Love Bug lives! Just don’t call it ‘Herbie’

Henry Payne, The Detroit News

Indianapolis – Blockbuster sequels are in this year: “Spider-Man,” “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “The Fate of the Furious.” And now, coming to a race track near you, the 560-horsepower Love Bug.

But this 2017 Volkswagen is no fictional movie character.

Indy Global Rallycross podium. VW's Scott Speed (center) celebrates with second place VW Bug driver Tanner Foust (left) and 3rd place Ford Focus RS driver Steve Arpin.

This is a real-life, tire-smoking, all-wheel drive monster designed to win on Sunday and sell on Monday. Andretti Autosport’s VW Beetles dominated last weekend’s Red Bull Global Rallycross at Lucas Oil Raceway, adding to their lead in the U.S. championship. Piloted by American stars Tanner Foust and Scott Speed, and prepared by two-time IndyCar champion Michael Andretti’s race shop, the Bug team is the highest-profile VW competitor since Disney’s Herbie graced the silver screen in six films from 1968 to 2005.

“To take our most iconic car and modernize it has been fantastic,” VW marketing specialist Sean Maynard said at Team Andretti’s Indy headquarters. “Our core millennial audience is transitioning from traditional media to crowd contenting. We get comments on Facebook from fans who would never have considered a Beetle but now say — hey, that’s a bad-ass looking thing.”

In the 21st century, racing is a critical marketing tool for auto brands from Cadillac IMSA prototypes to LeMans-wining Ford GTs to Mazda Miata Cup cars. Add Global Rallycross, which demands more of a car than perhaps any other series.

Based on a production platform, a Global Rallycross chariot must conquer dirt, asphalt and a suspension-crushing jump over the course of a lap — while pushing a four-cylinder engine to unheard-of limits. The Bug’s success couldn’t come at a better time for VW, which has been struggling under a cloud of Dieselgate and disappointing U.S. sales. The Global Rallycross program is not only successful, but helps the brand build relationships with first-time buyers — a relationship it hopes will progress to volume, family Tiguan and Atlas SUV sales.

“We brought Scott and Tanner into the (new) dealership here and over 100 people came out to interact with them,” said Maynard. “Word-of-mouth is the number-one generator of sales. Fans see this amazing Beetle going around the track, then they go to the dealer ... and see an Atlas someone in the family might need.”

While VW has been behind the curve on America’s SUV revolution, it has always had a strong connection with gearheads. Its Golf GTI was the first compact “hot hatch” in the U.S., setting a trend followed by competitors like Ford and Honda. But the iconic Beetle has always set the brand apart. The original, rear-engine “Type 1” is still raced off-road in Baja. And “The Love Bug” inspired generations of buyers from the first 1968 film starring Dean Jones to the 2005 hit featuring Lindsay Lohan.

When Volkswagen decided to enter a car in Global Rallycross in 2014, the Beetle got the nod.

The Bug’s legacy is heavily rooted in ’60s nostalgia. When Disney’s quirky Herbie took down-on-his-luck-racing driver Jim Douglas (played by Jones) to victory over villain Peter Thorndyke and his stable of race cars (including a Ferrari), it made for a feel-good underdog hit. Herbie grossed $51 million as the third-most popular movie of 1968 (that’s $352 million in today’s dollars, or what “Wonder Woman” has earned).

The Global Rallycross Beetle even has echoes of the original. Imagine team manager John “TZ” Tzouanakis, a veteran strategist on eight IndyCar titles, as Herbie mechanic Buddy Hackett. Or dashing race-car personality and ex-“Top Gear USA” host Foust as movie star Jones. Along with ex-Formula One racer Speed, the team is loaded with marquee names.

But this is no underdog effort. Winner of five Indy 500s and four IndyCar championships, the Andretti Autosport helped take Global Rallycross to another level when they partnered with VW four years ago. Competing alongside factory-supported teams from Ford, Subaru, and Honda, Andretti’s Bug has won the last two championships and is on course for three in a row with three races remaining.

“This is the gnarliest beast I’ve ever driven,” says Foust, who is leading this year’s driver’s points race. “Since I got into Rallycross in 2009, the cars have gone from a backyard mechanic status to full-manufacture, wind-tunnel-tested, ultra-professional grade.”

The Grand Rallycross Beetle has come a long way from Herbie. Built in Mexico on the same, front-engine platform as the Golf, the Bugs were shipped to Germany where they underwent surgery that would make Dr. Frankenstein proud. The race car must share the same turbo-4 cylinder technology, chassis, doors and roof as the production Bug. And little else.

The winged rear deck and front fenders are made of carbon fiber with NASCAR-like stickers for headlights. The 8,000-rpm engine is blown out of its mind, and a six-speed sequential gearbox is mated to an all-wheel drive powertrain. The 3,000-pound varmint is then shipped to Andretti’s shop where it’s fortified with race suspension, roll cage and wrapped in sponsor livery.

Off the starting line, the V-dub hits 60 mph in two seconds flat.

In this guise the Bug is probably better described as a red fire ant or African killer bee. Just don’t call it Herbie.

“We can’t talk about Herbie,” says VW’s Maynard. “Disney owns the rights to the name. So if we did that, we’d have to pay them a significant amount of (licensing) money.”

Foust says the team is determined to build its own legend beyond Herbie. “We took the first GRC race car and did a video (making) skid marks that spelled out: ‘Don’t call me Herbie,’ ” he says and laughs.

At Lucas Oil Raceway, Scott Speed’s red, Circle K-sponsored V-dub and Foust’s black, Rockstar Energy Drink-sponsored twin flew away from the Ford Focus RS, Subaru WRX STI, and Honda Civic Si competition. Between race heats, fans climbed into a production Golf, Beetle and Atlas on display outside the stands.

In a champagne-drenched victory circle afterward, the winning duo accepted trophies while a sea of young race fans waved “Volkswagen” signs in the crowd. “It’s unbelievable how many kids are there,” says Foust. “We are raising a new generation of car fans.”

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.