Decades ago, the clever German engineers at BMW
discovered a way to get sports car people to fall in love
with a fairly upright and boxy sedan: They made it
seriously fun. They perfected the formula in the early 1980s
with the E30-chassis BMW 3 Series, which married a torquey
and willing inline-six engine with rear-wheel drive, a perfect
front-to-rear balance, an athletic suspension, handsome styling,
everyday utility, and a raft of other adjective/noun pairings,
almost all of them good.
The Germans are not afraid to stick with what works, and
for several decades the 3 Series has merely evolved, changing in
minor ways to suit the times without losing the basic ingredients
that make it such a joy on the road. None of us wants to live
in a world where BMW gets the 3 Series wrong.
At a certain point in their depreciation curve on the used
market, cars like the 3 Series hit a sweet spot where club-level
racers start to wonder if they have what it takes to populate a
successful racing class on their own. So-called spec racing is
popular because it maximizes the competitive aspects and keeps
costs down by mandating reasonably priced upgrades and banning
pie-in-the-sky spending on go-fast goodies.
Each generation of BMW 3 series sold well when new, so
there are plenty of them on today’s used market. Plentiful
production numbers also mean that spare parts can be found
at junkyards and local auto parts stores with relative ease.
These cars have always been a favorite of enthusiasts, so
there’s a robust selection of upgrade components from
various aftermarket companies, which makes prices competitive.
It’s no surprise that each generation of 3 Series
has had the opportunity to become the star of its own
spec series on the American racing scene.
GRM has covered BMW spec racing since its inception,
and we even campaigned our own SpecE30 project car
a number of years ago with NASA. SpecE30 has been a
huge success, but it’s hard to ignore the feeling that there’s
a tectonic shifting of the plates beneath the world of BMW
spec racing. Those ’80s-era, E30-chassis BMWs aren’t getting
any younger, and as newer 3 Series have depreciated,
more BMW spec classes have joined the fold.
Each 3 Series generation has an interior that was appropriate
for its time, but a funny thing happens when you
tear out all the bits and pieces to transform one of these
into a race car: With nothing but a steering wheel, three
pedals, a shifter and a race seat, the differences between
the E30, E36 and E46 models of BMW’s 3 Series become
far less pronounced.
They’re all fantastic track machines, but history tells
us that only one of these classes will rise to the top. Will
SpecE30 continue its reign despite its age? Can the Spec3
class for the E36-chassis cars find its footing? Is it too
soon for Spec E46?
To reacquaint ourselves with what’s out there, we
invited representatives from each type of 3 Series spec
racer BMW to Summit Point Raceway in West Virginia
for a bit of back-to-back investigation. Our hosts for the
weekend were American Endurance Racing, and they
were more than accommodating during their Friday
test-and-tune session before qualifying. In fact, the
entire morning was a continuous open-track event that
afforded us hassle-free access to the track in a terrific,
AER racers are required to run on today’s crop of
super-sticky street tires, and two of our spec racers were
wearing non-spec rubber, but we’ve found that they’re
not far off from the spec-standard race tires of just a few
years ago. Our only regret was that a scheduling conflict
that prevented us from participating in AER’s awesome
Hitting the track in a SpecE30 is like meeting up
with an old high school buddy after a long stretch
apart and instantly resuming a comfortable conversational
rhythm. It’s the absolute baseline for a racing
sedan, with the tall-box advantage of great visibility
in all directions thanks to the big windows and
Power delivery from the tried-and-true M20-spec
straight-six is satisfying and smooth, but far from crazy.
It’s not slow, but you’d be hard pressed to declare
a SpecE30 “fast” these days. The engine runs out
of steam right near redline, and the gearing seems
fairly tall with ratios that are widely spaced by modern
standards. The linear torque delivery means it’s super-easy
to keep slip angles in check through the turns. All
SpecE30s run the mandatory, and inexpensive (about
$200 shipped), exhaust system from Poore Sports.
In the corners it’s very easy to put a SpecE30
exactly where you want. The rules mandate Bilstein
Sport dampers and H&R Race Springs that enhance
the car’s athleticism without making it overly stiff. The
series also permits 22mm front and 19mm rear antiroll
bars of the non-adjustable variety, so body roll is
plenty controlled with just 2700 pounds to manage.
There’s a playful amount of squirm and slip at the
limit, but no surprises.
The SpecE30 is a very mechanical feeling car. Its
computerized systems, like the engine management
and ABS, are vintage enough that you can almost
sense the extra time it takes them to think out their
next step. Cars have come a long way since the
1980s, so while the E30 was once the class of the
world, the bar edges ever upward.
The brakes on our test car felt a little soft, but the
pedal still had enough force to lock up the calipers
if needed. The rules dictate OEM-style brake discs
and calipers, so pads and fluid are the only avenues
to get more bite. The smallish 10.24-inch front discs
mean that cooling can be an issue at certain tracks,
too. It’s not a dire problem, however, and the rules
allow for 3-inch ducts from the openings in the front
valence below the bumper.
Thanks to its light weight, excellent dynamics,
reliable drivetrain and rugged chassis, the SpecE30
makes a fun race car. Age and abundance make it
super affordable, too, with turnkey racers available
in the neighborhood of $10K, and plenty of cheaper
project cars out there waiting to find a motivated
builder to turn them into a track beast. At 30 years
and counting, however, how long will it be before this
model makes more sense as a vintage racer than a
contemporary spec series?
Final thought: There’s no doubt that SpecE30
set the standard for BMW spec racing in our scene,
enjoying large fields and great competition for more
than a decade. These cars have been carrying the
torch for a long time, though, so it seems like a
handoff in the coming years is inevitable.
If the SpecE30 is the perfect baseline for this type
of racing, then the Spec3 is a baseline with every
dial turned up just a tick or two. The slightly more
powerful M50B25 inline six has the same sewing machine
feel as its predecessor, with willing revs and
a wonderfully flat torque curve. The E36 weighs a
bit more than the E30, so the power-to-weight ratios
are similar (16.07 lbs./hp for the E30, 15.19 lbs./hp
for the E36). Our maximum speed into Turn 1 wasn’t
dramatically higher in the Spec3, but the handling–
bolstered by a set of series-correct R-compound tires–
was a definite step up. Current lap records show the
Spec3 a few ticks quicker than the SpecE30 around
VIR Full, but the E30 still has a slight edge around
Spec3 rules call for a suspension setup with Vorshlag
Motorsports camber plates, BMW M3 control arms
and bushings, Koni dampers, Vogtland Race Springs
and Eibach anti-roll bars. If you feel that mandated
parts are a limitation on your creativity, this series
might not be for you, but keep in mind that such
rules are the heart of spec racing. The fewer choices
the competitors have, the fewer money-sapping arms
races that develop in the search for parts yielding faster
lap times. With everyone on the same page modification-
wise, it’s up to the driver to find those extra
tenths on track.
To keep costs down, Spec3 organizers decided to
stick with a smallish 15x7-inch wheel for the class.
This allows racers to run the mandated Toyo Proxes
race tires in the readily available and inexpensive
225/50R15 size. The extra 20mm of tread width over
the SpecE30 tire gives the car a noticeable bump in
grip through the corners, but again, it’s just a few
ticks, nothing too dramatic.
Unlike SpecE30, where the brake pad rules are
open, all Spec3 cars must run one of two specific
compounds of Hawk pads. The discs must also
remain stock in size, with 11.26-inchers up front,
though fancier rotors with cross-drilling or slots are
permitted. The Spec3’s slightly larger rotors do offer
a touch more confidence at the end of the straights.
The gear ratios in the Spec3 meant we were able
to get out of fourth and into fifth partway down the
main straight. Fourth gear ran out of steam just a
bit before we wanted it to, but the power drop-off at
high revs is as good a shift reminder as any.
Like SpecE30, Spec3 rules permit the factory
limited-slip differential. Compliance is tested with a
torque wrench and a 30mm socket, and the diff must
breakaway at or before 70 lb.-ft. to be ruled legal.
Final thought: Visibility out of the Spec3 is absolutely
panoramic, and the confidence gained by
superb situational awareness of the car’s surroundings
should not be underemphasized. When you can
see, you feel more comfortable pushing the limits.
This is generally true for sedan racers, but we really
noticed it in the E36, even more than in the E30.
What a difference a millennium makes. Going
from the E36 to the E46, there’s a much bigger
jump in overall performance feel than there was
between the E36 and the E30. The E46’s basic
platform is a nice evolution of the species, but the
330i’s M54B30 straight-six offers considerably
more verve than its ancestors, with smoother revs
up high, a tight-ratio gearbox, and much less of
the out-of-steam feel the earlier cars displayed at
the top of their tach range. The extra half-liter of
displacement is part of the improvement, but this
3-liter actually feels like a smaller performance
engine thanks to its zippy throttle response and
willingness to wind all the way out.
This Spec E46 was expertly prepared by BimmerWorld as a test mule and promotional tool for the
series, but it actually started out as a $2500 beat-up
330i. There’s no denying that Spec E46 is currently
the more expensive option among the three
series, however, with really nice fully prepared cars
going in the $30K-$40K range. A capable do-it-yourselfer
could probably build a highly competitive
car for around $25K, though, and those costs
are likely to come down a bit as used 330i models
continue to depreciate.
Spec E46 rules mandate the stickier Toyo RR, but
this car was equipped with AER-legal street tires for
our test weekend; despite the larger 17-inch wheels
with wider 255mm tires, we were surprised to find
that the controls were all a bit lighter in the E46 than
in the older BMWs. Steering, brakes and throttle give
their all with less physical input from the driver. The
shifter is a big improvement, with snick-snick engagement
and rapid throws.
We assumed this car was going to be heavier than
the others by at least a couple hundred pounds, but it
turns out the Spec E46 actually undercuts the Spec3’s
race weight by 20 pounds, and it’s just 150 pounds
heavier than the decades-older E30 in race trim. As a
result, all the positives from the larger brakes, more
powerful engine and wider tires don’t really suffer
any mass-related downsides.
The E46’s horsepower advantage was impossible
to deny, and it pulled hard out of the corners all
the way to the braking zones. The engine sounds
pretty racy at full song through the BimmerWorld
exhaust system ($900) and Y-pipe ($250), and
there was no mistaking the fact that we were passing
other cars in the test session much more regularly
and with relative ease.
The 330i’s more advanced ABS system and much
larger 12.8-inch front discs are ready to cover any
overzealous braking attempts. After just a couple of
hot laps, this car almost dares you to push your braking
zones to the limit.
There’s no denying that Spec E46 is aimed at a
higher budget target for the mandatory parts, including
a fairly advanced $2650 Motion Control Suspension
coil-over system. Expect to
spend money on a proper differential,
too, as the American-market
330i did not come with a
limited-slip diff. The rules allow
any performance unit that maintains
the factory housing and
3.46:1 gear ratio. The springs are
mandatory Hyperco 2.25-in. units
($300 for the set). Bushings can be
upgraded, and any standard antiroll
bars with non-metallic bushings
that use the stock mounting
points are allowed.
Rather than using dyno pulls
to verify legality, the Spec E46
organizers are taking a more high-tech
approach using data acquisition
and sealed, reflashed ECUs
featuring an Epic Motorsports tune
($599). The plan is still coming
together, but expect this series
to use post-race data downloads
from a (probably) mandatory data
acquisition system to see if any
cars are generating acceleration,
braking, top speed or lateral g
load figures outside the norm.
As a result there’s not a wealth
of dyno information available,
but one of the for-sale examples
posted 221 wheel horsepower,
and another had runs in the 217-
223 whp range.
Final thought: NASA Mid-
Atlantic’s lap records show that the
Spec E46 is 3.6 seconds quicker
than the fastest Spec3 around
Summit Point, and a whopping 5
seconds faster around the Virginia
International Raceway Full Course.
These figures are more impressive
considering there haven’t
been many Spec E46s on track yet.
Performance-wise, this car is a big
leap ahead of the other two.
A day spent with three fine
track machines is always a joy,
but inevitably we came away with
some preferences, conclusions and
conjectures about the future.
The BMW 3 Series, from any
generation and in any state of
trim, makes an excellent track
machine. Right now, simply based
on entries and interest, SpecE30
is the king, but this monarch is
aging, and there is no heir apparent.
Spec3 and Spec E46 are the
most likely candidates to inherit
the throne, but which will it be?
That said, hail to the king, baby:
SpecE30 is an amazing bang-for-
the-buck race series boasting
terrific fields from one coast to the
other. Drivers like it because the
racing is close, the costs are super
cheap, and the E30 BMW 325 is
a lot of fun at the limit. It makes
a ton of sense for a beginning
racer, as the car’s limits lie well
within the performance envelope
of a capable rookie, and there are
so many of them out there that
finding a rental seat or a used
machine is an easy option.
As inevitably happens with a
30-year-old car, however, the well
is going to run dry. Certain components
are going to become difficult
to find on the cheap, and what
was once a reasonably powerful
platform with good brakes and
fine dynamics is starting to lose its
edge to the relentless evolution of
performance. Racing a SpecE30
isn’t going to be as inexpensive in
the future as it was in its heyday,
and drivers will find that their lap
times can only improve so much
with the E30 as a foundation.
The next logical step would be
Spec3, but this series has been
rolling for a number of years and
hasn’t really caught on anywhere.
NASA Mid-Atlantic has a handful
of racers, but the other regions
don’t really have a pack of Spec3s
in the mix. The car is totally enjoyable
on track, it’s old enough
that used platforms are dirt cheap
and spare parts abound, but our
concern is that it’s just not quick
enough compared to the SpecE30
to justify the change. If you’ve got
the budget for an E36, but you
want to go race where people are
racing, it makes more sense to
compete in SpecE30.
The older brother’s success
might be stunting the growth of
the middle child in this case, but
that’s what the market has dictated.
The durability of the E30
has kept so many of them racing
that the window of opportunity for
Spec3 will likely have closed by
the time E30 ceases to be viable.
There’s not that much difference
between a 25-year-old race
car and a 35-year-old race car,
particularly when they offer such a
similar driving experience.
The Spec E46 strikes us as the
most obvious candidate for a
future coup. It costs more now, but
it also offers a significantly higher
level of performance than Spec
E30, Spec3 or even Spec Miata–
and there are plenty of folks with
money who run those spec series
because they’re out there, but who
are also keen on going more than
just a little faster on track. Like its
siblings, the E46 seems to have
the kind of built-in durability that
has made E30 such a long-lived
success. And at full clip, a Spec
E46 sails by many more targets on
track without being any harder to
drive. Speed is seriously addictive.
Time will tell if Spec E46 is
the future, or if some as-yet-unrealized
series will rise up to
snatch the crown once SpecE30
relinquishes it. We don’t expect an
overnight shift, but Spec E46 has
a lot of buzz and, more important,
quite a few cars being built
The next five years should give us
a better picture of the future of BMW
spec racing in the country. Fortunately,
there are no wrong answers:
The racing world is a better place
with the BMW 3 Series out in force,
regardless of generation.
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