Serious Fun

A group of friends and a fleet of race-prepped E30s equals a great weekend at the track for the PRO3 competitors in the Pacific Northwest.

Serious Fun 1
May 29, 2015

Okay, you’ve done some autocrossing and track days. And you love attending driving schools. You’re a focused, competitive person by nature, and now you’re wondering if you have what it takes to get out there and race wheel-to-wheel.

The transition from merely driving on a racetrack to racing on one seems like a big step…and it is. But according to a pack of racers in the Pacific Northwest, it doesn’t have to be such an intimidating or expensive venture. Especially when you are driving the hot new entrant in wheel-to-wheel spec racing: the BMW E30 of 1984 to 1991.

In the greater Puget Sound area, more than two dozen Bimmer pilots get together for some competitive fun on any given spring, summer or fall weekend. To find out what goes on at one of their PRO3 races, I met up with them last September, at the finale of their fourteen-event series.

It’s easy to find the BMW compound at The Ridge Motorsports Park in Shelton, Washington, because the white-and-blue logo is emblazoned everywhere: on flags, banners and racing suits. Multicolored liveries, some vintage, adorn the 1980s cars lined up under several tents.

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The PRO3 club was started in 2002 by local brothers Ken and Wes Hill and a few others. It’s sanctioned by International Conference of Sports Car Clubs (ICSCC) and Lance Richert handles much of the organization. The rules allow only limited modifications and emphasize driving ability, something that has helped PRO3 grow into the largest-subscribed amateur race class in the Pacific Northwest, with about 80 cars and drivers taking part.

Simple rules, competitive racing

“The biggest draw to PRO3 is the competition,” says Chuck Hurley, whose car wears #95. “I won this year’s series at the last race, but I still want to get out there and mix it up with my friends.”

Chuck’s demeanor is surprisingly casual. He is not the testosterone-laden racer I might have imagined. In fact, every BMW driver I meet that day is cordial and unassuming, yet supremely focused. Everyone wants to find a way to take seconds off their lap times. But underlying it all is a palpable camaraderie and a consensus that it really comes down to the driver. Since modifications on these cars are fairly restricted, everyone runs pretty much the same setup.

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All PRO3 race cars start as a 1984-1991 E30 two- or four-doors. From the factory, the E30 coupe weighs 2,480 lbs. and produces 169 hp; PRO3 rules state that the car must retain its original body panels, have no aero aids, and weigh a minimum of 2,650 lbs. with driver. That allows the interiors to be gutted and ballast placed on the floor. The drivetrain is limited to the 2.5-liter M20 inline six-cylinder engine and Getrag 260 five-speed gearbox used in the 325 models, and both must remain stock, though a standard performance chip can be used with the stock Motronic ECU. Radiator, oil coolers and exhaust are free, but intake and flywheel are not. The brakes must remain stock, without ABS, but aftermarket pads are OK. Any limited slip differential is allowed, and so are any 9.5-pound or heavier 14- or 15-inch wheels up to 7.0 inches wide.

The tires used are specified as Toyo RA1 or RR slicks in sizes 225-50/14 or 225-45/15. Suspension is relatively open, but remote shock reservoirs are not allowed. The interior is also free except for the dashboard pad. Plexiglas can be used for the door and rear windows. Of course, the usual roll cage, window net, safety belts and fire extinguisher are obligatory.

“The biggest cost is the engine, suspension and differential. Then it’s maintenance items like tires and brake pads. Shocks need to be rebuilt every other season,” says Hurley, who runs the Grip Racing Team along with Jason Vien. “Fortunately, BMW made over 200,000 of this model, so spare parts are available. Of course, you can go crazy with suspension tuning, brake biasing and data acquisition, but this series is inherently limited compared to the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) E30 series.”

DIY or arrive-and-drive

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In addition to the Ridge, six more tracks make up the PRO3 circuit: Oregon Raceway Park, Portland International Raceway, Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington, Spokane’s Raceway Park, and Mission in British Columbia. Here at The Ridge, with its elevation changes, it’s clear that the people at the front are very talented. Most are men, but there are a few women drivers, too.

Danielle Hovington, #221, and Mindi Nardella, #248, are competing today, each sharing a 325i race car with their husbands.

“I started racing about four years ago,” says Hovington. “Before that, I was doing lapping days with the local BMW Club. One of the instructors saw me pitching the car and said, ‘Have you ever considered racing?’ My first answer was ‘I’m too old for that!’ But he showed me his race car, and I thought it was totally awesome.”

The following year, Hovington told her husband, Brian Bercovitz, that she wanted to obtain a racing license. He joined her, and they started looking for a race car for sale. In the end, they built one themselves.

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“It started life as a BMW 325e, which means it had the 2.7-liter motor,” she says. “We sold that and bought the legal 2.5-liter engine, which I rebuilt myself with no experience. Brian supervised me, and it still took way longer than we thought. We ended up stripping the car completely down. Brian knew how to weld, so we made our own roll cage using bent pieces from a fabricator.”

Nardella and her husband took the opposite approach, renting a car from Hurley for arrive-and-drive racing.

“I’m usually at the back of the pack,” Nardella says, “but there’s always someone to wheel-to-wheel with. I really enjoy taking my helmet off at the end of the race and having people say ‘That’s a girl!’”

Mindi’s husband, John Paul (J.P.), says he was always a Chevy guy. “Then I bought a 1 Series BMW as my daily driver. I got the itch to race in 2011 and obtained the necessary competition license and physical exam. After being a novice for three PRO3 events, I started racing the E30 for real. I was wondering if I was going to have problems at home, but Mindi wanted to do it, too. Now our three kids, ages 11, 8 and 6, are racing go-karts. It’s turned into a family thing.

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“I love our LiquiMoly liveried race car. I’m now running closer to the front, so it’s a little less carefree. But Chuck’s set the car’s handling up to be very neutral. We run a softer spring setup than a lot of other people. I like it so the car turns in predictably. With application of the throttle, it almost goes neutral. You can easily drift out of Turn 15 at The Ridge onto the front straight.”

That LiquiMoly livery he mentions recalls the great BMW racers from decades ago, when the E30s raced in Europe. Hovington and Bercovitz race under Würth colors, and another contender, newcomer Igor Levine, carries the Blaupunkt colors on his #711 racer. A few racers are sponsored by their employers—Ryan O’Connor, #165, drives a 325i supported by Avanade and Microsoft Dynamics—but most go for the historic look favored by Vien, #0, whose car wears the iconic polka-dotted white and green livery of Tic Tac, a sponsor in the late ‘80s DTM series.

At the next camp down the paddock I meet Bruce Humberstone, #114. He’s here with his entire family, who are making a vacation out of the weekend. As he’s about to go on track, Bruce becomes silent and introspective. You can tell he wants to win in his red Bastos-liveried E30.

According to the data, it’s fun!

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At the third and last camp, I find a very relaxed bunch. It seems not everyone here takes things all that seriously. Apparently that sets PRO3 apart from other classes and racing in general. Jim Cissell, #119, also known as “The Voice Guy,” is one of those fun-loving fellows who only puts on his game face, and takes off his orange Crocs, when he climbs into the race car.

Mike Olsen is similarly jovial. He built a four-door E30 race car in his garage ten years ago; now Spirit of Halloween Superstores sponsors his #130 racer. Olsen’s car once provided a cat with accidental habitation when the animal got stuck in it for a week and used the driver’s seat as its litter box. At the next race, Olsen found that one of his competitors had placed a bag of kitty litter on his race seat and a customized Hello Kitty sticker on every PRO3 race car. That wasn’t the end of the prank. “Do you know how maple syrup looks like gear oil when it’s sitting under a car?” Olsen laughs.

John Parker, #244, is here in a Barbecue-To-You Racing-sponsored E30. John owns Accuracy Automotive in nearby Gig Harbor, and he and his father support the BBQ2U Racing Team’s five individually owned customer cars. James Crivellone, #160, runs the R3VLimited Forum, which is reportedly the world’s largest online discussion group dedicated to E30s.

To run at the front, these guys have to be well prepared. They collect reams of race data and overlay it with that of their fellow drivers to see where they can improve. James Colborn, #7, a computer savvy Brit, has taught others to analyze data, which he shares freely. That’s common in PRO3 racing, where racers lend parts and even turn wrenches on competing cars. Good sportsmanship rules the day, because each racer wants to win on the track, not in the paddock. “Friends between checkered and green” is a fitting PRO3 motto.

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Colborn, who flew in from New York just for this race, takes top spot at the last session on Saturday, but the weekend isn’t over yet. When the dust settles on Sunday, the previous year’s PRO3 champion, Cody Smith, #225, wins the September event at The Ridge, his second in a row this year.

As the sun sets and quiet darkness covers the paddock, Olsen comes over to me and says, “Did you know that the inner door latch on a BMW E30 can be used as a beer bottle opener?”

The message is clear. If you want to go racing, here’s a way to do it. And it won’t cost an arm and a leg. You could start with your own group of friends and get out there. E30s are reliable, and parts are available and relatively inexpensive. The motor has to remain stock, so if you blow it up it’s not the end of the world. Suspensions are free, but everyone has the same setup, same tires, same brakes. In the end, it’s more about the driver than anything else.

That, and how much fun you can have.

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