Over the course of the summer, Ill be telling my story about racing in the series. Ill also be giving all of you a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to be a race-car driver at the beginning of his professional career.
Volkswagen formed the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup, sanctioned by SCCA Pro Racing, to give 30 young drivers the opportunity to start their racing careers. It is a real privilege to be able to drive this car, which is the racing version of the 2009 Jetta TDI sedan. The 2.0L TDI engine in this car improves fuel efficiency by nearly 35 percent over comparable gas engines and will be available in the U.S. this spring. The cars are lightly modified with only a racing suspension, brakes, a six-speed DSG gearbox and the appropriate safety modifications. It will be a real test of drivers skill as Volkswagen will maintain each car and ensure that all will be identical in performance.
Realizing that I am in the midst of what I could never have conjured up in a million years, I hope to give you an insiders view of what its like to be given the opportunity of a lifetime to potentially become a professional race car driver .. driving a Volkswagen!!
Winning the Jetta TDI Cup would be like hitting the apex just right! Not only does the winner receive $100,000 to put towards his/her career, but also the potential track-out point would be tremendous. Media coverage, spraying champagne on the podium, maybe a factory ride for 09 .. The potential is great! But for now, I need to wake up and just work on getting that turn-in just right.
Before I get too far into this, let me tell you a little bit about myself. Well, for starters, Im a MKV GTI owner and motorsports enthusiast. Im from Cooper City, Florida and a recent graduate of Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.
From the age of eight, I either watched stock car racing at the local South Florida tracks or watched Formula 1 on TV. Then, it happened. You know, that exact moment in time that can change you forever. My mother did it, actually. Its all her fault. She was the one that saw a 1/24th scale slot car track. She mentioned something to my dad about it, and, lets just say, the rest was history. The speed, the need to be focused, and the spirit of competition instantly hooked me! My very first slot car race resulted in a podium finish! By the time I had stopped racing slot cars, nine years later, I was a factory-supported racer with over ten state championships to my name.
At 17 years old, I was then looking for my next racing fix. I thought about it and realized that most professional racing drivers started in the same place, karting. At that point, I made the decision to start racing karts. So, I approached that change jar that sat in my room for years untouched. I dumped out its contents and had just enough money to buy a used kart.
The kart served its purpose, allowing me to be competitive against drivers who had been doing it for years. I scraped enough cash together to upgrade to an even better kart and entered the Florida Winter Tour in one of the most competitive classes, Rotax. For obvious reasons, Floridas weather has always attracted national racers from various parts of the country and Canada. At this prestigious race, I earned my first pole position in motorsport! I was on my way.
From then, I began my career in earnest running for various factory teams and shops including Rysa Racing and CRG. By the end of my karting career, I was nationally ranked fifth in Rotax and won the Southeast Regional championship. Despite these accomplishments, I was faced with the same limitations and obstacles of most aspiring racers without a famous last name: I had what I believed to be enough talent to go pro, but not enough money to take advantage of it.
I then worked as a data acquisition engineer in various series, including Grand Am, and was able to dabble in SCCA Club racing. I had a couple of friends who were kind enough to let me co-drive with them in some endurance races, which allowed me to gain some sports car experience.
Now today, with the help of Gunther Volkswagen, the largest volume Volkswagen dealership in the North America, I am about to take the most important turn-in point of my life with hopes of hitting the apex just right. What an honor it is to be one of 30 drivers selected to race eight weekends in the Jetta TDI Cup.
Now that you know who I am it is time to begin the journey through the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup and how I arrived at this point. Before I could go racing, I had to be one of the thirty drivers selected to compete in the series. This involved getting the funding to do so and also required making it through a selection process that would be held in Phoenix, Arizona.
After finalizing a flight on April 1st, I packed my bags to leave the next day. I secured some last minute funding for the flight out to Phoenix and headed to the airport with all my gear. Along with the last minute funding, I also found a roommate, John Shim. We met through a friend and happened to have the same connecting flight from Houston to Phoenix. Being able to find a roommate was a big thing as every penny counts when trying to start your career.
The flight itself was uneventful. However, when we landed in Phoenix, we hit our first hurdle of the trip. A delay in getting our rental car kept us from arriving at our hotel before 11:00 pm, which was when the lobby closed its doors. So, we had no hotel room for the first night in Phoenix. Sleeping in the back of a PT cruiser was not our idea of a good way to start the selection process. We finally found a Super 8 with a vacancy and settled in for the night.
I called my friends at Gunther Volkswagen to let them know Id gotten to Phoenix all right and then did the same for all my personal backers (friends who have helped my racing since karts). I then attempted to get some sleep, which turned out not to be very successful due to my excitement. When morning came, John and I awoke and drove to the track.
Upon our arrival, we were bussed to the registration line where we joined the 50-plus other drivers. There, we signed our waivers and got our pictures taken for a media release. After this, we were permitted entry into the huge Volkswagen hospitality center. The hospitality center was gorgeous. It was better than most ALMS and A1 GP hospitality centers Ive seen. Picture this: a huge air conditioned tent with glass doors, wood floors, food, tables, couches, an Xbox 360, and masseuses. I was blown away by this hospitality. Volkswagen really outdid themselves on this one.
At that point, Clark Campbell, head of Volkswagen of America Motorsports, walked in and welcomed us. In his speech, he mentioned that nearly everything in this hospitality center was made of recycled materials. This really showed Volkswagens commitment to cleaning up our Earth, not only on the track, but also off.
It was time for the action to begin. We were split into five groups. I was in the green group along with some other guys I knew from karting and had raced against in the past. On our way to our first selection test, we all caught up by doing the typical bench racing that occurs when a bunch of racers get together. We all knew right then and there that the side-by-side racing was going to be an absolute blast!
However, the racing would come later as our first test was a written exam. The written exam was mostly to test our knowledge of vehicle dynamics. Things such as: what to do when you have corner-entry oversteer or understeer, how to handle brake lock up, when to trail brake, and other similar situations.
The written test was followed by a lecture from Clark Campbell. He covered the history of Volkswagen, details about the series, and some interesting facts about Volkswagen; such as their record for the farthest distance traveled on a single gallon of fuel (238 miles) and the amount of recyclable materials used in the cars.
Next up: Lunch. Volkswagen provided a great spread of sandwiches and drinks. This down time allowed us to really get to know each other and to find out about the competition. There were a lot of drivers with diverse experiences. There were club racers, autocrossers, karters, and some with almost no experience at all. Everyone had stories to tell, and our group really got along quite well. Excitement was in the air and soon we would all get to drive!
Finally, we were going to get to drive! First up was the autocross course. Though we would be driving GTIs and not the TDI Cup cars, we were all still excited to finally get our helmets out of their bags. The excitement was slightly tempered by the fact that some of us had never autocrossed before. How were we going to attack such a tight, slow course, the likes of which we never see in road racing? We were given two practice laps to learn the course then two timed laps which would be judged.
Going out for the practice laps was an interesting experience. I found it hard to see the cones, but managed to avoid all cones and go rather quickly. At least I think I was quick. Volkswagen officials never actually showed us those times. The timed runs brought much the same accuracy and consistency for me. But a few other guys in the group buckled under the pressure of only being allowed two laps to get it right.
So, while the autocrossers had the upper hand in the last event, it was now time for the karters to strike back. Our group headed over to the kart track where we were told to get into the Bondurant Schools concession karts. In my group I started in the back and was able to pass the whole field on both of my runs. The car racers really had a hard time adapting to the karts. Going from cars to karts is much harder than the other way round. This is due to the fact that a car driver has to change the way he/she thinks about how hard a vehicle can corner. The typical car driver feels that a kart is unpredictable and twitchy. For a karter, on the other hand, a car usually feels slow and predictable.
After the kart track, we headed to what would be the last test of the first day of selection: the media test. I was really looking forward to this test, as I felt this would be a personal strong suit because of my background. First, they had us fill out bios so that the interviewers could get an idea of what to ask us. The bio had a ton of questions about our backgrounds, or heroes, and some funny questions such as: Do you prefer Autobots or Decepticons as it relates to Transformers?
The interviewers called us in, one by one, and asked us a series of questions including why we wanted to participate in the Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup. For me, the answer was simple. Im participating to represent Gunther Volkswagen of Coconut Creek in this prestigious TDI Cup series, and to also further my racing career. This test was one of the more important to me because being comfortable with the media would be important throughout the entire weekend. For all four days of the selection, there were boom microphones, video, and still cameras in our faces. Volkswagen had an independent company filming a documentary about the series drivers. So, you had better learn to be comfortable around a camera rather quickly.
Since the interviews were the final test of the day, we all reported to the hospitality tent for Volkswaffles, waffles with VW printed on them. As we snacked, we were told that day 2 would be cut day so we needed to bring our A game. So, while I was confident that I would make it, I was devising my plan of attack for the next day. On the agenda would be two sessions of driving, a fitness test, and a media class. With this in mind, John and I headed back to our hotel, where I once again spent 2 hours on the phone updating my family, friends and backers before heading out to dinner. The next day looked to be another exciting one.
After another restless night, John and I once again ventured to Firebird Raceway. We all had breakfast at the Volkswagen hospitality center and then joined our groups. The organizers tried to even out the groups so the green group got new additions, one of which was my roommate, John. Now that was really cool! Our first evaluation of the day was to be based solely on fitness. As my turn to enter the fitness room arrived, I was greeted by the fine people from Athletes Performance. They immediately started conducting my flexibility evaluation.
They measured the flexibility of my back, shoulders, legs, and arms. Then, they had me get on the floor to test my core strength. I had to get on my hands and knees and straddle a measuring board. Then, I had to raise my left arm and left leg, touch them together in the air, and fully extend them while balancing on my right limbs. Then, of course I had to do the other side. While this sounds like a very simple proposition, I assure you it was not. Just imagine the most cruel game of Twister! Nearly all of us struggled with at least one side of it. Then we had to take the same test with diagonal limbs (left arm to right leg).
After a body mass composition test, it was time for the bicycle section where cardiovascular fitness would be tested. I have to admit that watching people do this test made me a bit nervous. Everyone, I mean everyone, got out of this test absolutely worn down to the limit. I got to watch Andy Lee (one of our fellow TDI Cup Racers) finish his run. Then, it was my turn. I started with a warm up on an easy gear while they hooked me up to the machine. The pedals and seat adjusted were properly adjusted. A heart monitor was strapped around my chest. Then came the mask. Ughh! I did not like the mask! The mask measured the quantity of air I was breathing in and out. I think I speak for all the drivers when I say I found it to be a little restrictive. Once the techs had determined that I had sufficiently warmed up, I had to maintain 80 rpm on the bike. At first, this was not too difficult. Every subsequent minute though, they turned the resistance up a level. It got a little tougher, but it still didnt seem to be that bad. After four minutes, I was informed that the resistance would increase every 30 seconds. This is where it got difficult.
Since they were monitoring us so closely, they knew how hard they could push us. I pedaled and focused on keeping that rpm at 80. I started struggling a bit and was told to just give 30 more seconds of effort. So, like a determined F1 pilot, I put my head down and made it. I went for 6 minutes and 30 seconds, which is where most of us ended up. The results, though, are not just about the time. It was also about our VO2 max scores and how close we got to our max. Unfortunately, the results are still being gathered, so I cant report on them. Strangely enough, as hard as the last test went, I really enjoyed it. It was a fun challenge and I love pushing myself to the limit, as any professional driver should.
With the fitness evaluation behind us, our group got fitted for seats and HANS devices. Since I already had my own HANS, I only needed to get the seat and belt positions set to my preference. They had us line up short to tall and at 5 9, I was in the third spot. With only a couple exceptions, we were all around 5 9 to 5 11 tall. This was a unique experience for me as Im used to sharing sports cars with other drivers and just dealing with awkward seating positions. The Volkswagen techs were absolutely great. They got the seat and belts exactly where I wanted them in a matter of moments.
We were treated to an absolutely delicious taco bar for lunch in the Volkswagen hospitality center on day 2. During this time, I realized that our team was one of the tighter knit ones. This camaraderie definitely made the weekend more enjoyable for all of us. We sat in the game area of the hospitality center and raced all manner of cars on the X Box. It was good way to relieve the stress of what the next two events were sure to bring.
After lunch, we walked out to the autocross course. This time, we knew t was for real. There were some changes to the course from the previous day. All changes were designed to make the course faster. This definitely think helped the karters and road racers become more equal with the autocrossers. The format was the same as the day before with two practice laps and then two flying laps. I had a fairly decent practice lap, pushing it a bit but not striking cones. Others took a little more aggressive approach, hitting several cones on their practice laps.
The first racer hit the track. Then, one after another drivers started setting their times. Soon, the driver just two places ahead of me began to really over drive the car, BIG TIME! He turned in too hard, at way too high of a speed. At almost every corner, he induced severe understeer and tortured the front tires. Andy Lee, the next racer out, and I began to get nervous about the state of the tires. Andy got straight into the car and did his laps. They all looked like clean runs to me. As I met him on the way to the car, I asked him about the tires. The fronts are gone no grip, he said. Well, at least I knew what to expect.
So I did my two laps. Boy, was Andy right! I had to be very careful with the throttle, or the GTI would just smoke the front tires coming off the tight corners. Despite much slipping and sliding and a lot of understeer, I clocked a clean run. Once again, the officials would not tell us our times, but I felt confident that it was quick. All of the drivers got together to discuss our runs. This is how we judged who did well in the autocross.
The next session would be another autocross. This one would be on a kart track. I found it to be much easier to find the line since I could see the grass and I didnt have to look for cones. This time, we were given two flying laps of practice followed by two flying timed laps. As I got in for my practice run, I took it relatively easy so I could learn the car. When we got out, the coaches gave us more feedback. Jan Heylen said That was a quick time, but you are losing some time in turn one. I agreed with his assessment since I was taking it easy. The other coaches said pretty much echoed the same sentiment, so I was confident I could do well the next run. I also realized I had the transmission in the wrong mode during the practice runs, so I knew I could improve.
I went out for my next run confident in how it would go. I braked a little earlier for turn one but was able to get on the gas much earlier and dropped a ton of time. Both laps felt excellent so I was looking forward to hearing what everyone would have to say. Jan said, That was a good time. Nice lap. Mark Miller and Jimmy had the same response. Due to those positive statements, I was able to relax a bit heading to our next event.
The next event at Firebird was a marketing talk. This was a nice break after the pressures of driving. Here, they coached us on how to handle the media in general and specifically how to be on the other end of a microphone. I have to applaud Volkswagen for this section of the event. The skills learned here can greatly assist ones career regardless of whether that career is motorsports-related or not. As the event ended, you could feel the heavy curtain of tension descend upon the hospitality center. Selection was on the horizon.
So the wait began. We all snacked and talked nervously, many of us feeling extremely confident that we had made it, especially our green group. This was affirmed in talking to my roommate John, who was originally in the yellow group. He said, The green group is much closer and more competitive than the yellow was.
Thinking like this helped get us through the half hour of free time until selection was due to start. After about 45 minutes, Clark came out and told us it would be yet a little while longer and for us to just sit tight. Naturally none of us were too happy about the announcement. It was quite understandable though, as there were a lot of very good drivers and the decision could not have been easy.
Finally, after another 45 minutes, we saw the Volkswagen staff enter. Clark Campbell got out the envelope and said that he would be calling the drivers out in a random order. 35 drivers, 30 of which were racers and 5 would be alternates. The names were called. One by one, I saw guys from my group, who I can now call friends, get called. Caleb, Andy, Timmy, John (my roommate). The names kept coming, yet I was still sitting down.
Ill admit it, my confidence began to slip. I began to wonder what I had done wrong. What was I going to do until my flight left on Monday? What was I going to tell Gunther VW and all my friends back home who believed I would make it? Then, finally! After 32 names, I heard mine called! Ahhh, the elation was great. The agony was over! I shook hands with the Volkswagen brass and planned my phone calls. However, that would have to wait as the 35 racers who made it had a meeting to attend. The meeting was the briefing on the 2008 Volkswagen Jetta TDI Cup car and how to make its 2.0 Liter Clean TDI Engine run at its best, how to use the DSG transmission, and how to use the data system on the car.
So, after two days of testing, I had made it. Well, almost had made it. There were still 5 of us due to be cut the next day. The Volkswagen staff informed us that the next day would take place entirely at Athletes Performance and we would need to push ourselves to be in the top 30. With that slightly ominous message, most of the TDI Cup racers, myself included, headed to Carrabas to load up on carbs for the gym day that the VW staff said, Is sure to make you sore for awhile. At least tonight I could relax and sleep for the first time in days.
There are still two more days of the initiation process to go. We'll be spending a lot of time on track and really get a feel for the Jetta TDI racecars. In the next installment, Ill go into what Volkswagen did to get us ready for our first race which is only a few short weeks away at Virginia International Raceway. Check back next week and youll continue to find out what its like behind the scenes of becoming a professional racecar driver.