After the first year campaigning two cars in Global Rallycross, Volkswagen Motorsport has upgraded its Beetle rallycross cars for 2015. We sat down with Volkswagen Experiential Marketing general manager Clark Campbell and Volkswagen Beetle GRC driver Scott Speed to learn what’s different for this year.
1. The 2015 Volkswagen Beetle GRC cars are more powerful
Last year, Volkswagen had to rush to get its Beetle GRC cars ready to race, so the company used 1.6-liter turbo-four engines from Volkswagen’s World Rally Championship efforts. This year, Volkswagen uses a new 2.0-liter turbo-four race engine rated for 553 hp and 465 lb-ft of torque (up from 544 hp in the 1.6). Power goes through a six-speed sequential racing transmission to all four wheels, and Volkswagen claims the car will hit 60 mph in about two seconds flat. Giant brake discs gripped by four-piston aluminum calipers slow the car, while a custom strut suspension with remote-reservoir dampers provides 9.5 inches of travel.
2. Why does Volkswagen use the Beetle for rallying?
In part, Campbell says, it’s because the Volkswagen Golf GTI would sell to enthusiasts without any problem, whereas getting the target demographic (young men) to check out the Beetle is a lot tougher. On top of that, the Beetle’s unique shape stands out in Global Rallycross races far more than would a traditional hot hatch.
“The Focus and the GTI, when you put wings and graphics on them and they’re close together, you might have a little bit of difficulty recognizing them,” Campbell says. “You’d be hard-pressed to notice which is which. The Beetle is an instant crowd favorite and hit.”
If Volkswagen decides to build GRC cars for customer teams — several have already approached Volkswagen — the company would probably use the Golf GTI as its base.
3. The race cars are very close to factory models
Volkswagen works with Andretti Autosport to prepare and run its GRC cars, but the rallying Beetles are far closer than you’d expect to the cutesy hatchbacks you can find at your local VW dealer. Volkswagen emphasizes that its Beetle GRC cars aren’t simply tube-frame racers with some stickers to make them look like a Beetle. Many of the body parts, including the fenders, carry over from a standard Volkswagen Beetle to the GRC car. The cars receive a new rear floor pan and notches in the frame rails to accommodate 4-wheel drive and extra suspension travel, but elements like the windshield glass, driver’s door, badging, headlights, and the windshield wipers remain. Andretti Autosport even has a hacked-apart Beetle convertible in a corner of the shop that’s used for scavenging badges, clips, wiring, and other miscellaneous components for the racers.
4. Engineers spend more time making the cars tougher than making them faster
“I don’t consider GRC motorsport,” Campbell says, “I consider it action sport. We’ve literally redesigned things on our car from what we learned last year to make it just stronger, take more impacts.”
Because Global Rallycross races are won and lost by car position, not lap time like traditional rallying, drivers jostle for position all through the race. Volkswagen engineers learned pretty early on to create more durable bumpers and bumper clips, for instance, and to make sure critical components like cooling lines weren’t exposed outside of the car’s frame rails.
Speed agrees, adding that the jumps on GRC courses take a serious toll on the rally cars.
“Even if you don’t hit anything, because the jumps are so big, and the tracks are constantly changing, it’s a contact sport, bottom line,” he says.
The Volkswagen Beetle GRC cars also have a special sleeve-steel exhaust that can collapse in on itself without restricting exhaust flow. “The exhaust might get shorter but it doesn’t fold in,” and reduce power, Speed says.
5. GRC reaches a younger demographic than any other televised motorsport in the U.S.
For 2015, there are 10 GRC races in 7 different locations nationwide (plus two races in Barbados), and each will be televised live on NBC. According to Volkswagen’s data, the average age of a viewer for GRC races is just 27, and 70 percent of the audience is male. Compare that to the age of the average IndyCar viewer (38) of NASCAR viewer (42), and it’s clear why Volkswagen is interested in displaying its cars prominently in the race series. After all, many young buyers in that demographic may not have premium cable channels anymore, and may not see Volkswagen’s usual TV ads.
Speed says that when he meets fans at GRC races, they’re far younger than he has seen at other types of race venues. He and Campbell also noted the level of brand enthusiasm they’ve seen, with convoys of Volkswagen fans showing up at the races together.
6. Expect drivers to drift less this year
Speed says that most GRC drivers were extremely aggressive, and typically drifted their 4-wheel-drive cars around every turn of the dirt and gravel courses. But that’s not really the fastest way, and Speed uses a more precise, less drifty driving style honed by his years in NASCAR, Formula 1, and IndyCar. As an example of the difference in driving styles, Speed notes that he typically can use full throttle for only 19 percent of a lap of a GRC course. His teammate Tanner Foust, who drives the #34 Beetle GRC car, was initially spending more like 32 percent of each lap at wide-open throttle. Now, Speed says, most drivers are cutting down on the sideways antics — and speeding up their lap times in the process.