editor Jason Cammisa can see the newfound enthusiasm in my eyes. "I think we need a few last pictures before we put the VW away."
"Yes, we do."
And so we snap a few pictures as the Touareg dominates the infamous CammisaClimb '07 - a snow-covered, turbo-whining, diesel-clattering, differential-clunking, four-wheel-spinning climb up what is likely the steepest driveway in the continential U.S. This driveway has claimed the lives of multiple Hondas, an Infiniti M45, and even a rough-and-tumble Range Rover, but not my TDI Race Truck. I'm caught in the moment and thrust my arm out the window into sub-zero temperatures as a sign of victory. "Wooooo!" I scream out to Cammisa's neighbors who are watching in awe. Victory! Victory!
But with the clearing of a massive diesel exhaust cloud goes my momentary high, and I look back down at the instrument cluster, where a yellow light is now warning me to check my warning lights. I didn't think that was possible. The engine stutters. I sheepishly motion to Jason that we need to get back, and I take off down the road. Two blocks from the office, a brake fault light flashes red. Fantastic. Luckly, nothing happens, and I pull into the lot and twist the key counter-clockwise one last time.
I take a deep breath, knowing that, on some level, my feelings of fear and excitement are the same Danny Sullivan felt as he pulled his helmet off at the top of Colorado.