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by Larry Roberts

November 28, 1998

To European racing fans, sports car endurance racing must be a very big deal indeed. Several European manufacturers are following the example of the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz CLK-GTR, the just-behind Porsche 911-GT1 cars and doing it themselves. An recent example is the surprisingly successful BMW-powered R&S MkIII and others are getting on that very fast bandwagon with factory-sponsored cars of their own.

The latest entry into the field is Audi, who has risen phoenix-like from its media catastrophe of a couple of decades ago and is now doing very well in sales here with its passenger cars.

And now that ancient German name (it first appeared in 1910) is entering into the big leagues with a from-scratch open-cockpit prototype car code named the R8.

And it's about time. Audi is a name that we haven't been able to include in our motorsports column for ten years, not since the days when the German drivers Hans Stuck Jr. and Walter Rohrl (with an able team assist from American Hurley Haywood) made mince-meat out of the SCCA Trans Am series. They were driving factory-prepared Audi Quattro four-door sedans (they might well be called "Super Touring" in today's jargon) and won eight of the 13 Trans Am events that year. The all-wheel-drive Audis were so successful that the SCCA ostensibly legislated the Trans Am into an all-American series from then on.

The new Audi R8 won't be subjected to the stings and arrows of nationalistic fortunes this time around. The car will be fast by virtue of its 4.0 liter turbocharged V8 engine and the car was designed by Tony Southgate, the British genius who designed the famous "Silk Cut" Jaguar XJR-9 that won the 24 Hours of Le Mans in '88 and '90. The organization chosen by Audi for its first-ever foray into international endurance competition will be Joest Racing, the team that won the Le Mans race in '84, '85, '96 and '97 with Porsches.

But in truth, this won't be the first time than the four interlocking rings of the Audi logo will be seen in international racing. In the '30s, when Hitler decreed that German technology would prove its might to the world through Grand Prix racing, the rear- engined, 500 horsepower, V12-powered Auto Unions carried the same emblem on their noses. The four rings represented the Horch, Wanderer, D.K.W and Audi passenger car amalgamation formed in '32, but it wasn't until 1965 when Volkswagen bought the majority shares of Auto Union that the Audi name was brought out of mothballs. Ironically, the lead driver for that pre-war Auto Union Grand Prix team was Hans Stuck, Sr., father of the driver of the same name that drove to victory for Audi in the late '80s.

Audi is doing its own testing and development at its proving grounds in Germany and when it's satisfied that the car is ready for the track, it will turn it over to Joest for fine-honing. A two-car team of R8s is planned and its initial outing will be at Le Mans in June of '99. Four drivers, all from the ranks of the European racing fraternity, have already been tentatively named.

I hope that Audi and the Joest team see fit to bring the R8 endurance racers to the U.S. for competition here. It's always great fun to walk through the pits at those races and watch the stoic German teams members eying each other suspiciously.