On Track Artistry – Sports Car Illustrated
It’s the type of car that gets you in trouble with the law…it is so responsive that you want to drive it hard. This car has some very good natural abilities in its production state. You can feel the road. You know it’s there. The speaker is Willy Lewis. The car is the BMW M3. In our unending quest to find out what cars will do when pushed to the limit, we enlisted the help of Lewis, a stock M3, Ray Korntan’s firehawk racing M3, arid Watkies Glen International Raceway. It took more than a little effort to pull all of those things together at the same time, but after several changes and many promises “not to do anything silly,” we found ourselves on a fine summer day at the legendary road course.
Watkins Glen is where it all began. If you are into sports car racing, then you know that the tiny up state town everyone calls The Glen gave birth to the Sports Car Club of America, to sports car (read foreign car) racing in America, and much of what we hold sacred about racing today.
After some very hard times, The Glen is back in a big way. The course is beautiful, and a perfect place for us to see just how much racing can improve the breed.
The folks at BMW made a street M3 available to us on the condition that we not completely destroy it in our little test. The bright red example they provided had 9000 miles on the clock and one of the strange maladies we have ever encountered in a car: a loose windscreen. The problem would manifest itself at speeds above 60mph by generating a strange hiss from the area of the dash.
At first it seemed to be coming from the radio, but persisted even with the radio turned off. The cure was discovered long before the cause. By cracking one of the side windows, the noise would go away. Lewis was the one who finally discovered the cause of the noise and wondered aloud if the entire windshield might not pop out at some point. We tried not to think about that for the rest of the test.
In all other ways, the street machine was just what any citizen can buy at the local BMW dealer for $35,000 cash money. For a complete road test of the M3, refer to the December 1987 issue of SCI. We will just touch on the salient points here. The car is the spear carrier of BMW’s attempt to get back to the performance market it abandoned in the seventies in favour of the Yuppie market. It is the 1988 version of the 2002tii. That is to say, a state of the art, nearly uncompromising road car that is as fun to drive as any sedan in the world. It will do virtually anything the driver asks of it with ease and restraint. It encourages its driver to push his own limits, but that driver will likely never approach the M3′s. For a capsule summary, refer to Willy Lewis’ quote at the beginning of this story.
Mr. Lewis knows about testing cars that are quite similar and finding the subtle difference. He probably holds more different single-marque titles than anyone around. In 1983, he won the Renault Cup against a zillion other folks in identical RS (Le Car) Renaults and the following year won the inaugural season of SCCA’s Sports Renault. In 1985 he missed repeating that championship by one point. For 1986 he proved that he could also drive formula cars by winning the Barber-Saab Championship. In all of these series, he proved he was the best when it came to running identical cars.
For this season Lewis and his sponsor (more about that in a minute) wanted to do a BMW program in the Firehawk (IMSA showroom stock) series. And if you are going to do a BMW program in showroom stock, who better to hook up with than Ray Korman.
Now understand, Lewis’ deal was not the usual beer or tire or oil or tobacco deal. Nope, ole Willy got himself linked up with an art gallery. Yeah, you know, like Picasso or Rembrandt or Da Vinci. Well, in this case, the connection happened to be Van Gogh. To be more precise, it was the Van Gogh painting Les Irisis, which sold last year for a record $53 million. That painting belonged to a friend of Willy’s, one John Payson. Payson owns galleries in Maine, Manhattan, and Florida. His business is selling works of art, and he felt that one way to reach an affluent audience of potential customers was through racing. While beer and oil and tire companies might want their name on a car, Payson had something more elaborate in mind. He commissioned one of the artists he deals with to design and execute an original graphic on the car. Then he also had a second car built and painted just for display in his galleries and at other shows. (For the very dedicated and observant BMW types in the crowd, we will tell you that the show car is not an M3, but a 325 that Korman’s shop converted to look like an M3. It is still a 325 under the skin.)
“The race car is conceptual art,” explained Payson. “It is art for the moment. They display car and the painting that goes with it (they are artistically one unit) are permanent art. And they are for sale as art objects if anyone is interested.”
If you have to ask, then you can’t….etc. Anyway, the going price is about $100,000. Remember, you are getting one of a kind here.
The artist who did the design, Gary Buch, says that the design is, “a very abstract representation of a tree over the car or a shadow of a tree over the car or a shadow of a tree with the leaves being ripped off the back.”
That’s very nice, Gary, but let’s leave the art to Connoisseur and get back to racing.
The main secret of the M3′s success, of course, is the 2.3 litre 16 valve four banger that pumps out 190+bhp in standard trim. That moves the 2700 pound car through sub-16 quarters and 7.5 second 0 to 60sprints. Those numbers are not all that impressive, but then Americans are the only people in the world who think standing start times are important. What the M3 does as well as nay car we have tested is respond. Between 40 and 90 on most roads, the M3 in standard trim will do its driver proud against any competition.
All of those qualities, unfortunately, add up to some serious problems for the M3 as a showroom stock race car. With the M3, BMW has done many of the things that racers would normally do to street cars to make them into showroom stock racers. The attention to detail, the assembly, the choice of springs and shocks, and a hundred other things have already been optimized by BMW. That means that preparing an M3 for showroom stock racing yields less improvement than with most cars.
Not to worry, however. If you are going to prepare and race BMWs, there is just one place to turn.
Ray Korman probably knows more about setting up and racing BMW showroom stock cars than anyone in the country. In 1986 he built and raced the only Sports class car to ever win overall at an IMSA Firehawk race. His 325e BMWs were the scourge of the Firehawk series whenever they raced. Korman cars won half the races and the series championship for BMW.
Korman began learning his BMW magic by working on an 1800ti at tracks in Bangkok, Singapore, Macau, and Kuala Lumpur when he was stationed in the Far East by the US Air Force. He also ran BMW’s with numbers like 2002tii, 320i and 325e. By the time he came face to face with M3 last year, he knew that he had his work cut out.
“The photo of the M3 that you’ve seen in the magazine ads where it’s lifting a front wheel shows you our problem. At speed in certain types of corners, the front would lift and air would get under the car. The car would understeer right off the track. We would have to go into the corner and then lift to make the front bite. Since the cars behind us didn’t know we were going to lift, we got hit more than once,” says Korman.
“Also, the brakes got very hot. They would work very well, but build up to 1600 to 1800 degrees. Last year we did more with brakes than in all the previous 20 years I have been running BMWs. The brakes were an utter disaster on street courses. John (Andretti) virtually destroyed a car when he hit the wall at Columbus.”
So Ray and his people went to work on the suspension and the brakes. They spent a lot of time getting the proper sway bars and shocks. Both are adjustable: the bars are from Korman, the shocks from Bilstein. The IMSA rules allow negative camber, which is added to M3 by cutting slots in the tops of the mounting towers to lean the shocks inwards. Those changes were just hard work and lots of time.
“The brakes,” says Ray, “are a super secret.”
He will be happy to sell you all of his special pads you’d like to have, but they are outrageously expensive because to make them he has to buy new BMW pads and scrape all of the pad off the backing plate and then mold the new material onto those plates. That means you have the price of a set of pads before he ever begins working his magic.
To make them work right, however, you will need a set of special wheels (at nearly $300 a pop), and guess where you get the wheels? Right again, BMW fans. Korman had the wheels specially made in Japan and had to buy lots of them, so he has a good supply. They are built to extract air from around the brakes so that more cooling air can be pulled from the back. After all, 1600 degrees is not the optimal temperature for brakes running a 24 hour race.
“We don’t get any major horsepower improvements out of the engine. BMW builds these cars very carefully. But we go through the engine and make certain that it is right,” Korman says.
“You don’t get to make many changes, so you have to be certain that you are getting 100percent out of the changes you do make.”
Ray says that if an M3 is brought to his shop, it will cost something like $9000 in parts and $9000 in labour to create a competitive Firehawk M3. Oh, and be sure the radio is wired completely separately. “The first time we went out (with the radio installed) and keyed the mike, the engine quit.”
So what does all this R&D and test time and money yield?
A car that is surprisingly like the street car. We have tested several showroom stock cars against their street-going counterparts and found most of them to be completely different beast than their stock brethem. The Korman M3 is clearly a racing car, but most of the personality that BMW built into the street machine is still there.
As we cruised the track at Watkins Glen, the most noticeable difference between the two cars was the noise. The Firehawk car has no muffler or catalytic converter, so it tends to be loud, as in 16 valve 200-plus horsepower loud.
Lewis puts it like this: “The street car seems much less powerful. When you are doing 6500 in the Firehawk car, you can really hear it. The street car is much quieter. Both cars are flat off the line unless you want to use the clutch to come up. The engine doesn’t come on until about 3500, then you start feeling the powerband. At 4500 you can ask the throttle to do anything it will. But the cars are more alike than different.”
As Willy pushed a bit, it was clear that the street car was outclassed. It did not have the cornering power at the limits of the Firehawk machine. At first, both cars could stop about equally, but that did not last.
“The street car is so good that you almost forget that it is not a race car. As I came down through the horseshoe, I thought I was driving the race car, until we got right near the limit. Then it feels like you have lots of understeer, but what really happens is the front end starts to come up. It feels like you could throw the back end out, but if you apply power, it just goes strait. You have to fight your instincts, lift, and let the front end bite again.
“Now, on a loose surface that problem doesn’t come up. Probably because you don’t have such high speeds. We went out on a gravel road, and it was easy to induce all the oversteer we wanted. You can really drive the car with the throttle if you want to, especially on gravel.
“The M3 has all the brakes that anyone would ever need on the road, but on track I could feel them starting to beg for mercy. It’s a credit to Ray that he has overcome these shortcomings for the race car. The only thing the Firehawk M3 lacks is cubic inches. To go as fast as Camaros, you have to draft them on the straights. We used to eat them in the corners, but they have new suspensions and brakes and our work is even harder.”
A good time on the long course at The Glen for the street car was a 2:25 (83mph), “a real scary 25. The front end starts to lift and the brakes start to fade by the end of the second or third corner,” says Lewis. “It wouldn’t make a difference for one or two laps, but after that…”
Two years ago, a 2:25 would have put the M3 near the pole, but the times they are a-changing. In serious practice and qualifying, the Firehawk M3 turns laps as quick as 2:20.
“Remember what we are doing here,” said Lewis. “We are pressing these cars right to the absolute limits. On an expressway, 100mph is white knuckle time, and we are going a lot faster than that here. I remember at Sebring I had to brace the steering wheel with my knee to plug in my helmet radio. I happened to look down at the speedometer and we were going 122mph. And there we are saying that a street car exhibits some understeer as 85 under severe loads in a tight corner at the very limits. This is a very good street car. Believe me, I would much rather drive it every day than I would the race car. The M3 is a car that is easy for good drivers to fall in love with.”
The conditions of our test precluded a wheel-to-wheel race, which would have proven very little anyway. After all, the street car had neither a roll cage or shaved tires, and its full exhaust system was just another of its many performance handicaps.
Even in the short stretches of The Glen where the two cars were side by side, the Firehawk car was clearly better. It stuck better, leaned less, tracked more certainly, and had more power at al speeds. It could go into the corners deeper, hold a tighter line, and carry more speed into the straight.
But I have to say that when it came time to go home, I’m glad that the car I drove the 250miles back to BMW was the little red M3. The only thing I avoided all the way back was the expressway. If you are going to drive this little car, find an endless trip of twisty asphalt and keep the revs up high.