Scott Lear
Scott Lear
6/24/16 12:26 p.m.

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, stress-free format.

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 weekend race.

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TurboFocus Reader
6/21/17 11:41 a.m.

This article has me seriously interested in spec racing. I know from the article that the e30/e36 spec racing are well withing budget for me when i return to the states in a few years. at the same time i don't want to be racing cars from the 80's since as the article said, cheap part sources dry up.

what's a good series to be looking forward to? if companies are selling spec cars at 10k im assuming the average joe in a garage can put together a similar car in the 5-7k range (car included. springs, control arms/camber equip etc is not that hard to put together. the only thing i'd be paying big money for is for someone to weld in a cage for me or i'll be buying a bolt together option.

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