Returning to its Roots – BMW USA Classic’s Alpina BMW 2002
Returning to its Roots – BMW USA Classic’s Alpina BMW 2002
The web of history that lies behind race cars is one of a particular complexity, often interspersed with gaping holes of missing information. In a looser era of racing, on-track accidents forced chassis exchanges, while lengthy customs forms shuffled classification numbers. As cars changed owners, retired to the back of dark shops, or fell into disrepair, their histories grew foggier. So as Mike and I travel around, capturing these cars and exploring their pasts, it’s not uncommon to come across a few whose past remains uncertain. Two years ago, we visited BMW’s collection to photograph many of the familiar cars that make of BMW Classic's historic race collection. Amidst the line of cars sat the iconic silhouette of the 2002 under its protective cover. Carefully pulling the fabric off, the well-known blue, purple, and red stripes wrapped around the standard white paint of BMW’s Motorsports pedigree, but it wasn’t a car that carried the same familiarity as the other legends in the garage.
Digging back through its history, we hit a wall of uncertainty where the trail ran cold. We had traced the 2002 back to a garage in Hermosa Beach, California, but its origins prior were clouded by speculation. A renowned Porsche Mechanic, Vasek Polak, situated himself in warm Southern California and established the first Porsche dealership in the United States, later opening a dealership for fellow Bavarian brand, BMW. While car sales paid for the bills and ensured that the lights stayed on, Vasek spent weekends racing the same brands that lined his dealerships.
Through the ’71 and ’72 season, Vasek raced the hearty little 2002 in SCCA and competed in the 2.0 Litre Trans-Am class. At the time, a cream white paint job was striped with duct tape, indicative of its grassroots motorsport nature and its sole focus on performance. The 2002ti continued to see track time through 1976 and then it was sent to an early retirement in the back of Polak’s shop. Unfortunately, in 1997, Vasek Polak passed away, leaving behind a legacy and a large collection built up through his decades of racing. In an estate sale that has reached an almost legendary level , the rare engines, unique race parts, and cars that had been in storage all this time, were sold off to fellow motorsports enthusiasts, allowing them a chance at a second life.
BMW NA was in the process of building their collection of historic race cars, so they took the opportunity to add the 2002ti to the ranks, ensuring that the Neue Klasse was properly represented amongst the others. At the time, BMW was working closely with Tom Millner and the Prototype Technology Group. PTG, a group that has earned its place in BMW’s racing history, was behind such race cars as the ALMS E36 and the E46s that dominated America’s Lemans Series in 2000 and 2001 . Unfortunately, their domination didn’t go unnoticed and in 2002 the sanctioning body employed restrictions on the E46 that forced BMW’s hand and led to their withdrawal from the series.
While the E46 M3s were parked for the season, BMW and PTG turned their sights back to the cars that had forged the path for BMW’s presence in racing. The team began a restoration on the 2002ti, dedicated to returning it to racing for another go. Modern day safety regulations required a few contemporary changes be incorporated to ensure the driver remained safe, but BMW was sure to pay tribute to the past era of racing by retaining most of the mechanical parts under the hood.
Under its new owners, the car would be used at demonstration days and historic races, so it had to look the part. The old tattered exterior, showing signs of its years racing, needed to be refreshed. The team at BMW Classic (Mobile Tradition) sourced the basic parts required of any restoration. New rubber replaced the old rotted seals while shiny new badges and rechromed brightwork returned the sparkle to its exterior. PTG addressed the old bruised bumper, fabricating a new one to hug the front end and accommodate the pig cheek flares that had arrived on the car. With the external work nearing the end, it was time to focus on the paintwork. The Vasek Polak livery wasn’t up to par with the rest of the historic fleet, so Tom Purves, the chairman at the time, decided to replicate the livery found on their CSL, white with the iconic Motorsport stripes. The result was a beautiful 2002ti racer that was right at home on the show field or the race grid.
In recent years, BMW decided that they would toss the 2002 back into the ring and add it to the entry list for the annual Rolex Monterey Motorsport Reunion, but the sanctioning body would not allow it. In an attempt to retain authenticity in their field of racers, the organization requires that cars abide by period correct styling regulations. The motorsports colors that adorned the 2002ti hadn’t been incorporated into the brand at the time that the Neue Klasse chassis competed, and as such, the car could not be entered in its then-current guise. While BMW could choose to return the car to its original Vasek Polak livery, they decided to dig deeper to unearth its origins prior to its journey to the US.
Through their search, BMW believed that the car traced back to Alpina’s garage. Their assumptions proved to be correct when their partners at Alpina joined them for last year's Motorsport Reunion and verified that it was indeed a car that had rolled off their lot. The path of the car still remained hazy as it's believed that Polak may have removed the original Alpina Serial in an attempt to pass the car off as common street car to fall under SCCA rules for competition. However, with further research, it is now believed that the car left the factory line in 1970 and went straight to Alpina to be prepared for racing.
If any doubt still existed, it was washed away by a flood of certainty when the team began chipping away at paint under the hood and behind door panels. As they sanded the car down in preparation for its renewal, the cars history showed through. Underneath layers of paint hardened by years at the track, sat the original Colorado Orange and Semi-Gloss black that marked the Alpina cars that campaigned through Europe.
So there I stood, at Leguna Seca for the 2014 Rolex Monterey Motorsport Reunion, in front of the same 2002 that I shot some years ago, its vibrant new paint burning through the morning fog. With its newly discovered history, many of the subtle pieces of the puzzle fell into place. The original Alpina Pig Cheek flares seemed at home on the orange and black 2002, and three-piece, petal-shaped Alpina wheels returned to fill the widened arches. Plastic side and rear windows had always hinted at the car’s roots, as did the Alpina steering wheel and shift knob, each marked by handy work of the numerous drivers that commanded the little 02 around the track. BMW Classic's restoration had returned the car to its original glory and it was ready to put its old race parts to use.
Not known for its power, the 2002 relied heavily on its handling prowess and the braking ability that came with its nimble demeanor. Originally sporting disc brakes up front and drums in the rear, this 2002ti had discs at all for corners, utilizing E3 Bavaria Calipers up front and Porsche 914 calipers in the rear. Likely a solution concocted in Vasek’s garage to meet the SCCAs requirement that all brake improvements remain limited to street purpose parts, it’s a great example of the grassroots method of utilizing parts off the shelf to cut down on lap times.
The original M10, as strong as they may be, had grown tired and finally gave up while on the track at a BMWCCA Oktoberfest. PTG wanted to stay true to the original power plant while making minor changes to increase its reliability and ensure that it could continue to have fun on track for years to come. The robust little four cylinder has been enlarged to 2.2 Liters with a bore and stroke of 89.0 x 80.0mm , pumping out 215 Horsepower which is more than enough to kick the back end out and hop the curbs of Laguna Seca. The headers were ceramic coated in a bright white, mimicking many of BMW’s dedicated race engines and cutting down on engine bay heat. Drawing in the cooler air, a set of Weber 45 DCOEs allow the M10 to breathe. PTG’s addition of a new fuel regulator keeps the carbs’ tune steady and ensures that the car is consistently strong around each lap.
BMW has a long history at race tracks all around the world, and fortunately, as enthusiasts themselves, celebrating their heritage has remained a priority for the brand. They dusted off the cobwebs and allowed the 2002 another chance to squeal its tires when they wheeled it out of Vasek Polak's garage and with its latest renewal, they've brought it around full circle to where it all began. The latest rendition is easily the best look that has graced its panels and underneath it all, the classic parts still pack enough punch to battle with the Porsches and Datsuns that line the field. These motorsport contenders of decades past deserve a spot on the grid for as long as they can muster, so we love to see BMW putting in time and effort to keep their historic fleet out on track.