The Mouse that Roared
VW + Biodiesel = Headache For the Competition
Since the inception of organized motor sports there has been a battle between brains and bucks. While it always seems to appear that the dollar is superior, there is a group of racers from Ohio who would beg to differ.
The relatively tame-looking VW Golf TDI that you see on the pages before you is, at press time, second in the national points for the SCCA's Pro Rally series in Group 5, which is basically an unlimited two-wheel-drive class. Competing with a diesel VW against factory-backed entries from Dodge and Mazda, amongst others, the guys from the Rally VW team do it on their own, and they do it very well.
Dan Sycks serves as the team's manager and is an enthusiastic supporter of The Biodiesel-Powered VW That Could. "All of us on the team really just love this technology," Sycks said. "It is very easy to get excited about when you have a 1.9L engine that makes 370lb-ft of torque using basically all factory parts." This little diesel beast has been terrorizing the rally world for several years, earning the national championship in the Production class in 2002, but according to Sycks, acceptance was not immediate amongst the competition. "People were laughing when we showed up with this diesel car. They all said that we brought a knife to a gunfight. I think the most common reaction was this shocked response of It's a diesel?"
It's not just "a diesel," it's one hell of a little diesel! Oliver Weneger serves as the team's crew chief and heads the R&D department, and the VW happens to be his own personal car. "Pretty much everything we have done to the race car we have tried on my street car to test the reliability and durability of the modifications," Weneger said. The team's secret has really been their ability to make factory parts work in slightly different settings. For example, their injection pump is a factory stock unit off of an automatic TDI. "The pump on the automatics is an 11mm pump where the manual cars got a 10mm pump," Weneger explained. "People have had some durability issues with that 11mm pump at sustained high rpm, but we have not. I really believe it is the extra lubricity of the biodiesel that we run that keeps that pump alive. We have never had a problem with it."
Let's run down what at first seems like a pretty mundane parts list. Engine block? Stock. Crankshaft? Stock. Camshaft? Stock. Transmission? Stock. Cylinder head? You guessed it. The turbo is actually a VW part, but was available in Europe only, so the guys imported a few. So where is all this power coming from? Again, it all goes back to the brains. Or in this case, to one person. Everyone we spoke to on the Rally VW team was very quick to thank Jeff Robinson at Rocket Chips, who is responsible for programming the computer in the TDI. His ability to burn custom chips and creatively manage the fuel flow in the car has led to impressive gains in power and, more importantly, power-curve management. You can make all the power in the world, but if it is in an rpm range where you cannot get to it, it's useless. Sycks said, "I'd let Jeff do anything to my car that he felt like. The guy is just out of this world."
So what are the power numbers? According to Weneger, the car is good for 170 hp, but the astounding number is 370 lb-ft of torque. The maximum rpm for the motor is right around 3,600, but peak torque hits right in the neighborhood of 1,900 rpm. "The real secret of our success has been that our car is very reliable," Weneger said. "In order to win races, you need to finish races. Many of our competitors are making so much power that they break their cars on a pretty regular basis. We have never had a driveline failure during a race. We've lost tires and stuff like that, but we have never broken a driveline part in competition."
Specifically, rally competition. The boys headed out to the local dragstrip just before this story was written and ripped off some high 14-second elapsed times until they shredded an axle on the track's mucho sticky surface. "That was the first thing we really broke on the car. The CV joint just kind of exploded on the starting line," Weneger said. Aside from the important part of the puzzle that power plays, the suspension is what takes the brunt of the beating from the punishing mixed-surface rally courses. Flying over potholes, ditches, creeks, and whatever else gets in the way, would mean a quick end to any factory pieces underpinning the car, so in this area, the Rally VW team leads the pack in technology. Peter Pyce is the guy who took the suspension pieces that the team wanted to use and tuned them beyond anyone's expectations. An expert in the field of dampers, Pyce is just what the diesel doctor ordered when it comes to rally racing. There is not much doubt amongst those in the know that Pyce's suspension tuning and tweaking have put this car on a handling plain that few vehicles out there, factory backed or not, can achieve.
Jon Hamilton is the guy who gets to steer this little rocket through the woods, across the broken pavement, and on at least one occasion, up Pikes Peak. "This thing is a totally different beast than any other race car I have driven," Hamilton said. "It goes without saying, but the torque is really amazing. It really makes the car more forgiving to drive because I have a wider power window to work with than the gasoline guys. The torque really pulls the car through corners. You can take a 90-degree bend in this car in Third gear and not have to shift it on the way out. It's awesome."
According to Hamilton, the team is looking at having a custom-built six-speed transmission assembled for the car. They currently swap between two transmissions, depending on the racecourse. The wide ratio box gives them a top speed of roughly 130 mph, while their close ratio box limits them to near 110 mph. Even driving in the Pro Rally Series is a group affair. "My co-driver Ken Sabo is vitally important to our success," Hamilton said. "In a way, it is very comforting to have him alongside of me when we are racing through the stages. When Ken is not there, on a press stage, for example, it is just different for me. I trust him 100 percent, and any team with that kind of trust is going to be fast. I rely on him to tell me what is around the next curve or over the next hill. The co-driver is a very important guy."
Rally racing is all about adaptation. Drivers must adapt to their vehicles, vehicles must adapt to the conditions, and the only thing constant is change. Hamilton echoed his teammate's sentiment about using stock pieces to make the car reliable and fast: "I really love using stock VW parts as we can. This is definitely the most unique TDI in the United States and probably one of the most unique in the world."
There is one other aspect of this operation that makes it even more unique. As Hamilton said, "We love the fact that this car runs on Ohio soy beans. Biodiesel has worked so well in this car, it is very satisfying." That's right, to top off the unique sundae, the car is powered by 100 percent biodiesel, and it is an economizer as well! Sycks said, "All of the other teams have 55-gallon drums of race fuel. We can make it through a weekend on just about four five-gallon cans of biodiesel. The car will achieve about 35 mpg in race conditions."
As you would expect, a custom chassis and lots of tube normally go into constructing a Group 5 car. Not in the case of the Golf. The car has a rollcage, of course, but it is the stock chassis. The windows are stock glass, and all of the body panels are stock steel stampings, the way they rolled off of the assembly line. Could the car use a lightening program? According to Hamilton, "We're a very heavy car in comparison to the cars we race against. With stock body panels and full glass, we are way heavier than pretty much everyone else."
With all of this good stuff going on, that's not to say that life is free of frustration for the Rally VW team. The fact that VW has not showered the team with free gifts does not bother them, but the fact that VW has seemingly gone out of their way not to say anything to them or about their performance thus far rubs on most of the team members.
Weneger said, "VW just does not support the diesel cars. They had a TDI Cup over in Europe a few years ago, but that was about it." Sycks added, "There really have never been any serious conversations between us and VW. It seemed to us that the information we are gathering would be useful to them, but it has not really hit their radar screen at this time."
Regardless of those minor bumps in the road, every member of the team is involved because they love it. There is not a huge amount of prize money, glory, or fame in the SCCA Pro Rally Series, but there is a great kinship amongst the competitors. Weneger said, "We all enjoy it. We do our best to get some donations from people to help with towing costs and stuff. Khumo helps us out a lot with tires, and that is just such a great thing because tires are so expensive. We plan our vacation time around the races and work on the car when we can. We'd find a way to do this, regardless, if we had to push the car to the races. It is something we all love."
So with any luck, the nurse (Dan Sycks), the fireman (Jon Hamilton), the lawyer (Oliver Weneger), and the engineer (Ken Sabo) will be sipping champagne and hoisting the championship trophy on the podium at the end of the '06 season. We know one thing. This band of diesel-powered merry men have been keeping factory engineers awake with cold sweats since the day they unveiled their soy-powered, steel-bodied, German-designed steamroller in SCCA Pro Rally. And we love every second of it.
Rally VW Racingwww.rallyvw.com