Always race your heroes: BMW 2002ti at Laguna Seca

It's vintage-BMW fanboy Sam Smith, a 1970 Alpina 2002ti, and the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion.

Sam Smith in the Alpina prepared BMW 2002ti at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion
Chris Cantle

They put my name on it.

S-A-M and S-M-I-T-H on the side windows,
next to a small American flag. When the pictures
hit my email, a few months before the race,
they triggered a sort of coming to grips. An internal conversation began looping in my head:

"They're actually going to let me run it.
What if I f*** it up?"

"Why on earth would you do that?"

"The car's sideways a lot.
People make mistakes."

"Stop being silly. It only makes 220 hp.
You don't usually break things. You'll be fine."

[Momentary gid='6138' type='simple']

There are vintage races every month of the year, but few draw such top-class iron as the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion. The Reunion—now in its 42nd year, and colloquially known for the first 35 as the Monterey Historics—comes at the end of California's famed Pebble Beach "car week" in August. You go there half for the cars that show up—the actual Alfa Romeo P3 with which Tazio Nuvolari won the 1935 German Grand Prix, say, or an entire field of Sixties Trans-Am cars (both there in 2014)—and half because Monterey is a damn Garden of Eden in late summer.

image

Some 62,000 people attended last year's races. I was one of them. I'd been to the Reunion before but never driven in it, which is common. Anyone can go to Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca and walk the paddock. To drive, to step into that impossible little motorsport snow globe, you need a historically significant race car. It must be finished as it was in period, and the organizers have to let you in. Maybe they do, maybe they don't. People have bought million-dollar cars just to find out.

If that sounds elitist, it's not. It's just that gobs of drivers want to run at Monterey each year, and the event is currently capped at around 550 cars. Which is how you end up with a Nuvolari Nürburgring Alfa but not your uncle Jimbo's 800-hp '69 Z/28, whose only provenance is that it was once in the same zip code as Roger Penske's third cousin's dog.

Not to knock that car, but seriously: Nuvolari Nürburgring Alfa.

A handful of carmakers make a practice of running cars at Monterey. BMW of North America, for example, owns a race-prepped 1970 2002ti—the twin-carburetor version of the marque's iconic 2002 sport sedan—that gets woken up for special events like this.

This particular Ti was developed by German tuner Alpina in the late Sixties. It spent part of its life in Europe, then ran in SCCA club racing in the Seventies. I first saw it in high school, at a concours in the late Nineties, after BMW purchased it from the collection of Southern California dealer Vasek Polak. I rode in the car 10 years ago, with BMW factory driver Bill Auberlen, watching as he arm wrestled it through a club event at Denver's Second Creek Raceway. As I got older, the 2002 continued to pop up at vintage races, its friendly face always shockingly small next to anything modern. Seeing it was a happy reminder that, while the world constantly reinvents itself, memories live unchanged in your head. The car also served as a rolling picture of everything worth loving about boxy old iron and the global bar brawl that was Seventies touring-car racing.

image

And so when Editor Webster suggested that a youngish R&T staffer enter the Reunion, to see the event with fresh eyes, I humbly suggested myself, and that we ask to borrow BMW's car. Familiarity would be comforting in Monterey's notoriously expensive traffic, I fibbed. And I could probably be objective about the 2002's merits, I said, lying through my teeth.

Confession: I owned a string of 2002s in high school and college. They were fun and durable, like an Alfa GTV that had traded sexual frenzy for working electrics and an interior not made of cheese. For one reason or another, time and exposure turned the model into my default old car of choice. I've broken 2002s, fixed them, road-raced them, done stupid things in them as a high schooler or college kid. For whatever reason, the BMW's cheery mix of feedback and practicality just stuck in my craw.

And the craws of a lot of other people, apparently. About 390,000 2002s were sold worldwide from 1967 to 1976. Small European sedans had been fast and reliable before, but few made as much of a dent on the automotive landscape. Before the 2002, BMW was virtually unknown outside Europe. After, it had the momentum and funds to become a staggeringly influential power. The four-cylinder, rear-drive 2002 begot the perennially lauded BMW 3-series, which begot the M3, a perpetual industry benchmark.

The Reunion "weekend" covers five days, beginning with weekday practice sessions and ending with spectator-friendly highlight races on Saturday and Sunday. When I arrived at the track on the first day, I met Steve Dickson, vice president of operations at Rahal Letterman Lanigan, the Ohio-based team that manages BMW's historic-race-car fleet in America. As we talked, a passel of vintage Trans-Am cars snorted their way through the paddock. One, a 1970 Plymouth Barracuda, had the words DAN GURNEY on the side. The rest looked like refugees from a Detroit fever dream, all Technicolor hues and famous names on the doors.

image

"This will tell you a lot about vintage racing," Dickson said, chuckling. "We currently have one of the BMW GTP cars in the shop. Sister car to the one Bobby [Rahal] rolled at Sebring in '86. Motors on those things came apart when they were new. We ran this car at Savannah a few years ago, where the engine popped. We fixed it, then took it to the Historics. An old crew guy for the thing walked up in the paddock. 'Cool to see it,' he said. Then, softly, he says, 'You guys had any motor problems?'

"Turns out, in period, they were changing engines three or four times a weekend. Sure enough, later that weekend, the motor pops again. We reassembled it, and Bobby did a test at Mid-Ohio to check for leaks. He comes in after a few laps. 'Car's not bad,' he says. Someone asks him if he's going back out.

"'No,' he says, matter-of-factly. He's not. 'Because it's going to break.'"

As if on cue, a middle-aged man strolled up to the transporter. He looked at the 2002 and smiled sheepishly, hands in his pockets. "You guys, uh, got any parts?"

Dickson raised his eyebrows. The man's face fell. "No, really. We have a 2002 on the other side of the paddock. Blew a CV joint. Any chance you have an axle?"

And so the same thing that happens at every club race on earth also happens in a sun-drenched dreamland full of prewar Alfas and eight-figure Ferraris. These are cars, no matter the price, not untouchable gems. They are made of parts, and those parts break, like anything else. Call me simple, but I found that reassuring.

image

The atmosphere at Monterey is a massive part of the draw. There is, of course, the pin-sharp California weather and the cars. But also the people. At the drivers' meeting on Thursday, in Laguna's lower paddock, a greasy morning fog hung in the air, obscuring nearby hilltops. I stood 15 feet from 33-year-old Porsche Le Mans winner Patrick Long and 72-year-old Datsun-Nissan hero John Morton. Long was guest-driving a short-wheelbase, 8000-rpm 911S; Morton was there with a Sunbeam Tiger. Long, in boat shoes and a hoodie, looked like he had just returned from a walk on the beach on a Sunday.

There were a host of warnings. Close racing was encouraged, but to discourage foolishness, lap times wouldn't be published until late Sunday. And the so-called Canepa Rule, after Northern California sports-car macher Bruce Canepa, was simple: Drop a wheel in the dirt at Laguna's famous Corkscrew, looking for speed, and you get a black flag. There would be a pallet of tires at the apex, and we were told they would magically move closer to the pavement if stewards saw you shortcutting. Canepa, at the side of the group, grinned with a "who, me?" shrug. The crowd laughed.

The proceedings were wrapped up by Gill Campbell, Laguna's no-nonsense general manager. She wore a necklace with a pendant in the shape of the track logo. "The two things I dislike in historic-racing discussions," she said, "are tires and . Also, it is a privilege to have our pro drivers here. Do not try to beat them. They're really good."

And oh, they were. My race group, one of 15, included former Indy driver Lyn St. James in a Lotus 23B. Scottish Le Mans vet Marino Franchitti ran away from Group 5A in a blindingly fast Gulf Mirage. Strolling the grounds was a seemingly endless game of motor-sport flash cards: On the false grid before a practice, I photographed a gray-haired man in an Alfa GTA, realizing only later that it was former F1 driver Nanni Galli. I almost walked into a light pole while doing a double take at Andial co-founder and Porsche legend Dieter Inzenhofer. Derek Bell and Steve Millen strolled inches from me in crowds.

image
Chris Cantle

The talent-car combination was glorious. On Friday, R&T contributor Marshall Pruett put a GoPro camera on Pat Long's helmet for 20 minutes. The video was on the Internet in less than a day; Long's car, acting exactly like an old, short 911 should, was caffeinated in his hands. He drove like something was at stake, arms cracking back and forth in hyperprecise snatches of opposite lock. After ogling the footage on my phone on Saturday, I hiked up to the Corkscrew and watched a 10-car pack of Shelby Cobras burst over the hill and blat down into the fourth-gear Rainey Curve. Every third car seemed to arc past in a tidy, ghosted drift, its small-block Ford thumping and whomping and getting into fittish little arguments with the rear tires. As with Long, I'd seen this sort of thing before, in other places, but Laguna's magic somehow made it brighter.

Which got me thinking. American vintage motorsport has often been slagged by continentals for its timidity. Admittedly, the pastime seems different in Europe; at historic races on the Continent, it's not unusual to see four-wheeled history being flogged within an inch of sanity. For whatever reason, that sight is less common in America, replaced by a seemingly greater diversity of driving talent and a priority on exhibition.

This is neither wrong or right, just a difference in philosophy. Interestingly, the Reunion seems to be a mix of the two approaches. This is partly due to the event's stature—first run in 1974, the Monterey races are prestigious enough to ensure a global draw. (About 8 percent of entries last year were from outside the United States.) Founded by impresario Steve Earle as a forum to exercise outdated racing cars, the weekend grew from a small gathering to a public festival. It now rivals the nearby Pebble Beach concours for star status—no small achievement.

The fiberglass Alpina flares looked like Eighties Hammerpants.

So, I ran two races. They were great. But in a few years, I'll forget the lap times and the battles with other drivers. I'll remember watching that Nuvolari P3 cough to life one chilly morning, paddock empty save the fog and the winey reek of its exhaust. The hills playing tennis with the echo of Paul Newman's old Nissan 300ZX. And above all, the 2002 itself.

image
R&T

At 220 hp and 1990 pounds, the BMW was quick, if mostly in the vintage sense. (At 1:48 and change, my best lap was more than three seconds slower than the fastest Spec Miata race lap at the 2014 SCCA Runoffs, held at Laguna. Even if you discount your author's workaday talent, that's far from scorching.)

But the car's pace didn't matter. I spent hours poking around the 2002 when not on track, staring at the fiberglass hood and trunklid, the rubber-bushed control arms, the throaty Weber side--drafts. The single-cam, 2.0-liter four's exhaust exited under the passenger door in a fist-sized, white-oxide pipe. The fiberglass Alpina flares looked like Eighties Hammer pants, as if someone had stuck an air nozzle into the sills and inflated the car like a balloon. The orange and black Alpina livery, freshly painted that season; the small Sun tachometer; the tiny Momo wheel.

And oh, was it ever a gas to drive. The engine's shove petered off at 7000 rpm, but it sounded like a family of chain saws with a drinking problem. The dogleg five-speed gearbox, a rare period option, had arm-length throws and a vague pattern. It demanded millimeter planning, as if you were teaching someone dance steps for the first time—You will go in this gear now, and then this!—but it kept the engine almost constantly on boil. There was a decent amount of tire, goofily soft springs, chopstick-size anti-roll bars cranked to full stiff. And a limited-slip differential with a good dose of lockup.

image

The combination felt faster than it was. Even with the bars at full crank, body roll was a giddy sailboat heel. The car was loose on the gas, loose off it, loose on trailed brake, loose if you gave it flowers and said nice things about its mother. You had to bend the '02 into a corner with the quickest of slow hands, wait an instant for the rear to set, then grab the throttle. The BMW would then swing its taillights wide, barely slowing down and usually accelerating.

The whole sideshow (slideshow?) was apparently obvious from trackside. One week after the race, a friend emailed me a phone snapshot showing the 2002 plunging through the Corkscrew on opposite lock, black stripes trailing the rear wheels. The shot made me feel like a hero, but truthfully, the car did the work. The only way to keep from drifting was to go almost comically slow; I tried this in practice before realizing the tires weren't staying warm. The next lap, I took the car by the scruff of its neck, tossed it into Turn 4, felt the BMW flick to the apex in a sort of castered jig, and got passed by a Porsche 908/3. After the Porsche disappeared, I tore my eyes from the track for a moment and saw people in the stands actually clapping for it.

Coincidentally, I resolved to be more decisive with the throttle in corners. After which the BMW seemed to come alive, as if to say, what took you so long?

image

The magic of old cars, driven hard: They telegraph their wants in blazing neon. But the experience also reminded me of my deep respect for anyone who drives for a living. After a particularly draining stint, I got out of the BMW covered in sweat, leaning against a stack of tires for support.

Dickson looked over. "Everything okay?"

"Yeah," I lied. "I just need to go back in time 10 years and hit the gym five times a day to get in shape for tomorrow."

I walked the paddock, stared at the unfathomable history massed there, and thought about that 908. The whirling axles and flex joints, visible between the oil-drum rear tires. The car blurring away from me as the 2002 chewed its way down the straight. How the perfect blue sky and everything good about California rotated around my helmet in the Corkscrew, a spinning planetarium sky, as the car swallowed up traffic and romped down the hill.

British motorsport journalist Denis Jenkinson once said that he resented historic racing, because it attempted to replicate a wonderful era that he and his friends had actually lived through. People took it too seriously, he said, and battle-scarred relics deserved more careful preservation. Jenks seemed to see the pastime as a sort of overblown renaissance fair, just with larger egos and no sense of perspective.

The truth, I think, is less cynical. Racing cars of any era are functional sculpture, and like most pieces of industrial design, they're best appreciated in something like their original use. By the same token, most people lucky enough to strap into a race car will probably do something like racing.

The hang-up comes in repair and use: If motorsport and the spending of equipment are inseparable, what happens when the fenders on Car X are destroyed in a crash? What do you have when the replacements aren't the ones that took Driver Y to glory back when?

image

Two ideas seem relevant. One, George Washington's ax—with enough time and use, everything we make entropies into something else. The only cure is to stop the use, which doesn't always serve those items better.

Second, you can't understand how great a 908/3 is until you've had one perforate your ears with its flat-eight or watched its supine fenders chase reflections in traffic. Until you've realized that out there, right now, some living, breathing person is working his ass off in the California light to keep that car underneath him and ahead of someone else.

This is why Monterey is amazing. Track days don't cut it; you need a sense of urgency. And if some honest-to-God racing breaks out in the process, your inner five-year-old freaking out a little just to be there, then we should all thank the universe we're alive, pledge to preserve the equipment, and enjoy the hell out of the moment. Because if that last thing isn't the overriding point in life, I don't know what is.

Advertisement - Continue Reading Below
More From Motorsports