In 1986, the sub-$5000, uber-econo Excel defined Hyundai in America. The brand, with its only U.S. model boasting a 68hp engine and taupe interior, did the company well, appealing mostly to telemarketers, librarians, and data-entry clerks. To everyone else, it was the company with the car with the 68hp engine and taupe interior. It was not the brand of racing victories.
Hyundai’s no longer the data-entry clerk’s car company, in part, because of models like the Genesis coupe. The brand’s economically viable roots aren’t lost on the 306hp and rear-wheel drive two-door, but the car’s performance endowments are far more exciting than comparing MSRPs against cars like Nissan’s 350Z, for example, and have much to do with its being a part of last season’s Nitto Tires USTCC (United States Touring Car Championship) win.
Veteran club racer-turned pro Ali Arsham, who was a part of all of this, knows about everything that makes the Genesis coupe so special, like its factory-appointed Brembo brakes, snickety six-speed gearbox, and Torsen-type limited-slip differential, but he wasn’t necessarily ready to trade up race cars for the first-generation Korean coupe. “At first I was skeptical,” he says about the moments leading up to his time driving the then new car at a Hyundai press junket. “After a few minutes, I was in love.”
It’s just as well, too, because it’s Hyundai’s reliability and technical advantages, Arsham says, that led to his and team GoGoRacing’s finishing every race its first year followed by a podium finish and, ultimately, that championship win.
Championship wins don’t come easy for brand-new race cars, though. In 2010, Hyundai’s Genesis was unprecedented. It followed in the footsteps of no other chassis, which means its engine, drivetrain, suspension, and brakes had all yet to be experimented with, let alone improved upon. “It had no history,” Arsham says. “And there aren’t any companies that are Hyundai specialists in the U.S. that I know of, so the entire process was difficult.”
Difficult as in not knowing what the limits of the factory 3.8L V6 were, the capabilities of the suspension and brakes, or anything else for that matter. “A mistake that many people make is trying too hard to make the car faster at the start at the risk of damaging components,” Arsham says. “With very little knowledge of the car, we approached things the opposite way.”
Carefully and conservatively is what he means, and is exactly what led to GoGoGear’s Genesis remaining on the track while its competition was often left stranded. Weak points were recognized and addressed soon enough, like the limited-slip differential or the front brakes that prove sufficient for nearly any purpose other than attempting to secure a USTCC championship. The most important improvements were made underneath the chassis with three-way JRZ dampers, Swift springs, and QA1 Motorsports bushings throughout. The engine was left relatively untouched—a staple of the USTCC road racing series—instead benefitting only from an AEM Series 2 engine management system and intake as well as ARK Performance exhaust headers that terminate into a MagnaFlow exhaust system. Aside from fabricating the roll cage and engine tuning, the GoGoTeam handled most of the modifications themselves.
Knowing what to do to make the car better and getting it done was easy compared to finding anybody with any sort of experience to make that happen. “Of course a Porsche is going to be good,” Arsham says about cars like the 911. “Trying to make an inexpensive car [better] is very difficult,” a trait he says Hyundai is performing exceedingly well at, and “embarrassing other manufacturers” while doing it.
Arsham and company’s goal their first year competing in the USTCC was to simply finish every race. Done. The following year they set out to land in the top 10. They placed eighth. For year three the team had its sights set on the podium, but an on-track altercation because of another driver bagged them fourth. The following season resulted in veteran driver Gary Sheehan joining the team who lent his expertise to the Genesis, recommending incremental changes that helped lead to a championship. “Gary was amazing when it came to analyzing the car’s performance,” Arsham says about the minute toe and camber changes he’d implemented. “We would start out pretty quick in the first practice session, and in every succeeding session the car would be faster.” All of which led to the 2014 victory that culminated at Northern California’s Thunderhill Raceway.
Hyundai’s come a long way since that first Excel. And like Hyundai, Arsham doesn’t intend on resting on his laurels. Improvements are still being made, albeit small ones, which together will result in better aerodynamics and an even more finessed suspension. A USTCC championship repeat hasn’t happened since 2009. Arsham says the motorsports world’s due for another.
Words by Aaron Bonk