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Kia Racing carves out an unlikely heritage

Time:2018-02-15 02:17Turbochargers information Click:

Racing unlikely carves heritag

Five years ago, at the SEMA stage in the Las Vegas Convention Center, Kia unveiled two Forte coupes prepared for the ST class in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge (then sponsored by Koni). The cars were built by Kinetic Motorsports of Buford, Georgia, about 40 minutes northeast of Atlanta, with their 2.4-liter engines tuned to 240 horsepower. Kia made it bold announcement: the thrifty Korean carmaker would be a racing brand, and would immediately start campaigning at races around America.

"People universally laughed at us," said Russell Smith, co-owner of Kinetic Racing. When they arrived at Daytona Speedway in January 2010 with two transporters, "fans, fellow drivers, they all laughed."

Smith wears a Bermuda flag on his racing suit, but he grew up in Essex, east of London, before decamping to the Caribbean. He was an underwriter at Lloyd's Insurance before he got bored and decided to focus all his energies on racing: at the Panoz Racing School in Atlanta he met Nic Jonsson, who was working as an instructor. The two became friends. Smith stayed put in Georgia, Johnsson as well from his native Sweden, and in 2005, they founded Kinetic Motorsports.

Kias Day At The Races at SEMA involves ice cream and beer

SEMA Show Kia's "Day At The Races" at SEMA involves ice cream and beer

Five years ago, at the SEMA Show, Kia made a bold vow: it would enter the world of motorsports. It was a decision met with some derision. We couldn't believe it: Kia? Were they going Lemons ...

Kinetic was founded originally to prepare Porsches for the IMSA GT3 challenge, though the duo found success in two generations of the BMW M3. In September 2009, when Kia called, that all changed. That first year, everybody laughed. By 2011, however, Kia had found three podiums and two wins, at Barber and Road America. That year, just the second year of racing, Kia took home a Team Championship, and Jonsson -- who once trained Swedish secret service agents for evasive driving -- won the Driver's Championship. Then, said Smith, "nobody laughed."

By the end of 2011, Kia began offering B-Spec package for the Rio. The next year, Kia moved to Pirelli World Challenge's GTS class with the Optima Turbo, and Kinetic became the factory team for Kia Racing -- focusing all of its efforts on the Optima and beating Mustangs, Camaros, 370Zs and Caymans. Now, "Kia is 120% of what we do," said Smith.

This year, the effort paid off -- the Optima won five races, then went on to clinch the Manufacturer's Championships with both the GTS Optima and the Forte in Touring Car A-Spec class. Jason Wolfe, in a Forte sponsored by Kinetic, won the Driver's Championship in TC-A and Rookie of the Year, while his crew won "Crew of the Year." For Kinetic, it was their second Manufacturer's Championship with a Forte. No sweat.

Kia Optima GTS 2015 season

Kia announced its new 2015 Optima livery at SEMA this year. Photo by Kia

Just six years of racing has resulted in Kia becoming the first Korean car company to win a manufacturer's championship in -- well, any series, really. Smith believes it's paying off.

"[At Pirelli World Challenge races] you get 150,000, 200,000 people at every track," said Smith. "You get plenty of eyeballs on it. So the series is good, it's growing, it's good TV. But it's the chance to get people to say, 'whoa, that's a Kia!' That's job done at that point. Doing well is obviously further reinforcement for that."

Kia gives Smith and company just one stipulation: "Don't be parked on the side of the track, broken down," he said. "That's the only stipulation we've ever had from Kia. Don't damage the brand if you have unreliable cars." This year, there was just one incident of that, when Jonsson's Optima couldn't finish in Toronto, Wilkins' hometown.

With north of 360 horsepower channeled through the front tires, the Optima is "tricky," said Wilkins, in a prior interview. "Try waiting a little longer before hitting the gas."

Initially, the Optima performed well on longer tracks. But by this third year, weight and tire wear have been managed to competitiveness. Horsepower has increased to 368, fed through a sequential six-speed transmission by Xtrac. Kinetic has an engine subsidiary, Sunbelt Engines, which has two engine dynos and builds powerplants for the Kia program as well as ALMS, BMW club racing, and SCCA.

If there was any understeer, Jonsson didn't seem to notice when he drove us around Spring Mountain Motorsports Resort's West Course (familiar stomping grounds from earlier in the week, when we were there in Camaros). Charging hard into corners, slamming on the brakes, getting the rear end loose and maximum grip up front, we couldn't feel any understeer at all. We're sure Jonsson, with all of his experience and wins, couldn't feel any either.

Kia Optima tires

Prepping the cars for hot laps. Photo by Blake Z. Rong

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