First and last of its kind

The last car to emerge from the legendary Team PTG race shop, Bell Motorsports’ #54 was also the last V8-powered E46 M3 to race professionally in the U.S.

First and last of its kind 1
August 28, 2014

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.

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“I had been doing business with Tom Milner with the E36 M3, and we were kind of a junior BMW team on our own,” recalls Bell. “I told him that the S62 V8 from the E39 M5 would be within the Grand-Am rules, and it came together from there.”

The Grand-Am rules permitted the use of any engine by the same manufacturer, and the S62 V8 was a great choice. It made a lot more power and torque than the S52 six that had powered the E36 M3, and it would outperform the new E46 M3’s S54 in that respect, too. It also sat lower in the car, reducing the center of gravity, and weighed only six pounds more.

The S62-powered E46 M3 would be campaigned by Bell Motorsports under the JET Motorsport banner for 2001—JET being Jennings’ initials in reverse. Jennings and Borcheller would drive, with Jennings providing most of the funding. The original JET Motorsport plan was to run two cars, so two S62 V8-powered M3s were built by Team PTG. JET ultimately decided to campaign only one car, so the second car was sold to AASCO Motorsports in California, which raced it in two Grand-Am races in 2002 before it was sold to a buyer in Australia.

Like the Team PTG E46 M3s that raced in ALMS during the 2000 season—anticipating the February 2001 arrival of the E46 M3 road cars in the U.S.—the #54 M3 wore a body made mostly of carbon fiber and weighed in at 2,600 lbs. For the JET car, two different motors were built at PTG: one with a hotter camshaft, aftermarket connecting rods and 12:1 compression ratio pistons that made around 485 hp, and another that used the stock connecting rods, 11:1 pistons and camshaft to make around 460 hp. Both engines used the stock block, crankshaft and cylinder head and had a dry-sump oil system. Other race upgrades included a Hewland gearbox and Brembo brakes with six-piston calipers up front and four-piston calipers at the rear.

2001: Early dominance dissipates

The decision to race having been made relatively late in 2000, the team had to put its #54 M3 together quickly to be ready for the most important race of the 2001 season: the Rolex 24 at Daytona in early February. The car caused quite a stir when it showed up at Daytona with a V8 engine and a strong roster of drivers that included Hans Stuck and Boris Said along with Borcheller and Jennings.

As expected, the car was fast right out of the gate. JET qualified in second behind a Mosler MT900R (basically a prototype disguised as a GT car), but with little expectation that the car would make it through 24 hours of racing.

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“They were finishing the car up at the track, and in practice we had a lot of teething problems,” Said tells us. “Hans and I thought we would be back at the hotel by 10:00 that night on the day of the race.”

As the race progressed from day into night and back into the next day, the #54 not only kept running but built a commanding lead in its class and reached the top five overall in the rain.

“The car was a champ once the race started,” recalls Said. “At one point in the rain, I think we were the fastest car on the track. I remember driving by Ron Fellows in the GTS-class Corvette in the rain like he was parked, and that was the car that ended up winning overall.”

Hopes for a class win and perhaps an overall victory were dashed 18 hours into the race, when a broken top piston ring land ended the race for #54.

“Daytona was a heartbreaker, because we were leading in the 18th hour of the race,” says Borcheller. “I was coming back from getting some rest and was next in the car, and then I saw the car coming into pit lane, smoking.”

Even though it didn’t finish the Daytona race, the car had impressed with its speed and endurance. It had set the fastest GT class race lap at Daytona with a 1:52.767, over 2.5 seconds faster than Bill Auberlen’s fastest lap in the Genesis Racing six-cylinder M3. That drew the attention of rulemakers, who slapped it with a 29mm air restrictor (which limits airflow to the motor and decreases horsepower) and a 100-lb. weight penalty right after the race.

“After the car’s performance at Daytona, the rulemakers were scared of the car, and they got a lot of grief from Alwin Springer and Porsche,” says Bell.

First and last of its kind 4

Even with the restrictor and more weight, the #54 M3 and drivers Borcheller and Jennings went on a tear after Daytona, winning at Homestead, Lime Rock and Mid-Ohio and placing third at Phoenix.

Interestingly, most of these races were done with the milder motor, the 460-hp V8.

“We were trying to keep the car out of the limelight so kept the lower horsepower motor in the car for most of the season, which was very dependable,” says Bell.

And just before Lime Rock, Wilson Manifolds managed to get back some of the power lost with the restrictor.

“After they put the restrictors on the car, we couldn’t pressurize the airbox anymore,” says Bell. “I took the whole airbox, the intake, the restrictors and even the kidney grille to Keith Wilson at Wilson Manifolds. He remade everything and was able to give the car a lot better power, even with the restrictors. The restrictors were always a problem, but he minimized it.”

The Lime Rock win was especially impressive, with Borcheller and Jennings taking not only the GT-class win but the overall victory on a wet track against faster GTS-class machinery. It was an especially rewarding race for Jennings, who was still learning his racecraft.

“We had to start at the back because of a technical issue in qualifying and it was pouring down rain, just cats and dogs,” recalls Jennings. “At the start, I took off and just went as fast as I could. I was passing a lot of cars but really didn’t know my position—I was just trying to be consistent and move up. When I pulled the car in to switch with Terry, everyone started hugging me and I didn’t know what was going on, but it turned out I had gotten up to third overall from last place. Then Terry took over and we ended up winning overall. I’m very proud of that race. It’s personally one of the better driving jobs I did.”

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After a dominant first half of the season, the #54 M3 was saddled with more weight and a smaller restrictor, and it finished on the podium just once in the final four races, with a third for Borcheller and Brian Cunningham (subbing for Jennings) at the Daytona finale. The car that had seemed nearly unbeatable in the first half of the season struggled in the second half.

“The motor had a tremendous amount of torque and power, but the handling became more difficult after the series made adjustments to the car and made it heavier,” says Borcheller. “They changed the car pretty drastically, from a car that was capable of winning to a car that wasn’t competitive. It was frustrating, because the amount of money and effort that went into having a car that could win all season just went away. We started trying to get creative with the chassis to make it better, and it was already very good. We started playing a lot with anti-dive, but then we ended up struggling with brake lockup.”

Ultimately, #54 M3 ended up second in the GT class for the 2001 season behind the G&W Motorsport Porsche 911 GT3-R driven by Darren Law and Matt Drendel.

2002-2003: A limited program

At the end of the 2001 season, Jennings stopped funding the car, leaving Bell to run #54 on his own in six races with a rotating mix of drivers. Boris Said drove it to its only podium that season, a solo victory at Phoenix.

“It was known from the beginning that Boris was going to drive by himself, but we used another guy’s name on the entry and said he didn’t show up,” recalls Bell. “Boris had driven a lot of the six-cylinder PTG cars, which tended to be hard on rear tires. This car was completely different, as I had a different roll bar combination on it and different shocks, and I told Boris he had to be careful with the fronts. He was like, ‘Yeah, yeah,’ and then went out and drove like he normally would and ran the fronts off. When he came in, I reminded him that he needed to take care of the front tires, and of course he went on to win the race. At the interview, they put the microphone up to him and with tongue-in-cheek he said his co-driver ran the front tires off in the first half of the race and he was able to get a handle on it in the second half!”

Said had driven the BMW Motorsport-built M3 GTR in the 2001 ALMS season, and he found the two V8-powered cars quite different, primarily because the Motorsport-built car used a true racing motor (the P60) while the PTG-built #54 car used the S62 motor from the M5 road car.

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“The thing about the M3 GTR’s V8 is that the engine was so light and had a flat crank, so it was unbelievable,” he says. “It didn’t have the torque of the S62 V8 from the M5 in the JET Motorsport car, but it was so light and the center of gravity was so low. With the heavier engine in the front of the JET Motorsport car, you couldn’t throw it around like the M3 GTR, but it was unbelievable on the straights.”

In 2003, Bell Motorsports entered the #54 M3 in two more Grand-Am races, running it as #5 since #54 was being used for the team’s Daytona Prototype. The M3 finished fourth at Homestead with drivers Said and Craig Stanton and second at Phoenix with Stanton and Mike Fitzgerald.

With its focus shifting to the Daytona Prototype program, Bell Motorsports eventually sold the car to Danny Alvis, who club-raced the car before dying in a plane crash in 2007. Scott Newman bought the car from Alvis’ estate and raced it in historic events, including the Legends of Motorsport event at Sebring in 2010. The car then sat idle until it was acquired in May 2012 by David Hollister, who took it upon himself to restore it to as-raced condition from its debut season of 2001.

2012-2013: Reborn and reunited

Hollister races an E36 M3 in BMW Car Club of America Club Racing, and he’d admired the V8 M3 at club events in North Carolina. He had made an offer on the car in 2011 but couldn’t come to terms with the owner. In 2012, the two finally worked out a deal, and Hollister set about getting the M3 back in shape.

“It had some bodywork chips and needed paint, and the hood had come up and hit the roof at one point,” says Hollister. “It wasn’t in terrible shape, but it looked tired. I sent e-mails to Jim Bell and Tom Milner and also talked to Larry Hahn, who used to be head of the PTG shop and who helped me build my club race car. Larry suggested I call Team PTG. I hadn’t thought to ask them because I didn’t think they would even consider it, but they said they would do it. Tom Milner came and picked the car up himself with his trailer.”

PTG ended up stripping the car down to the tub, removing everything mechanical for cleaning, repair or replacement. The motor had been refreshed recently by Fletcher Made Horsepower racing engines, and it was good to go.

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“A lot of things had been changed on it, and David Hollister wanted it returned to the way it was originally when we built it for the 2001 season,” says Milner. “We basically did that, down to the paint job and the stickers.”

The #54 M3 thus became the last race car to leave the shop before Milner closed it in January 2013, 12 years after it was built at PTG.

“The cool thing is that many of the guys who helped build the car originally at PTG were still there and helped to put it back together,” says Hollister.

The #54 M3 looked resplendent as it rolled off the truck for our photo shoot at Virginia International Raceway (VIR) last fall, where I was seeing the car for only the second time since I watched it race at Watkins Glen in May 2001. [See “Jet Set,” Bimmer #22, October 2001). The car had also done some demonstration laps before the Rolex 24 at Daytona in early 2013, driven by David’s son Matt Hollister alongside a few other older race cars, and it’s done a few track days at VIR, as well.

It’s fantastic to see this fast and beautiful race car back on the track a dozen years after its debut. It didn’t accumulate the long list of race wins and championships that some of the other PTG-built cars have, but it’s far more unusual and also faster.

After he bought it, Hollister reunited Terry Borcheller and Toney Jennings with the car, bringing back great memories from both drivers.

“All in all, that 2001 season was one of the highlights of my racing career and one of the highlights of my life,” says Jennings. “I loved working with those guys that year, and I loved the car.”

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