The Underdog

Before the E30 M3 arrived in U.S. showrooms, it hit the track with Korman Autoworks in the Firestone Firehawk series, where its success against more powerful competition made the car a fan favorite.

June 2, 2016
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In late 1986, just as BMW of North America’s McLaren-run racing team had finally taken its maiden IMSA GTP victory with the March 86G prototype, the program was cancelled abruptly at the end of the season. With BMW Motorsport turning its attention back toward road cars, the 900-hp prototypes had no further place in the company’s marketing program.

In Europe, the prototypes would be replaced by the new E30 M3, set to debut on road and track in 1987. The car had been developed expressly for Group A racing, and BMW Motorsport would be campaigning it in the World Touring Car Championship as well as several national series that year.

In the U.S., however, the M3 wasn’t set to arrive until later in the year, designated as a 1988 model. With nothing on the docket, BMW of North America decided to do a bit of advance publicity for the new M car. What better way to showcase the performance of this homologation special than by taking it to the track? The only difficulty would be finding a series in which the four-cylinder M3 would be competitive.

“The E30 M3 didn’t naturally fit into many racing categories,” recalls Erik Wensberg, then BMW NA’s motorsport manager. “One of the closest was the IMSA Firestone Firehawk Endurance Championship series, where we would be racing against a lot of cars with big V8s. It probably wasn’t the best home for the car, but it was the best one we could find in the U.S. for that season.”

The next trick would be finding a team to campaign it. The arrangement with McLaren North America had been terminated along with the GTP program, so BMW NA turned to Korman Autoworks. It was an obvious choice: Principal Ray Korman been racing BMWs for two decades, and he’d won the Firehawk series’ 1986 driver and manufacturer championships with the E30 325e, taking five class wins and an impressive overall victory at the Watkins Glen 24-hour race.

“Ray had a really good history in the series and a good history with BMW, and he was used to racing on a tight budget,” recalls Wensberg. “I think we did the entire program for less than $200,000, if my memory serves me correctly.”

In addition to support money, BMW NA provided Korman with a pair of E30 M3s and the services of drivers Davy Jones and John Andretti when they were available. The two had paired up in a GTP prototype for BMW NA in 1986, and they were keen to maintain their relationship with BMW.

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