A home-built S54-swapped 1988 E30 M3 took top honors in the Vintage Class of the 2022 Tire Rack One Lap of America. This particular first-generation M3, equipped with a third-generation M3 drivetrain, was piloted by its creator, Mike D’Abreu, and One Lap veteran and co-driver Neil Simon. In addition to finishing first in the Vintage Class, this team, named “Old & Slo” (because that’s what’s on the car’s vanity plate), finished eighteenth overall in a field of over 80 entrants—some with factory backing and sponsorship. Pretty cool, right?!For those not familiar with One Lap of America, buckle up: It’s story time. After a few evolutions of Brock Yates’ now-infamous early-1970s Cannonball Sea-to-Shining-Sea Memorial Trophy Dash, a race on public roads from New York City to Redondo Beach, California, the Cannonball One Lap of America was born in 1992. This began the era of the current format, which consists of a week of transiting to race tracks all over the U.S., with one-lap time-trial competitions taking place at each track. So, just as with the original, there’s still plenty of driving over the course of the week, but the timed racing is saved for the track.
How did this particular E30 M3 come to achieve such greatness?
Before we learn how Mike D’Abreu gave it a new lease on life, it’s story time again. The E30 M3 wasn’t D’Abreu’s first BMW, or even his first M3; those titles were taken by a 1993 AVUS Blue Euro-spec E36 M3 powered with a S50B30 engine—the one Jason Camisa said not to buy in favor of the less expensive U.S.-based S52—which Mike still owns today. He says, “I treated it like a Cars & Coffee car, washed it every weekend, and didn’t want to get any dirt on it.” That held true until D’Abreu signed up for his first autocross. He recalls, “That’s when I met Joey Gill—now one of my good friends—who convinced me to go to my first track event. Like most people that age, I already thought I was a good driver; I thought the track was too dangerous, and I loved my car too much for something to happen to it.”It took Gill more than a year to get D’Abreu out to the track, but as you can probably guess, Mike was hooked after his first event—Hyperfest at Summit Point Motorsports Park, about fifteen years ago. “After the first day, I was hooked,” says D’Abreu. “I don’t think I washed the car again for another two years after that. It just opened a whole new world for me.”
D’Abreu jumped into that new world with both feet, attending as many track events as he could—and quickly becoming an instructor, which helped with his development and provided free track time. From not wanting to get his E36 M3 dirty to not washing it at all, the track bug had bitten him hard.“This was also the time I started to work on cars,” says D’Abreu. “This goes hand-in-hand, because I couldn’t afford to keep taking my car to the shop. At every track event, I would find a weak point.” As with most things, practice makes perfect, and D’Abreu became a proficient mechanic. He says, “Weekends that weren’t spent at the track were dedicated towards maintaining, upgrading, and fixing the car for the next event.”
These skills certainly came in handy later.
D’Abreu had transitioned from autocross to track, student to instructor, and his next transition was into racing. But he wasn’t going to race his Euro E36 M3—“You shouldn’t track a car that you’re not willing to walk away from,” he says. “Looking ahead, I saw that the Spec E36 class was coming up and wanted to race in it, so, I bought a 220,000-mile E36 325i. I stripped it out, prepped it for the track, and went up and down the East Coast driving on different tracks, which really accelerated my learning curve.”
Once D’Abreu was running the same lap times as top Spec E36 drivers, he entered competition school the following season, set up his car for NASA Spec 3 regulations, and entered the NASA Spec 3 class, where he competed successfully for a number of years.An E30 M3 wasn’t really on D’Abreu’s radar until 2013; he was planning to build an S54-swapped non-M E30 that he could drive to the track, instruct in, and then drive home. “After years of racing and having track cars, I wanted to have a fun street car that I could track as well,” he says. “I felt that I developed enough discipline in driving skills where I could keep myself out of trouble. I was always so fascinated with cars that came to the track that were street-legal, yet so capable.” As fate would have it, D’Abreu happened across an E30 M3 ad on Craigslist one morning. It was a good deal for an E30 M3 that was a little rough around the edges, and for D’Abreu’s purposes, it was perfect. After performing a compression test, D’Abreu paid for the car and drove it home, where the stock 2.3-liter, 192-horsepower four-cylinder S14 engine remained in place while he gathered parts for the S54 engine swap, which started in 2019.
For those not familiar with M GmbH’s ultimate naturally aspirated six, the S54 is the 3.2-liter inline six that was factory-delivered in the E46 M3, the final run of the Z3 M coupe and roadster, and the Z4 M roadster. In stock form it produced 333 horsepower, and it sings a wicked song. As you can imagine, it turns a lightweight E30 M3 chassis into a rocket ship.After amassing a wealth of mechanical knowledge and skills from his racing pursuits, D’Abreu put those skills to work. Over the course of three years, the car was on jack stands receiving a plethora of parts: the drivetrain and subframes from a Z3 M coupe, all new suspension components and bushings throughout, a custom-valved suspension by Barry at 3DM, a big-brake kit, a new fuel tank—the list goes on. “I wanted to do it slowly and do it right,” says D’Abreu. “I wanted everything to be new because I didn’t want to have to chase and replace old and broken parts every track week. I wanted to run reliably.” Meanwhile, D’Abreu and Neil Simon had been occasionally commenting on each other’s motorsports-related posts on Facebook. D’Abreu recalls Simon saying, “This year One Lap is coming to Summit Point. You should come meet everyone and check it out.” So, soon after completely transforming his E30 M3, D’Abreu drove it to Summit Point Motorsports Park in 2021 when One Lap stopped by the West Virginia track, which lies about an hour from D’Abreu’s home in Virginia. There he saw Simon, who was competing in the event.
During a break, a number of people, including Simon, gathered around D’Abreu’s E30 M3 creation in the paddock. Simon said, “You need to do One Lap in this car next year.”Simon says, “I knew Mike from being at the track. I was a BMW guy, and he would always have some interesting and fast BMWs. He raced Spec 3 for a while, and I had a bunch of friends racing in Spec 3. He’s clearly a very good driver. One year he expressed some interest in One Lap, and a couple of years ago we were passing through Summit Point. Mike and one of his dogs came along, and I gave him a tour of the paddock—and he was hooked!” Now, Simon is a One Lap veteran. He’s actually competed in seventeen One Lap events, so he knows a thing or two (or 100), and he knows a person or two (or 100) when it comes to the event and the community of people who surround it. Recalling his first One Lap, Simon says, “A close friend of mine and long-time BMW CCA active enthusiast, Woody Hair, reached out to me and asked if I was interested. At that point I had a ’99 Z3 M coupe that I had modestly modified, and it just sounded like a wonderful adventure.” That M coupe served as Simon’s One Lap car for the first eight events, until it was replaced with a 1 Series M Coupe. D’Abreu recalls his interest and motivations for participating in One Lap, saying, “I remember thinking it would be nice when I finally learn to be a good driver to actually pilot a fast car using the skills that I’ve learned. And not only that, but I love traveling to different tracks. So, the competition of One Lap—also the travel part of it—always enticed me. It was always a dream for me to have a car capable of competing.” With D’Abreu’s more-than-capable driving skills and his very capable and transformed E30 M3, one thing led to another, and after a number of discussions, the duo decided to join forces for One Lap 2022. With a plan in place, Mike continued to fine-tune the car and attended driving schools at tracks on the One Lap schedule to get as much experience as possible. In 2022, One Lap included seven tracks, two skid pads, one autocross, and 4,100 miles of driving over the course of the seven-day event. The longest transit was 700 miles from Barber Motorsports Park in Birmingham, Alabama, to Hallett Motor Racing Circuit in Jennings, Oklahoma. It was during this night transit that the car hit something in the road—likely an animal, based on evidence later found under the car—an event which may have cracked the front subframe. Simon, who always seems to find the silver lining, looks at the incident as one of his highlights of the week. He says, “Mike did most of the driving. We found that we had a competitive car—although we did have one scary failure when some welds in the subframe started coming apart. A wonderful fellow competitor [Scott Donaghue of Late Entry Motorsports in Kansas City, Kansas] opened his shop in the middle of the night, got out his welding equipment, and took care of the problem.”
He adds, “That’s part of the One Lap experience: All of the competitors do whatever it takes to keep everyone going and on the road. So we soldiered on—the car was fantastic, and Mike and I had a wonderful time together.” Both D’Abreu and Simon agree that this camaraderie exemplifies the spirit of One Lap.D’Abreu laughs when I ask his highlight of the week. “As a joke, I probably should say being able to go to Buc-ee’s and stock up. I bought a bunch of stuff at Buc-ee’s, and Neil gave me constant crap about it. I’m a huge Buc-ee’s fan,” he says.
“Mike was a little out of control with Buc-ee’s,” Simon laughs.
“Buc-ee’s is like a Wawa or Sheetz on steroids,” explains D’Abreu. “It’s really good food, really good snacks, really good bathrooms, and a huge gas station. It’s absurd! Some people are really obsessed with it, and apparently I became one of those people.”D’Abreu and Simon agree that much like the BMW CCA, the people are what make One Lap special. Simon says, “It’s the people and their cars. Some show up with pretty stock cars, but on the other hand there are lots of folks like me who love to modify cars. It’s a wonderful, crazy bunch of folks. Although you don’t sleep or drink a lot, it’s a week-long motorsports party.”
Reflecting on their E30 M3 chariot for the week, he adds, “It’s a wonderful car—an E30 M3 with an S54 is just a beast on track. The purists may not like it, but it’s just a sweet setup. Mike had the suspension really dialed in with some high-end Ohlins, and it sure worked well. It was a wonderful One Lap car—just comfortable enough for the transits with a lovely interior, which Mike had redone in new leather. But, wow, it’s quick on track!”D’Abreu was also impressed. “For what the car is, it did incredibly well,” he says. “At first I approached the event just hoping to finish. It’s the first car that I built from the ground up. There’s no shop that did any work on this car. For me, to be able to survive One Lap was already a huge positive in my mind, let alone to have a top-twenty finish in a car that I built to be a fun instructing car was something else.” The fact that D’Abreu’s home-built S54-swapped E30 M3 took first place in the Vintage Class and eighteenth overall in a field of over 80 competitors it’s a testament to the car and the team’s driving skills. I had the opportunity to drive D’Abreu’s E30 M3 shortly after he returned from his week of transits and racing, the car still adorned with One Lap decals. To put this experience in perspective, I own a 134-horsepower 1991 E30 318iS. I spend a lot of time in the seat of my 318iS, including track time at Summit Point Motorsports Park. It is by no means a fast car, but I have fun with it and would consider it peppy. Since D’Abreu’s M3 and my 318iS are both E30s, there are things that translate well between the cars, like the interior, pedal positions, visibility, and the chassis.
But that’s where the similarities end.
D’Abreu’s E30 M3 is raw, sharp, loud, grippy, and above all else, it’s fast—scary fast. And it’s solid. It had to be, to survive a week of driving 4,100 miles across the U.S. and successfully competing at ten timed driving events interspersed throughout.
After driving D’Abreu’s E30 M3, I remember getting back into my own E30 to drive home and thinking, “Did something break? The gas pedal doesn’t seem to be doing anything! Is the engine even on?!”What’s in store for 2023? D’Abreu has already registered for this year’s One Lap. He’s currently in the midst of building an E61 535i wagon with an 8HP70 transmission, a custom 3DM Ohlins suspension, and a 215-mm differential.
Why a wagon? Well, why not? D’Abreu says, “I love wagons in general, but I really love the E61. I think building something unique like an E61 that could be fast—I’m not sure if it will be—would be really cool. It’s the perfect One Lap car with tons of space, so you can buy as much Buc-ee’s as you want, take tons of spares, and it’s comfortable. My M2 CS weighed 3,650 pounds with me in it. I think I can get this wagon lighter than that, with more power for One Lap.”The 2024 Tire Rack One Lap of America starts next month and runs from May 6 to May 13. I can’t wait to follow along this year, so I’m sure that we’ll have BMW-related One Lap coverage on BimmerLife. Best of luck to Mike D’Abreu and Neil Simon for this year’s event!
Oh, and for those interested in competing in One Lap of America, Simon left me with some advice. “One Lap is on lots of people’s bucket lists,” he says. “There’s never going to be a good time to do it, so just sign up!”—Mike Bevels