For Audi of America, racing in the 1988 Trans-Am series with the all-wheel drive 200 was a chance to rebuild a tarnished reputation by kicking some all-American V8 butt.
This story is an excerpt from RACER magazine's GREAT CARS III ISSUE, on sale now.
If necessity is the mother of invention, then adversity deserves the credit for birthing a pair of flame-spitting, wastegate-chirping siblings that set North America alight for two unforgettable seasons.
Faced with a public relations disaster that threatened its future in the U.S., Audi chose a daring path in the late 1980s by commissioning a motorsports program to provide the kind of PR salvation that carefully crafted words could not.
Audi had become the face of "unintended acceleration," a scary phenomenon that plagued a number of manufacturers in that era. Accused of building demon-possessed cars that took off on their own, lawsuits flew, panic set in, and Audi's reputation went from quirky offshoot of the Porsche/ VW group to maker of boxy death sedans.
A perception-altering cure came in the form of rally tech wrapped in an ingenious road-racing package devised by Audi of America and built by Audi Sport in Ingolstadt, Germany. Led by AoA's Jo Hoppen, the undercover program had an early supporter in sports car legend Hurley Haywood.
"Jo called me in '87 to come and run a six-hour race at Road Atlanta," he recalls. "I assumed it was with a Porsche and he said, 'No, we're running an Audi 200.' I said, 'The sedan?' He said, 'Yes, it's an all-wheel drive and I want to get your opinion on what it's like to drive.' It was practically a bone stock 200 with safety equipment added. The weather was bad and we were trouncing the competition in the wet. Afterward he said, 'I'm working on something...I'll get back to you in a couple of months.'"
That exploratory run confirmed the potential of Audi's famed AWD system in road racing. Selecting a series was next, and the SCCA's popular Trans-Am was chosen as the perfect platform to shift the conversation toward intended acceleration. Finding a team to run the cars was next.
"Jo rang and asked if I'd be interested," says Group 44 owner Bob Tullius, who fielded Jaguar's Trans-Am and IMSA GTP cars with great success. "He came to Winchester, Va., we talked, I showed him the shop and he said, 'Good, we'll do it.'"
But as Tullius soon found out, Hoppen's colleagues from Ingolstadt weren't interested in working as equals.
"They were going to build cars and send them with a small staff of specialists to familiarize our people with them," Tullius recalls. "Well, that was fine except the minute the cars arrived, the Germans sent about 30 guys, they never left, and they'd hardly speak to us. Our crew was hardly allowed to touch the cars. We were hosts."
The internal discord was kept hidden as Trans-Am readied to open the 1988 season on the streets of Long Beach. Populated by high-powered, lightweight tubeframe cars from Chevrolet, Ford and Oldsmobile, the series was a showcase for big V8-engined, rear-wheel drive machinery.
Compared to a Camaro or Mustang, the 200 looked like a geek. But embracing its unconventional stance became a point of pride for Audi as it built its racecars from shells taken directly from the production line. If Americans were going to move past their fear of unintended acceleration, Audi knew the Trans-Am 200s needed to look similar to the ones on the showroom floor.
In the hands of Haywood and German duo Hans-Joachim Stuck and two-time WRC champ Walter Rohrl, the 200s unleashed a special kind of hell on Trans-Am.
At 510hp, the Audis were the least-powerful cars in the field – nowhere near the 650hp-plus of the V8s – but with asphalt-shredding acceleration and cornering, and unrivaled braking capabilities, street circuits and road courses soon revealed AWD was more valuable than almighty horsepower.
"I remember the look on Scott Pruett and Willy T. Ribbs' faces when I went around them in a corner at Long Beach," Haywood chuckles. "I said, 'Wet or dry, this car is going to win everywhere. You're stuck to one line, but we can go anywhere, and you guys are history.' And that's basically what happened..."