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Owning, driving, and racing old cars is the quickest path to automotive self-actualization.

BMW 2002 Alpina Race Car and 2002tii Road Car at Homestead Miami-33 BMW 2002 Alpina Race Car and 2002tii Road Car at Homestead Miami-33

Want to go racing? You have nearly unlimited options. Grassroots motorsports is as diverse as it’s ever been, with pathways to competition at any budget. Out of all the motorsport experiences I’ve dipped my toes into, driving a vintage car on a race track ranks very close to the top.

On paper, vintage racing shouldn’t be as appealing as it is. The cars are slower, typically more expensive to maintain, and in a lot of cases, less safe than their modern counterparts. Yet, from behind the wheel, driving a race car nearly twice as old as I am was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had. 

BMW gave me the chance to spend a handful of laps behind the wheel of its 1970 2002ti race car built by legendary German tuner company Alpina during a recent testing event at Homestead-Miami Speedway, hosted by Brian Redman. The car was raced in-period throughout California, campaigning in SCCA events until 1972. It sat in storage for 24 years before BMW of North America purchased the car and had it fully reconditioned. In 2014 it was plastered in its original Alpina orange livery, which it still wears today.

Photos: DW Burnett for Motor1

From behind the wheel, driving a race car nearly twice as old as I am was one of the most gratifying experiences I’ve ever had. 

With things like dual carburetors, a five-speed gearbox, and factory sway bars, the 2002ti was already fit for high-performance driving, at least by 1970 standards. But Alpina pushed the platform even further, equipping the car with Weber side-draft carbs, flared fenders, and the company’s three-piece magnesium wheels. 

Is it fast? Not really. The ti’s rowdy 2.0-liter four-cylinder makes over 200 horsepower and revs to 8,000 rpm thanks to Alpina, so straight line speed isn’t too shabby. But even with racing slicks, cornering speed is far lower than what you’d find in something like a spec Miata. 

Its pint size, low power, and distinct lack of torsional rigidity means the car can’t pull the same lateral g forces as newer stuff. 

But that doesn’t matter. I challenge you to find a car built for the track that’s as purely joyous as this little ‘02. The buzzy, top end-happy engine sounds great, and sliding in and out of every corner is the default method for making speed. This car welcomes you to the limit with open arms and shows you every minute detail when you arrive. Everything happens at such low speeds, so it’s supremely easy to dip in and out of traction and explore your skills. And the car does so without a hint of sketchiness or inkling that it might snap around and ruin your day.

Photos: DW Burnett for Motor1

This BMW is the type of car that teaches you how driving works. There’s no power steering, no driver assists, and no other add-ons to distract you from the act of motoring. It’s just you and the car banding together to perform the intricate dance of lap times. Amateurs would learn more from this car in a weekend than a whole season of track days in a new Cayman GT4.

You can get some of these same feelings in newer metal, sure. But even after one lap behind the wheel of a vintage machine you realize there’s something intangibly special here. Whether it’s the flexy chassis, chattery gearbox, awkward seating position, or poppy exhaust, it’s all far more memorable for reasons that only make sense when you’re hanging the tail out for the fifth corner in a row.

Racing a vintage car won’t be as straightforward as a modern car, of course. More things will break and parts might be harder to find. Don’t be surprised if something small knocks out your weekend; Autozone doesn’t usually carry coolant hoses for 70-year-old Alfa Romeos, after all. 

This BMW wasn’t perfect when I drove it. The shifter bushings desperately needed to be replaced, and the front left brake rotor was warped, resulting in some serious vibrations whenever you got on the middle pedal. Those who are used to having everything work for them won’t appreciate this side of vintage racing. But old cars force you to learn how they work, and how to fix them. 

Willing to accept that shit will break more often means more work in the short run, yes, but also a bigger payoff down the line, not only because of the skills and experience you’ve acquired, but for the respect you’ve gained for your fellow competitors and the cars themselves. 

Most vintage racers aren’t wealthy playboys with truckloads of support crew. Like you and me, they’re just people with a truck, a trailer, and some tools. If you need some help dropping an exhaust or bleeding brakes, it’s very likely someone else in the paddock will help you out. It’s just the nature of classic car ownership.

Photos: DW Burnett for Motor1

You can get some of these same feelings in newer metal, sure. But even after one lap behind the wheel of a vintage machine you realize there’s something intangibly special here.

If you’ve ever walked around the paddock during a vintage race weekend, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Everyone is a bit more chill and laid back, and there’s a hint more camaraderie versus your average club event. There’s a mutual understanding these cars aren’t the best of the best, and everyone’s here to enjoy the metal they brought along, rather than knock panels together fighting for a tiny trophy. That, and the paddock feels more like a high-level car show all on its own. Most vintage races are packed with a solid variety of European and American icons, each more beautiful than the last. A far cry from the sea of Miatas, BMWs, and S2000s you’re likely to see at a normal track day.

So the next time you think about getting into racing, browse the historic classifieds section first.

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