Climbing The Ladder – Andy Lee

There are many paths a young shoe can take during his or her racing career. Like many drivers, Andy Lee started in karting and is currently climbing the road racing ladder. During the Road America round of the TDI Jetta Cup, Andy shared with us a driver’s insight into this championship and where he is at climbing the development ladder.

Mecca of Speed: Can you give us a tour of the TDI Jetta Cup car?

Andy Lee: The interior of the car is stripped out except for the door panels and dashboard. A racing seat and roll cage are installed along with the other essential safety equipment. More or less, from the outside it looks like a stock car. Most people don’t even know the car has a racing suspension and brake system unless you tell them.

Mecca of Speed: What was your racing background before joining the TDI Jetta Cup?

Andy Lee: For the most part it’s all karting. I worked at the Bondurant Racing School for six years as in instructor. My car racing experience came through the Bondurant programs.

Mecca of Speed: Between your karting and experience at Bondurant, I would think the move to an automatic transmission wasn’t a big change for your driving technique.

Andy Lee: It’s easier, that’s for sure, then having to heel and toe down through the gears.

Mecca of Speed: Is the engine a stock power plant?

Andy Lee: All the components in the engine and transmission are stock. They have modified some of the power management systems to help the engine shift faster along with a few other small items.

Mecca of Speed: The Jetta is a front wheel drive car. How have you had to adjust your driving technique compared to karts, or the cars at Bondurant where you can steer the car with the throttle?

Andy Lee: It takes a little getting use to. Last year was tough as I came from karting and Bondurant was all Mustangs and Corvettes. There you could use the throttle to get yourself out of trouble, but in this car you can’t. If you try to steer with the throttle in the Jetta, you will wind up roasting the front tires more then anything else.

Unlike a rear wheel drive car, you try and get the car to rotate more with the brakes, not the throttle. It’s a transition, but you adjust to it.

Mecca of Speed: So you go in a little faster and pivot on the apex using the brakes, more of a point and shoot technique as opposed to powering through a corner?

Andy Lee: Exactly, very similar to that. Other times you snap off the throttle to unload the rear of the car to get it to move around on corners that have a lot of understeer.

A lot of guys are still struggling with it. The rookies are having a hard time getting adjusted. It’s just a different style of driving.

Mecca of Speed: What is the series using for tires this year?

Andy Lee: Pirelli slicks. So far they have been doing a good job. They are lasting longer, and to me feel more consistent then the Michelin tires we had on the car last year

Mecca of Speed: Have you raced at Road America before?

Andy Lee: Never. Our last race was at Autobahn Country Club where I had never driven, but we won, so maybe this is a good thing for me.

Mecca of Speed: With the back of the Jetta being fairly light, does the car tend to unload in the corners and lift the rear wheels off the ground?

Andy Lee: Yes, actually these cars have a tendency to stand up on two wheels sometimes. They get a massive amount of grip. At Mid-Ohio when you go through Madness, almost every lap the car is standing up on two wheels. You are correcting to try and not knock the car over but still stay loose.

There are so many photos of the rears wheels lifting on these cars. There are a lot of good photos from Mid-Ohio of the cars lifting both wheels in Madness, but nobody rolled over, everybody did a good job.

Mecca of Speed: What has been changed on the suspension to increase mechanical grip?

Andy Lee: The car is using a racing coil over strut set-up, which is extremely stiff. It has very little body roll. It almost feels as stiff as a go-kart. It doesn’t absorb bumps smoothly.

Mecca of Speed: With the TDI Jetta Cup being positioned as a development series, does Volkswagen provide any type of driver coaching or do drivers bring in their own coaches?

Andy Lee: There are a lot of drivers that bring in their own coaches that work with them specifically all weekend.

The series does provide a few different guys. There is Jan Haylen who raced Champ Car, Ryan Arciero and Mark Miller who are both off road racers that have a lot of racing experience. If you don’t have your own coach, or someone to help you, they are always there to guide you, or help you look at data.

Mecca of Speed: How does the competition feel this year?

Andy Lee: Last year was a bit out of control. I think that was partly due to it being the first year for the series. There were a lot of drivers and they weren’t afraid to make contact, a lot of contact. It was a little nerve wracking wondering if you were going to be able to pay for damage after a weekend was over.

This year the competition is just as good, but for whatever reason people are driving smarter. They are not making as much contact, giving each other more room and I think the racing is better.

The series is maturing as a whole, from the way it’s managed to how everyone interacts with each other.

Mecca of Speed: Diesel engines are known for torque and being able to drive hard out of a corner. How is this car through the complete rpm range?

Andy Lee: It’s nothing like a gasoline engine. You don’t feel the engine pull all the way to the redline. The power is a lot lower in the rpm range. It’s very easy to not feel when the power is running out. It takes a certain amount of skill to feel when the engine is past its peak because it’s a low horsepower car.

It’s a challenge to adjust to shifting earlier and earlier as opposed to letting it rev to the moon like in a gas powered car. It’s been tough, but once you find the sweet spot where the power is, you work to keep it there just like any other car.

Mecca of Speed: So it’s similar to racing a go-kart where you need to keep your momentum up and run in a tighter rpm range.

Andy Lee: Momentum is important in anything you race, but even more so when you are racing a car with less power, especially in this series where everything is identical. If you can carry one mile an hour more down the straightaway that could be the difference in 10 grid positions in qualifying.

Mecca of Speed: Volkswagen has the Polo Cup in Europe. Do you have any interest in the Polo Cup or racing in Europe?

Andy Lee: I think all of us drivers would love to go over and try racing in Europe. As the mid-season points leader, Tim Megenbier has already had the opportunity to go over and race in the Polo Cup.

The opportunity to go over to Europe is one of the reasons I chose to do the series. The chance to anything in Europe would be awesome.

Mecca of Speed: With the TDI Jetta Cup being a development series, what have you targeted further up the ladder?

Andy Lee: You really have only a few options and it depends on what series are healthy next year. I’m weighing my options and looking at what series are healthy and base my decision on that in addition to the amount of sponsorship I can raise.

If you win this championship you win $100,000, which can be used to negotiate with various teams. Right now it looks like either the KONI Challenge or Grand Am Rolex GT or something similar. The ALMS is a great series, but also pretty expensive.

In addition, you have to factor in what series will provide a sponsor the exposure and market they are looking for.

Mecca of Speed: Being fairly new to racing and sponsorship, what type of experience have you had bringing sponsors onboard?

Andy Lee: Unfortunately my family doesn’t have any money for racing. Since I started racing it has always been about who I’ve known, talked to, who has liked me or wanted some publicity. Every year I meet more people.

The challenge this year is I’ve met a lot of people that have the ability to provide sponsorship, but they don’t want to be perceived as wasting money when people across the country are loosing their jobs. They have the ability, but don’t want to be seen in a negative light due to the economy.

Mecca of Speed: Are the sponsors currently in the series brought onboard by Volkswagen, or by the drivers?

Andy Lee: Drivers bring in a few sponsors, but the majority of these sponsors were with the series last year. There are a few new sponsors that were brought in by Volkswagen.

The various series sponsors on the cars are good and bad. The bad side is all the room on the side of the car is taken up so you have limited space for a driver to sell to a sponsor, but it is good as it’s a different way to pitch racing to a company. Here they are not just sponsoring a driver, they are sponsoring a series. This series offers a different way to get a company into racing.

Mecca of Speed: I’m a bit of a helmet guy, what type of helmet are you using this year and what is the thought process behind your design?

Andy Lee: This is an AGV. It was painted by a friend of mine, Tim Maddox who I use to race go-karts with.

I’m a motorcycle-racing fanatic and that is what I wanted to race when I was a kid, but my Mom said, “You are not going to kill yourself on a motorcycle.” The design is from Neil Hodgson’s helmet. It’s black and white on his helmet with a spiral effect.

The green is from when I started racing and people kept saying I had a lot of bad luck. Some people believe green is an unlucky color in racing so I chose green more for spite. I did the stripe down the centre to be different from all the other designs that have rings around the helmet. It’s pretty simple and I like it.

Mecca of Speed: Some of the GT cars in the ALMS have driver air conditioning systems or ventilation systems to help cool the interior of the car. Does the Jetta use any type of cooling systems for the driver?

Andy Lee: There are no air conditioning or ventilation systems. While this is a stock based series, air conditioning is the one thing they do pull off the car; otherwise I would consider using it.

This year at VIR it was 90 degrees and 90% humidity. They had us on the pre-grid, buckled up and in the sun for half an hour before we went out to practice and race, which was tough. The last few races we have had pretty decent weather. I live in Phoenix, so 80 degrees is a piece of cake.

Mecca of Speed: Tell us about Warren Village which is on your car.

Andy Lee: Warren Village is a charity I work with from Denver Colorado. They take in struggling single parent families who are homeless or on the verge of being homeless. They give these families an apartment along with free child and medical care. The requirements to be a part of their program is the parent must have a fulltime job, start a career, or go to school fulltime to then start a career.

While the parents are working or going to school they have a safe place where their children are being taken care. This helps families get back on their feet.

As for sponsors, I have some friends that I have met along my racing career who have given me financial support but don’t have decals on the car. My three bigger sponsors this year are Volkswagen of North Scottsdale, Premium Endurance, which is a training supplement, and Mike Cowley who is a friend of mine providing support this year.

Mecca of Speed: Do you use Extreme Endurance as part of your training regiment?

Andy Lee: Yes, when I’m not racing and it’s not 100+ degrees in Phoenix I do a lot of bicycling and like to race bicycles. It’s a supplement that keeps you from building up lactic acids so you can ride longer or train harder and helps to keep you hydrated.

The cool thing is in the morning after you train hard you are not as sore. It helps to reduce recovery time. It’s been working out great.

Mecca of Speed: If you have a bike you can do the Lance Armstrong ride at the track this weekend. In 2004 Tommy Kendall made it to Turn 5 then called it a day and kept going straight.

Andy Lee: Speaking of Tommy Kendall, those were some of the first races I watched. He had the All Sport Mustang. Those were the days for me when I was growing up. That year in Trans-Am was awesome, it’s a shame that series is done.

Mecca of Speed: Besides Tommy Kendall, who were the racers you looked up to growing up?

Andy Lee: The initial guys were motorcycle racers, Troy Bayliss, Mick Doohan and Wayne Rainey. Those were the guys I watched early on.

When I started to move towards car racing it was guys like Mark Martin. I like the way he conducts himself. He is very calm and a nice guy. It’s hard to find someone who doesn’t like him.

I met Kelly Wallace, who is also a really nice guy. I’ve been fortunate- working at the Bondurant School I’ve met a lot of guys and have had the opportunity to interact with them. Some guys have egos and they are hard to work with, but then other guys like Jimmy Johnson are super nice and easy to work with.

Once you meet the nicer guys in racing you find yourself rooting for them on race weekends.

Mecca of Speed: With your interest in motorcycle racing, do you currently have a street bike?

Andy Lee: I just sold my bike. I started riding dirt bikes when I was about seven. My street bikes have included a Yamaha R1, GSX-R 600 and then I got into supermoto bikes, but nothing right now. I’m thinking about a vintage café bike to cruise around on in the future.

Mecca of Speed: You are early in your career, all the best climbing the ladder to the top levels of racing.

Andy Lee: Thank you.

Content credit Andy Lee and John Vatne. Photo credit John Vatne.