WOLFSBURG, Germany – Volkswagen AG hasn’t raced in its first Baja 1000 yet, but it already is promising to do better the next time around.

Motorsports Director Kris Nissen is realistic about the auto maker’s chances in its first go-around at the Baja 1000 race next month but vows 2009 will be a different story.

VW will unveil its specially built Touareg TDI Baja racer at the Los Angeles auto show Nov. 19 before heading off for the Nov. 20-23 event, which starts and finishes in Ensenada, Mexico.

The racecar is powered by the same 5.5L V-12 turbodiesel used in the Audi R10 Le Mans racecar. It generates 550 hp and 627 lb.-ft. (850 Nm) of torque in the 4,850 -lb. (2,200-kg) Touareg.

“We don’t expect to win the first race,” Nissen says here at a media backgrounder on VW’s expansive racing program. “It’s a new vehicle, with rear-wheel drive; a heavier vehicle.

“We’ll do our best to finish the race, then work hard in the winter – and I promise we’ll be a winner in 2009. Our goal is to go to the 2009 Baja 1000 next November and have a good feeling we can win the race.”

Although it is outspent on racing by sister Audi AG, Nissen says he believes VW has built over the past four decades the auto industry’s most expansive racing program.

In addition to this year’s entry in the Baja 1000, VW races in the Dakar Rally Series, 24-Hours of Nurburgring, the Formula 3 Euro Series and the Formula ADAC Masters.

It also operates its own racing circuits, such as the Polo Cup in Germany and Jetta TDI Cup in the U.S., in eight countries worldwide and is looking to continue expanding into new markets.

“Our goal is to have national cups in as many countries as possible,” Nissen says. “Our goal is to add one new country a year.”

The Cup programs give young drivers a chance to race VW-provided vehicles at relatively low investment costs.

In the U.S., for example, racers pay $35,000 per season, with VW providing the track-prepped Jetta TDI sedans, maintenance and training. Drivers are responsible only for their helmets and travel expenses. The season’s winner gets $100,000, but that is hiked to $150,000 if he is signed to a professional contract within six months of the final race.

Next year’s Jetta TDI Cup already has drawn interest from more than 1,000 potential drivers, and VW has yet to officially solicit applications. The eventual list will be culled to 100 who will be invited to a Sonoma, CA, track to select the circuit’s 30 drivers. These will be judged not only on their driving abilities but also for their media-friendly skills and how well they would handle other off-track duties.

For now, VW is getting ready for the Dakar Rally, which Nissen says is the auto maker’s No.1 racing program. Slated for Jan. 3-18, the 5,600-mile (9,000-km) race starts and ends in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with about 90% of it run over sandy terrain and under the most extreme conditions.

VW is entering the race with the Touareg 2, powered by a 5-cyl. turbodiesel generating 280 hp and 443 lb.-ft. (600 Nm) of torque. It features a 5-speed manual transmission and permanent 4-wheel drive.

Two similar Touaregs competed in VW’s first foray in Baja in 2007, finishing a surprising 11th and 16th overall in the 500-mile (805-km) Baja 500.

Weighing in at 3,942 lbs. (1,788 kg), the Dakar-bound Touareg 2 can hit 62 mph (100 km/h) from a standstill in 6.9 seconds and has a maximum speed of 118 mph (190 km/h).

“This is the hardest race on people and technology,” Nissen says. “It’s absolutely incredible.”

Participating gives VW the chance to prove its mettle in front of some 600 million people who watch the race worldwide, he says.

dzoia@wardsauto.com