They say you should never meet your heroes. But when your hero happens to be an inanimate object such as a race car, there’s less room for disappointment. It was that philosophy that led me to accept the invitation to the debut of BMW‘s Z4 GTE race car. When I skimmed the lengthy email, my eyes locked onto three key phrases: “Ride-along,” “Daytona International Speedway,” and “1975 BMW 3.0 CSL.” If that weren’t exciting enough, the rest of the itinerary included seeing other famous BMW race cars and a number of accomplished drivers. It was decided: I was going to meet a few of my heroes.
The primary focus of this trip was the BMW Z4 GTE, which replaces the M3 GT in the 2013 American Le Mans Series. As a fan of the M3s since their arrival in ALMS in 2009, I was excited to see the GT class champs in the sheetmetal for the first time. The factory-backed E92 M3s campaigned by team Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan won team championships in class in 2010 and 2011, and dominated the GT field in their heyday.
The first thing you notice when you arrive at Daytona are its massive grandstands, with their thousands of multi-colored seats. I also couldn’t help but notice that the 3.0 CSL was disappointingly out of commission, placed on display in front of the trailer. The crankshaft had failed a few weeks earlier, leaving the vintage racer without an engine for this event. After all, when you have a nearly 40-year-old race car as rare as the 3.0 CSL, you can’t simply call and order a new crankshaft. But even if I couldn’t take a ride in the car I fell in love with so many years ago, I could still got closer to it than most have been allowed, soaking in its wonderfully boxy fender flares, enormous vents and brake ducts, and bookshelf-like rear wing.
Luckily, BMW had plenty of consolation prizes waiting in the pits. After suiting up in my official-looking BMW Motorsport fire suit and helmet, I hopped in the 1993 BMW M5 IMSA Supercar with David Donohue, son of famed race car driver Mark Donohue and an accomplished racer in his own right. David won the GT2 class at Le Mans in 1998 and took home the overall win at Daytona in 2009, almost exactly 40 years after his father won there. The M5 had the most difficult ingress and egress of all the race cars present that day, as a portion of the steel roll cage blocked the passenger door. To get in, I had to lift my leg over the bars, then grab hold of something for support. With one leg in the footwell, I had to maneuver the other leg over while seated, which, if you’re as inflexible as I am, is no easy task.
Once I was all the way in and buckled into the harness, Donohue fired up the engine and merged out of pit lane. Acceleration was considerable, but not anywhere near as quick as I imagined it would be. In the turns, you could feel the faintest hint of body roll (which was a lot compared to the newer GT2 cars) but otherwise the M5 tackled the corners smoothly. The track was set up in the same configuration used in the 24 Hours of Daytona and other road course races, with portions of the 32-degree banked oval serving as turns seven and 12. When the car started to get perpendicular to the ground below, I couldn’t help but smile.
Feeling fine after my ride in the M5, I immediately hopped into the passenger seat of the E92 M3 GT. This car was noticeably quicker than the M5, but most noticeable were the vibrations coming through the floor that tickled my feet, along with the piercing shriek of the M3’s 4.0-liter V-8 at wide open throttle. The biggest shock, though, came in the middle of the back straight. When I was in the M5, the chicane interrupting what would otherwise be a ludicrous-speed straightaway didn’t feel much different from any other turn. After riding in the M3, I now know why that turn is nicknamed “the bus stop.” I had never been so aware of the positions of my internal organs until I experienced hard braking in an M3 race car. In the span of a couple seconds, we went from triple-digit speeds to what felt like a near-standstill, but in fact, we were still moving pretty fast, now through the chicane and back on the power. After an endless pummeling of g-forces, my body was ready for the ride to be over. It just goes to show you how physically fit race car drivers need to be in order to take that kind of punishment for multiple hours at a time. I’ll stick to writing, I guess.
There were more than 20 journalists in attendance and not many fire suits to go around, so I only got in two cars that day. After the ride in the GT2-class car, I needed a break anyway. The other cars there included the 1998 Daytona-winning BMW PTG E36 M3 and legendary V-8-powered 2001-2006 BMW E46 M3 GTR. Both cars looked and sounded amazing in person, and even without stepping foot in the cabin, I could tell they were incredible machines.
On this trip, I got to ride shotgun with racing champions and get up close and personal with some of my favorite cars. At end of the day, I still idolized all of them. Sometimes meeting your heroes turns out to be everything you’d imagined.
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