Conquering Pikes Peak has become a bit of an obsession for James Clay. What started as the first mountaintop race in 2017 in a relatively mild E92 M3 turned into a shootout for an open class track record in a purpose-built E36-M3 race car that produces more than 1,000 horsepower. Clay and the BimmerWorld crew went to Pikes Peak this year with every intention of capturing that record, but Mountain had other plans.
The BimmerWorld E36 M3 Pikes Peak is one of the craziest BMW racing cars ever, with huge wings and aerodynamic attachments particularly effective on Pikes Peak. Upgrades for the 2022 round included a carbon fiber body that reduced the car’s weight by 200 pounds (now 3,000 pounds with driver and full tank of ethanol), increased downforce, and a P63 V8 engine (found in the milder form of the M6 GT3) increased to generate about 1,400 horsepower. .
The other major update this year was the revamped rear suspension with swingarms and a third spring, which made the car more aligned and balanced. “In previous years, a big shortcoming of the rear suspension was that we couldn’t properly encapsulate the rear sway bar,” Clay said. “We now have a back bar that doesn’t limit the joint to the rear, which is important in switches on Pikes Peak.”
Proper testing before a race weekend is always an important step, but it’s hard to properly test Pikes Peak on a conventional racetrack. “You have to be careful during the test,” Clay said. “We added a third spring, but we really don’t use it the traditional way. It’s really more for bumps and super rough surfaces in Pikes Peak. When we test, we have nearly twice the downforce from the height difference (due to the thin air in the Pikes Peak), so you can finish You’re in a weird box when you test on sample tracks. We’ve done a lot of computer work too.”
Once the team got to Pikes Peak, they discovered the M3 was well set up, with some moderate aerodynamic tweaks needed to connect to the scale. “Our biggest problem last year was not being able to connect and we didn’t have that problem this year,” Clay said. “Most of that is due to the rear sway bar.” Clay also found that it was much more comfortable riding 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 plus this is the fourth time I’ve been on the mountain really sharpened everything so much,” he said. “We spent three days on Pikes Peak test days and then race week, and every day was a step forward.”
The only big variable that could make or break a record in Pikes Peak is the weather, which has been an important factor in this year’s event. “We had beautiful days testing and then the weather started on Friday night,” Clay said. “At least it was a little warmer. There was snow overnight but it melted so the road started to ooze, but it was wet and variable on race day. Nobody knew what tire to run in and there was a lot of uncertainty.”
Clay and the BimmerWorld crew decided to use the rain tires. Clay was going well, but he didn’t realize how good he was at the time. “I finished the bottom about seven to nine seconds into the lead, and I was still about four seconds ahead of Reese (Millen) after the middle section,” he says. “At that point, it was good to know because in the car I felt like I was crawling.” The lack of wireless connectivity on the mountain makes it difficult to get updates on where you stand among the competition, which could lead the team to start using monitors more next year. Clay also had a moment at a certain turn where the car started sliding into the fender before the tires found grip, so there is always a balancing act between going all out while wanting to keep the car and yourself.
In the end, Clay finished eleventh overall and second in the Open Class behind Pikes Peak legend Rhys Millen. Great result, but Clay is already thinking about next year. “I wasn’t really disappointed,” he said, “but this was the first year we really got everything together and at a level we could have achieved on the class record.” “It’s not one of those things I want to go to every year, but if I do something I want to win. There’s also the enormity of the event with all the logistics and effort you have to put in to build the car to make it run on this mountain. It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in Motorsports, and having a challenge makes it even more attractive.”
Clay says he already has a good list of updates and changes he wants to make to the M3 for next year, including more weight loss, more power, different turbines, and more aerodynamic work. While making vehicle improvements is within the BimmerWorld team’s control, the only thing they can’t control is the weather. If the weather at Pikes Peak decides not to cooperate, it may all be for naught – and that’s a big part of the challenge.
Want to watch Pikes Peak in Clay? check it out over here.
– David Howtter
[Photos by Kevin Adolf]