Racing This Priceless BMW M1 Is Challenging

A wet track, marine layer fog, and no mirrors.

Chris Cantle

As I write this, I’m at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca watching historic Formula One racers tear around the 11-turn track, their 18,000-rpm shrieks lighting up my eardrums. I’m waiting a practice session in “my” car, BMW’s legendary M1, a winged, wedgy thrill ride and one of 500 sensational vintage racers doing what they were born to do: Rocking the track at Laguna Seca.

BMW is this year’s featured marque at Laguna Seca, celebrating the company’s 100th anniversary and unwrapping presents like a spoiled birthday boy. Some 64 BMWs are racing here, including eight factory-owned BMW Classics (including my M1) shipped here from Bobby Rahal’s caretaking shop in Columbus. Those include the V-12, BMW-powered McLaren F1, the last production-based car to ever win the 24 Hours of Le Mans, back in 1995.

Pro racer Justin Bell is set to reprise his own third-place, 1996 Le Mans finish in the McLaren, but some tech glitches today may put the kibosh on that run. That still leaves a tent full of Bimmer beauties, from a 1970, Weber-carbed Alpine 2002ti to the 1975 3.0 CSL “Batmobile” that birthed BMW Motorsport; the latter driven by my weekend teammate Ludwig Willisch, chairman of BMW of North America.

A damp, smoky Pacific marine layer is still smothering Laguna Seca when I head out for my morning practice session in the M1, with two races slated for tomorrow.

Chris Cantle

The BMW M1 Procar

I’ve got 20 precious minutes to finagle its dogleg gearbox and acclimate to its analog, old-school steering, clutch and brakes, after spending the past few months driving new Ferraris, McLarens and Corvettes, cars whose modern technology coddles its drivers.

With some 45 cars in my class—1973-1981 FIA and IMSA cars—it’s crowded as a Fourth of July beach out here, including a few overly oiled-and-muscled types. That includes a seven-strong contingent of Porsche 935’s. Cranked to roughly 700 horsepower, compared to 480 for my Giugiaro-designed M1, the 935s dominated at Le Mans and won the 24 Hours of Daytona six years running. There are Porsche RSR and RSR 3.0 Carreras, a racing Datsun 280Z. On the homegrown front, there’s an ’82 Mustang, a ’76 Corvette and ’77 Corvette Greenwood. I’m definitely loving the blurry, nostalgic view, and the unholy wail of the BMW’s 3.0-liter inline six that’s nestled behind my helmeted noggin.

With practice wrapped, another bucket-list treat is in store. With colleague Chris Cantle riding shotgun, we get to drive the red, white and blue M1 in a convoy of BMW racers—on public roads. Destination, the annual car show at The Quail, knee-deep as always in caviar, champagne and billionaires.

It all feels seriously illegal, but a motorcycle escort from the California Highway Patrol is like a Get Out of Jail Free card. I take full advantage, dropping behind the orange-and-black 2002ti again and again, then howling to redline through parched canyons on Laureles Grade Road in Carmel.

Like crazed rally spectators, thick crowds line the entrance to The Quail, snapping photos and video and leaving so little room for our convoy that I’m certain I’m going to crush a few toes. Upon arrival, I spot and say hello to Christian von Koenigsegg, schmoozing potentially paying customers with a pair of his hypercars.

Soon after, we’re convoying back to Laguna Seca, one last public-road blast before my races tomorrow. A motorcycle cop pulls alongside, not to admonish, but to point a gloved hand down the road and urge me to speed even faster. Why, thank you officer, don’t mind if I do. Whatever happens in the races tomorrow, now I can die happy.

Lawrence Ulrich is The Drive's Chief Auto Critic.

Chris Cantle
Chris Cantle
Chris Cantle
Chris Cantle
Chris Cantle
Chris Cantle