Long Beach is an anomaly on the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship schedule. The teams start the season with the two longest races of the year at Daytona (24 hours) and Sebring (twelve hours), then head to the street circuit at Long Beach which is the shortest race on the schedule in terms of duration (100 minutes), one of the shortest tracks they race on in terms of distance (1.968 miles), and the only street circuit.
IMSA teams share the Long Beach race weekend with IndyCar, and thus have limited practice before qualifying, which is especially important for a short race on a tight street circuit. Paul Miller Racing has minimal experience with their new M4 GT3—which they decided to race this year after several seasons with Lamborghini—but that didn’t seem to matter much to Madison Snow, who put the #1 car on the GTD class pole with a 1:14.487 lap, besting the previous GTD class lap record by nearly half a second. “It’s a new car for us this year, so I was incredibly nervous going into qualifying on a street course,” Snow said. “This car definitely feels wide and only racing Sebring so far, it’s like where exactly are the corners on the car and are we going to find it out in qualifying? Thankfully, we didn’t hit anything there.”
The other two M4 GT3s did well initially in qualifying, with Robby Foley slotting the #96 Turner Motorsport M4 GT3 right behind Snow in second in GTD, and Connor De Phillippi qualifying the #25 BMW Team RLL M4 GT3 second behind the #3 Corvette in GTD Pro. Unfortunately, both of those BMWs had three of their fastest laps taken away for exceeding the maximum engine speed permitted by GTD technical regulations. Those penalties put #96 in eighth to start the race in GTD, and #25 in sixth in GTD Pro.
Long Beach usually sees its fair share of crashes, but the first half of the race was relatively trouble-free, and Madison Snow built up a decent lead over the rest of the GTD field as Robby Foley and Connor De Phillippi tried to fight their way from the back. With 30 minutes left in the short race and after a driver change, a full-course caution bunched the cars up and gave Aston Martin driver Maxime Martin (who used to be a BMW works driver) a shot to get past Bryan Sellers, who was co-driving the #1 M4 GT3 with Snow. The two made contact, which resulted in a cut tire for Martin as Sellers was able to continue on. Meanwhile, the Turner Motorsport car was working its way up through the field as other cars retired with issues or had encounters with the turn eight tire wall, which is one of the most challenging turns on the track.
BMW Team RLL botched their pit stop when the quick release driver’s door accidentally released too far and came off its hinges. De Phillippi was working to get the door back on when an RLL crew member came over the wall to help, which exceeded the maximum number of crew allowed over the wall. It was an unusual mistake from the usually flawless pit stops put in by the RLL crew, and effectively ended any chance of a podium finish.
Bryan Sellers managed to keep the lead in GTD and avoid the walls to bring the #1 M4 GT3 across the line in first in the GTD class, which was the first IMSA race win for the M4 GT3. Turner Motorsport driver Bill Auberlen also avoided the late race carnage to end up fourth in GTD, a strong finish after starting at the back. The BMW Team RLL M4 GT3 finished sixth out of six cars in GTD PRO, with the class win going to the Heart of Racing Aston Martin. “Today was awesome!” said Sellers after the race. “There is just something really special about this event. For us, it is extra special because it is our first win with BMW as a team and as a manufacturer.”
The Long Beach event was also special for Bill Auberlen, who was inducted into the Long Beach Grand Prix Walk of Fame on the Thursday before the race along with former IndyCar champion and fellow BMW driver Alex Zanardi, who is still recovering from injuries suffered in a handcycling accident in 2020. “It’s almost surreal,” Auberlen said. “Long Beach has always been my home circuit, so it’s kind of a ‘local kid makes good’ thing, and I’m truly honored. I’m not going to tell them that they selected the wrong guy, but to be with Alex and among those names on that sidewalk and to be inducted into something that’s so amazing is pretty incredible and humbling, for sure. I’ve been fortunate to have such a good, long career, and we can still bring wins and championships to this day. I owe a big debt of gratitude to all the people and the teams that made it possible.”
The next IMSA race is at Laguna Seca in California on the weekend of April 29 through May 1.—David Haueter
[Photos courtesy Kyle van Hoften, BMW Motorsport, LAT Images.]