The Chronicles of an Audi racing veteran: How you get to first


By Don Istook

Editor’s Note: We are very pleased to bring you this exclusive story written by my long time friend, QuattroWorld forum member, and fellow Audi enthusiast, Don Istook.

I’m not a guy that excites very easily, especially on the race track.  Having been a runner, biker and triathlete for several years…as well as racing cars since 1977 (let‘s see…IMSA, SCCA Club, SCCA Pro Speedvision, Grand-Am, World Challenge, NASA, PCA…maybe more?), the old heart rate is usually down at the low end of…beats per minute.  I can sit on the grid at Watkins Glen, Daytona, Road America, or about any track, waiting for a Grand-Am or World Challenge race to start…and almost fall asleep!  So, when AUDI’s Facebook campaign (to gauge interest in bringing over the TT RS) was announced last year, I felt a little “thump, thump” in my chest!  So, I emailed Doug Clark, General Manager of Customer Strategy & Engagement with Audi of America, about my seriousness in obtaining one of the first RS’s in the country…..I got several more “thumps” when he actually emailed me back!

Ok…back track just a little…I had a perfectly good…no…Not just good…but an excellent 2009 TTS sitting in my garage.  Gorgeous car…Silver, Prestige Package, Nav., 19” wheels, Magma Red/Black leather, etc….with just 11,500 miles.  I have another TT that I use as a daily driver…not to mention my ex Grand-Am, now World Challenge TT race car….but…..ok…back track a little more, or…a lot more.

My initial racing background started in 1977 with Porsches…the usual SCCA Club Racing…having built several 911’s…then racing the 924 and the 924 D Production factory cars, which led to being one of the first in the country to race the 944…then in IMSA GTU as the crew chief on a 924 Carrera GTR.  Our team was paired with Al Holbert and Derek Bell, who were racing the first Porsche 962.  After that came a drive as one of the Al Holbert chosen Porsche 944 drivers in the inaugural IMSA Firestone Firehawk series in 1985.

Something else happened around then.  Jo Hoppen headed Volkswagen/AUDI Motorsports.  He had convinced my racing customer, John Schneider, to buy one of the AUDI Quattro Coupes.  Jo promised John that he would “make something happen” with this car.  Indeed he did!  He wanted me to prep and enter the car in a 24 hour race at Mid-Ohio…sanctioned by SCCA.  Driving along with me would be John, Jim Trueman (Red Roof Inn founder and owner of Mid-Ohio race track), Michael Hoppen, and myself.

So…Jo had sent to me from Germany a bolt-in roll cage made for the Quattro…and a camshaft….that’s it?  Ok, I pulled the rear seats, installed the cage (leaving the rest of the interior stock, per the rules) and installed the camshaft…and retuned the car.  Ready to go racing!  We get to Mid-Ohio…after all the practice and qualifying sessions, Jo comes up, looks at the car, and says in his thick German accent, “Don, where are all the parts?”  What parts??  “Oh, I didn’t send you the other parts?”  Jo gets on the phone.  Overnight, a truck arrives…we unload 8 magnesium 8 X 15 white Quattro wheels…larger front and rear brakes…thicker sway bars…heavier shocks…and a Porsche 930 adjustable wastegate!  Some serious go-fast stuff for a stock Quattro…he had just robbed the rally car bin and had parts sent our way.

Now, what I didn’t mention was that we got the truckload of parts on Friday…and we had to race Saturday morning!  Well, Rome wasn’t built in a day…but I WAS racing at Road Atlanta in the early 80’s when Jo helped out Tom Brennan, after Tom had written off one of the Porsche factory D Production 924’s.  Jo secured a brand new 924 D Production tub for Tom…had it shipped to the track…and that car WAS literally built in one day…made the DP race and finished 2nd!!  So, with that in mind…we got all the “stuff” put on the car and just made the grid for the start of the race.

Ok…fast forward to 1999…many, many races later…3 hour races, 6, 12, and a few 24 hour races…. with many, many race cars.  Some I built, and some I raced for other teams.  In November, I instructed at an AUDI event at Heartland Park in Topeka, Kansas.  My good buddy in Dallas, Bob Aines, and I were looking to get involved with the Motorola Cup… which was basically the renamed Firehawk series.  We thought of racing Porsche 911’s, but anyone could do that.  I had driven the new AUDI S4 at the track in Topeka and thought…WOW!!  Within a few weeks, we secured a brand new blue 2000 AUDI S4 from Champion AUDI in Florida and began ripping apart that gorgeous $45,000 AUDI to build it into a race car.  What fun!!

We raced the AUDI S4’s from 2000 to 2004 in the Motorola Cup, which became the Grand-Am Cup…which is affiliated with NASCAR.  I developed several parts, worked with StopTech on a front brake kit, crashed several cars (or at least, I and my co-drivers did)…oh, I might mention that in 2000, with our brand-new AUDI S4…that only had one race on it (Sebring in 2000)…we loaned it to AUDI for Michael Galatti to drive in the SCCA Speedvision race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.  It seems that Derek Bell’s S4 race car was ready, but Michael’s car wasn’t finished yet.  So…Rod Bymaster, Audi Motorsports Manager, rented the car from us for Micahel to drive…….insurance can be a good thing!  Michael rolled the car on the first lap of practice…our one race old race car was toast….or, should I say…pancake?

Well…AUDI sent me a brand new S4 tub…Silver…gorgeous!…came in a huge crate.  The paint inside the car was just as magnificent as the paint on the outside.  I built a second S4 race car…and the Silver beauty lasted several seasons…ok, you know street cars can be totaled…but race cars can be like a Timex watch…they take a licking on keep on……racing (even with different doors, fenders, frame rails, etc.)!

I eventually had another S4 in our stable, so we ran two S4’s. It seems that, because our S4’s were developed into real rockets…customers wanted me to rework theirs.  I believe that a total of 5 AUDI S4’s raced in the Grand-Am Cup, and I either built, rebuilt, or reworked all 5 of them.  170mph at Daytona down the front straight…from a 4 door sedan…with no aerodynamics…quite fun!  A lot of races, a lot of podium finishes, and some near podium finishes (before crashes), track records, etc.!  Fabulous car!!

In 2006, I built two TT Quattro’s for the SCCA T3 class.  After two seasons of Club Racing…the old Pro racing itch came back around.  Hey, let’s turn one into a Grand-Am car and go back to Daytona!……………I build a pretty good roll cage.  My good friend and co-driver, Colin Cohen got punted from the back by…..a name being withheld driver…and went HARD into the inside wall at NASCAR 4 at Daytona.  Quite a spectacular crash!  Ok, we’ll just build another TT!

Let’s go on forward a little bit…our black beauty AUDI TT finished 6th at the Toyota Long Beach Grand Prix a few months ago in the SCCA World Challenge race, alongside one of our two VW GTI’s.  World Challenge is a great race venue…standing starts in an AUDI Quattro!!

I’m currently building a Mark II 3.2L TT Quattro.  I wish you could see the aluminum chassis these Mk II cars have…fabulous!!  I take steel plates and box in the corners, and bolt the boxes through the aluminum chassis…from there, I weld in the steel cage to the boxes…………..ok, ok…back to the RS

My current street car, (daily driver), is a 2001 TT 225 Quattro with 192,375 miles on it….tight as a drum, original engine, clutch, etc.  My TTS would be taken out and driven on nice days, or just when I wanted to really have fun.  Loved the car………but…….the RS…!  I had put the gorgeous 370mm front TT RS brakes on my TTS…, because I can…and because I wanted to.  But, almost weekly, I would ask Zoran Gutic, my friend and salesman extraordinaire, at FW AUDI…”any word on the RS”, followed by the never tiring comment of ”no Don, but I will let you know”.

…I have a real character fault in that I try for, and want the best.  And as much as I loved the TTS, there was a “better one” out there.  I had read all about the RS that was available over the big pond…watched the You Tube videos…loved the sound of the 5 cylinder from my previous experience with the Quattro.  Loved the looks of the 370mm front brakes.  Loved the not too large, not too small rear spoiler.  Really loved the 0-60 times of the RS!!  Oh, and that 175 mph top speed wasn’t hurting anything.  A real RS car from AUDI…I could feel that “thump, thump” starting in my chest.

All right, back to the article.  I met Brad Stertz, Public Relations Manager, Corporate Communications for Audi at the SEMA (Specialty Equipment yada yada) at Las Vegas last year, when AUDI had an exhibit with the Autonomous (driverless) TTS and the GORGEOUS Red Supercharged STASIS R8 Spyder.  I know Brad gets an earful of wannabees, and I’m sure I was no different…except…I was persistent about the TT RS.  That, coupled with a few emails to Doug Clark with AUDI got me an invite to the TT RS unveiling at the Chicago Auto Show earlier this year.  It also didn’t hurt that my son, Marc Istook, is friends with Paul Meyers in LA.  Paul is the Social Media Marketing Manager with M80, and he works to increase the awareness of the Audi brand.

At the Chicago Show, Brad, Doug, Paul, and Mark Fruechnicht (project manager for the R8 and the TT) were all there giving us rabid fans a wonderful introduction to the TT RS.  I had been at the Porsche booth down the way where the Cayman R, the 911 Speedster, and the Carrera GTS were introduced.  Even my old friend, Price Cobb was there getting special recognition from Porsche for his Motorsports contributions.  But…the TT RS was just down the way…and was pulling me closer and closer.  Now, to those of you that know me…this was something, because I have had a Porsche/Audi service business for over 30 years…and remember I cut my teeth racing Porsches.  But, my AUDI roots actually go a little deeper.  As a younger guy, my first real job was as a banker, and I would finance the cars sold at the Porsche/AUDI dealership that was across the street.

Ok, I purposely didn’t arrive at the AUDI booth until the appointed time, just to keep the anticipation up.  I walk up…and there it is…a gorgeous Red AUDI TT RS…hood up so I could see the marvelous 2.5L engine, complete with carbon fiber appointments, and a work of art intake manifold. The heart beat is racing, synonymous with my finishing a marathon…or crashing at Mid-Ohio.  I’m sold, sign me up, here is my check!!  My wife has already given the ok…let’s take this one right here, right now………oh, it’s a European model… and …it…has to go back.

I get back home and march into Zoran’s office the next day…”let’s get this deal going!!”

After an agonizing wait of weeks, the TT RS order info finally came out…no pricing, but I could order a car.  With a leap of faith that we TT RS wannabee owners wouldn’t get gouged by AUDI, I placed my order.  Ibis White, Infotainemnt, Titanium Package…that should do it for me.  I like the Navigation system AUDI has (on my wife’s Q5), and the Titanium wheels looked good on the A5…so…as they say…let’s git er done!

Zoran told me the order might take a while, and to expect to get the car in late August or September.  Lo and behold (and the heart beat goes up again), he called me after the first of July…”the car is on the boat and will be at the port about July 21st!!”

As they say…don’t let them see you sweat…especially since the price had not been announced.  Actually, I had kept in touch with Brad, Doug and Mark by text …and they had even questioned me with what I thought a fair price would be.  Well, in all honesty, and not trying to sound cheap…I gave them a figure that I thought was fair and realistic for the base price.  I was pleasantly…no, make that excitedly surprised when the base price was announced…several thousand dollars less than I expected!…all about a week before my RS was due to arrive.  This 0-60 in 4.1 sec., this 175 mph car, this highly sought after AUDI TT RS was coming in at a price lower than a similarly equipped …………..(you can fill in the blank here)!

So…I got a call from Zoran on Friday the 22nd…..”Don, your car will be here in the morning”.  What….?  The computer showed four other RS’s at the port, and they had been there for several days….how could my car be released so quickly.  Not to question, I was at FW AUDI bright and early Saturday morning when the transporter arrived…and yes, cloaked in secrecy and all covered (actually, Audi does that to all of their vehicles being transported) was my RS.  I’m glad that they make 8gig SD cards for my camera!!

My heart actually slowed down at this point.  Not because the RS wasn’t as gorgeous as I had imagined.  Not because the exhaust sound didn’t bring back great memories of the early Quattro.  Not because of anything…other than I could now relax.  AUDI, Zoran, FW AUDI…all had a hand in making a dream come true for me.  In fact, more than I had ever hoped for.  I got a call later in the day from Brad Stertz with AUDI, and a text from Mark Fruechnicht, wanting to know how the car was.  Brad then told me that I was …the FIRST person to get the TT RS in the states, and that he, Doug, and Mark had held discussions about it, and wanted me to be their first U.S.customer to own an RS.  And what’s more, would I be available to film a video for AUDI with the RS at Texas Motor Speedway?……what do you think?

I arranged to get Eric Harten’s 1983 AUDI Quattro, Colin Cohen’s very rare Sport Quattro, and my World Challenge TT race car to help in the filming at TMS.  I can honestly say, this RS on the track is the best street car I have ever driven on a race track…race car feel, and close to race car sound…excellent suspension…turn in, low speed, high speed corners (of course I followed all manufacturers recommendation for break-in…kind of!)…so I put the RS through the paces on the street course…but was limited to about 85 on the banking per TMS rules.  Flawless, perfect, dramatic…like the perfect dance with your wife as you are waltzing, then the same perfection when the rock music starts and your body goes insane!!  This car fits like your best Levis, your best shoes, and that well greased…can catch anything…baseball glove you had as a kid.  I want to just drive it…anywhere, nowhere…listen to it, feel it…it reminds me of being a kid when you first get your license and your parents finally (or you sneak out) let you take the car…and you just go cruising!!

So…….the RS sits back at FW AUDI…on the showroom for a week…as I wanted their customers to get a good look at the car…and allow the dealership to capture the moment, as they were the first in the country to secure and deliver the RS.  Though I have wanted this car for two years, never, never would I have dreamed to have it turn into the experience that AUDI provided for me.  I’m a hard guy to satisfy, and to please.  Thanks guys…and you know who I’m talking to…The AUDI Experience has left me fulfilled!  And no, I don’t have plans to race this R……well….we’ll see about that!!

Photos were provided to us by the author, and are property of their respective owners