VW Jetta Testing Day 3 & 4: The Recap

Sorry for not keeping up to date each night. Saturday & Sunday night I was too damn tired to even think about blogging and I had a flight at 6:35am, Monday morning. I got back from Phoenix on Monday night after being trapped in Newark airport (and being depressed by looking at the NYC skyline, knowing I couldn’t go into the city) because of a longer delay and then coming home to find out there had been ‘accidental’ police shootings in my neighborhood.

Anywho, Saturday was quite the training day. After we got our ‘congratulations’ envelopes, it contained SCCA pro racing license application forms and directions to Athlete’s Performance in Tempe. As usual, we all met up at AP before 7am. Mark Miller gave us a tour around AP (he’s a member there) and told us how much of a privilege it was to even train with AP since it is a world class training facility for the best sports teams and athletes. Apparently, 1 year’s membership starts around $55,000! Hanging on the walls were signed jerseys/uniforms as well as pictures of some of the best athletes in their respective categories. In fact, AP is so good that the German national soccer team enlisted their help to train their players to be in the best shape for the 2006 World Cup. The training they received helped them to place 3rd overall. Mark Miller talked about how he has special training to focus on performing under fatigue. During rallies, he has to change the Rally Touareg wheels/tires, which are 44kg (97lbs) each! Also, the training he receives helps him endure the grueling conditions of being in an extremely hot cockpit, strapped in tight for several hours each day as he bounces up and down sand dunes in the desert to drive 9,043km (5,619 mi) usually from Lisbon, Portugal to Dakar, Senegal. Check out some of these awesome statistics. Unfortunately, the 2008 Dakar Rally was canceled due to terrorism.

As usual for myself, I switched teams to black group that day. We started out on the astro-turf doing some ‘stretch exercises. We used big rubber bands around our ankles, then our thighs to add resistance while doing various, awkward stretches that helped loosen up our muscles. Even though it was hot in the desert, it was a nice dry heat that is much better than the humid heat I’m used to. After the stretch session, we went inside to talk with Bob, the nutrition specialist. We discussed proper nutritions, what essential foods we needed to eat each day to stay healthy and which foods were better for training. He had printed individual food charts based on our how much calorie intake we need per day. We were trained on eating habits, such as browner foods are better, the less legs the healthier it is, more colors on our food plates, etc.

The next set of exercises were intense. We got down in squatting positions and had to slam 8 pound medicine balls against a brick wall for 30 seconds. After each set we took a little break then switched to ‘reactive’ balls that bounced back. As if those drills weren’t bad enough, we then had to bend on one knee and were told not touch our knees on the ground. Wow were we glad to be done with those drills. It was awesome to hear the trainer tell us how privileged it was to work with racing drivers. I think we felt the same since we had this special opportunity to train with a top notch group like AP. After a good lunch break, we got back to more workouts. We did more interesting stretches and workouts with weights that definitely worked every part of our bodies. After that, our group went outside and worked with foam rolls, tennis balls, and rope to break up our fascia under our feet and our buttocks. Our trainer gave us the best advice ever: whenever doing an activity or memorizing a new racetrack, take a ‘power nap’. He told us studies have shown that people who do power naps retain their memory much better than those who do not.

Toward the end of the day, they did a team building exercise where we all got together in 6 groups organized by height and hit a stair climbing machine. We had to reach 1200 feet and each person could only do 10 seconds. It was quickly apparent that the resistance on our machine was turned up much higher than normal. At the end of the race, where everyone had around 1100 plus-feet, we had only managed around 670 feet! Regardless, it was just for bragging rights.

During the day, Mark Miller pulled us aside to see who had HANS posts drilled into their helmets. Myself and 2 others were the only ones out of 35 who didn’t have the HANS posts. He told us to go see Dennis McCormack at the Arciero/Miller trailer to get them installed. After leaving the facility around 4:30 pm, we headed back to Firebird. Josh and I quickly found out that the authorities decided to do construction on I-10 that weekend. So from Friday night at 11pm til Monday morning at 5am, I-10 had been bottlenecked to 1 lane from 4! Arrggghh!! Sitting in stop & go traffic was ridiculous and reminded me of DC’s beltway. After being fed up, we finally took an exit near our hotel and navigated around the surface streets until we got to the track. I caught Mr. McCormack just as he and 2 other instructors got into a Touareg to test the track in preparation for Sunday.

I left my helmet inside the trailer and as we were leaving the track, we saw Jetta TDI race car being tested around some of the visible corners. Wow did it look fast! The car looked very solid and planted. When we got to the hotel, showering never felt so good! After feeling so fresh and clean, we headed out to dinner at Outback Steakhouse. While waiting for a table, I overheard 3 guys speaking German. In the desert, 3 guys speaking German, it could only mean one thing. I asked them if they were there for VW testing and they said ‘ja’. One of them said they were from Audi. Pretty cool how engineers from the Volkswagen-Audi Group are thrown around to different programs to help out. Right then my plastic buzzing device went off since a table was ready. I told them to take care and maybe we would see each other at the track tomorrow.

Sunday, April 4

Sunday was the final day of testing. We arrived at the hospitality tent to see a whole table filled with Oakley bags and shoe boxes. Very sick. Each bag had our name tags on them since the Oakley guys had taken all our measurements a few days before. The equipment was nice. We got brand new Oakley Carbon-X underwear (headsock, long sleeve undershirt, pants) with each retailing at anywhere from $65-150. We also got brand new Carbon-X driving gloves and racing shoes, with both being $125. Then the factory pilot suit. This 3 layer nomex/carbon-x suit was spectacular. At $1750, it felt great, was very comfortable, and breathable. Sparco makes Oakley’s racing suits, seeing by Sparco’s labels on the suits and by the quality. All this ‘free’ schwag from Oakley was awesome.

We immediately were told by Jan and the other instructors to get all our suits/equipment on and get on the tram. We headed over to Firebird’s West Track where they had all the Jetta race cars set up and ready for track time. One of the SCCA corner workers, Davis Koffron, came over to talk to me and said he had read my blog! I had actually talked to him on the VWVortex.com forums a few days before I headed out for Phoenix. Very cool matching a face with a name. As I have done corner working myself, I want to give a huge thanks to Davis and all the other workers who were out there helping out that day. Now we were assigned car numbers. I got the #7, BOSCH vinyled car. It was interesting putting on a HANS device for the first time. I could not figure out how to clip-in the posts so I had the technicians help me out. Getting strapped in in the Recaro bucket seats was a great feeling as it really made the moment surreal. After tightening down the Schroth harnesses, you really could not move or turn your head more than a few degrees either side. You had to rely on your outside mirrors to see someone in your blind spot. It was funny if you messed with the AiM data logger, as it was all setup in German. We headed out for our first training exercise was running in a pack of about 6-7 race cars behind the ‘leader’. In this case, the leaders were the instructors in the street GTI’s (in which we had autox’d days before). The purpose of the training was to learn the track as well as each Jetta in the front of the pack doing 2 laps, then pulling offline, letting everyone else by and getting back into line at the end of the pack.

After this exercise, we all went out to do practice runs. Staying in the same groups, we spread out about 5 seconds between each car and headed out on track to get some ‘time trial’ laps in. Man, these cars were just phenomenal! The grip of the Michelin slicks, Sachs racing suspension, and the torque of the turbo diesel was fantastic. We did 2 sessions each of timed runs. It was so fun pounding turn 1 as were lifting the inside wheels, just like a proper touring car should do. 🙂 Afterward, Mark Miller pulled me aside and told me it looked like I was loosing it in some of the turns and that my turn-ins were too jerky. He told me to smoothen up on my steering inputs. Same bit of info was said from Tommy Byrne. Time to relax and smoothen up my steering.

After the practice sessions, we got back on the tram and headed to the hospitality tent. We had lunch – crossaints with meat or vegetables, pasta salad, and regular salad – and we sat around and talked for awhile. Lindsay Agor, Clark Campbell’s right hand woman, had lunch at our table and we spoke for awhile about everything. As usual, she had some good info and some great stories of her father and racing legend Roger Penske. Around 1 o’clock, Clark Campbell grabbed a microphone and started talking to us for a bit. All of a sudden, they were choosing the final 30 drivers at lunchtime! What a shocker. I had my fingers crossed again, unsure of how we were being judged from the earlier session. The other drivers from the DC area, Liam Kenney and Michael DeNino, were selected. My roommate, Josh Hurley, was also selected. About halfway through the list…YES!! I am selected for the final 30!!! Wow, what a final relief after 4 long, hard days! Pretty much everyone I had hung out with from the top 35 had made it into the final 30. The five alternates fought hard and I’m sure it was very tough for the instructors to make their final calls.

After lunch, we go into the ‘glass room’ again to get congratulated by the instructors and to go over what to expect this season. We then head out back to the track. This time on the track, we start to run qualifying sessions. There were definitely some quick times and I heard that pro driver Jimmy Johansson set a 1:04.8 as his fastest during testing. A lot of the top guys were running high 1:05’s. Once they slapped on fresh slicks, the times started dropping to low 1:05’s. I was not too thrilled about my times as I was about a half second off of the top times. But there was no point beating myself up as many of these guys had several years more experience than me. It was really fun testing launch control as well. We got down to the end of the pits where Jan was standing. He told me “brake on, full power!” Once you held the brake & gas to about 4000rpm, you let go of the brake and BOOM, it launched with a punch!

After the qualifying session, we went back to the tent, discussed our laps and our driving, then headed back to the track. 2 people got knocked back a few spots on the grid because they were seen driving ‘too fast’ on a full course caution lap. We all got back to the track and this is where the practice race began. We were divided into 2 groups, then each of those 2 groups were split in half by the lap times. I was in group 2B. I was not too thrilled with my qualifying lap time of 1:06.27 next to the faster guys who were doing 1:05.7’s. After the group 1A and B ran, then 2A, it was our turn. I was on pole position for my group! I noticed Michael DeNino was also using the BOSCH #7 car. After being strapped in, I notice on the AiM data logger his best lap of 1:05.72. I tried to focus on matching that time. For the race, we had brand new slicks up front only, for better rotation.

We did a full course caution lap with the pace lap, then we lined up on grid in practice for the real races coming up this season. Once we were all settled on the grid and the big red lights lit up, then we all mashed the gas and held it until the lights went out. As soon as those lights went out, I was gone. I modulated the throttle a little then immediately shifted into 2nd gear. I had a good run on 2nd place and had the inside line for T1. On this course, it was very hard to pass unless you screwed up. That was not good for me, as I was messing up here & there. I short shifted one time on the straightaway and had to bump down back a gear, I got on the brakes too deep one time coming into T1, then I screwed up T11 at the end of 3 laps…I saw 2nd place come up quick on my left rear, but I managed to hold him off to the checkered flag. The frustration kicked in again. If I screw up like this in the real races, I will quickly lose my place. After we rolled back into the pits, all the instructors and VW officials gave all the racers applauds for racing clean and not crashing! I got out of the car, went to the 2nd place driver and shook his hand and told him, “good job”. He commented on how he almost had me and I agreed. I looked at the AiM data logger and it read 1:05.74. Not too bad, about 2/100ths of a second of of Michael.

From there, once again, we headed back to the tent. We talked with Clark Campbell, and he then formally told us we were all official Volkswagen Factory Drivers! How cool of a feeling is that? To be a racer that is supported and backed by the factory is a truly amazing opportunity. He told us we had done great the whole weekend and was impressed by what he saw. Mark Miller told us he could not make the VIR race as he would have a race himself that weekend in Budapest, Hungary, but wished us all good luck. After all the instructors commented, the photographers had setup a makeshift backdrop with umbrella lighting for professional headshots Volkswagen media releases and whatever else they want to use the pictures for. After that was all said and done, we took off our uniforms to give back to VW, as they will get our names and country flags embroidered on the suits as well as series sponsors down the sleeves and wherever else.

While I was talking with Liam, his father brought over the head engineer of the VW Jetta race car, Hans. He was a very reserved man, who was very humble when Liam and I told him what a fantastic race car he had setup. He told us how it was easy to build 1 or 2 race cars for a team for a series, but when you try to build 40 identical race cars to be as close together as possible, he told us it was a true challenge for him. From there, my roommate Josh and some others volunteered to get photographed for blow up posters or something, so they went somewhere for pictures. Meanwhile, I spoke with Tristan, a mechanic for the series I had met on bimmerforums.com, and hung out with other VW mechanics. Tristan was telling me when they all speak English, they have to slow down to the German technicians so they can understand. We were speaking about different drivers’ experiences and racing in Europe. The German guys were very cool, helpful and nice. Afterward, I spoked longer with Tristan outside and we spoke mostly about BMW’s, since he owns an E36 M3 as well as myself. I could not believe he would be driving his car from Phoenix all the way to Virginia and possibly back! He told me they have to pack up everything, head out on Tuesday, and that VIRginia Int’l Raceway would be his home for the next few weeks until the April 25-26 race! He had to get back to his work, so I wished him farewell and that I would see him in a few weeks in Virginia.

Once I met up with Josh around 8 o’clock or so, he had finished up on the photoshoot and we headed back to the hotel and then to get some food. What an amazing 4 days it had been. It felt much longer than that, especially with each day spending atleast 12 hours at the track. I packed up most of my bags and since I was drained as usual, I slept early in order to wake up at 5am for my 6:35 flight. We got up around 5, packed up the rest of our stuff, filled up the rental car’s tank and headed for the airport. Since Josh’s flight wasn’t until 9am, he dropped me off at the airport first. I took all my stuff out and we said our goodbyes. I now went home with 2 checked bags instead of the 1 checked bag I come to Phoenix with. That extra Oakley gear and the shoebox really took up space. I almost missed my flight, but I made it in just as they were doing last call. Ah, time to unwind…

The final count for the series? 1 Mexican, several Canadians and the rest American.

Volkswagen immediately sent out a press release on Monday. Only a few more weeks until our first race at VIR. I am psyched, but I am also determined to work on my times. It will be great since we will have 3 practice sessions. I also now have to work on securing the rest of the $20,000. I will setup paypal donations soon, so please help me go racing!

Wish me luck as I secure funding and especially against all these very talented drivers. I have a battle for sure, but I will not give up. This is my dream, this is my passion and this (hopefully) will be my career. I am so privileged to be a VW factory driver. I am glad I made it this far. It was amazing to have so many people support me and believe in me. I thank them from the bottom of my heart. I will make the best of this opportunity. Carpe diem.

Sorry for this blog being so long winded, but there was so much to write about!

Take care and see you guys in a few weeks.

-John Shim


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