155MPH doesn’t sound very fast anymore. Relatively speaking, it isn’t either in the history of cars. However, it is still approaching the equivalent of traveling one football field per second.

With modern cars(and a bottomless budget) you can purchase road cars that, on a long enough stretch of tarmac, will reach speeds above and beyond what most race cars are capable of heading down the Mulsanne Straight of the Circuit de la Sarthe. In 1969, only 42 years ago, a Porsche 917 would reach speeds of 248MPH and effectively eradicate the competition. That outright speed came at an important price, though. Namely in stability and safety.

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The 917 was constructed from tubes a massive flat-12 engine in the center and a driving position that placed the driver’s legs ahead of the front axle. At top speed, the 917 was a scary place to be, too. Stories were told of wheel spin and incredible instability plaguing the Porsche at the top end. So, it was fast, but incredibly dangerous. The first 24 Hours of Le Mans to see a Porsche 917 compete resulted in the only privateer entry being wrecked on the first lap – killing the team owner/driver.

Fast forward a few decades and the technical exercise-turned-production car Volkswage…err, Bugatti Veyron, in all its variants, can run just under 270MPH. The difference in 40 years of progress? Now you can literally cruise at that speed in plush leather with polished aluminum stalks, on 21 inch wheels and all while talking on an iPhone via bluetooth. Stability isn’t a problem and nor it the speed a challenge to find. It’s sad – but speed formally reserved for race cars is so attainable these days. Attainable at the bargain price a hair over the $1,000,000 mark.

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However, you don’t need a million dollars to get a fast, stable car – you only need about $65,000, or 5% of the price of a Veyron. That’s all it takes to buy a well-equipped M3 Competition Package. Everyone knows the current E90/2 M3 is an excellent but I found its hard to realize what makes a car truly great until you find what its limits are.

On the morning of the 2011 Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona I witnessed what the M3 is capable of, firsthand. The day started at 4:00AM with a shower then a handful of gear to piled into a E46 330i fittingly tuned by Dinan. After a pre-dawn blast down I-95 South and a two hour wait for the GRAND AM pit pass line to open up – we were into the track and parked heading towards the paddock. After a quick catch-up with Matt Mullins and Mike Renner of the BMW Performance Driving School we hopped into an Performance Center E90 M3 and stalked through the paddock and out onto pit road.

Aside from the four Alpine White M3’s those of us on pit lane were treated to the legendary Brumos Porsche driver Hurley Haywood, preparing to give laps in a Carrera White Panamera S with another driver giving rides in an early 1970’s 911 S. Three of us slipped into the Novillo leather seats with Matt Mullins in behind the wheel and ready to see how the freshly repaved Daytona circuit performed.

However, I was more interested to see how the M3 performed at its limit. Having gone to M School, I was able to push the M3 at lower speeds but nothing near the electronically limited top speed of 155 MPH. Matt had no trouble opening up the M3’s 4.0L V8 right out of the gate – pushing for wide-arching drifts through most of the infield before hitting the first banking. Because I had threaded my Nikon D90 into my left hand and held on for dear life on the “Oh-Sh*t” bar with my right, I couldn’t look over to see the speedometer to see how fast were moving. However, the wale of the V8 gunning for its sky-high 8,000+ RPM limit told me we were definitely hustling before my friends in the back seat began reciting numbers like “140!” and “150!” then I knew we were sitting right at the top of what an M3 is “limited” to in terms of top end.

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When coming off of the first banking, down the long straight and back into a chicane it hit me how stable the M3 was. Of course a professional driver was at the helm, but regardless – when cruising up to and holding 155MPH and then braking from that speed into a hard left-hander, the M3 was incredibly poised and flat. There was no shimmy feeling in the suspension as if the car was communicating that it was ready to succumb to the stresses of hard driving. None of that, just confidence transmitted up through the tires, through the suspension and directly into the seat to tell me that the M3 wanted more. It was unbelievable to see this car comfortably cruise at 155MPH and aside from increased wind noise, exhaust note and the little bricks of the track barrier zipping by too fast to count, it would be hard to tell that you’re rapidly approaching the maximum velocity of the E90 M3. How could it be this easy to hit these speeds in a road car?

In 40 years, think of how far cars have come – to the point that someone can go buy a road car that is so capable and poised on the track while returning reliability and stability that race cars from yesteryear could only dream of. The current M3 bests the original uber saloon, the E28 M5, in the 0 to 60 sprint by several seconds, cylinders and top speed from only 20 years ago. The rate at which M cars have progressed and the performance delivered is incredible –  Coming from a BMW enthusiast, it’s silly to hear my compliments and praises of an M3. But, I’m right – so if you’re looking for a car with power, speed and sublime handling – buy an M3, 5% of the price of a Veyron with nearly 60 percent of the top end performance.

Special thanks to Matt Mullins and Steve Maguire for arranging the ride. Some photos courtesy of Dwayne Mosley.