Not since the SuperVee era of the 80‘s and early 90’s has Volkswagen had a concerted, top-line motorsport effort in the U.S. Sure, there were some pro/am spec series like the Beetle and TDI Cup, but these were hardly forays into the crucibles of motorsport. Globally the brand has had a sting of successes with multiple Dakar wins and a stunning, championship-winning maiden season in WRC. Moreover, in their native Germany there is the Scirocco R Cup and many a Formula 3 car has a power plant from Europe’s largest automaker. Yet, in the U.S. the words motorsport or racing can’t be found on their website. Presumably until now.
At this week’s Chicago Auto Show, Volkswagen’s return to professional motorsport in North America was announced with their entry in the Global Rallycross Championship. VW Motorsport General Manager, Clark Campbell spoke about the company’s journey and goals.
“VW globally started developing the WRC program a little more than two years ago. Shortly after that, we here started looking at Global Rallycross as an interesting form of action sport more than motorsport in America. So we took an interest while watching the WRC program develop resulting with a championship last season. Now we feel like this is an appropriate time with the Beetle that has a long way still to go in its shelf life to bring some more excitement to it. We’re looking for more male buyers to pump up sales of this model and the young, Millennial demo that makes up the Global Rallycross audience would match up well to our own aspirations for the brand. So we began the work with VW Motorsport in Germany evaluating the series and the vehicle platforms available to determine if we could engineer something competitive, and the answer is yes, we believe we have,” began Campbell.
Running the operation on behalf of VW Motorsport is the successful, and increasingly diverse, Andretti Autosport. Their 80,000 square foot indianapolis, Indiana-based HQ will see a pair of the GRC Beetles occupy work bays right alongside their IndyCar and nascent Formula E programs. According to Andretti Autosport president John Lopes, there will be some reshuffling of technical and operational staff between the various programs. Campbell believes that Andretti brings the complete package of sporting, technical and operational knowhow to cultivate a winning campaign. While no overall timeline for the program was discussed, both VW and Andretti say they are in this together for the long haul.
Speaking of the long haul, VW made noise at the time of the Detroit Auto Show that 2014 marked the beginning of a massive push to win market share in the U.S.to match their dominance in Europe. I asked Campbell how a GRC program dovetails with their broader initiatives.
“The investment (in North America) won’t payoff immediately. It’s going to rollout over a period of years. This program will payoff in the short term, capturing that Millennial, male buyer and pushing awareness toward the Beetle marketing plan as soon this year. So this program will prop us up while we develop new vehicles and the investment begins to take hold,” says Campbell.
Certainly since its return a decade or so ago, the Beetle has trended with female buyers. The redesign a couple of years back hardened some of the feminine shape, and a 210 horsepower TSI turbo engine has given the car some bite. Now, it’s hoped that in the GRC with Tanner Foust and Scott Speed going door-to-door and airborne in the rough and tumble style of rallycross will burnish the cars’ image among male buyers.
“Not that we are trying dissuade female buyers at all, but we see a big missed opportunity with males. So if we can gain more male buyers, but not at the expense of our core female buyer, that market increase is all incremental,” according to Campbell.
But, will it work?
According to Tanner Foust, who leaves the dominant Ford Rallycross stable to come to the unproven VW crew, the chance to race a car as iconic as the Beetle was too good to pass up.
“Growing up in Southern California, especially when I was kid, the original Beetle, all souped up with aftermarket parts, was the performance car to have for your first car. Really not until VW brought the GTI was there an alternative to the muscle cars available,” says Foust.
Campbell backs up the feeling by noting that neither car carries any significant VW branding. The shape of the car alone is enough to identify it instantly as a VW.
While the memories may not be top-of-mind, a quick search of rally and rallycross images from late 60’s to the mid 70’s will yield a wealth of VW Beetles in all form of modification mixing it up with Mini Coopers and Ford Cortinas, among others.
As we spoke at the Chicago Auto Show, the WRC Polo Rs had gone 1-2-3 in the first stage of Rally Sweden, continuing their winning form from Monte Carlo a fortnight earlier. So will VW expect similar results in GRC that has seen Ford be the dominant car not only in the GRC but also the European Rallycross Championship?
“The goal of winning in the first year isn’t so much a pressure as it is a fact. If you look at the evolution of VW motorsport in the rally segment, we started off several years ago by winning at Dakar a couple of times. All the learnings and the technology from that program came to bear on the WRC program that took a couple of years to develop and produced results in its first season of competition. Now the same transfer will come to this program. So it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the same couldn’t happen here. The expectation is there because its based on history,” explains Campbell.
So is the VW GRC program a spearhead into more racing programs in the U.S. down the road. Nothing is planned as of yet beyond GRC, but Campbell certainly thinks so. He noted that Volkswagen Motorsport is now in its 51st year on the strength of its WRC, F3, Scirocco R Cup and rally activities in South Africa and South America. While the brand hasn’t been synonymous with motorsport in North America during the recent past, plenty of non-motorsports audience still recall a little car called Herbie. The growth, he feels, is likely to come at grassroots involvement with the 2.0 liter turbo engine becoming the de facto engine for many categories of amateur racing, VW is well positioned. Certainly winning in the GRC will spur the demand.