Chances are when you say “Volkswagen” the word “racing” isn’t going to be the first thing most people think about, especially here in the States. Ignoring the European market Scirocco, the company we love doesn’t even technically build a sports car. As brilliant a car as the GTI is, at its roots it’s an economical hatchback with sporting equipment. Yet since its introduction, the little German box with the big heart has taken to tracks and parking lot courses the world over, leaving onlookers amazed by what the car, through all five generations, has been capable of. If we are to call the GTI a sports car, it is by achievement, not appearance.
Despite the thankless efforts of passionate amateur VW racers, what the GTI has lacked for decades is a successful, professional racing campaign. As far back as the VWVortex staff can remember, there’s been little involvement in any major U.S. racing series and zero victories for the peoples’ car. One source we’ve contacted is claiming the last major VW victory was in 1981. That’s 28 years ago. However, ask the same question now and the answer will be “Twice in the past month, stupid.” That’s right. On Friday, June 5, 2009, a Mk5 Volkswagen GTI took the checkered flag at Watkins Glen, placing its drivers on the podium for the first time in the Grand Am Koni Street Tuner racing series. On June 21, the team made it two in a row. Congratulations to Volkswagen, APR Motorsport, Mike Sweeney, and Dion von Moltke.
The finish line at the Glen is surely covered with smooth pavement, but the black, white and red VW traversed a long, rocky road to get there. Since announcing its intent to run a team of GTIs in the Koni Series in late 2007, the APR Motorsport team has endured driver changes, fine-tuning issues, and a few heartbreaking, second-place close calls. But everything came together at Watkins Glen.
Said APR’s Marketing and Sales Director Keith Lucas, “We’re really firing on all cylinders right now. The cars and drivers have been holding up well and everything has come together for us.” Indeed, the two GTIs qualified for the race in first and second. Driver Ian Baas sat at the pole in the #171 car and battled only his teammate, Mike Sweeney, for the majority of his time in the car. Reflecting back, Baas only stated, “the car was so perfect today. Mike and I had a good fight for the lead but we knew there could be no contact.” However, the #171 car’s fortunes soon turned. Prior to the driver change, an electronic issue was causing intermittent power loss and had to be quickly repaired while the car was refueled. Josh Hurley replaced Baas and battled back toward the front of the pack, only to be penalized with thirty minutes left in the race for jumping a restart. While Hurley was able to jump back from eighteenth to sixth place, there simply wasn’t enough time for the pole-position car to reclaim its lead.
Hurley too made a statement after the race: “I was pushing like crazy to get back to the lead! That penalty was devastating, and I am sorry for it. APR Motorsport put a car under me that was simply amazing and I tried to recover the most points I could. We should be strong at Mid-Ohio and hopefully we can win there.”
There was drama in the other Volkswagen, #181, as well. Driver Mike Sweeney nearly ran out of fuel during a full-course caution, but the team took advantage of the rule book to break from the pack for a few drops of fuel at a time when pit stops generally aren’t allowed. After a driver change, it was up to Dion von Moltke to bring the #181 car home, the pressure building after Hurley’s penalty sent the #171 car to the rear of the pack. Rainy conditions and some serious back door pressure from ex-APR driver Randy Pobst tested von Moltke mentally through over corner and every straight, but in the end, the team came out on top for the first time. If it weren’t for the penalty, the team may have finished 1-2.
“Unbelievable,” said Sweeney after the race, “ I am so happy to grab this first win for APR with Dion, but it would have been a little easier on the nerves if the race had been less interesting! There was no stopping my teammate today, and the best crew in KONI now has its first win. Go APR!”
Keith Lucas says that the win isn’t an anomaly, either. He’s confident that the team has come together, that the cars are dialed in just right, and that the crew will carry this momentum into the next race at Mid-Ohio, June 19-21, 2009. But Lucas also doesn’t want anyone thinking its just APR’s efforts. “The Mk5 GTI is a great chassis and the 2.0T is a great engine. This is about a seriously good car that Volkswagen has built. To think that we can go out with this car, in essence an economical hatchback, and run with dedicated sports cars is a testament to Volkswagen and its engineers.”
The race results also show that this was no anomaly. Credit can’t go to the current points leaders having terrible races. The top three cars for the season finished 2-3-4 behind von Moltke, and Randy Pobst’s car turned the second fastest lap of the day, behind the #171 car, which surely had some extra inspiration to regain time. This was no lucky break for Volkswagen, it was a hard-earned victory.
Two weeks later, the team proved Lucas right. At the very next race, which took place at Mid-Ohio, von Molke took the checkered flag again. Along with Sweeney, the team averaged over 83 mph through the race and again had the team of Randy Pobst and Christian Miller breathing down their necks right until the finish in a Compass360 Racing Honda Civic Si. Von Molke credits the win to focusing on two important corners, where the team managed to dig in and grip hard, avoiding being overtaken.
“We found something in the back end of the suspension that the car really, really likes midway through the event at Lime Rock [the race prior to Watkins Glen]” Sweeney, said. “Last year we had a lot of power but couldn’t seem to do anything with it. This year it seems people have caught up with the power, but we’ve finally got the Volkswagen handling really well. We made a few changes, and the car just woke up.” That’s promising for races still ahead.
Luck was unfortunately, again, not on the side of Ian Baas and Josh Hurley. As with the Glen race, the team qualified on the pole. They went on to lead 66 of the first 78 laps, only to be kicked to the back of the pack by an electrical problem that was killing power. The 171 car still managed an 11th place finish, but for two weeks in a row, the VW team has narrowly missed a dominant one-two finish I asked Lucas whether APR plans to move to the Mk6 chassis for next season. “Well, these cars have been a huge investment for us. Lots of engineering, tuning, and money involved.” While APR would love to move its program to the next generation vehicle, it must get its money’s worth out of these current cars. Lucas is, however, hopeful that this win might inspire VWoA to get involved, which could in turn allow a field of next-generation cars to hit the Koni Series in the near future.
Lucas is right to say that what happened in these past two races isn’t just a victory for APR. It’s victory for each driver, for everyone in the pits and behind the computers and tools that made the cars possible. It’s a victory for everyone at APR, for everyone at Volkswagen, and for the dedicated followers of the brand and its unexpected champion, the GTI.
For more information on APR Motorsports GTI racing efforts check out there website at: http://www.goapr.com/race/
Photos provided by APR and Sideline Sports Photography, LLC
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