As recently as ten years ago, I had yet to visit a race track. I was pretty sure that I wasn’t missing anything—until I went to a race track. Now the itch to get back to a track starts about a third of mile into the drive home from a track.
What has me hooked on race-track fun? I can’t really put my finger on it. I know that’s not the best thing for a column, but it’s not because I have nothing; it’s because there’s so much. The atmosphere? The people? Meeting drivers whom we would otherwise see only on TV? Getting up close and personal with the cars that were running at ten-tenths just a few minutes ago? Admiring other cars in the marque corrals, or actually being behind the wheel?
Yes, yes, and more yes.
There is so much about a day at the track—or a weekend!— that for me, the energy I find there checks almost every box. If you’re thinking, “Well, I can’t really just get to a track,” there are more than 1,100 race tracks in the U.S. Sure, there used to be more, but 1,100 is still a lot—an average of 22 per state (although Rhode Island, according to the stats from Road & Track in 2019, has none). These tracks consist of all types of courses: oval, drag strip, road course, hillclimb (we see you out there now, Pike’s Peak people!), land-speed, off-road, figure eight, and more.
If you’re a BMW CCA member, of course, chances are that you know someone who enjoys time at the track. And if not, allow me to introduce you to about a dozen of our BMW CCA friends who know a thing or two about track life.
When many of us think of racing, we might think of Turner Motorsport (IG: @turnermotorsport)—the second-most prolific BMW privateer racing team in the world. The team is as successful on the track as it is in engaging fans. Will Turner (IG: @willturnerbmw) has been at his fair share of tracks, first racing and now running things as team owner and manager. “I really like to get to the track early in the morning when everybody is loading in,” he says. “Things are usually a little dew-covered. People are starting to unload, then all of a sudden the first engine will start up, and it’s just exciting! No matter how many times you hear it, it’s still exciting. Then, of course, there’s a smell of hot rubber and race fumes—nothing better!”
Well, there might be something better: Add more podium finishes to that equation. If you race, you probably like winning, and one guy who does both often is one of the Turner Motorsport drivers, Robby Foley (IG: @foleyracingrfr). In fact, he just claimed a podium finish at his first International GT Open at Spa, hours after sharing his thoughts with me. “My favorite racing experience so far has to be winning Petit Le Mans,” Foley says. “I’d say the number one thing I enjoy the most about the track is the driving. That’s what I fell in love with, and what makes me feel alive. Second to that are the people; I’ve met so many great people in racing, from fans to team members to so many people in the industry.”
Most of us aren’t going to be standing on the podiums of the national and international stages, but many of us might take driving and racing lessons. Steve Stepanian is the BMW CCA Driving Events Committee chair. He’s pretty handy with his Spec E46 (and Spec E30) racers, and like me, he has trouble narrowing down his track enjoyment to just one thing. “There are so many things I love about going to the race track,” he says. “I love taking my car to the track so I can socialize with friends who also enjoy the feel of speed and focus that it takes to complete a seriously fast lap. I also treasure the fact that I am alone in the car with just my thoughts—and whatever abilities I showed up with that day.”
Stepanian shares a common approach that many instructors bring to the track. “I get a great satisfaction taking others to the track or meeting people new to track driving and sharing my passion for the sport,” he continues. “As for racing, I get to own my successes and errors: You either hit the apex or you don’t. You’ve either maximized your car’s potential in a corner, or you left some time on the table. I treasure the fact that I can go to the track alone and work on my driving and setup, or I can go with a group of friends and fellow racers and drive until we are exhausted. The part I appreciate most is that I usually end up smiling, no matter which takes place.”
Walking around the paddock at a race—regardless of the size of the series—is also a sure-fire way to generate smiles. Andy Wong—informally the head chef for MF Racing—sees those smiles and contributes to them, too. “We look at MF Racing as the eating and drinking team with a racing problem,” Wong jokes. “MF Racing likes to provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner to many fellow racers. It builds camaraderie. We’re all out at the track, and it’s nice to help fellow racers with food and drink. Racers can focus on racing and not have to worry about scrounging for food. Some race tracks aren’t the most hospitable places. Lots of racers and crew camp at the track. By offering food and drink, it makes the racing experience more fun for everyone.” If you’re at a track, look for Wong and MF Racing—I can confirm that the food is great!
Like Wong and MF Racing, race-car builder and driver Ken Blasko (IG: @vintagebmwracing) is part of the vintage-racing segment, running with groups like VARA, SVRA, and CSRG. Vintage-car racing completely captivates me; while so much technology goes into modern racing, I’ve always been drawn to vintage events. Blasko explains what does it for him: “A vintage racing event is like camping with race cars. I recently used that idea to encourage a new crew member to come out to the races. At his first race event at Buttonwillow, the first thing he said as he came out of his truck-based tent was, ‘Yeah, that’s it—waking up to the sound of race cars starting at 7:00 a.m.!’”
“The act of driving a race car involves so much focus that all of life’s distractions drop away. It’s meditative,” Blasko adds. “Also interesting is spending 50 hours building an engine, being deliberate and careful in every step, then taking it to the track and watching the tach spin to 8,000 rpm, thinking, ‘I built that thing!’ or ‘I can beat on this engine and it keeps on giving.’”
Time Attack is also a popular form of motorsport that has racers running against the clock, and not specifically against the other drivers and cars—but there is still a strong spirit of competition. I’ve found this to be really cool to watch, especially when you have friends out there ripping around the track. North Carolina resident Troy Lu Pung (IG: @tlpung1) races an E36 M3, but he has fun in and around the race car at events. “Pretty much the camaraderie is the best aspect of it,” Lu Pung explains. “You compete against each other and want to win, while the whole time you’re trying to figure out your car and the track. In between the sessions, you’re in the paddock—connecting, networking, and trying to improve yourself. A lot of drivers are willing to help and have plenty of advice. Every time I’m at the track, I learn more and more. Speed is fun, cars are fun, but camaraderie is where it takes it to the next level—almost like a cherry on top.”
On the other coast, LA Chapter member Ryan Castro (IG: @ryanzcastro) also races an E36 M3 (although with a little domestic engine swap) in Time Attack. “I love wheel-to-wheel racing because it’s awesome to race amongst friends and battle it out on the track,” he says. “Great camaraderie! I got into it with an E30 twenty years ago. I always wanted to go fast. I took a break for about twelve years and then got back into it after founding Motorsport Hardware (IG: @motorsporthardware) partly to prove our parts. But while it’s fun to test our parts, the racing bug has definitely struck. Any weekend at the track is a good weekend!”
Someone who shares that same sentiment, but not necessarily from the driver’s seat, is Golden Gate Chapter member Mike Gessner (IG: @calbears96). “Being a BMW CCA member does have its perks,” he says, and there is no better place than the race track to enjoy those benefits. Chapters can host car corrals or even arrange meet-and-greets with the various BMW teams at races. It’s one thing to see that BMW on the track; it’s another level when you can get up close and personal with the race car—and perhaps even sit in it! You’ll also get time to chat with the drivers and their supporting team. And there’s nothing like seeing a BMW win or finish on the podium in person. You may even get to hold the trophy with a driver!”
One driver getting quite familiar with holding trophies at race tracks is Samantha Tan (IG: @samanthaatan). Samantha Tan Racing won the 2020 GT4 America Team Championship, and in 2021 she has been on the podium for a number of European races in the 24 Hour Series there. She’s another example why it’s great fun visiting race tracks. “When I’m at the track, I feel at home,” she says. “The smell of race fuel in the morning, getting to see my team and meeting my fans, the feeling when I finally get to put my helmet on and get in the car—I love how racing continuously pushes me to improve, to find those last milliseconds per corner, to really put my head down, train hard, and prove my haters wrong by succeeding against the odds. I love the competition, the adrenaline rush I feel when I four-wheel drift and perfectly nail a corner, when I’m completely in the zone and everything in the background fades out. More than anything, I love the feeling when I step onto the podium and get to share that experience with my racing family. I thrive at the race track and cherish the memories I’ve made there.”
It really is amazing to attend a race and be able to walk by team trucks and tents and see what the race teams and drivers are experiencing. Connor De Phillippi (IG: @cdephillippi), one of the drivers on BMW Team RLL in IMSA, shared what it’s like for him. “For me personally, the dynamic between the drivers within our BMW Factory program is unique,” he says. “We have a great time together even after a rough day at the track, and there is this ability to switch between laughing one minute and being ready to execute a twelve-second driver change the next. The parallel balance of friendship and competition is one of my favorite aspects of what I get to do in motorsport.”
“As far as my favorite challenge,” adds De Phillippi, “I’d say trying to drive the perfect lap in qualifying, or the race out of pit lane on cold tires after a pit stop—something about squirming around on cold tires gives me an adrenaline rush.”
While just attending races as a spectator can be fun for many, if you want to get a taste for racing, the BMW Performance Centers provide great introductions. BMW CCA member Kayla Delehant (IG: @kayladelehant), who has a YouTube channel for The Car Girl, recently visited BMW Performance Center West in Thermal, California. She had fun, but also prefers road-course racing—to drive or watch. “There is a synchronicity that happens between you, the car, and the race course,” she says. “You push further, your natural instincts of determination and resilience to win kick in, and nothing else exists beyond that moment. It becomes a part of you. It’s in my blood. Similarly, much like racing a car, the experience of watching an event live is an overtaking feeling of adrenaline.”All of these testimonies, and I still can’t put my finger on one thing that keeps bringing me back to the track. The good news is that I appear to be in very good company: Sam Smith (IG: @thatsamsmith), all-around automotive enthusiast, driver, mechanic, great guy, and brilliant writer (now with Hagerty), has driven plenty of cars. I really enjoyed watching his youthful exuberance when he got to drive BMW NA’s #25 BMW 3.0CSL at the Rolex Monterey Motorsports Reunion in 2018; it was such a perfect encapsulation of the track experience.
“The track? There’s just something about it,” says Smith. “All of the challenge and the concentration and the focus, sure—all great and unique. But the feeling of the thing is what always gets me—that separation from real life, where you’re immersed in something that requires your full attention, hard at work, and yet also having a great time. Plugged in and unplugged at once. Romance and art and math, in equal parts.”
Yes, yes, and more yes.—Kyle van Hoften
[Photos courtesy Kyle van Hoften unless otherwise stated.]