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Driving BMW's Killer Historic Race Cars Is a Flat-Out High

a red race car on a track
Driving Historic BMW Race Cars is a Flat-Out HighHoratiu Boeriu @BMWBLOG

I'm blazing down Homestead-Miami Speedway's front straight in a BMW M8 GTE race car, chasing factory driver Bill Auberlen, who's in a BMW M3 GT race car—and I can't catch him though I'm in the far faster car. That's not surprising; Auberlen has been a BMW factory race driver for 28 years and has amassed 65 International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) wins, more than any other driver. He hurls the M3 racer off the banked front straight into Turn 1 at about 130 mph, but I don't dare do that in the M8, not after a handful of laps—probably not after a lifetime of laps. I'm not going to be the guy who balls up a famous race car that BMW hopes to sell soon for seven figures.

I brush the brakes. This is insane. Wonderful. Crazy. What the hell am I doing strapped into this missile? Finding out what it's like out there, in the very best way.

We all want to know what our sports heroes are experiencing on the playing field. As a gonzo racing geek, here I am with a chance to see what it's like behind the wheel of a car that has competed and won at Daytona, Road Atlanta, and Virginia International Raceway at the highest echelon of sports-car competition in the hands of top pros like Auberlen. Pinch me twice. This is heaven.

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BMW brought six retired race cars to Homestead to participate in Targa 66, a laid-back vintage race-car track event that former race driver Brian Redman has put on for more than 30 years.

Hunkered down in the BMW garages located along Homestead's pit road are two M8 GTE race cars that competed in IMSA's then-top sports-car class, Grand Touring Le Mans (GTLM), from 2018 to 2021. They were campaigned by the Rahal Letterman Lanigan race team (yes, that Rahal and that Letterman).

One stall over is a trio of pristine M3-based GT race cars, an E46 that last raced in 2006 and two E92-generation racers—one of which won IMSA's 2011 GT class championship in the American Le Mans Series. Auberlen will drive one of the E92s and serve as our rabbit, tracing the racing line around Homestead's road course for me at high speed while I attempt to keep up. Lastly, BMW brought a sweet restoration of one of the company's most important early race cars, a 1971 2002ti originally built and run by Alpina.

You know you're in the big time when it takes a village to get a race car running. BMW Motorsport has a full crew attending to the cars, and they're busy prepping, changing tires, warming engines. After a dozen familiarization laps in a 543-hp M3 CS street car—an impressive track weapon itself—I climb into one of the E92 M3 GT racers and do my best to follow Auberlen in the sister car. From 20 feet away, these E92s look like stock M3s with fender flares and Cessna-sized rear wings, but pretty much everything in front of and behind the cabin is cut away and purpose-built for competition. Most body panels are carbon fiber. These rear-drivers even have rear six-speed Xtrac manual transaxles, something the street version never had.

The half-dozen laps I'm allowed go by in a flash, the 475-hp, flat-plane-crank, 4.0-liter V-8's exhaust blaring an ear-splitting, concussive howl as it passes north of 7500 rpm. I barely have time to get the feel of the manual brakes (no ABS and amazingly responsive), the paddle-shifted manual transmission (gearchanges in an eye blink), or the massive cornering limits (is this thing on a tether?) before we're back in the pits. I love this car! It's approachable rather than intimidating, and I wish I had 100 laps to make friends with it. But that's okay, because the main course is yet to come.

The M8 GTE is from the recent era of ultra-high-downforce GT racing cars. Engineered and built by BMW Motorsport in Germany, it represented the latest aerodynamic and technical knowledge allowed in 2018 under GTLM rules. It has a huge ground-effects diffuser under its tail to suck it down onto the track. Its engine, a twin-turbo 4.0-liter flat-plane-crank V-8, bears only a passing resemblance to the production-car engine it's related to. It can make up to 600 horsepower, and it's built to internal tolerances so tight that its coolant must be prewarmed before it can be started—like an F1 engine. Like the M3 GTs, it's rear-wheel drive.

the inside of a car
Rich Ceppos - Car and Driver

This isn't a car; it's a space capsule with wheels. Buttons and switches and screens are scattered everywhere in the cabin. The steering yoke is peppered with controls for adjusting engine power and traction-control intervention, traction-control wheelslip level—stability control is not allowed—the pit speed limiter, wipers, and a dozen other parameters that I couldn't hope to remember, let alone mess with in the two six-lap sessions I'll get.

But what laps those are. While the M8 GTE is built to different rules than the M3 racers, it has a lot in common with them in terms of feel. It's loud and hot inside; the onboard A/C doesn't seem to be working. The power setting is in the Map 4 position, 550 horsepower, but like the E92, it doesn't feel as fast in a straight line as I expected—that is, until I get to the braking zones, where the corners come rushing at me like a video on fast-forward. I'll see from the onboard data acquisition system afterwards that I could have nailed the non-ABS brakes much, much later. The grip is astounding, the steering so communicative, and the car so stable I can push the front tires until they slide in the slow corners; even in my inexperienced hands, the GTE cornered at 1.5 g's. The stability control is set to intervene aggressively and feels like it's bogging the car down when I go to full throttle to blast out of those tight bends. Even after just a dozen laps, the M8 is so confidence-inspiring that I start exploring going a little deeper into the two fastest corners. Wow.

bmw m3
From its plexiglass windows to its rear-mounted transaxle, the E92 M3 GT racer that won IMSA.Rich Ceppos - Car and Driver

Then it's over, and I hop into the E92 M3 GT race car Auberlen has been pacing me with and cajole him to take me for some flat-out laps. Now I see how he could pull away from the faster M8 GTE. He's all over this thing, steering like a madman, banging the sequential shifter handle—this one lacks the steering wheel paddles—so fast his hand is blurry. IMSA star Jordan Taylor has said that braking is what separates out the best drivers, and Auberlen shows why. One second he's on the binders brutally hard and impossibly late, and the next second we're corning so hard I'm straining to hold my head up. There's no time lost between slowing and turning, no obvious transition. How's that possible? I'm wrung out just riding with him for 10 laps, but Auberlen says, "I love this car, I could do this all day."

So that's how the pros do it. As in all sports, those who make their living playing at the highest level are capable of things the rest of us aren't, and driving these Bimmer racers has made that exquisitely clear. It's also reminded me once again of the intense, unwavering focus this sport requires. There's no room in your brain for anything else, not the mortgage payments or last night's baseball score or why your significant other was in a bad mood this morning. Let a stray thought waft in, and you might crash. It's a zenlike mind space, a psychic vacuuming out, a freeing release from everything else in the world—and at the same time so exciting that your every synapse seems to be firing.

I've driven my share of race cars, but the M8 GTE is something else. Climbing out of its cockpit, I felt giddy, energized, high. Yeah, that's what it's like out there. And what it's like out there is pretty freaking amazing.

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