Michael Mills wasn’t sure how his 2016 racing campaign would work out. He knew he had a limited budget for his No. 46 Mills Racing BMW Z4 GT3 but he wanted to compete in the Pirelli World Challenge again.
Mills, the 2014 GTA class champion from Houston, saw an opportunity to race for another championship in 2016 and that chance came in the inaugural SprintX division, a 60-minute, two-driver category with three doubleheader race weekends.
“We knew our funding was limited in 2016 and we had planned for just four races in the Pirelli World Challenge,” said Mills, who started his auto racing career in his late 20s after competing in motorcycles for many years. “Initially, we were going to go to COTA, CTMP, Road America and Mid-Ohio in GTA. But then we started to look at the new SprintX format. And it fit into our program nicely.”
Mills, whose dad raced in the NHRA Pro Stock drag racing division in the 1970s, decided to concentrate on the three SprintX weekends (CTMP, Utah Motorsports Campus and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca) after he recorded two GTA podium finishes (2nd and 3rd) at the PWC season opener at COTA.
“We had a large number of guests and business associates come to COTA and we made the GTA podium in both races,” Mills said. “Martin (Fuentes, the 2016 GTA champion) and the Ferrari were fast at COTA and their BoP (Balance of Performance) seemed ahead of the other GTA cars. But we felt good about the finishes. After those events, we studied the SprintX series and it was a series we wanted to try.”
Mills recruited veteran Canadian driver Kuno Wittmer, a factory BMW driver and past sports car champion, to challenge for the SprintX GT division title.
“The first SprintX events (double-header) were at CTMP and both Kuno and I had won there over the years,” Mills explained. “So we thought we had a very good combination to win in the first two SprintX races of the year. That combo was strong there.”
Mills and Wittmer captured both SprintX events at CTMP and established themselves as the team to beat the GT division championship in the first year of SprintX class.
Mills has had a successful auto racing career for the past decade but the veteran competitor almost had his motorsports activities end abruptly while racing on two-wheels.
“I started in bicycle racing when I was younger and moved into motorcycles,” said Mills, who has served as construction, facilities and operations manager at MSR Houston, a race facility south of Houston. “I won the national championship in road racing motorcycles in 2003 but I had a bad crash in 2004 which broke my wrist and really crushed my right ankle. I knew it was time to move into cars at that point.”
But Mills’ ankle didn’t heal as he would have liked and driving the typical “heel and toe” style with his foot took time to develop.
“I can put weight on the ball of my right foot but it took some time to work on my ‘heel and toe’ foot action due to the foot not working exactly as it should,” he said. “It wasn’t possible to repair my ankle back to 100 percent. But I have made the most of it and I continue to love racing.”
Mills and his partner Wittmer did make the most of the 2016 PWC season with the team’s limited budget. Michael and Kuno finished second and third despite a broken shock and held the SprintX GT point lead entering the final event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca.
“For the final race at Laguna Seca, we knew Kuno had a conflict in Europe to qualify for the 24 Hours of Nurburgring,” Mike said about the SprintX finale. “We wanted to win the SprintX title for BMW after their support this year and we were able to replace Kuno with John Edwards, who had raced with Rahal-Letterman-Lanigan’s BMW for several years. John knew the Z4 GT3 car and he helped with the car’s setup. The car was a little too stiff with the chassis early but we made some adjustments.”
After a fourth place in the first MRLS SprintX race, the Mills team’s adjustments worked and Michael and Edwards took the victory in the sixth and final 60-minute feature to secure the inaugural SprintX Sportsman GT crown for Mills.
“It was exciting to win the final race and the championship,” said Mills. “The SprintX series fit the window for me and the team and it’s great to bring in pro drivers to race with the sportsman drivers. I think you saw some very exciting racing in SprintX this year and I would expect it to continue in 2017. Plus we like the fact that our cars and series receives some good TV time for our sponsors. That doesn’t happen with the smaller classes in other forms of sports car racing. They hardly get any TV time. I think the SprintX series is a good fit for many race teams.”
Mills and his Mills Racing team look for the future after the success with their BMW Z4 GT3 machine in 2016.
“We would like to move up to the new BMW M6 car if possible in the future,” Mills said. “However, we need to sell the Z4 GT3 first and then look at the budgets. But I would like to come back to the SprintX class again. It was fun.”
In 2017, the season-opening PWC SprintX double-header weekend is set for Virginia International Raceway on April 28-30.