Those of us who follow BMW racing know that Bill Auberlen is a legend. He’s won more races in a BMW than anyone in the long history of BMW Motorsport and is also the winningest driver in IMSA (International Motor Sport Association) history. So even though he’s still winning and racing today at age 53, it was very fitting that he was invited to drive in the BMW Race of Legends that was held on the Nürburgring Grand Prix circuit on the same weekend as the 24-Hour Nürburgring race.
The Race of Legends was an invitation-only event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of BMW M. The half-hour race was contested by twelve of the most legendary drivers in BMW history in identically prepared M2 CS race cars. Besides Auberlen, the entry included Johnny Cecotto, Steve Soper, Eric van de Poele, Eddie Cheever, Harald Grohs, Olaf Manthey, Jochen Mass, Arturo Merzario, Dirk Adorf, and Prince Leopold of Bavaria. Joining the drivers was head of BMW M, Franciscus van Meel. Auberlen was the youngest of the bunch, while Harald Grohs was the oldest at a spry 78.
The group had limited practice time on the circuit, with three twenty-minute practice sessions, followed by qualifying and the race. Most of them had driven on this track many times over the years, but Auberlen hadn’t been here since 2000 when he drove the V12 LMR there with Jean-Marc Gounon. Steve Soper, who is now 70, had been one of Auberlen’s teammates in 1999-2000 when they both were drivers in the V12 LMR program.
Auberlen quickly found that he would need to be at the top of his game to have a good result in the Race of Legends. “This was supposed to be a race for fun, but that all goes out the window when you put a bunch of former champions together on the same track,” said Auberlen. “Everybody wanted to win. It became competitive very quickly, and I had the engineer that was working with me changing sway bars, wing angles and tire pressures. I had never driven an M2 CS before, but its very similar to the M4 GT4 that I race. The real unknown was the Goodyear tires, but I was surprised how quickly they all came to grips with the M2 CS and how fast they were.”
Auberlen was on the pole in qualifying with a 1:55.037 lap, but the top five drivers (Auberlen, Cecotto, Van de Poele, Adorf, and Soper) were within a second of each other, and Cecotto was only four-tenths off Auberlen. All the drivers were thrown a curve ball when BMW announced just before the race that the order would be inverted, so Auberlen would start last. “I thought, hey maybe you don’t win, but you’re going to have a lot of fun!” said Auberlen. “I told Franciscus van Meel that there might be a few scratches on the cars when we were done!”
Auberlen was right about some of the cars getting scratched up, and then some. There was contact between Van de Poele, Adorf, and Manthey on the first turn, with all three of those cars going off in the gravel. Auberlen was right behind them and had to come to a stop to avoid getting caught up in the melee, which led to a full-course caution.
Once the green flag waved again, Auberlen began to pick off the others one-by-one, though it wasn’t easy. “Harald Grohs is 78 years old and he’s closing the door on me and setting himself up for moves,” said Auberlen. “You see why these guys are all champions. Cecotto then tried to put me in the gravel, and I was racing side-by-side with Soper to get by him.” Once Auberlen got into the lead, Cecotto and Soper were going at it and racing hard, and it was great fun to see these two former Touring Car champions racing each other.
Auberlen ended up winning the race, with Cecotto and Soper joining him on the podium. “The whole event was just a great experience,” said Auberlen. “The other drivers were my heroes in racing. To be driving in the same race with guys like Jochen Mass, Steve Soper, and Johnny Cecotto was a huge honor.” Auberlen is used to being on the podium, but had a new experience on the podium for the Race of Legends. “I don’t think I had ever stood on a podium and had the national anthem played before,” he said. “It was an emotional experience. I felt like I had won the Olympics, and it was an honor to represent America in a way in this historic race.” —David Haueter
[Photos courtesy BMW, Gruppe C Photography]