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.

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June 3, 2016

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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“We didn’t have a lot of money and were still disappointed by the early demise of the GTP program,” says Wensberg. “Davy and John had a great time doing that and agreed to help us with the M3 effort. They basically did it for expenses only out of loyalty to BMW, which would never happen today.”

Minimal modifications

Wensberg arranged to have two M3s, chassis numbers 001 and 002, shipped to Korman in advance of the racing season.

“One of the series rules was that the car had to be available for sale in the U.S. by the first of the year in which it ran,” Korman recalls. “BMW hadn’t delivered any cars at that point, but they had taken orders for them, so the series allowed us to run.”

Both cars were pre-production models, and unlike the E30 M3s raced by BMW Motorsport in Europe, they’d be built into race cars from street cars. The Firehawk series permitted minimal modifications, which turned out to be a blessing.

“We got the first car [#002] about ten days before Sebring (on March 20),” Korman says. “Before Sebring, all we could do was get the roll cage in and spend a lot of time on the phone trying to get racing parts. I think the only changes made for Sebring were the roll cage and safety equipment along with some extra brake pads, and all we could get at that time were stock brake pads.”

The M3 was outwardly similar to the E30 325e that Korman had raced in 1986, but it marked a major step up the performance ladder.

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“The neatest thing about the M3 was that it felt like a race car,” recalls Ron Christensen, who had driven with Korman in the 325e and drove a Korman M3 in just about every race in 1987. “It didn’t feel like a showroom stock car. I had been doing showroom stock racing a lot, and the M3 was the first car I had driven in that class of racing that felt like a prepared race car. It had such excellent chassis tuning that made it a beautiful car to race. Even with the stock suspension, it was pretty darn good. The suspension updates we made through the year improved it, but it wasn’t a major step ahead. I liked the car from day one. It was really a joy. It was one of the nicest cars I had ever raced.”

Taking on the V8s

With a 2.0-liter four-cylinder S14 under its hood, the E30 M3 had one of the smaller motors in the Firehawk series compared to cars like the Chevy Camaro, Pontiac Firebird, Nissan 300ZX and Porsche 944. More than the smaller engine, however, the lack of racing-spec brake pads made the 3.5-hour Sebring event a challenge for Korman and Christensen.

“I got up into third before the brake pedal went to the floor and I stayed out there with about 45 minutes left in the dark, just using the engine to slow down,” says Korman. “We still finished in ninth, and we figured if we could finish ninth with no brakes, we’d do pretty well once we got the brakes to last longer!”

In the second round of the season, a 3.0-hour race at the now-defunct Riverside circuit in California, the brakes didn’t have time to become an issue. After having engine trouble in the practice sessions, the M3 blew its engine just four laps into the race. The rebuild that followed forced the team to skip the third round at Phoenix.

After Riverside, Korman made a trip to Germany to get racing parts for the M3 and made an important discovery.

“I was ready to leave when I looked into a parts bin and saw baffles for the oil pan,” he says. “The parts guy there said, ‘Of course you have those,’ and when he found out we didn’t he said that’s why the engine blew at Riverside. He said we couldn’t race without them, and once we put those in we never lost another engine.”

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Indeed, the engine performed just fine in the next round, a 24-hour race at Watkins Glen on June 13, but a freak occurrence ended the race early for the M3 and drivers Korman, Jones and Andretti. During his stint behind the wheel, Korman heard a worrisome noise coming from underneath the car. It remained a mystery until it was time to refuel: The cap popped off under pressure, and when the team looked for the source they realized that the driveshaft had been spinning against the fuel tank, the friction heating up the fuel.

The driveshaft on Korman’s pre-production race cars was larger in diameter than those that would be used on the production cars, and the smaller part was delivered by the next race at Road Atlanta on June 27.

Road Atlanta would also be the first race for M3 #001, the car you see here, and the first for the new 16-inch wheels.

“We originally started on 15-inch wheels, and the brakes got so hot in the 24-hour race at Watkins Glen that you could see the glow from all four on the pavement,” recalls Korman. “We would race for hour after hour with the rotors cherry red. I talked to guys at Ferodo and told them the temperature we were running at, and they said we were going to melt anything we put on there at that temperature. The brake rotor and caliper were so close to the wheel that the wheel would get so hot it would melt the valve stems. The 16-inch wheels were a regular option for the car, so it solved the tire problem when we started using them.”

After three hours of racing at Road Atlanta, both cars finished down the order, with the #28 car (chassis #001) the best placed of the two in 14th.

“We were down on power compared to the other cars,” says Christensen. “Those cars had us by 10-15 mph on the straightaways, which meant you had to use the brakes hard to carry momentum. The 325e had a tremendous advantage with gas mileage over our competitors, but the M3 didn’t really have that.”

Even with slightly better cooling from the larger wheels, the longevity of the brakes remained a challenge throughout the entire season whether they were fitted with stock pads or the racing pads that became available later in the season.

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“We always had to be careful with the brakes since the rules made us use stock rotors and calipers,” says Korman. “All you could change on the brakes were the pads. You weren’t allowed to add brake ducts if the street car didn’t come with them (which the E30 M3 didn’t), and you weren’t allowed to take out the fog lights.”

The floating brake calipers presented a further difficulty, as they had to be unbolted and removed to change brake pads.

“The brakes would be so hot that ordinary leather gloves were insufficient,” says Korman. “The crew used welding gloves soaked in water and held the caliper with large Channellock pliers while the pads were replaced. A second crew member would extract the pads using a smaller pair of pliers, and when the guys finished they would run over and soak their hands in a bucket of cold water and wait for the second car to come in.”

The M3 podiums at Summit Point and Lime Rock…and wins at Watkins Glen

Amazingly, the Korman M3s raced on the stock suspension through the fifth round of the season, yet the cars’ handling—and braking, at least until the brakes overheated—was still good enough to make them capable of racing well against their faster but heavier competition.

“We had to be very strategic to accentuate the handling of the car and the brakes,” says Erik Wensberg. “We used to bait the faster cars into corners and then brake very late, and they would get so angry that we got around them that they would spin off or lose their brakes.”

At the sixth round of the season, a 3.0-hour race at Summit Point in West Virginia on July 12, the Korman team was finally able to upgrade the suspension.

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“By the time we got to Summit Point, we had Bilstein shocks and swaybars and we could finally start really racing it,” says Korman.

The improvement saw a Korman M3 reach the podium for the first time, as Korman and Christensen drove the #28 car (chassis #001) to third place behind two Chevy Camaros; Jones and Andretti finished further back after getting knocked off-course in the #48 car (chassis #002).

After Summit Point, the series traveled to Wisconsin’s Road America for a 3.5-hour race on August 15. A long, fast track, Road America favored the higher-horsepower cars over the four-cylinder M3s.

“The issue at Road America was with going up the hills and down the straights,” says Korman. “We had to shift in the middle of the long hill on the front straight and the Camaros would just drive by, but we could pass them in the corners.

“I found out Davy (Jones) was taking the kink at Road America flat out on street tires [the series required Firestone Firehawk street tires], and I probably wouldn’t have tried that if I didn’t know he was doing it. It was a bit loose, but if everything was just right you could do it. That was probably the highest speed we ever achieved on a track that year.”

Korman, Christensen and Jones finished eighth in the #28 car at Road America, while brothers Tommy and Bobby Archer along with Greg Hobbs (son of former BMW driver David Hobbs) finished 11th in the #48 car. (Since Jones and Andretti weren’t available for every race, Korman and Christensen were joined by other drivers for the rest.)

The short and fast Lime Rock Park circuit has always been a good BMW track, and the Korman M3s followed their strong finish at Summit Point with another podium in the four-hour race in Connecticut on September 15. Christensen and Dorsey Schroeder finished second in the #48 car, while Korman and Willy Lewis came home fourth in the #28 car.

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Following the successes at Summit Point and Lime Rock, everything came together for the team in the six-hour race at Watkins Glen on September 26. The M3s were fast from the start, with Jones setting a new lap record in qualifying with the #28 car. Jones posted a 2:17.8 to put the M3 on the pole, though he had to go a bit over the limit to do it.

“Davy broke the lap record in qualifying by taking Turn Ten flat out,” recalls Korman. “He went all four wheels off into the grass and never lifted!”

Although it was long and fast like Road America, Watkins Glen also had plenty of the tighter turns that favor nimble-handling cars like the M3 over their more powerful rivals. And unlike some of the other tracks on the Firestone Firehawk calendar, it’s not all that hard on brakes.

“Watkins Glen was just a good track for us,” recalls Korman. “We could carry a lot of speed through Turn One and we didn’t lift through the esses, but just kept our foot to the floor through there. Our momentum out of Turn One would let us keep up with the Camaros going up the hill through the Esses. This was before the chicane was put in on the back straight, so you had to be really careful with your braking point, because that was a very fast corner at the end of the straight. I would draft the Camaro down the straight and just watch his brake lights and pass him going into that turn.”

Korman co-drove the #28 car with Jones, who set the fastest race lap on the way to the M3’s first victory of the year, which became a 1-2 finish when the #48 M3 of Christensen and Andretti crossed the line in second.

Having come off a season racing 900-hp prototypes, Jones and Andretti were used to driving much faster cars, but the two young hotshoes on the Korman team were impressed with the E30 M3 nonetheless.

“They couldn’t believe how well the car handled,” says Korman. “The handling was the best of any car out there, which is what let us compete with the V8-powered cars.”

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In addition to great handling, the M3s also had ABS, then a new feature in road cars and not yet in use in the prototypes.

“We put a switch in the cockpit so you could turn the ABS on or off, and both of them at first said, ‘Never mind the switch, we’ll leave it off,’ but after one session of trying the M3 with ABS, they both came in and said to just take the switch out and leave the ABS on all the time! ABS gave us an advantage on braking versus the other cars.”

Neither the ABS nor the handling could get the cars through the season finale on the streets of Columbus on October 3. Brake failure forced both cars to DNF the 3.0-hour race.

“That course was so bad on brakes that the pace car ran out of brakes on the pace lap and crashed,” recalls Korman. “Our brakes just couldn’t hold up there.”

Changing hands

At the end of the 1987 season, having scored a single win and two second-place finishes, BMW of North America pulled the plug on the E30 M3 in the Firehawk series—and on all racing for several years, in fact. The lull wouldn’t end until 1994, when BMW put its support behind the Ed Arnold Racing M5 program that yielded an IMSA driver’s championship for David Donahue [see Bimmer #120]. Following that one-year involvement, BMW NA contracted with Prototype Technology Group to race the E36 M3 in the American Le Mans Series starting in 1995.

The E30 M3 hadn’t been well suited to the Firehawk series in any case, and BMW probably didn’t want to race at a competitive disadvantage. Korman continued to race E30 M3s in the Firehawk series through 1991 nonetheless, though without direct support or development assistance from BMW NA. The M3 remained down on horsepower against the other cars, especially when those that received updates from the manufacturers, but a Korman E30 M3 finished third in the races at West Palm Beach and Lime Rock in 1990, and it won at Portland that year.

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Remarkably, the car you see here, chassis #001 M3, changed hands only a few times before it was purchased by current owner Scott Hughes. At the end of the 1991 season, Korman sold it to Walter Swick, who campaigned it in the Firehawk series in 1993 and ’94, and in SCCA racing for 1995 and ’96 before retiring it from active duty. In December 2004, Swick sold it to Mike Krnc, who used it for HPDE/track days until selling it to Hughes in July 2007.

“I had followed this car for years, and I remember seeing it when it was actively raced,” Hughes says. “I knew Erik Wensberg well and got to know Ray through driving schools and racing, and the car was always on my list of cars that would be great for our collection if we had a chance.”

The car was in great shape and intact when Hughes acquired it, having been well cared for by its previous owners. It had been repainted in German flag colors at some point, but Hughes had a glass-out repaint done to restore the M3’s 1987 livery. Hughes also sourced original decals and had others recreated.

“After we repainted it, we took it to Mid-Ohio and parked it in front of Ray’s trailer,” recalls Hughes. “I walked in and said I had something to show him, and he was quite excited to see his old car exactly the way it used to be. One of the unique things about the car is that it was originally painted in Diamond Schwartz [Black] metallic. Ray likes his cars black, but the story goes that Erik Wensberg made him paint it white with Motorsport stripes. I think Ray got a little bit of a dig back at Erik, because Ray painted it in 1984 Corvette white. When we repainted the car, we did it in 1984 Corvette white, so it was exactly the way it was supposed to be.”

Hughes continues to take the M3 to the track on a regular basis and has entered it in SVRA (Sportscar Vintage Racing Association) and HSR (Historic Sportscar Racing) vintage events. The car was also used to give rides to journalists at the U.S. press introduction of the F80/F82 M3 and M4 at Road America in 2014, with Korman himself at the wheel.

“I would go ripping out of the pits and lean over to the journalists and say, ‘You realize now that you’re in a 27-year-old car with a 79-year-old driver,’ he says. “They would tighten their belts up a bit after I told them that!”

More recently, I had a chance to ride with Korman in this M3 on the track at the BMW Performance Center. The car sounded fantastic, and even from the passenger seat I could feel how tossable and responsive it is. They don’t make M3s or even BMWs like this any more, nor will they ever again.

As Hughes says, “It’s absolutely the uncompromised, perfect race car for the period. It’s great fun!”

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