by Justin Kaehler
Volkswagen’s Beetle is a global icon. It’s cheap. It’s cute. And it’s cheerful. And despite the brand’s scandals of late, VW has pushed innovations in design and engineering for decades. That said, it’s a bit of a shock to see the VW Beetle dominate Red Bull’s Global Rally Cross (GRC) series. This is racing for the X-Games set, starring action sports royalty like Travis Pastrana, Ken Block and Bucky Lasek. GRC’s quick-burst racetracks feature a mix of tarmac and dirt, huge jumps, and collisions that make MMA matches look like tickle fights. Andretti Autosport has two VW Beetles running in GRC, and the cars are taking the series by storm.
Driving the number 41 car is Scott Speed, one of the few American drivers to compete in Formula 1. His teammate, in the number 34 car, is Tanner Foust. In addition to hosting Top Gear, Foust is a Formula Drift champion and respected stunt driver. To say that these guys are masters of car control would be an understatement.
And the Beetles they drive are works of art. Engineered by Volkswagen Motorsport in Europe, and crafted in Spain by SEAT, these racecars begin life as standard, factory-spec cars. Take a closer look, though, and you’ll see that these GRC machines have very little in common with the Bugs you’ll find at a dealership.
Suspension points and the transmission tunnel are re-engineered to accommodate the all-wheel drive system. An FIA-approved roll cage is added, and for additional safety, rules state that the Beetles must retain their factory drivers-side door. For the rest of the body, VW/Andretti Autosport use parts made from carbon fiber. It’s an expensive material, but its lightness and strength are hard to beat. Factory glass is replaced with Plexiglas, and though GRC rules state that the front end must look stock, those front headlights are just decals.
The engine is shrouded in secrecy – and shrouded with actual cloth whenever the Beetles visit the hot pits. What we are allowed to know is that it’s a 2.0-liter four-cylinder, and that it’s turbocharged. A series-mandated restrictor limits power approximately 600 horsepower, which is more than enough to help launch the car from 0-60 in just 1.9 seconds. Traction control is forbidden, making that number that much more impressive.
As Foust shares with CH, “These Beetles are completely hyperactive. They are so responsive that if you think about accelerating, you’re already accelerating too much. And it’s one of the fastest-accelerating racecars in the world—even quicker than a Formula 1 car.” This acceleration looks even crazier due to the Beetles’ long suspension travel. There’s a lot of up-and-down movement to the wheels—all designed to help soften the landing of those 70-foot jumps. Soft suspensions usually lead to dull handling, but that’s not the case here.
“The closest comparison I can make to a GRC car is a shifter kart,” says Speed, stating that the immediacy of the two require similar driving styles. Foust jumps in with more detail. “(It takes just) half a turn in each direction to get the full-lock. The ratio is so fast that just the twitch of a hand is a complete turn.” Helping the Beetles handle so well are a set of series-mandated Yokohama Advan racing slicks. Just 10-inches wide, these tires help the GRC cars pull over 1.5 lateral g.
A glance inside the cockpit shows that the driver’s seat has been moved back to help improve weight distribution; the gear lever for the sequential transmission has been lengthened and moved towards the steering wheel for easier access. The hand brake lever also increases in size, helping the drivers quickly lock the rear wheels to aid vehicle rotation.
Anything not deemed necessary is tossed, and unfortunately for the drivers, that includes the air conditioning as well. As Foust tells us, “the biggest enemy you would have in this car is temperature.” Between the hot and muggy summer temperatures, fire-spitting machinery and multiple layers of fireproof clothing, all drivers must battle the intense heat in their own way. With cold air out of the question, both Foust and Speed opt to up their aerobic fitness to stay competitive. Speed explains. “The advantage to be had is we can drive using less energy, and we’re able to deal with the heat inside the car while maintaining razor-sharp focus.” That said, should Red Bull ever want to throw a GRC event in the winter, we’re sure these guys won’t mind.
No matter where they race, we’re glad these GRC-spec Beetles exist – they bring a smile to the face of anyone who sees them in action. It’s an icon of cute catching air, spraying dirt and duking it out with some of the fastest racecars on the planet. It’s like Herbie the Love Bug, only real and amped up on energy drinks – what’s not to like?
Images by Justin Kaehler