Conquering Pikes Peak has become a bit of an obsession for James Clay. What started as a first run up the mountain in 2017 in a relatively mild E92 M3 has turned into gunning for an Open Class track record in a tricked-out E36-M3-bodied purpose-built race car that makes well over 1,000 horsepower. Clay and the BimmerWorld crew went to Pikes Peak this year with every intention of getting that record, but the mountain had other plans.
The BimmerWorld E36 M3 Pikes Peak car is one of the wildest and craziest BMW race cars ever, with huge wings and aero appendages that are especially effective at Pikes Peak. Upgrades for the 2022 run included a carbon fiber body that reduced the car’s weight by 200 pounds (now 3,000 pounds with driver and a full tank of ethanol), , increased downforce, and a P63 V8 engine (found in milder form in the M6 GT3) that was cranked up to make around 1,400 horsepower.
Another major upgrade this year was a revamped rear suspension with rocker arms and a third spring, which made the car more compliant and balanced. “In previous years, a major lack in rear suspension was that we couldn’t properly package a rear sway bar,” said Clay. “Now we have a rear bar that doesn’t limit the articulation to the rear, which is important on the switchbacks at Pikes Peak.”
Proper testing before a race weekend is always an important step, but it’s a challenge to test properly for Pikes Peak on a traditional race track. “You have to be careful with testing,” said Clay. “We added the third spring, but we really don’t use it in the traditional manner. It’s really more for the bumps and super-rough surfaces of Pikes Peak. When we test, we have almost double the downforce from the altitude difference (because of thinner air at Pikes Peak), so you can end up in a weird box when you test on typical tracks. We did a lot of computer work as well.”
Once the team got to Pikes Peak, they found that the M3 was pretty well set up, with just some mild aero adjustments needed to dial in the balance. “Our biggest issue last year was the understeer we couldn’t dial out and we didn’t have that issue this year,” said Clay. “Most of that is because of the rear sway bar.” Clay also found that he was more comfortable with taking a 1,400 horsepower race car up an unforgiving mountain that leaves little room for error. “This was the first year I’ve done Pikes Peak in consecutive years. That combined with this being the fourth time I’ve been on the mountain really sharpened everything up a lot,” he said. “We spent three days at the Pikes Peak test days and then the race week, and every day was a step forward.”
The one big variable that can make or break a record run up Pikes Peak is the weather, which was a significant factor in this year’s event. “We had beautiful days in testing and then the weather rolled in on Friday evening,” said Clay. “At least it was a little warmer. There was snow overnight but it melted off so the road was starting to clear, but it was wet and variable on race day. Nobody knew what tire to run and there was a lot of uncertainty.”
Clay and the BimmerWorld crew decided to go with rain tires. Clay had a good run going, but didn’t realize just how good at the time. “I finished the bottom section around seven to nine seconds in the lead and was still up around four seconds on Rhys (Millen) after the middle section,” he says. “At that point, that would have been good to know because in the car it felt like I was crawling.” A lack of radio communication on the mountain makes it hard to get updates on where you stand amongst the competition, which may lead the team to start using spotters more next year. Clay also had a moment on one particular turn where the car started sliding toward the guardrail before the tires found grip, so there’s always a balancing act between going all out while wanting to preserve the car and yourself.
Ultimately, Clay finished eleventh overall and second in the Open Class behind Pikes Peak legend Rhys Millen. A great result, but Clay is already thinking about next year. “I was actually not disappointed, but this was the first year that we truly had it all together and on a level that we could have gone for the class record,” he said. “It’s not one of those things I want to go to every year, but if I do something I want to win it. There’s also the magnitude of the event with all the logistics and the effort you have to go through to build the car to make it work on that mountain. It’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in motorsport and having the challenge makes it all that more alluring.”
Clay says he already has a healthy list of updates and changes he wants to make to the M3 for next year, including more weight reduction, more power, different turbos, and more aero work. While making improvements to the car is within the BimmerWorld team’s control, the one thing that they cannot control is the weather. If the weather on Pikes Peak decides not to cooperate, all could be for naught–and that’s a big part of the challenge.
Want to watch Clay’s run up Pikes Peak? Check it out here.
[Photos by Kevin Adolf]