Championships and significant race victories make a race car special, but the rarity of a car and the technology it uses also add to a car’s allure. The #54 E46 M3 campaigned by Bell Motorsports in the 2001-2003 Grand-Am Road Racing Championship never won a championship or a significant race, but the V8 engine under its carbon fiber hood means it’s still one of the coolest BMW race cars to ever compete in North America.
If you know what you’re looking at, that is: Apart from its striking blue and silver livery, the #54 looks like any of the other E46 M3s that were built by Tom Milner’s Prototype Technology Groupe in Virginia. The most famous of those cars were built for BMW of North America and raced as factory entries in the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) in 2000 and the first two races of 2001, but #54 was built by Team PTG for Bell Motorsports to race in Grand-Am. And instead of an inline six-cylinder engine, the #54 was fitted with a tuned 4.9-liter S62 V8 taken from the E39 M5 road car. It preceded the BMW Motorsport-built V8-powered M3 GTRs that dominated the ALMS in 2001, and it’s one of only two S62 V8-powered M3 racers built by Team PTG. Under the direction of current owner David Hollister, the #54 M3 (chassis #004) was also the last race car to come out of PTG before the shop closed its doors in 2013.
Why an S62 V8? Why didn’t Bell Motorsports simply stick with the S54 that powered the M3 for the road, and which PTG used in the BMW NA race cars?
2000: First rule, read the rule book!
First, a little background: Bell Motorsports’ owner Jim Bell had been running an E36 M3 in the Grand-Am Cup street-stock series (the predecessor of today’s Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge) and he’d raced E36 M3s built by Team PTG in select Grand-Am races like the 2000 Daytona 24 Hour.
One of Bell’s regular drivers was Terry Borcheller, who was also an instructor at the Bondurant Racing School in Phoenix. There, he met Toney Jennings, who had been competing successfully in Ferrari Challenge and wanted to move up to the big leagues. Borcheller suggested Grand-Am, and Jennings got his feet wet in the series by driving the Genesis Racing E36 M3 in two races in the 2000 season. After that, Jennings was making plans with Borcheller and Bell to run the full Grand-Am season in 2001.
Bell was trying to determine which car to run in the Grand-Am GT class, and the idea for the V8-powered M3 developed in conversations with Milner, the Team PTG principal.