IRVINE, Calif., March 10, 2015 /PRNewswire/ -- Kia Racing's defense of the Grand Touring Sport (GTS) Manufacturer Championship got off to a strong start with second and fifth-place finishes during the Pirelli World Challenge (PWC) season-opening weekend at Circuit of the Americas (COTA) in Austin, Texas. Kia Racing newcomer Ben Clucas, pilot of the No. 36 DonorsChoose.org Optima turbo, followed up a top-five finish in Saturday's round one with his first-career PWC podium in Sunday's rain-soaked round two, while teammate Mark Wilkins in the No. 38 B.R.A.K.E.S. Optima turbo scored a pair of hard-fought top-ten finishes during the challenging weekend. In addition, Kinetic Motorsports' privateer Kia Forte Koup program, which claimed the Touring Car A (TC-A) class Manufacturer Championship for Kia last year, also started the season off in fine style, scoring two podium finishes, including a win for Jason Wolfe – last year's Touring Car A (TC-A) Driver Champion and Rookie of the Year.
"The Kinetic team made numerous changes in a very short period of time following the Sunday morning practice session to get us ready to race in the rain – so many changes, actually, that we thought we might be late getting the cars on the grid," said Clucas. "But the team did a great job of setting up for the wet track, so it made my job much easier when the race began. The Kia Optima is really good in the wet; it's just a challenge getting the power down with minimal wheel spin coming off the corners, but I'm very pleased to get some solid points on the board for Kia as we start our defense of the GTS Manufacturer Championship."
Clucas' Kia Racing debut weekend behind the wheel of the No. 36 DonorsChoose.org Optima turbo also included a top-five finish in round one in which he earned the "Hard Charger Award" for moving up the most spots on track – starting eighth and finishing fifth.
Teammate Wilkins, in the No. 38 B.R.A.K.E.S. Optima turbo, battled hard all weekend, finishing seventh and sixth in rounds one and two, respectively. He suffered a broken front shock absorber in round one, which took him out of podium contention, yet still managed to claim the "Move of the Race" with a phenomenal overtaking move exiting turn one.
"We fought hard all weekend, but never really got ourselves completely dialed in to where I could contend up front for a win. It was a real challenge, but we'll be back and ready to go in St. Pete," said Wilkins. "It was a good weekend overall for points for Kia, and I'm proud of Ben for capturing his first podium in this series – the first of many, I think. He's got a lot of talent, and I look forward to a great season with him as my teammate."
In addition to the factory-backed GTS Optima program, the Kinetic Motorsports privateer TC-A Kia Forte Koup program kicked off the first three rounds of their season at COTA. Defending class champion, Wolfe, in the No. 36 Richard Wolfe Trucking Kia Forte Koup, scored two podium finishes during the weekend, including a win in round three on Sunday in the rain.
Televised coverage of the GTS races will be Saturday, March 14, at 11:00 a.m. ET on the CBS Sports Network. Televised TC-A coverage can be seen Wednesday, March 18, at 8:00 p.m. ET on the CBS Sports Network. Live-streamed coverage of all PWC races is available online at www.world-challengetv.com, and race fans can keep up-to-date with the Kia Racing team via the Kia Motors America Facebook page and on Twitter @Kia.
About Kia Motors America
Kia Motors America (KMA) is the marketing and distribution arm of Kia Motors Corporation based in Seoul, South Korea, and in 2014 was the #1 ranked mainstream brand according to Strategic Vision's Total Quality Index. KMA proudly serves as the "Official Automotive Partner" of the NBA and LPGA and set an all-time annual sales record in 2014, surpassing the 500,000 unit mark for the third consecutive year. KMA offers a complete line of vehicles, including the rear-drive K900 flagship sedan, Cadenza premium sedan, Sorento CUV, Soul urban passenger vehicle, Soul Electric Vehicle, Sportage compact CUV, Optima midsize sedan, Optima Hybrid, the Forte compact sedan, Forte5 and Forte Koup, Rio and Rio 5-door subcompacts and the Sedona midsize multi-purpose vehicle, through a network of more than 765 dealers across the United States. Kia's U.S. manufacturing plant in West Point, Georgia, builds the Optima* and Sorento* and is responsible for the creation of more than 14,000 plant and supplier jobs.
Information about KMA and its full vehicle line-up is available at www.kia.com. For media information, including photography, visit www.kiamedia.com. To receive custom email notifications for press releases the moment they are published, subscribe at
Racing has always been a promotional tool for automakers, mostly to advertise a sports car’s bona fides. Kia’s pursuit is more interesting. In addition to the obvious performance aspect—there should at least be an effort to deliver on the visual promise of its sporty-looking products—Kia’s main goal is to change the perception that the Korean firm builds half-baked cars.
Like its corporate cousin Hyundai, Kia entered our market with inexpensive, uninspiring vehicles. Its first U.S. model, the 1994 Sephia, was the Yugo of the Nineties—it cost less than 10 grand and wasn’t even worth that much. Consumer Reports called it “noisy, uncomfortable, and shoddily built.”
But Kia learned quickly, first beefing up its engineering and then, in 2006, radically improving its cars’ looks by hiring designer Peter Schreyer away from the Volkswagen Group. Kias are now credible alternatives in their respective segments, but how does a brand with a bad reputation communicate improved quality?
Kia’s decision was not just to go racing, but to go racing without its cars ever breaking down. Kinetic Motorsports built Kia’s first race cars, a pair of modified Forte Koups, for the Continental Tire series in 2010. The maiden race was a two-and-a-half-hour event at Daytona. Anyone who’s built a racing car knows there are always bugs to work out, but for Kia, the stakes were higher. “The disaster scenario,” said Kia’s communications director, Scott McKee, “was the car coasting to a stop, dead.” But while the team sat on the pit box, biting their nails, both Fortes finished. And kept finishing. Over the next two years, they would go on to finish all but two races they entered and win both drivers’ and team championships in 2011.
There was substantial effort behind those results. The cars were torn down and inspected after every race. Each car’s assigned mechanic “spent more time with the car than his wife or family,” said Kinetic Motorsports CEO Russell Smith.
The Kia spits and pops like a proper race car. And the sound of it spooling up is a signal that things are about to go haywire.
Like all racers, these guys eventually wanted to go faster, which prompted a step up to the World Challenge GTS class. As a production-car-based series, the regulations are adapted so a variety of cars are competitive. The Optima is an unlikely candidate: It’s a long-wheelbase, front-wheel-drive sedan in a class of sporty coupes, and so is allowed extensive modifications. Most of the suspension arms are stock, as is the engine block and head—it retains direct fuel-injection and variable valve timing—but it makes a decidedly un-Kia-like 368 hp.
From the driver’s seat, there’s little evidence of the car that originally rolled off Kia’s factory in West Point, Georgia. Directly ahead, a MoTeC digital dash displays engine rpm, lap times, and other assorted engine parameters. Your right hand falls to the tall and beefy metal shifter, a gorgeous piece of racecar art. It controls an English-made six-speed Xtrac gearbox that costs more than the Optima’s $22,450 base price. The transmission is sequential: Yanking the lever rearward shifts up one gear, pushing it forward, down one. The clutch is only required to get moving from a stop; otherwise, a brief breathe on the throttle and stab of the lever does the job.
If that sounds alien, out on the track—in this case, R&T’s Motown Mile airport course—the shifter proves gloriously mechanical and satisfying. It’s so simple you don’t need to think about it after the first lap.
The main challenge is keeping the Optima’s front tires from spinning. Front-wheel drive is a hurdle for a race car. Under acceleration, a car’s weight transfers rearward, unloading the front wheels. The Kia has a launch-control system that attempts to limit wheelspin from a start, but there’s only so much it can do.
When whistling down the straight, all is relatively normal. The Optima pulls with authority. Braking for the corners is likewise effortless, with an adjustable anti-lock system that’s set up perfectly—the transition out of ABS is barely perceptible when coming off the brakes entering the Mile’s sharp second corner.
Surprisingly, given the car’s long, 110-inch wheelbase, the Optima readily changes direction. It feels nose-heavy, but unlike most front-drive race cars, it doesn’t feel like it’s pirouetting around the front axle. You get the sense that the rear tires, which don’t have much to do, are at least involved in the process. Still, the Optima feels big and a little numb, like a NASCAR stocker. It bounces and floats over bumps, but it’s easy to nail apexes and stay on the line—until, that is, you begin to squeeze the throttle once the car’s taking a set.
As you lay into the right pedal, the Kia spits and pops like a proper race car, but inside, it’s quiet enough that the turbo’s whooshes and whistles are audible. And the sound of it spooling up is a signal that things are about to go haywire. When the resulting torque arrives, the car shoots straight for the edge of the track. The front tires, charged with both turning and putting 368 hp to the ground, simply can’t multitask enough to keep up with things.
I complained about the power-induced understeer to Mark Wilkins, a 31-year-old driver who’s won five races in the Optima so far. He smiled, shrugged, and said, “Yeah, it’s tricky. Try waiting a little longer before hitting the gas.” Duh.
Coasting through the turns a tick longer and judiciously applying throttle resulted in the fastest lap of the day, 52.42 seconds. Since the Optima is the first race car we’ve tested at the Motown Mile, we don’t have a relative comparison, but that’s the quickest time we’ve recorded at the circuit. And, of course, it didn’t break.