Audi Racing in the Late 80s: After Rally and Before Le Mans

words: Jim Benoit, photos: Audi of America, Audi Tradition, Audi South Africa, Mosport Canada

Editor’s Note: This article originally ran in the Q3_2020 issue of quattro Magazine. If you would like to subscribe to quattro Magazine, please join Audi Club here.

The mid 80s for Audi of America was a time of highs and lows.

In 1984, Audi released the newly revised Audi 5000. It was sleek and aerodynamic, replacing the box shaped model from the year before. Sales skyrocketed to 74,000 in 1985. However, the car’s association with the “unintended acceleration” phenomena by 60 Minutes aired a year later in 1986 and caused a rapid deflation in the car’s sales success.

While rallying had cemented the legend of quattro all-wheel drive and further victories in Pikes Peak were building upon that, none of these were helping move the more market viable sedans. By 1988, Audi chose to further showcase its technology by entering sports car racing in the Sports Car Club of America’s (SCCA) Trans Am series. With the help of well-known race car driver and team owner Bob Tullius and his Group 44 team, a bare unibody was fitted with a roll cage, racing suspension, and brakes. It was powered by a 2.1 liter five-cylinder engine with a single overhead cam and a turbocharger set to 3 Bar (44 PSI) of boost and produced 510 horsepower. Power was transmitted through a six speed all synchromesh transmission. The differentials were carried over from the quattro rally cars. Fiberglass reinforced body panels enhanced the aerodynamics while still retaining the overall silhouette of the now renamed 200 sedan.

The drivers selected to field the new entry were Hans Joachim Stuck and Hurley Haywood, both two-time 24 hours of Le Mans winners, and Walter Röhrl, a two-time World Rally Champion.

In an interview with Hurley Harwood, Hurley noted that some of his competitors laughed when they heard he was going to be racing an Audi and laughed even more when they saw the car for the first time.

After winning six of the first eight races, laughter turned into cries of protest from the competition. SCCA officials added 220 pounds of weight and a smaller turbo air inlet to try to slow the cars down. Despite the added weight and new restrictions, the Audi sedans continued to excel. By the end of the season, Audi had won eight of thirteen races and the manufacture’s championship. Hurley Haywood took home the driver’s championship. As a result of this dominance, the SCCA banned all-wheel drive vehicles and required all engines to be based on American manufacturers’ products.

For Audi, this meant another pivot. The brand decided to build and campaign a new car based on its 90 quattro sedan in the International Motor Sport Association (IMSA) GTO series. Guidelines for the car were more liberal than the Trans Am series. The roofline of the production vehicle had to be retained and engines were allowed more horsepower.

Beginning with a clean slate of paper, the car was designed from the ground up. It featured a hand built tubular space frame chassis with emphasis on driver safety and strength. The body panels were made of lightweight composite materials and large oversized fenders were needed to house the 14-inch-wide wheels. Numerous hours were spent in the wind tunnel to help design the front air dam and rear spoiler.

A newer version of the 5-cylinder engine was also utilized, with double overhead camshafts with 4 valves per cylinder. A larger turbocharger with 3 bar (44 PSI) made 720 horsepower. The transmission and drivetrain were carried over from the 200 Trans Am. Suspension was upgraded to double wishbones front and rear, with gas pressurized shocks all round.

Developing and building a race car takes time; so much time that Audi elected to sit out the first two races of the season, the 24 Hours of Daytona and the 12 Hours of Sebring. In doing so, the car was really more suited to the shorter races of the season. By taking this route, it gave Audi more time to make sure it was safe, well sorted, and fast.

The car’s first round in Miami didn’t go perfectly. One car went out from an accident and the other experienced a failed transmission. The next race was several weeks away and provided the team time to remedy the weak transmission and further develop the car. By the next round, the Audi 90s finished first and second with Hans Stuck leading the way. Stuck would go on the win six of the next eight races in the series.

After all the success the Audi all-wheel drive system had in the United States, Ingolstadt wanted to bring the winning team closer to home.  Following the 1989 season, the focus shifted to Germany to complete the DTM series in 1990 with the new V8. Hans Stuck went on to win the DTM championship that same year.

Despite the hardships and struggles, Audi revolutionized the sportscar racing series with their innovation and passion to build a better race car. This continues to echo in the cars they build today, both for on the track and on the road.