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Taking on the World Rally Championship With an E30

Imagine how it would feel to fight for the highest accolade in the sport you hold most dear. To hear your country’s national anthem and see your reflection in an Olympic gold medal. To hoist the Lombardi Trophy in a stadium overflowing with screaming fans. To taste the milk at Indianapolis. Even if you didn’t win, simply standing on even ground with the best in the world could be the highlight of a lifetime.

It’s no surprise that the insanely competitive nature of these pinnacle events means that very few of us will ever get the chance to feel that rush. If everybody could go to these events, they wouldn’t be as special.

Motorsports events have the added difficulty of budget and sponsorship requirements. Andre Agassi could probably afford his own tennis rackets, but even Michael Schumacher doesn’t have the bread to field his own Formula 1 team and fly it around the planet to nearly 20 races per year.

There’s a tall ladder to climb if you want to play with the best in the world in motorsports, and there are plenty of talented climbers all vying for the next rung. You can’t just jump into the top levels of motorsports competition on a whim—or can you? As Bill Caswell found out when he hopped onto the Mexico leg of the World Rally Championship, sometimes you get lucky.

Humble Beginnings

Bill Caswell is not a household name in the world of rally competition. He didn’t learn to drive by sliding Uncle Olof’s Saab through the dark forests of Sweden. Bill doesn’t even have an Uncle Olof. He was a banking student with a penchant for chess and no particular mechanical inclination.

A lack of hands-on experience didn’t mean he was completely blind to the excitement of cars, however. “My friend’s parents were BMW fanatics,” explains Bill. “I had been listening to them preach BMWs for, like, 10 years. Their ad campaign—The Ultimate Driving Machine—I had a poster on my wall of an M3 sliding sideways with a huge thing of dirt coming out the back.” Bill was also a fan of the Prodrive BMW M3s that competed in the late 1980s and early ’90s. “When the time came, I wanted to get a BMW,” he says.

Bill had never even changed the oil on a car until the fateful day when he ran out of chess books and wandered into the automotive section of a Barnes & Noble. He discovered a book about working on BMWs and got it in his head that he should swap the engine on his broken 1986 BMW 3 Series. He bought the book and some basic hand tools and dove in headfirst. With the information in the book and some mentoring from a local shop owner, Leo Franchi at Midwest Motorsport, Bill persevered and completed the swap. This newfound interest in cars and a hunger for reading material led Bill to start picking up car magazines.

“About 10 years ago Sport Compact Car did an article on building a $500 rally beater, a Datsun 510. We decided, ‘Hey, maybe we could do that,’” Bill recalls. At the time it was merely a dream, however, as Bill was focused on his blossoming career in banking and had neither the time nor the spare cash to go racing.

A Taste of Ambrosia

A decade passed, and Bill, now in his mid-30s, had become a fairly successful investment banker. He’d done some track days and club racing in his spare time, but he’d never lived up to the sideways-in-the-dirt promise of that old M3 poster. That changed when a co-driver friend, Sam Smith, sent Bill an e-mail about the 2009 NASA Rally Sport Rally Tennessee tarmac event. They figured a road race BMW E30 M3 might fare well on the paved surfaces of the event, so they gave it a go.

“We crashed out on the second stage, punctured a radiator, and had to stop,” says Bill of his first stage rally outing. “It was awesome. We were fully hooked.” Things moved quickly from that May event: “A week later, I lost my job. I was laid off with a nice severance package. Sam got laid off three weeks later.”

Armed with a newfound passion for rally, lots of spare time and some liquid assets, Bill made the obvious decision about what to do with himself: Go rallying. He found a 1991 BMW 318i on craigslist for $500, drove it the 3 miles to his house, and started tearing it apart.

With Sam’s assistance, Bill swapped over many of the parts from his road racing car to their new project. Bill fitted skidplates, welded up an FIA-legal cage, and installed top-of-the-line safety gear, including Recaro Pro Racer seats and a SPA Technique electronic fire system. At the Rally America Lake Superior Pro Rally in October of 2009, Bill scored his first class victory in the 2WD class.

About a month later, Bill got a press release in his inbox from the FIA with a variety of news items. One of the stories detailed the FIA’s new policy to allow regional events in conjunction with all of their World Rally Championship races in 2010, similar to what they’d done in Finland for many years.

For many years, Finland allowed the FIA to race in their country only if a regional event could run alongside the WRC event. The sanctioning body caved to this demand because the Finnish roads are so amazing, but no other WRC events enjoyed a tandem regional element. The news blurb, however, led Bill to believe that this exclusivity had been lifted.

“I went to the Rally Mexico site and saw something listed as Rally America, and I just assumed it was the same Rally America we have here in the States. I assumed I could run with it and that it was designed for our cars,” says Bill. “It wasn’t until two weeks before the event that I realized the Mexican Rally America had been around since 1979—that was the name before WRC showed up. They basically use the FIA rule book, but the entry fee is about a fifth as much. It’s geared towards privateer teams.”

Luckily, Bill’s last-minute realization that this was an entirely different Rally America didn’t sour his attempt. “Everything about the car met the letter of the law, except that the FIA Homologation expired like 14 years ago,” Bill explains. “They didn’t homologate a BMW 318i, but they did the M3. I’m not running the homologated suspension package or engine mounts, or the parts that ran on the M3—my car is very near stock.”

The long journey from the States also played heavily in Bill’s favor when they gambled on the entry. “Aside from Ken Block, we were the only team to come down from the U.S., and the organizers were pretty excited. They told us, ‘You guys are pretty much ambassadors for the series in the States and in Mexico.’”

Enduring the Trials

Just a couple of weeks before the event, Bill decided that if he was going to participate at a WRC event, he wanted the high-revving S14 engine from the E30 BMW M3 under the hood. That poster on his bedroom wall really made an impression, it seems.

A friend had a high-milage example from a 1988 M3, and he sold it to Bill for a song. As is so often the case with last-minute swaps, time was not on their side. Once the car was finally on the trailer and Bill had met up with co-driver Ben Slocum, they were running about a day late. Then things got exciting.

“The border was hell,” Bill recalls. “Besides the fact that we were using a rental van to go across the border that didn’t have the proper paperwork, we spent about 5 hours in customs, and then they wouldn’t [let us through].” We turned around to leave. It’s like 10:30 at night, dark and sketchy. The whole border area of Laredo looks like ‘Escape from New York.’ The whole thing is built for urban warfare: barbed wire and spotlights.

“We get into the customs road,” Bill continues, “one lane with 3-foot-high concrete on each side. Each road is its own little trench. Driving in front of us is our broker—a guy who helps you through customs—and the car ahead of him jams on its brakes and turns sideways. [A man] jumps out of the car and starts running. At the same time, about 15 guys come out of the brush with no shirts, bandanas, all running into this huge gun battle. It was around the corner from us. The cartels block the road to prevent civilians from getting involved, apparently.”

Naturally, Bill was eager to put some distance between himself and the shirtless men with assault rifles and itchy trigger fingers. “I’ve got regular mirrors, an enclosed trailer, and I had to back up for half a mile on a gigantic curve. It took a few minutes; I crashed it once. There was total madness. We debated ditching and pulling the trailer pin. There were pickups rolling around with SWAT or special forces military guys, machine guns in the trucks—they were looking for something serious.”

With one failed border-crossing attempt under their belt, Bill and Ben rallied on the U.S. side and returned with a different rental van, one that included the necessary paperwork. With that issue solved, they uncovered a fresh problem.

“Turns out you can only go to Mexico with two vehicles per person, and the trailer is considered a vehicle. In front of the border officials, I signed over the BMW to my co-driver, Ben, and he registered the car for Mexico,” he laughs.

A Place in the Pantheon

Having endured the storm of the journey, Bill and Ben arrived in Guanajuato, Mexico, for a taste of the madness that is a leg of the World Rally Championship. It’s hard to exaggerate the fanaticism that surrounds WRC around the globe: An estimated 570 million human beings tuned in to watch these races on TV in 2009, and spectators turn out to each event in droves. The FIA sometimes has to cancel a stage because there are simply too many spectators in the way.

Worn out from the road, Bill was thrilled to find that an old friend had somehow managed to secure a room at the hotel directly across from the convention center service park where his car would stay during the event. “That kind of made our weekend,” Bill admits.

The old BMW breezed through tech, and officials and teams alike were ecstatic to see a 20-year-old, rear-wheel-drive BMW in the field. All the current cars are all-wheel or front-wheel drive, but many officials remembered the old Prodrive M3s. Bill was an instant celebrity among his newfound peers. He had zero crewmembers, minimal spares, a rental van for a tow rig, and dirt under his fingernails from preparing his own car.

As a result of their chaotic trip, Bill and Ben missed recce, the reconnaissance laps where teams drive the stages at low speeds and generate their own pace notes. This put them at a serious disadvantage, but they asked around a bit and found a friend in Nicholas Fuchs, the Peruvian national rally champion. Nicholas’s co-driver, Juan Pedro Cilloniz, allowed Bill and Ben to borrow his own pace notes; they found a Kinkos and made copies. Juan Pedro’s Spanish notes used different key letters and words, so Ben had to translate on the fly for Bill, who would be seeing each stage for the first time at full race pace.

Their first official task as driver and co-driver was to cruise across the raised platform. There, all competitors—both WRC superstars and Rally America privateers—were introduced to the adoring fans. At that moment, they got an idea of the scope of the stage they were now on.

“The crowds smoke any race I’ve been to in the States, other than maybe the 12 Hours of Sebring or the F1 event,” says Bill. “I haven’t been to an event with bigger crowds—hundreds of thousands of people. They had to close down the roads between the service parks; we couldn’t have gotten there otherwise. Every place you looked was just jammed with people, wall to wall in every direction, drinking and having a good time.”

Running With the Bulls

The Rally America event followed the same format as the full-pop WRC Rally Mexico, although organizers would wait between groups to build up a gap between the slowest WRC cars and the fastest Rally America racers. On the first morning, Bill and Ben had a simple goal: Survive the first stage. They succeeded, and Bill told Ben, “I think I could go home now. I got to hammer my car with an S14 down a stage at a WRC rally.”

But it wasn’t over. With that first stage behind them, Bill turned up the speed, and shortly thereafter he experienced his first significant off. The incident ripped the spot welds that secured the metal surrounding the top of the left-rear damper. At the midday service, Bill removed the shock completely to keep it from banging around.

“I had no idea how key the shock is to handling the surface on a gravel rally,” he confesses. “The car was horrendous.” The undamped wheel bounced mercilessly for the rest of the day, but they were still in the race—until the car died completely right before the start of the penultimate stage. “The car just turned off,” Bill recalls. “It was the fuel pump. I pulled the pump out on the side of the road; it was locked solid.”

In sight of a group of police officers, Bill cut some excess wire out of the BMW and stripped the ends with a knife he borrowed from the cops. He hooked the pump directly to the battery, alternating the polarity to rock the motor back and forth while hitting the whole thing against the side of the car. “Having a fuel pump sparking in your hands while they’re covered in gas is kind of sketchy,” he admits, “but I was wearing a fire suit.” (Kids, don’t try this at home.) On the 10th bang, a little pebble came rolling out of the pump and it whirred to life. He threw the pump back into the tank and tore off to the next stage start.

“We were able to fix it in 19 minutes, but we only had 15 minutes. They had already started running the next stage, and that put us out for the day,” Bill says.

Out for the day didn’t mean out for the event, as they were able to take a super rally penalty: They earned a time equal to the slowest car in the stage plus 5 minutes for each of the stages they missed. The penalty was a bummer, but it also meant that instead of a 45-minute service, they had until 3 a.m. to work on the car. In the time afforded, Bill welded the shock tower back in and sorted a variety of other problems that had cropped up.

On day two, Bill climbed as high as second place in a field of nine other class cars that included a former WRC Peugeot 206 rally racer, some Mitsubishi Lancer Evos and a couple of Renault Clio Sports. Compared to the relatively tame attitudes of some of the slower front- and all-wheel-drive cars, Bill’s tail-out driving style in the rear-wheel-drive BMW thrilled fans—and there were plenty of them to thrill.

“Whole families would drive up to camp out on the stage roads. They’ve got a big tent village on a bluff over a series of corners, they’ve got huge grills going, kids playing soccer. They’re fully camping and watching the rally,” Bill recalls. “Some valleys, your whole vision is filled with people hanging out to watch. It was blanketed. The food must have been amazing; you could smell it for, like, a mile before you got to a section. I was really hungry,” he laughs.

Bill and Ben finished in fourth place on the time sheets, but one of the Lancers they were competing against made a big error in the very last Super Stage, a side-by-side duel in a stadium. The Mitsubishi took a wrong turn and ended up reversing through one of the time control sections. That’s one of the FIA’s “thou shalt not” transgressions. The Mitsubishi was DQed, promoting Bill to third place. That meant being part of a podium ceremony in front of thousands of screaming fans.

A Personal Triumph

With the final stage of his WRC adventure behind him, Bill found himself partying alongside some of the rally stars of his generation: international celebrities like Sébastien Loeb, Mikko Hirvonen, and even F1 ace/WRC rookie Kimi Räikkönen.

“It didn’t really hit me until I was doing shots with Petter Solberg,” Bill confesses. At that moment, he realized the magnitude of what he’d accomplished: A podium finish in a 20-year-old, two-wheel-drive BMW in one of the highest-profile venues on the planet. The regional Rally America event didn’t get the international exposure of its WRC sibling, but Bill drove on the exact same stages, thrilled the same crowds, overcame mechanical failures with his own two hands, and celebrated alongside his heroes.

Bill is hopeful that he’ll be able to continue developing a career in rallying. In fact, family and friends have started pledging money to help Bill ship his car overseas so he can compete in one of the European regional WRC events. Making it as a full-time WRC driver would obviously be a dream come true. However, even if Bill doesn’t ever get a chance to compete in another FIA rally, his “crazy weekend in Mexico” story will go down in history as one of the all-time greats. And it all started with a whimsical notion, a bit of confusion about the rules, and a $500 BMW.

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Comments

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fidelity101
fidelity101 SuperDork
7/17/17 5:26 p.m.

I lost my R too, I race with an ally America banner across my windscreen.

Trackmouse
Trackmouse SuperDork
7/17/17 6:41 p.m.

+1 ( because I got your joke )

irish44j
irish44j UltimaDork
7/17/17 7:07 p.m.

I'd be lying if I said that Caswell wasn't one of the two major reasons I decided to get an e30 to start rallycrossing and eventually build into a stage car. I read that story back then and it was quite the inspiration. The other was the four local guys who at the time were all rallycrossing the same old, beat, 325e (one of which is now my stage co-driver, another of which currently crews for us). I was a japanese car guy (Honda/Acura/Nissan) with zero German car history, so it was a total lark for me to get that $1000 craigslist 318i and I figured it would be a total POS and hard to work on, but was totally wrong. 6-7 years later, 50+ rallycrosses and a few stage rallies in the books and the car has yet to have any kind of significant mechanical or suspension issue. They're tanks.

The last rally we ran (STPR) we followed Travis Pastrana through recce and our time one the super special was faster than David Higgins (granted, he had a blown turbo and was going really slow lol....). It's funny that once you get into the rally scene, even if you're a back-marker privateer, those guys just become "other guys that rally" (albeit with big budgets and factory sponsors). At events, the other amateur drivers talk about "travis" and "ken (block)" like they're just some other dudes that happen to do what you do. Not that they're hanging out with us at the local dive bar after the rally, but in person they're all generally pretty laid-back.

to

Appleseed
Appleseed MegaDork
7/17/17 7:08 p.m.

That story was a defining moment of automobiles for me.

Hungary Bill
Hungary Bill UberDork
7/18/17 1:37 a.m.

Love love love this story. Absolutely epic what these two pulled off.

wcaswell
wcaswell New Reader
7/19/17 4:12 p.m.

Thank you for the kind words! Reading back through it myself its almost hard to believe we pulled it off either. I wish the loophole was still open, we only had 4 years and I was lucky enough to run 3 of them. but now I need an FIA legal car if I wanted to go back. In reply to Hungary Bill :

wcaswell
wcaswell New Reader
7/19/17 4:36 p.m.

Thats so awesome! If there's one thing that I could hope would come out of my adventure is that more people jump into the sport and have fun and meet awesome friends and go on amazing adventures.

Im also way happy that found the E30 as strong as I did! They really are special little cars. So true about rally. Its a special place. Drivers are just drivers. Even the best in the world like I found at WRC Mexico. And while Ken and Travis don't go out all the time, they go out enough that we've all had fun times celebrating with them after rallies - which I think is pretty awesome.
In reply to irish44j :

Robbie
Robbie UberDork
7/19/17 6:41 p.m.

In reply to wcaswell:

Hey! Good to see you on here - have you had the 750il out recently?

trigun7469
trigun7469 SuperDork
7/20/17 10:29 a.m.

Great Story, very GRM

Hungary Bill
Hungary Bill UberDork
7/20/17 11:42 a.m.
wcaswell wrote: Thank you for the kind words! Reading back through it myself its almost hard to believe we pulled it off either. I wish the loophole was still open, we only had 4 years and I was lucky enough to run 3 of them. but now I need an FIA legal car if I wanted to go back. In reply to Hungary Bill :

Hey Bill! Good to see ya in the forum (see: "man, myth, legend" comment on facebook). Two things real quick:

First: If we ever meet, the beers are on me.

Second: Over the course of those beers I'll tell ya about how motivated I was after reading your story and how I went about living my dream of resurrecting an old Italian GT-ish sort of car (1982 Alfa GTV6) and how she's turning out.

Here's the basic idea in three photos:

That last one was after the ONE drive my son and I got to take after I got the car running (same kid in the first and last pictures but I did have another one along the way). Immediately after that I left to make the move to where I am now and the car rests in the capable hands of fellow forum member M4ff3w (entrusted with her care until I can ship her across the ocean one more time).

Looking back, much like you, I really didnt know how high the bar was when I decided to jump. Had it not been for me running into an article highlighting your race about the same time I realized I was in over my head, I'd have probably just resigned myself to other projects and said "Cant, it's too hard". The three pics miss a lot of the "in between" but I'll be sure to fill you in. I just hope you're up for at least a six-pack apiece because there's a lot of ground to cover

Cheers buddy

ckosacranoid
ckosacranoid Dork
7/20/17 1:47 p.m.

I think we need a follow up to what is our hero doing these days for fun and too bad that they closed that rules. I wonder if they closed it because of you or not. I wonder if you asked if they would let you run something old again in just the one rally cause its fun seeing old school run again and loved that story when it came out.

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