I like to think of myself as a pretty conservative driver. After all, that’s how I get to do what I do—by not bending the metal. And as I’ve learned through many years in this business, if you don’t bend the metal, there’s always another opportunity around the corner.
So when Will Turner, team principal for Turner Motorsports, invited me to Palmer Motorsports Park, a new, stunning facility in Western Massachusetts, to drive their BMW M6 GT3 race car, it wasn't simply out of nowhere; it’s because I’ve been there before, and not bent the metal.
Race cars, especially at the professional level, can be intimidating. In 2012, I got a test at Monticello Motor Club in the then-new Turner Motorsports Continental GS E92 M3—and decided that I couldn't be a racing driver. The M3 was hard to control, under-tired for the power level even with slicks, had virtually no aerodynamic assistance, and had strange pedal spacing with a traditional manual gearbox, making every downshift an exercise in ankle contortion.
But I didn’t bend the metal, so in 2015, when Turner campaigned the new Z4 GT3, I got a go in that one as well. The Z4’s V8 engine, paddle-shifted gearbox, and monster wing/splitter combo completely changed my tune about race cars. I could drive the Z4 quickly, within an acceptable pace for an amateur racing in the Tudor series. It was more forgiving, stickier, and with the paddles rather than the stick, shifts came predictably and without fuss. And it was fast, too. Weighing in at 500 pounds less than the M3 and with 100 extra horsepower, at Watkins Glen the Z4 would have the M3 by 12 seconds per lap, and requiring much less effort to get it there.
Now, we’re at Palmer Motorsports Park, a 2.5-mile circuit built on the side of a mountain. There’s over 190 feet of elevation change—10 more than Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca—and at almost no point during a lap are you driving on level ground. Everything is either up, down, or over. About half the track is lined with FIA-level safety barriers with catch fences to keep you from literally flying off a cliff if things go wrong, but the other half of the track simply uses a row of tires against bare rock faces; a big off means not just a crash, but more likely cheese-grating Turner’s half-million dollar GT3 racecar into bits.
The M6 GT3 is actually a factory-built car, which you can order, just like any other motorsport part, direct from BMW, ready to race. It’s a huge thing; bigger than even the standard road-going M6 thanks to the addition of wider bodywork and functional aero. Under the bonnet—way under the bonnet—is a production-based 4.4L twin-turbo V8; the use of turbos here is a first for BMW GT3 racing. It actually makes 30 fewer horsepower than the M6 street car, which sounds strange until you realize that the M6 GT3 weighs 2,890 pounds—a staggering 1,500 pounds less than the street version. If you took said street car and removed an entire Volkswagen Beetle from it, that’s how light this race car is. It’s only 90 pounds heavier than the outgoing Z4 GT3, even though it feels twice the size. Power goes to the rear wheels not via the standard dual-clutch unit, but a six-speed sequential transaxle. At Watkins Glen, it’s eight seconds faster than the Z4 GT3 and twenty seconds a lap faster than the old M3. It tops out at 180 mph, the fastest BMW race car ever.
Like the other pro-grade race cars I’ve driven, the M6 GT3 is intimidating. Ingress and egress is rather awkward, given that BMW moved the driver’s seat far, far inward—almost on the transmission tunnel. The driver of this particular #97 car, Michael Marsal, is about six inches shorter than I am, meaning the fixed drivers seat is just way too close to the butterfly steering wheel, making the driving position likewise awkward. I’m told that, when I buy my own M6 GT3, I can put the seat wherever I want.
“Have fun, but this car needs to race in 5 days, so don’t forget that.” Will Turner says to me as I head out on to the track.
The first surprise comes on just the first lap; the gearbox is forgiving and shifts in the blink of an eye, only requiring the clutch pedal from takeoff, so my left foot is free to do the braking. Even on not-yet-warm tires, the M6 works with me, rather than fighting me, and inspires me to push harder and harder. Unlike the previous two Turner cars, the twin-turbo V8 makes its peak torque down low, so it pulls out of corners harder than ever; I’m told the combination of torque, wheelbase, width, and aero make the M6 a favorite among Turner’s hot shoes. It’s incredibly stable in the corners, visibility is good all around, and I even got the tires up to proper race temperatures, indicating I could push at a reasonable pace. The brakes are simply immense, shoving me forward against the harnesses as I brake for corners no earlier than the 100 marker. I’m told I’m still braking earlier than I have to, but frankly I don’t have the balls to push it in someone else’s half-million dollar car.
It’s nearly a hundred degrees on the track this day in July, and the M6’s new air conditioned seat is doing its job to keep me cool. You understand how BMW has engineered the M6 GT3 for endurance racing, because despite the heat and closed cockpit design, I remain cool and collected for my entire session. I could easily pull a double stint in a car like this.
In fact, the hardest part of getting around the track are the tight left-hand corners; the seat is so far inboard that I find I'm constantly reminding myself that there’s nearly two feet of car to my left (a couple of apex cones may have paid the price for that oversight).
I return to the paddock inspired. My pace is respectable, considering I’d previously driven neither car nor course, the murdered cones didn’t leave a mark on Turner’s yellow paint scheme, and I made a video to share with all of you about the experience. These cars are incredibly expensive to buy and mind-bogglingly expensive to campaign for a season, but with just one little taste, I was hooked on the good stuff.
Most importantly, I didn’t bend the metal, which meant Turner had a still-fresh car to campaign the following week at Mosport. As fate would have it, they won their class in that race, and have since won other races, including Lonestar LeMans at COTA, which I had the privilege of seeing in person.
And although I may never be in a position, through skill or financial success, to actually campaign something like an M6 GT3 in a pro racing series, I’ve been bitten by the racing bug for sure. Race cars are the shit, and I want to spend as much time in them as possible, which is why I’m writing this column from a trailer at Mid-Ohio, where I’m racing in AER this weekend with my colleagues from Road & Track in a Mazda MX5 Cup.
Now to go from conservative driver to racing driver, that’s a whole other story, and I’ll let you know how that goes in a future column. In the meantime, enjoy the sights and sounds of the Turner Motorsports M6 GT3 at full wail. It’s not to be missed.