During his short, but illustrious tenure as a BMW AG board member, Bob Lutz (LEFT) set up BMW Motorsport, then led the establishment of BMW North America Inc. in March 1975.
Within days, the No. 25 BMW 3.0 CSL (MAIN) piloted by Brian Redman, Allan Moffat (substituting for Ronnie Peterson), Hans-Joachim Stuck and Sam Posey won the 12 Hours of Sebring. It was a seminal moment for both BMW and IMSA, as BMW’s inaugural marketing program in North America was also the company’s first motorsport program in the States.
For BMW, it began an almost continuous relationship with IMSA that would yield 190 victories through the end of the 2018 season, placing it fifth on the manufacturer’s win list – a remarkable achievement when considering that BMW has never fielded the volume of cars that those ahead of them on the list have.
For IMSA, the arrival of the BMW Motorsport team, led by Jochen Neerspach and master engine designer Paul Rosche, along with drivers like Redman, Stuck, Peterson and Posey – known as “The Cowboys” for being the first Bavarians to compete in the “Wild West” – helped to truly put the “International” in IMSA by paving the way for more drivers and teams from abroad to race in the series.
The BMW “Batmobiles” won five times during their debut IMSA season. A year later, Peter Gregg left Porsche to partner Redman in the No. 59 BMW 3.0 CSL. The pair took overall victory at the 1976 24 Hours of Daytona and Gregg scored a second win, at Talladega.
“Those first two seasons established a fast friendship between IMSA and BMW, and made it clear to North American consumers that BMW stands for Bavarian Motor Works,” says BMW NA Motorsport Manager Victor Leleu. “One more lasting gift from Lutz was our tag line, ‘The Ultimate Driving Machine’ – something we’ve endeavored to reinforce ever since.”
In 1977, BMW partnered with McLaren North America Inc. to create the “Flying Brick,” a flame-spitting BMW 320i Turbo that produced an unreal amount of power from a turbocharged, 2-liter, four cylinder engine. David Hobbs tallied eight wins over three seasons against a battalion of Porsche 934s and 935s.
“The 320i Turbo was North America’s introduction to the then all-new BMW 3 Series – perhaps the single most important model to BMW over the years,” says Leleu. “Furthermore, the turbo technology pioneered for the 320i Turbo IMSA program laid the foundation for BMW’s 1983 Formula 1 World Championship-winning engine in the Brabham BT52.”
By the early 1980s, GT-based cars had reached their zenith, at least as the top class in sports car racing. BMW saw the writing on the wall early on, and teamed up with March to produce what some call the first GTP car in the M1/C of 1981. It relied less on brute power and more on groundbreaking aerodynamics, as much alchemy as it was engineering in those days. Hobbs and Marc Surer were charged with the driving duties, managing a best finish of fourth place in Portland.
Five years later, BMW returned with the GTP. The chassis began life as a March 86G, which BMW heavily revised. Fitted with a Formula 1-derived, 2.1-liter, turbocharged, four-cylinder engine, the BMW GTP was capable of an official 700hp in race trim and up to 900 in qualifying guise. It made the car blazingly fast, yet achingly unreliable. Still, a young Davy Jones and John Andretti piloted the BMW GTP to its sole win at Watkins Glen in 1986.
“Andretti and Jones represented BMW’s long established Junior program, something we continued during our Formula BMW program from 2004 through 2009,” says Leleu. “Drivers like Graham Rahal, James Hinchcliffe, Tommy Milner and Robert Wickens all started their careers as Formula BMW Junior drivers.”
Having dominated European touring car racing with the first-gen M3, BMW decided it was time to take on America with the second and, eventually, the third generations of the M3. In what was a prolific era for the marque from 1995 through 2006, a BMW M3 crossed the finish line in first place an amazing 53 times from 118 races entered by BMW Team PTG.
That was also when an upstart driver from Southern California began a career that, by the end of 2017, would net him 400 race starts for BMW – more than any other driver in history. Bill Auberlen is the only driver to win at least one race in all of the eras and manifestations of IMSA’s history across multiple categories, driving virtually every BMW competition car.
The turn of the century gave rise to two cars indelible in the mythology of racing BMWs. First was the V12 LMR prototype. As at the dawn of the GTP era, BMW was again prescient, paving the way for a new era of prototype racing in IMSA that still continues. The V12 LMR, run by Schnitzer Motorsport, won on its debut at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1999 with drivers JJ Lehto, Tom Kristensen and Jörg Muller. After winning at Le Mans, the V12 LMRs returned stateside, and finished runners-up in the ALMS Team Championship despite missing two rounds.
Second was the M3 GTR, a car so revered, it’s enshrined not only in motor racing history, but also as a star of the video-gaming world as well. Outfitted with extra-wide wheel arches and a 4-liter V8 in its snout, the M3 GTR won seven races during the 2001 ALMS season, crushing the opposition so handily, it was effectively outlawed by the 2002 rulebook.
Following another brief hiatus, BMW Motorsport returned with Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing as its team partner. From 2009 to present day, BMW Team RLL has campaigned the M3 GT, Z4 GTE, M6 GTLM and M8 GTE, netting numerous wins plus the team championship in 2010 and the driver, team and manufacturer titles in 2011.
For IMSA’s 50th anniversary season, BMW Team RLL returns for a second season with the M8 GTE, hot off of two GTLM class wins at the end of 2018. Driver John Edwards, once the young gun of the team, returns as one of the senior members of the squad alongside season regulars Connor De Phillipi, Jesse Krohn and Tom Blomqvist.
The 2019 Rolex 24 At Daytona will also feature a very special driver – Alex Zanardi (LEFT), who joins Colton Herta, Philipp Eng and Chaz Mostert for the twice-around-the-clock classic. Zanardi will pilot the M8 GTE using a uniquely-designed steering wheel and hand-operated brake lever engineered by BMW Motorsport over a 15-year relationship with Zanardi.
“Alex’s participation in the Rolex 24 is a celebration of one man’s spirit, and represents how strong the synergy is between our racing and road car programs,” says Leleu. “BMW has been among the first manufacturers to introduce anti-lock braking and digital motor electronics proven in our racecars to our road cars. I have no doubt that in future years we’ll see the kind of mechanical and electronic systems we are pioneering with Alex on the race track help many more drivers’ lives to be better and safer on the road.”
In what might be the most competitive class, BMW Team RLL is poised to add yet another winning chapter in its IMSA story.