Kiwi racer Rhys Millen has been a fixture in the motorsport performance arena for nearly all of his adult life. Born in New Zealand in 1972, he has scored victories in rally, at the Pikes Peak Hill Climb and in drifting competitions nationwide, all of which made him a natural to pilot Hyundai’s US-based RedBull Global RallyCross Championship team.
Leftlane recently caught up with Millen at the RedBull GRC stop at Daytona International Speedway. “It’s the first time the series has been held at a course with such a significant heritage, and is based around a more standardized racetrack rather than one built up outside of a city center,” Millen said. The series will also make stops in Los Angeles, Seattle, and in November during the Specialty Equipment Manufacturer’s Association (SEMA) show in Las Vegas.
Hyundai is not new to rally and racing in general. Millen talked of the brand’s limited racing heritage by saying, “We have been running Hyundai rally cars for three years, although last year they only ran in two different events. We had a one-car program and rented out the second car. After a while, Hyundai Motors America had a management rotation, and during the transition, the company started to market through traditional stick and ball sports. After about six or eight months, they circled back around and found the value in what this RedBull series is, and represents. It creates an umbrella that supports the entire brand. Motorsports per se, are not part of an established division of Hyundai Motors America. Instead we fall under a division called Experimental Marketing.
“During the ball sport era, the motorsports venture was almost killed off. We did only one event, the Pikes Peak Hill Climb, and then they signed on for two GRC events with a small amount of funding for those. Our partnership is unique. Instead, my role is more like that of a consultant. Using a pitch like this, ‘If you have an interest in these sports, here is your best model, with its performance value and here is its best fit.’ Road Racing, Staged Rally, Drift, Off-Road, and RallyCross. They then came back to me saying RallyCross is the direction we should go in, and that was that. I submitted a program based on having one- or two cars and then pitched them on an idea of having a fast female driver. And that was the concept they bit on. From there we planned it out, finding quick females from around the world, sending out questionnaires to answer and between Hyundai and myself, we chose who we thought would be best for the position. Based on skill, on her answers and on representing the brand, Emma Gilmour was their pick.”
We wanted to find out more about what makes Millen and the Hyundai team click. So we got down to business.
LLN: We know RedBull sponsorship does not come easy. Was that a tough nut to crack?
RHYS: I have had RedBull sponsorship for nine years now, and that came from beating on their door for about two years, when drifting started, and we won the championship in 2005. That’s where the relationship began and it has continued through multiple projects. It is video-based, motorsport-based and I end up being more a brand ambassador on track.
LLN: So if you went to them and suggested, “let’s do Sonatas in NASCAR,” could you do that?
RHYS: No, they wouldn’t buy into that. They are always at the forefront of whatever they do, and as soon as something is turning stagnant, you’re best to watch what they’re doing because if they are pulling out of it, there’s probably a good reason. If you follow where they’ve been (NASCAR) and what they’ve done, they have always been a step or two ahead of their other competitors in that regard, and in some cases that makes it quite challenging to maintain them as a sponsor. But again, they saw this sport as one that they felt a need to latch on to.
LLN: So you may be at the top of your game in a particular sport, but if they see no ROI (return on investment), then you might be out of luck?
RHYS: Right. And in the past, they typically own their assets. Not so much in the case of an athlete with a sticker on a helmet, but if there is signage on the car, they typically own the team, like Formula One, like NASCAR, and so forth. So we have a mutual relationship that has been nineteen years.
LLN: So is Emma part of this deal?
RHYS: No, her sponsorship is different. We are the RedBull car, and she is sponsored by Hyundai, and Quaker State, through their quick lube divisions at the dealerships.
LLN: Tell us about the car. Is it a Veloster from the ground up?
RHYS: The shell is a Veloster. The driveline is developed by our company (Rhys Millen Racing) and is based on the old Hyundai Accent World Rally Car. There are several items that we just kind of bite our lip on, knowing that they are twelve years old and we are doing this good with what we are running! If this program were gaining momentum with what is happening in the World Rally program, with the i20, and trying to leverage assets for next year to grow out our program, we’d have far more competitive cars. (Editor’s Note: There is apparently plenty of life in Millen’s ole’ dog. He managed to lead the pack to win the Daytona Beach leg of the RedBull GRC Championship series.)
LLN: So you would campaign an i20 here?
RHYS: Something similar. We would have the i20′s geometry, drivetrain and engine package and place it in something that works for the US market.
LLN: How about the engine? Someone said it’s about 12 years old.
RHYS: It’s a cast iron Theta block 2.0-liter turbocharged engine from the old Tiburon.
LLN: How do you develop the cars? Where does RMR, RedBull, and Hyundai factor in to come up with the racecar itself?
RHYS: At the end of the year, we evaluate where the cars are at, we evaluate the budget we get from our sponsors, evaluating the numbers they are willing to give us, and from there we determine where we can gain performance from the cars. Last year, we were 1.5-seconds off the pace. Now we are less than a tenth or two behind. We focused on more testing time to develop the chassis, making upgrades to better shocks, the differential settings and such, and then played with the geometry on anti-squat and anti-dive. So it just comes down to more miles to make the car better for this environment.
LLN: Talking about the cars, are they all radically different, or is there a consensus as to which shocks and other pieces would be part of the car? For example if you were to go around in the pits, would you see similar setups on the competition?
RHYS: To a degree, yes. For example with the shocks, there are two key players. The type we use have proprietary roll control valves, which is a system without a sway bar but with a valve that acts like one as they go through corners. It has helped us to the tune of over a second a lap. It was a $30,000 upgrade per car.
LLN: How about power?
RHYS: The rules say that power needs to come in the range of 550 to 600 horsepower, and 600- to 700 lb-ft of torque. Gearboxes are from XTrac. It’s a sequential six-speed gearbox. The only time we use the clutch is when there is no load on the tires. So when we go on the dirt, we use the clutch quickly but everywhere else, it’s foot to the floor and in the actual shift knob is a little load cell that will rock, and kill ignition timing before you pull through.
Everyone runs Yokohama’s Advan radial racing slick. So now we drive comparably slower on the tire because it is the faster way around, especially on the dirt. For the demo rides we did today, we were flicking the tail out a little bit for you. And on last year’s off-road tires we would be powering out of a turn. Every team and driver has had to adapt to them this year. Some of the road racing guys, like Scott Speed and Nelson Piquet, Jr., have an advantage because this type of tire is all they’ve ever driven on. If they were using last year’s off-roading tire, they would be slower. The rest of us have had to learn and adapt.
LLN: Do you receive any technical support from Hyundai?
RHYS: We do our development in-house at RMR, and with connections we have in Europe. We do not get any support from Hyundai Engineering in the US, primarily because there is no motorsport division so there really is nothing for them to offer us. Ninety percent of the car is aftermarket racing parts. One of the things we do share with them is their electric power steering system, which we used at Pike’s Peak. If we build a new car next year, we will use that as well. But at the end of the day these cars are highly modified and purpose-built so there really isn’t any sharing of technology in that regard.
In return, Hyundai is getting integrated marketing that is the true value in the program. In 2012, when we ran a full season of GRC, I was third in driver’s points, and second for manufacturer’s points. We’ve won Pike’s Peak together many times; we’ve won drifting races in other series that we’ve been in. So this year, was more of a loose carryover to be in the sport, to go to all the venues, to grab data, to try to have an influx of the new World Rally Car (WRC) program that started in Europe with the Hyundai i20. And we would be able to use elements of that program to integrate into building new cars for next year. Talks have started, and fingers crossed, they like what they see and we get the support that we need!
LLN: So you have to do it in a circuitous manner, drawing support and money from Hyundai Motors America in Fountain Valley, California, and then when that happens, turning to the European WRC teams for technology and parts.
RHYS: For us to build a new car that would be at the level of what everyone else is now producing, that is all World Rally Car technology. It’s what Volkswagen will be introducing at the next event, what Ken Block brings from Ford, that’s all WRC. The millions of dollars worth of technology that have gone into the Hyundai WRC car is available for us to purchase. For us to spend the same amount of money to develop a suitable car would be pointless and repetitive.
Through partnerships with Hyundai Motors, Korea, to talk to Hyundai Motors Europe to release performance items to the U.S., that’s what makes the most sense. That’s the first part of what we are looking to do.
LLN: What type of response have you had to that scenario?
RHYS: I actually am not involved with those types of details, but the feedback I am getting has been very positive.
LLN: Are there advantages here at Daytona, over other venues that you run at?
RHYS: I think the main advantage here is better racing. I respect where they have tried to go with it this year, to try something different. They have tried to go to more direct and metropolitan areas. In the past, it has kept the racing a little too compact with too much contact, whereas here, at Daytona, we are going to have better racing because of more and better space. So yes, I think this is a better fit being here, for sure.
I have run at Daytona for a TV show, racing (fellow driver) Tommy Kendall a few years back so I already had an idea and a mental view of the scale of this place, which is huge!
LLN: Tell us about your partner, Emma Gilmour.
RHYS: She is hired by RMR, but based around Hyundai having a two-car team with a female driver as well. She is quite proficient in Rally Car in New Zealand. I didn’t pick her because she is a fellow Kiwi, but based on performance and speed. Hyundai thought from a marketing standpoint, based on marketing the Veloster to males and females, it was a proper fit. To see the crowd reaction for her is definitely what they were focusing on. Young girls and women coming up, who are following her makes a lot of sense for Hyundai being involved. She’s quick on track; she’s just unfortunately dealing with an elite group of drivers in very quick cars that are all at the front of the field. It’s not like there are twenty cars and she might be mid-pack. So that’s been the most frustrating thing for her, is that she was 2-tenths off me in qualifying. She has the speed. Now it just comes down to luck.
The biggest challenge in rally, has been on gravel. Now we are on a controlled tire, everything has to be slowed down, you need to have patience and finesse. So now she has to do about 20-percent of her aggressive style on the gravel and then she has to change almost a hundred-percent to drive on the pavement. But she is also competing back in New Zealand so she is constantly going back and fourth between series.
The good thing is we got her a great test on Monday. I’ll test the car to where I am happy with it and then she’ll get in and fine-tune it for her driving styles. We have V-box GPS software where we are able to see how she is at various points on the track and then we can go through it with her and show how she can improve lap times.
She is fantastic and has been a great fit for the team. Knowing her demeanor prior to the season, gave me the confidence that she was the right pick. Ken Block has great respect for her as a driver. When they had identical Subaru cars, five or six years ago, she was quicker than him. She has the pace, she is just working on adapting.
The Rhys Millen Racing Hyundai Veloster is a purpose built racer that according to RedBull Global RallyCross rules must be adept at both paved and unpaved running. The course at Daytona is approximately 70-percent paved surface, which has drivers treating the car as though it’s a road racer. With between 550 and 600 horsepower coming from turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engines, the entire field ends up sounding like a hive of buzzing hornets. Using a bolt-in passenger’s seat, we had the chance to ride along in the actual racecar that Millen will compete with on Saturday’s race on the Speedway’s infield course.
Entering requires a degree of finesse (there’s that word again) lest you think welts on one’s head are a fashion statement. Better yet, we end up putting our helmets on before entering the car. Stepping over the roll cage and planting it into a carbon fiber seat shell in an interior devoid of any insulation is not for those prone to bouts of claustrophobia.
Launching during a heat finds Millen loading the clutch with throttle revved so high that it bumps up against the rev-limiter. The starter drops the flag and the Yokohama Advan racing tires spin off molecules of carbon at a furious clip to the point that an acrid smell permeates the less-than-adequately sealed cockpit. This car will never win an award for the “quietest interior on the road,” but that’s not its purpose.
We fly down the front straight with torque that is more akin to a ride in an NHRA Pro Stock drag racer than a car that’s based on a $16,000 three-door econobox. The pressure being felt is as though an elephant decided to use your chest as a living room sofa. The initial burst is over quickly followed by a tight turn through the hairpin. If there was a brief application of the brakes, we didn’t feel it, but no matter, because we are accelerating out of the turn like a delinquent taxpayer trying to stay one step ahead of the IRS.
The RedBull Veloster hurtles down the back straight, again with a velocity that would be more appropriate from one of the Audi R10 LMP cars that run on these same surfaces during the Tudor 24 hours of Daytona. And then we hurtle forward, restrained only by the shoulder harnesses as Millen applies a liberal dosage of brakes before making a squeaky right-hander onto the dirt portion of the track. At that point, it’s as though our life has gone from racing past our eyes, to lally-gagging in slo-mo. The dirt portion requires more finesse otherwise all traction will be lost.
For an added thrill, Millen grabs the handbrake that looks as though it was swiped from a San Francisco cable car and doles out a tail wagging that would make Vin Diesel proud. Back in a straight line, he accelerates smoothly up the dirt hill and launches the Veloster about four feet in the air. Sailing through the Daytona infield to the other side, we brace for the shock of the landing, of which there is surprisingly, none. It’s a scientific process: Head up the ramp too slow and the car tends to cross it with slow timing and a possibility of bogging down on the surface. Head up too fast, and the Veloster would possibly over-rotate, nosing down to make damaging the front end all the more likely. With just the right amount of speed, the RedBull car flies through the air, and lands on its rear wheels first, to continue on its way.
All in all, it is much better ride than what you’d find down the road at the Mouse House.
Photos by Mark Elias.