Building Shaun Webster’s Stunning NASA BMW Spec E46 Racer, Twice

There are a variety of ways to get one’s foot into a modern, production-based racing car and racing wheel-to-wheel. In American club racing, the prominent series these days are Spec Miata and Spec E30, but some grow tired of the old technology. For avid members of the BMW camp who want a little more modernity with their motorsport, there’s a new alternative: Spec E46. While not as accessible as, say, Spec E30, the modern E46 chassis offers more power, a more settled chassis, some of the best lines of modern Bimmers, accessible parts, and reasonable running costs.

Fascinated with exotics, Webster took an unusual route into racing via track days in his Maserati.

Shaun Webster found himself searching for a dedicated track car after a foray into track days first with a Maserati Gran Turismo. Realizing the heavyset GT wasn’t up to the task of repeated hot laps, he sought out a car that could: a featherweight E36 M3 from PTG, the former BMW factory team, which Webster managed to register in Washington to allow for trailer-less transportation to the track. With newfound enthusiasm for the sport and his BMW back home in the Bay Area, he logged eighty track days in the first year of ownership; driving the caged and gutted machine from San Francisco to Thunderhill, Laguna Seca, and Sonoma. If one is willing to wear a pair of earplugs on the way to the track, you know the racing bug has sunk its fangs deep.

However, as a busy HVAC engineer he had a full schedule and needed some help from a professional team. Performance Technic gave him the support he was after, as well as coaching from current V8 Super 2 driver, Matt Powers. Soon, Webster was feeling confident in the car and just one week away from his first wheel-to-wheel race when disaster struck. After dropping two wheels in the dirt at the exit of Thunderhill’s perilous Turn 13, he flipped twice, broke two ribs, and even incurred some internal bleeding. Talk about an inauspicious start to his racing career.

The E36 after flipping twice.

Undaunted, he mulled over the advice given by some of his friends at Performance Technic: “You can hang up your helmet, or you can try this new series.” This was late in 2014, and he had some time to put together a car for Spec E46—a series that was just emerging at the time. Unwilling to give up on the buzz, Webster pulled the trigger and moved forward.

The Source of Propulsion and General Build Ethos

Like a Spec E30, the Spec E46 is designed to be a usable, competitive, challenging car with reasonable running costs. The E46 330i chassis, in either coupe or sedan guise, can be found for as little as $3,000, and full builds can be done for $25,000—though a top-of-the-line build can run nearly twice that.

Webster sitting on the E46, which went from street sedan to NASA racer in just a few weeks.

Though carbon pieces are almost entirely outlawed, the car can be stripped down to a minimum weight of 2,850 pounds. That means, with the allowed engine modifications, the Spec E46 is still very much a momentum machine. Performance Friction 08 brake pads and Redline fluid allow for fade-free braking, but the aim is, generally speaking, to focus on carrying as much speed as possible through the corner.

For fear of having it become a builder-fest like some other Spec series, Spec E46 prevents people from investing much in their powerplant. The motor—the bulletproof M54—is cheap; Webster plucked his from a junkyard for just $2,000. Fitted with lightweight pulleys, a larger CSF radiator, new spark plugs, a CSF oil cooler, E36 M3 headers, and a Bimmerworld Spec exhaust, it’s good for a reliable 225 horsepower at the wheels—which happens to be the maximum allowed power in the series. No aftermarket camshafts are allowed, and the ECU tune is performed by EPIC Motorsports. Though the thrust available trumps that of the E30, it’s still far from a powerhouse, and that’s the intention. 

The robust M54, found in eight different BMWs, is cheap and plentiful.

That power is sent through a lightweight Tilton single-plate clutch, then to the factory five-speed, and back to a Diffs Online limited-slip differential with a 3.46 final drive. The result is punchy enough for  throttle-oversteer—more so than its older sibling can. Still, getting a quick lap out of the E46 requires a unique mixture of aggression and mechanical sympathy. 

A Useful Front End

Roughly five seconds a lap faster than the Spec E30 at most Californian tracks, the Spec E46 benefits from a much sharper front end. “While the Spec E30 needs to be chucked into certain corners, the Spec E46 can rely more on the front axle,” Webster adds. This is nice for the tidy drivers, but those who like to manhandle the car might find this machine more challenging, since one downside to additional weight is increased tire wear. “You can’t throw the car quite as hard as an E30; the tires won’t be able to handle that type of abuse over time,” he elaborates. 

The Toyo RR tires, measuring 255/40-17 at all four corners, provide neck-stiffening stick with three degrees of negative camber and help get the car into the corner much more predictably. Though turn-in is generally characterized by a smidgen of understeer, the amount of power allows for the push to be neutralized with a heavy dose of throttle.

The reassuring Spec E46 was welcoming enough for someone with little racing experience, yet, as a competent and grippy racing car, it still took some time for Webster to exploit the full potential of the front axle. After a year of fierce competition at the rear of the field, Webster found the pace and was suddenly running with the the fastest five or six drivers, and learned a few things by pushing himself just out of his comfort zone.

Nipping at the heels of a competitor at Laguna Seca.

Pushing Harder To Find Entry Speed

The tight fields and mechanical parity helped him move to the front quickly. Once, when chasing Natasha Balogh, he was able to witness the way she’d muscle the car into some of the faster turns at Thunderhill. Seeing that it was possible, he gritted his teeth, trusted the front, and found those few miles and hour that separated front and the mid-pack. “One strong point of running in a Spec series where the cars are virtually identical is that a quicker competitor can push you to exploit every iota of performance from your car,” he elucidated.

Witnessing the way Balogh’s car could dance at speed, he realized that setup played a vital role in this closely-fought category. Many of the quicker drivers rely on a slightly loose balance, which helps hike entry speed if the driver is prepared to slide.

After a year of exciting battles at the back, Webster found the speed to get to the sharp end of the pack.

Though the Spec E46 still requires some trail-braking and a gentle turn of the steering wheel, the MCS dampers and Hyperco springs—measuring 750-lb in front and 850-lb in the rear—make for a car that will rotate if asked politely. It’s not exactly a handful—it’s kept manageable with a slightly smaller swaybar in the rear—but it also incurs its own set of challenges.

“The looser the car, the faster the car—but the better the driver must be.” Webster starts. “However, that oversteer is only quick over the first laps; it tends to wear the tires out mid-race. I like a more neutral setup to try and ensure strong pace in the latter half of the race.” Even in an entry-level Spec series, the level-headed strategists can benefit from flexing their mental muscle. 

Webster using the expensive FIM-specification fake grass installed outside Turn 11 of Laguna Seca for Moto GP riders.

Managing Mid-Corner and Exit

The mid-corner grip is somewhat greater than that of a Spec E30, but the car doesn’t have the crazy grip an all-out, aero-clad machine has. “For instance, you can’t go flat through Sonoma’s Turn 1,” he adds. It takes a bit of finesse in the middle of the corner, and the faster the corner, the more it begins to show some of its shortcomings. 

The Spec E46 is, at the end of a day, a lightly modified street car. Therefore, it has a few idiosyncrasies that make it challenging at times. “The outside tire has the unfortunate habit of rolling over once the car’s taken a set,” Webster says, so in longer corners like Sonoma’s Carousel, the rear isn’t as planted as desired. Movement at higher speed is part of the challenge, and therefore, the quicker guys have to have the gusto to handle the car as it dances underneath them at higher speeds. Obviously, it’s not a car for nervous drivers.

In long corners like Thunderhill’s Turn 10, the E46’s outside rear gains positive camber and begins to dance.

A confident charge to the front of the field over his first two seasons came to a dramatic close at the end of last September, when a Porsche GT3 Cup decided to put him into the wall along Sonoma’s front straight during practice. While Webster had to endure another set of cracked ribs with his crumpled car, he also had another opportunity to show his grit. Within a month, he got back to building a replacement with two fewer doors.

The lighter, faster replacement. You can’t keep some people down.

The upside to the coupe is that it can be built a bit lighter, which ought to help Webster move towards a lofty goal. For 2019, he aims to win as many NASA NorCal races as possible, and hopefully qualify for the Mid-Ohio Nationals. If he ticks off that box—or better yet, he wins—he’ll fulfill a racing dream a decade in the making. Few people step seriously racing in their thirties and find the kind of car that can carry them to serious club racing success in just a few years, but it seems Webster has.

 

About the author

Tommy Parry

Tommy Parry has been racing and writing about racing cars for the past seven years. As an automotive enthusiast from a young age, he worked jobs revolving around cars throughout high school, and tried his hand on the race track on his 20th birthday. After winning his first outdoor kart race, Tommy began working as an apprentice mechanic to amateur racers in the Bay Area to sharpen his mechanical understanding. He has worked as a track day instructor and automotive writer since 2012, and continues to race karts, formula cars, sedans, and rally cars in the San Francisco region.
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