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Don’t Hate The V8

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People know the name Papadakis Racing almost synonymously with Honda—but those days of drag racing FWD/RWD Civics are only a small part of what makes Stephan Papadakis who he is today. A true jack-of-all trades, having tried his hands in many forms of motorsports, a few years ago he switched from being a driver to becoming a team manager of a car building crew. This move has been extremely positive, having built successful competition cars for the likes of winning Formula Drift drivers, including our very own Tanner Foust. Here, Papadakis discusses the finery intricacies of turning an everyday Passat up…way, way up.

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Before a project of this magnitude can even take place, you need the right team that has the experience and know-how in building specialized race projects, and Papadakis Racing has it: "We’ll build cars that other people can’t or don’t. Not only can we convert a car to rear-wheel-drive, but we get it to perform at a top level. We did a lot of drag racing in the early days, and back then there weren’t any people you could talk to or books you could read on how to go fast in a FWD—we had to design everything ourselves, everything was custom. We learned how to build these types of cars by blazing a trail, and what’s neat is we’ve been able to continue building cars, like this Passat, which you can’t order parts out of a catalog from. You can’t ask somebody how to do it because nobody’s done it before. These are things that we really enjoy building here at the shop.

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The right team can build a car, not only with lacking resources, but within a limited time frame: “We had a short time to build this car—about four months—from being green-lit as a concept to being competitive by the opening round of Formula Drift Long Beach, and in building the chassis and making it rear-wheel-drive, adding the body kit, to also add an engine program would’ve been a huge undertaking. Most of the time you can’t even do it because you can’t get custom parts made, and there weren’t a lot of parts available for the original 4-cylinder Passat engine. We figured since we’re already doing so much custom work, why not drop an engine in that we know will also work very well. The Chevy V8 LS7 is fully built with 450 cubic inches, has 700hp with an additional 200hp from nitrous—and the best part is that most everything is off-the-shelf, ready to go.

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How do you turn a seemingly ordinary VW sedan into the beast it is currently? Most of the car has to be modified, but you’d be surprised how much of the original factory chassis is still intact: “We took something that’s not at all a drift car and made it a drift car. Front-wheel-drive, 4-cylinder engine—you could call it a family car. We converted it to rear-wheel-drive, added performance suspension and a fire-breathing engine, so now it’s competitive from its very first time out on the track. Transforming the car into something it wasn’t designed to be. To give it some comparison, like a Camaro or a Corvette, those are already drift cars off the factory lot; you can take them as is and go do donuts with them. Not at all with the Passat.

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Regardless of experience building cars, there are unique challenges to every build, and the Passat has its own. Not only do you have to face those head on, but you have to build around a driver who has very specific wants/needs out of a car: “Front wheel drive cars are pretty wide in the engine bay because the original engine fits transversely. While we had plenty of room the problem we had was the firewall, and since many new cars are cab-forward, there wasn’t a lot of room for us to go under the car. Since my team has been building drift cars for a while now, we already know what to do when it comes time to one up properly, and quickly. From the ground up, everything is handcrafted and custom fabricated, and it’s done so completely around Tanner. The seating position, steering and pedal positions, sight lines… we make sure he’s absolutely comfortable in there. At the same time, however, he hasn’t drifted competitively for a few years now, and since then, the styles and speeds of drifting have changed. He had to trust us to build the right setup for the car and be confident that we would provide the right tool to get the job done with.

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Seeing the Passat go around a track, you start thinking: Is this some crazy tube-built chassis? In actuality, it’s the factory unibody, still the Passat chassis but with an adapted rear-wheel-drive suspension/drivetrain: “We have to do it this way because of Formula Drift’s rules. It might have a tubular roll cage for safety but it’s not a tube chassis car. The header we fabricated is also pretty special—what I don’t like about most V8 cars is they sound like flat-bottom boats, and whenever you hear a Ferrari V8 or an import V8, they sound way more crisp and high-pitched. That’s because of the way the firing order is in the engine. What we did with this 8-1 header is we can choose the firing order so that it’s sequential—if you look at the header and see this circle of eight primary tubes, they actually fire in a sequential order/clockwise fashion. That’s what gives the car a unique and even-frequency sound, instead of the typical V8 blop-blop-blop. Look underneath the car and there’s a Nitto NT05 295 tire on it; when’s the last time you saw a Passat with a 295 on it? You see the car, you see the tires and you always give it a second glance. Tons of meat under there for all the horsepower.

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At the end of the day, realize there’s still a lot of potential left to realize with this car, but Papadakis Racing had to deliver a comfortable car right away: “The one thing I think about with the Passat is: with the automotive aftermarket, people like to build a car and have it represent themselves or have something unique, and I think this really embraces the essence of the aftermarket because it is so one-off and unique. It’s been a lot of fun to build, Tanner has a lot of fun driving it and people seem to have fun watching. At that point, I feel like the Passat’s a success.

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  • DRIVER: Tanner Foust
  • CAR BUILDER: Papadakis Racing (Stephan Papadakis, Shawn Hillier and Aldo Villagran)
  • ENGINE: LS7 V8 engine conversion; Mahle 13.6:1 pistons; Callies connecting rods and 4.200” stroke crankshaft; 8-1 exhaust header with sequential firing order collector; Injector Dynamics ID850cc fuel injectors; AEM 320L fuel pumps; Odyssey PC925 battery; GP Motorsports Mil-spec wiring harness
  • POWER: 700hp (naturally aspirated)/900hp (with nitrous oxide)
  • DRIVETRAIN: G-Force GSR 4-speed dog box; Tilton Engineering 3-disc clutch; Driveshaft Shop 4” aluminum driveshaft
  • SUSPENSION & CHASSIS: RS-R custom coilovers
  • WHEELS & TIRES: 17x8”/18x10” KMC wheels; NITTO NT05 255/40R17 (front), 295/40R18 (rear) tires
  • EXTERIOR: custom modified Rocket Bunny aero kit; Spin Imagine vinyl wrap; APR Performance swan-mounted rear wing
  • INTERIOR: Tilton Engineering 600 series pedals; RaceGrade keypad/switch panel; MoTeC PDM 15 chassis computer (x2); 4130 chrome-moly 1.5”x0.095” roll cage; Plex SDM-500 dash display; Recaro seats; Schroth seatbelts; Sparco steering wheel

(Photos by Alex Wong and Jonathan Wong. This article first appeared in Driving Line print Volume 1: Issue 5)

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