Racing is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it’s a dangerous, ultra-competitive environment where seconds are the difference between victory and defeat. On the other hand, it is a passion of many and a sport that, while competitive, also returns unrivaled enjoyment for those dedicated few who engage in it.
However, there is at least one racing team that manages to combine both their enthusiasm for cars and racing: BimmerWorld Racing. BimmerWorld is a Dublin, Va-based racing team currently competing in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Series, Street Class – a subset of the Grand-AM Series. The BimmerWorld team is running CTSCC-spec BMW E90 328i’s for this year, the inaugural CTSCC season.
Whatsmore – the BimmerWorld team is doing quite well in there near-road spec E90’s up against steep competition. In their first season of the CTSSC, the twin bimmers have racked up a number of top 10 finishes with the #81 Heumann/Thomas E90 landing a top-of-the-podium finish at the famed Mid-Ohio racetrack. Very impressive results considering this is a new series for the team transitioning from sprint races to endurance-style competition.
However, the success of the pair of electric blue and sun yellow BMW sedans stems from a team that has grown from a group of enthusiasts into professionals striving to extract every ounce of performance from their German chariots.
BimmerWorld was founded by James Clay, an electrical engineering major from Virginia Tech and part-time car enthusiast. Clay, along with his friends enjoyed tracking their cars both during and after college – and to demonstrate his dedication to his driving during college James drove a fully caged E30 M3 which was serving full-time track duty on the weekends. In assembling track-ready cars, Clay and his associates began to buy and sell various E30 parts to outfit their cars. Ultimately, these ventures led the group to start the business that would become BimmerWorld, an online parts and equipment store for BMW enthusiasts to buy any and everything needed to upgrade the performance of their cars whether it be for the track or the street.
Clay, being a young entrepreneur, turned the online store into a means of funding a professional race team and thus BimmerWorld Racing was born. The team has since progressed from their initial E36 325is onto a E46 325i and in 2007, into their current chassis – the E90 328i platform for the SPEED Touring Car Series. In 2009, the SPEED Series was concluded and transformed into the Continential Series for the 2010 season and along with it brought a number regulation changes and new challenges to the young team.
I was lucky enough to meet with James Clay at the start of the season for a few moments on the rainy eve of the 2010 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona. The affable Clay took time out of a celebration after the first race of the season to speak with me about the team, being a BMW enthusiast and life on the racing circuit as one of the few teams that field a Bavarian Motor Works car in a U.S.-based touring car series. During our conversation it was obvious that Mr. Clay has found his ideal job and struck the balance between having a job that pays the bills and having a job you love – a rare, if not nearly impossible feat for car enthusiasts to successfully pull off as Clay has. He is a man that looks quite a home at the track and quite at home with a BMW as he owns a handful of bimmers and, when time permits, enjoys tracking them.
James was kind enough to take time out of running his team, online store and setting up his own car to discuss with BMWBlog how he got into racing and what his progression was from a weekend track enthusiast to professional driver and manager of his own racing team – while maintaining his loyalty and love for the Bavarian brand – both on and off track!
[AM] What got you into racing?
[James Clay] I wanted to learn how to drive a car after demonstrating my lack of skill on the street in a few dumb wrecks. This meant trading a big HP turbo car for a little E30 M3 and doing some driving schools. I did one and I was hooked.
[AM] When do you make the decision to turn professional?
[James Clay] That is a natural progression. At that point, BimmerWorld had started and we were growing as a business and club racing wasn’t as much of a challenge as it was in the past. The next step is a pro series and we dove in on the deep end in World Challenge
[AM] Is it true that in college you drove a fully caged E30 M3 as your daily driver?
[James Clay] LOL. My first BMW! I have a hard time leaving things alone. I was a broke college kid then and the easy way to make the car fast was to make it light, so I stripped it out. I also sold the parts I pulled and that started the business end of things. And yes, the cage went in with the help of a couple of friends and it was my one and only car…
[AM] What is your daily driver of choice?
[James Clay] I have an E92 M3 that I drive most of the time. It is nicely modified and is a lot of fun to drive. I have an E36 and E46 also, but they are a little more over the top and not the thing to climb into on a regular basis. And if it ever stops snowing up here, I picked up a Mercedes Diesel Wagon last fall that will probably be the daily driver – green, good fuel economy and all that…
[AM] Are you able to track any of your own cars personally?
[James Clay] I do bring a street car to the track on occasion. The E92 M3 is great for that because it still has street manners, but I can dial up the Motons and put on tires for track use – and haul the tires in the trunk and back seat. I take the other ones to the track rarely – the E36 Touring (Uberwagen) is a 170MPH car on the track and that just isn’t safe.
[AM] Have you made any modifications to your daily drivers or are they mostly stock?
[James Clay]Even the Mercedes diesel has AMG 18” wheels and cut springs. They stay stock for about a week max around here.
[AM] If it is your personal car – 6 Speed Manual or 7 Speed Dual Clutch Transmission?
[James Clay]The E92 M3 is a 6-speed. The DCT feature is technically cool, but not what I am looking for on the track and not something we intend to develop to race. Most cars I have serve the dual purpose of parts development and for a track vehicle, the 6-speed is the way to go.
[AM] Do you have time for other hobbies outside of being a business owner and professional race car driver?
[James Clay] Hobbies yes – time to enjoy them no. For now I cook/grill and mix in some fun travel with my road schedule. I cycle when I can and other than that, its mostly playing with cars.
[AM] What forms of motorsports inspired you to become involved in racing? Formula One? DTM? ETCC/WTCC? …NASCAR?!
[James Clay] I am not a race fan honestly. I am a little more now, but I like to participate, not watch and that goes to all sports. I did however catch the 2AM rebroadcast of World Challenge back in the 90s on occasion and that was an inspiration.
[AM] How difficult is it for you to wear the hat of team owner and driver? Do you ever see yourself stepping from behind the wheel to strictly focus on team management?
[James Clay] It is a tough job. I approach it by being a team owner up until the event, then passing off most of those responsibilities during a race weekend. I have a lot of really good people around me making all of this happen and I rely on them. If I couldn’t do that, then I wouldn’t be able to pull it off.
[AM] With your ownership of BimmerWorld (the online store) how has this helped develop the team?
[James Clay] Well BimmerWorld parts sales have certainly been a source of funding for the race team, but it is a reciprocal relationship. We couldn’t sell what we do, or at least do a proper job of it, without the experience we get from racing. It is one thing so sell a bushing or a water pump, but our customers rely on us for larger systems purchases and we better know how it all works together and see the big picture to give good guidance
[AM] Is it true that you wouldn’t sell any parts that you wouldn’t trust on your own race cars?
[James Clay] For the most part. We sell some parts that maybe I wouldn’t choose to put on my car, but that are popular – but I have to at least feel there is quality and value added for the customer. I want people to be able to go through our catalog and know that we have access to anything on the market and we choose the parts that we know from experience work or have value.
[AM] A lot of the BMW community enjoyed seeing you and your crew running in the 2008 One Lap of America as a side project in a BimmerWorld-customized 135i. Is there a chance we will get another showing of the BimmerWorld team for One Lap or another similar rally?
[James Clay] I had hoped so and I am sure it will happen again. We had considered taking the E36 wagon and I feel it is up to the task. I had also looked at stripping out the E92 M3 and again, I think it would be awesome. As soon as we find the time…
[AM] With your preparations in place during the off-season and an incredible second place during the first race of the season at Daytona, how do you anticipate your first season in the GRAND-AM Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge series will be?
[James Clay] I felt coming into this that we had the experience with the E90 platform and the right people on our team to be successful. I think Daytona proved that and now we just have 9 more races in front of us!
[AM] Are the drivers and crew ready to move from sprint car-style races to endurance races?
[James Clay] Absolutely. We have done longer enduros on the club side for a bunch of years as an end-of-year fun activity and everyone enjoys it. Now we are just putting the extra effort toward it to run that program on the pro level.
[AM]What challenges do you foresee facing you and the team as you transition to a new style of racing? Who do you anticipate being your strongest competition within your class?
[James Clay] I don’t think there will be a transition period. I think we prepared well and came out of the gates at Daytona at 100%. Based on the cars and the results, it looks like the Compass cars will be there in both performance and numbers if I had to choose one team. But certainly APR, Irish Mike’s, and Freedom Autosport are right up in the mix and it is way too early to predict the events of the season.
[AM]During the off-season – what has provided the biggest challenge in terms of dialing in the car for a new series?
[James Clay] This time around, it was just constraining ourselves. Coming our of World Challenge we had a lot of technical freedom and learned a lot. Translating that knowledge with the limitations of the CTSCC rules was a different type of challenge, but definitely not just easier because there is less we can do.
[AM] In European series, BMW E90’s and E92’s are used in many of the endurance races – do you think that the BimmerWorld #80 and #81 will share the same successes as reliable, fast racers on U.S. tracks against front-wheel-drive competition?
[James Clay] I feel like the E90 chassis is solid. We always have to worry about the ability of a front wheel car to recover from contact more quickly, but hopefully that will be an uncommon occurrence going forward. Certainly the cars are well-build and reliable, so I have high expectations
[AM] What are some of the key differences of the E90 328i’s you’re running this year in the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge Series compared to the E90 325i’s BimmerWorld ran previously in the World Challenge series?
[James Clay] Wow. They are really very different. In general, we made about 80% of the parts by number on the World Challenge cars and we are required to use a lot more of the street parts. The Conti cars will be a lot more relevant to a customer’s street car so there is good synergy there. The World Challenge cars got to be an engineering exercise and they taught us a lot, but they were a bit exotic under the stock body lines.
[AM] When we last spoke, we discussed that as production cars are increasingly refined for road-going comfort and consumption. How has this affected BimmerWorld’s ability to successfully setup cars for the Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge?
[James Clay] Cars are getting heavier with less engineering tolerance built in to give us power capacity and durability for race use. Systems are more complicated and it is often easier to make something rather than integrate stock parts. But this has been a trend and really something we are progressing in all the time. If we had been preparing E30 or E36 cars and suddenly had to build an E90, we would have a little more of a jump, but BimmerWorld has grown along the way, so it is routine at this point.
[AM] As technology becomes a dominant force in the development and performance of cars as well as their onboard management systems, how will these technologies affect BimmerWorld’s car development? Do you find that it causes more compromises in how you can effectively prepare a car for a race series?
[James Clay] For us, technology is an advantage, not a limitation. We partner with companies that are on the cutting edge of their field – brakes, engines, etc. Electronics are by definition one of the most difficult parts, but by integrating the newest components, we run some pretty advanced systems in the cars and I feel it helps the program.
[AM] While BimmerWorld is a non-Works team – What are your thoughts on the BMW North America’s recent announcement of an offer of increased rewards for wins and high-placing finishes? Obviously, first place and podium finishes are the first goal of the team but do these incentives give you something extra to strive for throughout the season? How has being a non-Works team been a benefit or curse?
[James Clay] Not really. We want to win and we are there for that. We don’t budget the prize money and it would be silly to do so in the environment we are in. Certainly though we are appreciative when we receive it and I am really happy BMW is supportive of the teams’ efforts.
[AM] With Virginia International Raceway as the adopted home track for the BimmerWorld team, what other tracks are the drivers most looking forward to this season?
[James Clay] That is kind of hard to say. Mosport, Road America, and Road Atlanta are a few of my favorites from years past and we don’t visit them unfortunately. I think this year is a matter of going out, getting some strong finishes, and making some of the new tracks favorites along the way.
[AM] Will we see any epic rivalries pan out with a BMW vs. Audi season? We have to ask!
[James Clay] No Audis in ST, so chances are slim!Also, be sure to check out their blog chronicling the season so far on their race team’s site.
(Photos Courtesy of BimmerWorld’s Press Room Photographer Curtis Creager)