Drive Your Heroes: An E30 M3 Race Car on Track is a Wonderful Thing

Getting emotional. It’s just a thing that happens now. Maybe it’s my age, my brain, or some medication. But in some moments, my eyes get a little wet. This life is better than I deserve, and I don’t know why I have it. My superstition is if I don’t acknowledge it, embrace it and be grateful for it, it will all be taken from me.

So I embrace this moment. I smile and I silently offer my gratitude to the powers that be. Then hurl the white coupe into Buttonwillow’s “Riverside” turn coming from Dogleg. The car is deep into 5th gear moving at a speed that would give me pause even in a newer sports sedan, but this E30 M3 doesn’t flinch. It actually seems to want more. It’s not on rails, but it is planted. Small, constant feedbacks emanates from the steering wheel. I turn back to the left, adding a touch of brakes for “Phil Hill.” 

bmw e30 m3 on track

The car is a BMW E30 M3. A track prepped masterpiece from the racing minds at Bayerische Motoren Werke to battle in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Meisterschaft. If you have read this far, you probably know the story. If you don’t, much has been written on this limited production model and even more written on that series by researchers and storytellers who are far more talented. In either case, to gain a sense of where my mind was, just watch this video.  

Cresting Buttonwillow’s artificial elevation change, the car is weightless for a brief moment, drifting a hair to the left, exactly where I wanted it. Then it settles and I’m back on the throttle, left onto Dragstrip, all gas, then full brakes, grab 4th gear, and let the car take a set into “Sweeper.”

It’s not my car, and I am not here for a polished, entertaining history video from a great presenter and a separate SCCA Hall of Famer (watch that video later.) No, this drive is a favor from some racing friends. One of them, Mark, is right behind me in a Spec E46 we raced at the 25 Hours of Thunderhill.

bmw e30 m3 on track

Now, I’m flying into the Esses. For DTM competitors of the era, if the surface was paved, they raced on it. Nose to tail, drivers would bounce inches from each other, over curbs and gators. They gave no quarter in the suspension or to the competition. Those race cars, like this one, are completely analog, with no traction aids, the drivers making dozens of minor inputs to hold the car on the ragged edge in each corner.

Well, Mark was back there. I put some distance on him. Through the esses, I shift into 5th and keep full throttle until the late brake marker for “Sunset.” Down to 4th, point the nose and roll the gas onto the straight.

I assure you, it’s the car, not me. This example is a 1988 BMW M3, powered by the 2.5-liter inline 4 cylinder motor. This dual cam revs to a full 7,200 RPMs. It is glorious, despite having nowhere near the torque of the same generation 6, but all of the smoothness. It is just as rev-happy as any modern Japanese performance power plant. This version has no modifications. Essentially it’s stock, but sorted by one of the best independent BMW shops on the west coast; La Jolla Independent BMW Service just outside San Diego. 

bmw e30 m3 on track

Between me and my host in the E46, a Lotus 2-Eleven appears. It caught the 4 door, was pointed by, and is closing on me as we barrel down the front straight. This is not a race, it is an instructor track session. We’re not battling door to door, but I do have my pride.

With less than 200 HP, this Bimmer is so much faster than it has a right to be. Fully caged, this is not a street car by a long shot. The chassis itself is also nothing unusual. But every adjustment was made with the precision of a mastermind who also built one of the best vintage race BMW 2002s in the US. He also is the one who prepared our roasted lamb dinner the night prior and amazing duck breakfast tacos. Karl is a renaissance man by every definition. 

The Lotus is a factory track special. It doesn’t even have a windshield. The supercharged, twin-cam Toyota 2ZZ-GE has 50 more horses and is around 1,000 lbs lighter. As he starts to close the distance, I am settling into the car. Into “Sunrise” with just the slightest tap of the brakes. The rear comes a few degrees out but the car glides perfectly through the corner, regaining full traction right at the exit. Hard throttle toward the next turn; “On Ramp.”

For reasons I cannot fathom, Karl has allowed me to hustle around the full Buttonwillow outside course. It’s the Vintage Auto Racing Associations’ annual racing school, VARA U it’s called. I have been instructing in this car and the aforementioned E46 all weekend. My students are as different as the cars they are driving. Sarah, Karl’s daughter, and my student in the E30 M3 performed a manual transmission swap on her first car before she had a license. She still has that E30 and several other eclectic Bavarian machines. A gifted wrench with experience hidden by her youthful appearance. She has no ego, gobs of mechanical sympathy, and her inputs are silk. To get her to pass another car, even with a point by, takes some prodding. Not for a lack of talent, which she has in spades, but because she doesn’t want to ruin anyone’s lap. 

I have kept the 2 Eleven at bay through the turns and into “Cotton Corners.” 5th gear, brake, down to 4th, then 3rd, 90 degree right, breathe, hard left. A glance at the flag station, unwind the wheel, then up and over the hill. 4th gear into “Grapevine” and another full steam launch down the back straight, 5th gear and the Bimmer shows it Autobahn breeding. By the time the Riverside turn arrives again, I am almost at max velocity. The Lotus has gained nothing on the larger, older coupe. The launch out of the last corner keeps the distance between us.

On this lap, the wet eyes are replaced by a smirk. The M3 seems to have its pride as well. For the remainder of the session, the 2 Eleven doesn’t get much closer. This E30 is a ninja, holding speed where lesser machines would shed it. It doesn’t stick like glue, but slides predictably, regaining grip at the textbook exit of each corner. Time slows and I become engrossed with each nuanced sensation; tiny twitches in the wheel, the satisfying notch of an upshift, the gas pedal under the edge of my foot as I sidestep to match revs for a downshift. The airflow under my slightly open visor smells of the hot, dusty track. These all become part of the memory. A memory of what may be the greatest moment I have ever had on a race track.

bmw e30 m3 on track

No, I don’t deserve this experience. I don’t know why I got this life, my friends, or a wife who tolerates me and this nonsense. But I am immeasurably grateful. Thank you, Karl, for trusting me, thank you Sarah for letting me drive, thank you Mark for making me part of the team.  

Finally, thank you dear reader for taking the trip with me. 

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