I’m not going to lie: I’m pretty delighted that I (and my partner) won Audi’s TDI Challenge, where nine Diesel A3s attempted to drive from Albuquerque to San Diego on a single tank of Diesel. Part of why I’m delighted is because winning means it’s over, since it was a pretty miserable process. Here’s how we did it.
The honest truth is that I really didn’t even think we were going to make it all the way to the finish in San Diego at all; in fact, at no point in our trip, even after we’d actually made it, did any of the on-board estimates suggest we would make it. Out of the nine teams that entered, only two managed to finish at all: a team of a lifestyle blogger and a Swedish automotive journalist, and my team, consisting of two of the smelliest, crankiest Jews ever to stumble out of an Audi.
So let’s recap where Team Circumiserz was after day one: in third place, with an average MPG of 58.7 and an estimated total range of 775 miles. That’s about 55 miles — say roughly an hour of driving — short of where we needed to be. We had a 13.2 gallon tank, and needed to get roughly 62-63 MPG to have any shot in hell of making it to the end, so, clearly, we needed to up our game.
The process of maintaining MPGs that high in these Audis wasn’t easy, but it seemed possible. With an awful lot of work. The first day we experimented with aero mods like rear wheel skirts, but thanks to the zero-residue gaffer’s tape I used (so as not to mess up Audi’s nice press cars) they only stayed on for a hundred miles or so before getting whipped off into the aether.
We were set to leave at 5 AM, and in a last, desperate attempt to buy us an advantage, I taped up a good portion of the A3's grille openings and front vents, as well as adding new wheel skirts. Audi removed the grille tape (as they did for all teams that tried this) and the wheel skirts made an exit pretty early in the day as well, flying off to join a murder of crows or something. We decided the aero mods weren’t really helping all that much, anyway, so we focused even harder on technique.
Since we had so much efficiency to make up for if we wanted even the barest prayer of finishing, we resolved to keep the instant MPG rating above the 100 MPG mark as much as possible. A lot of the driving was on long, flat roads with very slight inclines and very slight descents.
The eventual procedure we developed was this: after starting, shift to manual gear select mode. The goal is to get to 6th as soon as possible, but gradually. You can get to 6th at just under 40 MPH. So, you have to keep a constant eye on your speed and the MPGs. There seems to be a flat-ish road sweet spot in 6th gear at about 45MPH where you can hit MPGs in the 200+ range. Getting there requires constant micro-throttle adjustments, to the point where I decided to drive barefoot not just for foot-heat dissipation reasons, but because I needed safecracker-foot levels of control on the throttle.
The cycle worked like this: you get up to 40-45 or so, in 6th gear, and start feathering back the throttle until you saw 200 or so MPGs — at least, the best you could get based on the terrain, wind, and incline. At some point, you’d very slowly start to lose speed, which would soon kick you down to 5th gear — where your revs would shoot up to 2000 RPM and your MPG would drop into the 50s or so. Then, you’d gradually speed back up to near 40, back into 6th, and massage that go pedal until you saw those triple-digit MPGs.
Over and over again.
It became this sort of gradual, pulsating, undulating wave-like process, this slow, hyper-focused OCD nightmare that managed somehow to make you incredibly aware of the road incline, surface quality, and wind conditions, but enjoying none of the scenery or ride itself because you’re so focused on that MPG display in the dash. Oddly, you weren’t really bored while you were doing it, because it took so much focus, but it was absolute drudgery. This is motorsport for statisticians or people with strange OCD numerical fetishes or something. I think I mostly hated it.
Hate or not, I proved to be pretty good at it, as did my partner Neal Pollack, who attributes it to his Prius ownership and deep-seated cheapness. Between the two of us and this mind-numbing method, we were making decent progress, with our average MPG spiking at about 65 or 66.
Still, we were in a sweltering car with no A/C and the windows up, and the grim specter of Road Madness was never far off. Our estimated range never showed us making it anywhere near the end, but, based on what we could tell on Twitter, we were still in the running, so we kept on.
At the stop for lunch on the last day — the last real stop before the bailout points many, many hours later, we learned that we were likely around second place. But, the unknown team of lifestyle journalist and Swede were way out in front. Our auto journalist brothers implored us to keep pushing, since a fucking lifestyle journalist just can’t win this, right?
Neal was determined to press on, but lamented the 5 unwanted miles I added to our car from an exit I missed on the first day. I could tell that when we failed at this, that would be the last thing mentioned from Neal’s mouth when he stabbed me, full of failure and Road Madness.
Still, we were determined. We pressed on, at the grueling, lethargic pace of 45 MPH or so, luckily not on a major highway so we didn’t end up blocking much traffic. We drove through deserts and dunes grim little dust-choked towns and by slaughterhouses and slaughtercondos, but the one bit of landscape we really were thinking about was the massive mountain we’d have to climb to get to San Diego.
That final leg into San Diego required a long, tall climb. We’d be able to make much of what we lost back on the way down, into the final stretch, but that climb would make or break us. We ended up on an actual highway right before the climb, a nice wide road with many lanes.
We got into the far-right lane, blinkers on, holding the car at about 45-50 MPH, keeping the MPGs around 80-100, desperately conserving the 15 miles of range we had left for the climb up the mountain. other slow trucks were in the lane as well, traffic was light, and we felt like if we can hang on to that 15 miles of range before the mountain climb, we have a real shot at this.
Unfortunately, the CHP wasn’t in on our plan. As we tortised our way down the road, a massive Highway Patrol Suburban we passed on the side of the road burst to life, following close behind us. It then bellowed out of its loudspeaker:
COME ON! COME ON! YOU’VE GOT TO GO FASTER THAN THAT! LET’S GO!
... and then he approached behind us, hard and fast like a rhino stripper dressed as a sexy cop for a rhino bachelorette party. He stayed on our ass and made us accelerate to 60 MPH — and then he just stayed there.
It was almost physically painful, watching the MPGs fall. The cop didn’t put on his lights or anything (though I was concocting a story about how we were Audi engineers testing cylinder deactivation tech and didn’t want to lose our data) but he stayed there on our ass, keeping us at 60 MPH, our MPG trickling down into the 40s and 30s or worse, and the mountain looming.
By the time he finally left us, a good 20 minutes later, we were approaching the base of the mountain, our fuel reserves now down to zero. It was as though he could see our dash, and didn’t peel off until the fuel gauge light started blinking red and that big, cruel yellow gas pump popped on the screen and implored us to refuel, NOW.
Shit. Zero miles to empty. A whole mountain to crest, and then ride down. We were still around 100 miles away when we hit empty, and the whole thing was looking pretty bleak. Neal and I were feeling defeated, and wondering about the depths of the conspiracy that would have made the CHP so interested in seeing us fail. Oh, that fucking cop.
We started the climb, as carefully as possible, but the inclines were so severe that we rarely managed to maintain more than 30 MPG, at best. It was looking grim. Most folks said we could expect about 30 more miles after the 0 miles range warning, and we were rapidly eating all that up. We went past the second-to-last bailout point, determined to at least make that final bailout point, even if San Diego would remain out of reach. We were like Moses and the promised land — so close, yet so far, and we talked to many flaming bushes.
We got to the final bailout point. The car hadn’t actually died yet, but we figured Audi wouldn’t let us go on, since we’d been at 0 miles range for over an hour. We stopped, and tried lamely to feel good about the nice A3 Cabrio Audi would let us take in for the final leg.
But, I didn’t want the fucking cabrio. I wanted to go into San Diego in the plucky, determined little A3 we’d been in for 792 miles so far. I didn’t want to come this far to just stop — the process was such a colossal ass-pain, I couldn’t bring myself to just quit. It’d be like getting five out of the six needed rabies shots or something.
Plus, we heard that the lifestyle/Swede team had kept on going. If we stop, we’re just second place, at best.
Maybe it was the Road Madness that had a grip on me. But, I had a grip on the Road Madness as well, and we made a pact — see this thing through or die trying. I asked the Audi guys if we could just say fuck it and keep going. To Audi’s considerable credit, they agreed — we may end up on the side of the road, but they’ll be behind us with a chase car and a can of diesel.
This seemed perfect to me. I’ve been driving cars on the brink of packing it in on the side of the road all my driving life — this was by far the best could-get-stuck situation I’ve ever had. I’ve changed fan belts on the shoulder of the 5 outside of LA, I’ve pushed cars up exit ramps — this situation is downright luxurious. No money out of my pocket, and a chase car to rescue me right behind? It’s perfect!
It didn’t take much to convince Neal. We both agreed, if we’re going to fail at this, we’re going to fail in the way God intended, on the side of the road, hopefully not blocking too much traffic. I got back behind the wheel and set off the final roughly 40 miles.
I would have been just happy hitting 800 miles, which we did pretty early on. We were starting the descent of the mountain, and I knew how I handled this would make or break us. I had to conserve every bit of momentum we had.
And, we ended up getting plenty of momentum. We were going down a lot of switchbacks, with gravity shoving our ass nice and quickly. When I needed a bit of speed, I put it in neutral, which burned a bit more gas to keep the engine idling but allowed a no-resistance roll.
To slow down (and save diesel) I’d put it in 6th, letting the wheels turn the engine (as many of you pointed out in the previous article) which let the fuel injectors shut off entirely. So, I’d take the fast turns in 6th, hardly ever touching the brake, and enjoying the pretty impressive grip of the A3, which just made the lethargic way I’d had to drive it for 2 days all the more painful.
In the hard turns, with a yawning abyss just over a guard rail, I was setting sphincter-pressure records as I hoped the diesel wouldn’t run out, taking away my power assist for brakes and steering. In 6th, I assumed the wheels turning the engine would keep the alternator going and the brake vacuum reservoir probably has a good 3 hard brake pumps in it — but still, it was nervy.
Neal hung on gamely to the oh shit handle, pausing only to remind me that this is not how he wants to die, and probably planning his poltergeisting of my family if the worst happened.
Out of the switchbacks, we came upon a hilly area that demanded a huge amount of attention and pushed me over an edge. This is where I totally gave in to Road Madness, and decided there was no fucking way I was going to stop. This was where I realized there’s two things I don’t like to do:
1. Almost anything useful for adult life
I called upon my many years of babying sick and injured cars back home. I realized this was essentially the same thing — this Audi was being starved, and we had to work as a sympathetic team to get home. I needed to appreciate, deeply, the pain this Kleine Wunder was feeling, and work with it. This was no longer about the car getting us there — this was about the car and I working together to get each other there.
I knew I could only ask very little from the car at any moment, so I had to pick my points of throttle very, very carefully. I had to harmonize the application of fuel to road conditions that would maximize it, and I had to conserve every ounce of momentum. I was using N to gain speed, and coasting in 6th to glide, and if needed, slow.
I may have gone through a red light as we went into town. I may have almost wept with frustration as traffic finally forced my foot to the brake. The nerviest part was on the Coronado Bridge, where, if I got stuck, I could have pretty effectively choked traffic coming into San Diego to a crawl, and I didn’t really want that on my conscience.
But, somehow, around 100 miles past the point were the car said we had zero miles, we made it. We managed to get into that hotel parking lot and, exhausted, elated, and deeply pungent, we parked the car and tumbled out. I have no idea how little fuel we actually had left, but I’m sure if they pulled the head from the engine they’d find the cylinders stuffed with notes that read “IOU one injection of Diesel.”
So, we did it! We made it! Of course, the lifestyle/Swede team made it as well, so we thought, fine, a tie for first is plenty good, right? Well, wrong. We didn’t tie for first. We won first place, alone and clearly.
How the hell did we do that? Well, remember how I mentioned I missed an exit the first day, and drove us an extra 5 miles? Those five miles that Neal was quietly stewing about? Those five miles put our total driven on one tank of Diesel to 830 — and the other team that made it only traveled 826 miles. We win.
I came away pretty impressed with the A3 TDI, though I think any rational person driving normally should only expect 45 MPG or so at most — but that’s fine. I’m also impressed with Audi for setting up a driving event so laden with the possibility of failure. Most companies try to avoid that.
So, there you have it. It turns out I can be a decent hypermiler, and Neal can now claim to be the only man in human history to have won at both Jeopardy and the Audi TDI Challenge. And I’m really fucking glad it’s over.