BMW X5M Review: The One Lap of America – A Novel
Image by Evan Smith, Muscle Mustangs and Fast Fords
Disclaimer: This article is quite long. But if you want to read everything you ever wanted to know about the One Lap of America race, the BMW X5M, or both, you’ve come to the right place.
I’ve been rallying since 2007, and after five Bullrun Rallies, realized it’s time for a change. It could be the $1,000 per month that I (happily) shell out to Mr. Ticket, or it could be my ludicrous insurance premiums. It could be that I’m just getting older and am finally starting to find long-distance, endurance street racing a little, well, childish. But, in all honesty, it isn’t. It’s the stopwatch. That damn stopwatch bit me hard, and it was finally time to see if I could really drive in a competitive environment, where driving skill, tire management, and car choice are what matters, not the size of your balls, ego, and wallet.
I met Big Muscle host Mike Musto back in 2007, about a month before my first Bullrun Rally. He was fresh off the Bullrun reality TV show and I knew him immediately from his “Mr. Angry” 1968 Dodge Charger. We hung out for one day and have been friends ever since. In addition to being a host and writer for RideLust.com, he’s also a former AMA Motorcycle Racer and current NASA driving instructior, who is widely known for rallying and tracking, hard, 40 – year old muscle cars.
Mike had done the One Lap of America race twice before, once in his Charger and once in a friend’s Porsche GT3 RS. And right about the time he was fixin’ to ask me to race with him in 2012, he realized that old muscle cars and ridiculously stiff Porsche’s really aren’t the way to do an event like this. I agreed, since I’ve now had two spinal surgeries (Microdiscectomy L4/L5, for the neurosurgeons out there) before the age of 30, both related to driving uncomfortable cars. It was then that we narrowed the selection down to two (rather obvious) choices: The Cadillac CTS-V Wagon, and the BMW X5M. In order to make a final decision, we decided to hit the track, but based on the title photo to this article, you can already figure out that the X5M came out victorious. I love the CTS-V, but the X5’s incredible seats, hugely powerful twin-turbo V8, and gravity-defying suspension absolutely won me over. Plus, the weather on One Lap can be unpredictable, and the X5M can be pushed to about 90% threshold in the wet, whereas the CTS-V needs to be backed down to about 70% to keep traction. Given that the majority of the 75-car field is made up of rear-drive sports cars, this could be a major advantage if it rained.
A Viper ACR runs a great line at Motorsports Park Hastings
The Tire Rack One Lap of America Race is an 8-day, 3,600 mile rally that, unlike Bullrun or Gumball3000, goes track-to-track, instead of from one lavish hotel to another. Rather, there are no hotels at all, unless you want to book them yourself. There are no official parties, no scantily clad women there to claim camera time so the videos show an 80% female-to-male ratio. There is only racing, transiting, and sleeping. This sample schedule is repeated, more-or-less verbatim, for 8 straight days.
6 AM – Wake up, shitty hotel breakfast.
7AM – Arrive to track, unload obscene amounts of gear from car (more on that later)
7:10 AM – Track Walk. Since odds-are neither driver has seen said track before, this, and YouTube, will be the only allowed reconnaisance before racing begins.
8:30 AM – Race Session 1
1 PM – Race Session 2
4:30 PM – Racing concludes, begin transit to next track. (380 to 660 miles)
12:30 PM – 1:30 AM – Arrive at hotel, immediately pass out.
This, then, would be far more challenging than the conventional rally. And while the One Lap of America began 29 years ago as a fully grassroots event, now, the race draws professional racing drivers from many series, as well as factory-backed teams with racing drivers thinly disguised as chassis engineers.
I sticker up the X5M on registration day.
We drove the X5M 758 miles from New York to Tire Rack’s headquarters in South Bend, Indiana the day before registration, and immediately realized we had made the right decision. This car feels exactly the same at 120 mph as it does at 30 mph. The suspension is firm without being punishing. And the $1,900 “Active Vented Seat Package” is the best money spent since your wife called you crazy for buying Starbucs stock in 1991. It’s incredibly luxurious where it needs to be, but without ever feeling too ostentatious. There’s tons of front legroom to stretch out. At one point, a horrible thunderstorm rolled in, displaying an incredible variety of lightning. Rain poured down at what must have been half an inch an hour. The X5 never lost its footing.
Upon arrival in South Bend, we went straight to The Tire Rack to pick up our specially stamped “OLOA 12” tires. The rules stipulate that in order to race, you must purchase a set of DOT tires from The Tire Rack, which are stamped for the race. You are allowed five tires total for the race, and may only switch out to the fifth spare after a catastrophic tire failure. Since the X5M’s tires are not only staggered but also directional, and they cost about $500 a pop, we elected to only take four Dunlop DSST SportMaxx tires, the better of only two options in our particular size. Total cost: $2,100. We then phoned up Basney BMW, whose service department was probably the only shop in the history of South Bend to ever even see an X5M. Ray, their service writer, got us in, installed the tires, and pumped in some Motul RBF660 high-temperature brake fluid we bought on the way, a must if you’re planning on tracking a 5,300 lb SUV. Then I hit the bar, an impossibly quaint shithole across the street from my hotel, cleverly named “Cheers.” If I had gotten a sex change on the way to that bar, I would have been the thinnest woman in there. That’s all you need to know about South Bend, Indiana.
Mike hustles the X5 through a big sweeper at Autobahn Country Club
Registration day was when I realized that this would not be an easy event, despite possessing the keys to “the world’s fastest sport utility vehicle.” There were no fewer than eight track-prepped Nissan GTR’s, countless Corvettes, Viper ACR’s, BMW M3’s and 1M’s, and a ton of modified Mustangs and Camaro’s. Autocrosser Andy Hollis showed up with a $4,000 Honda CRX with a power-to-weight ratio better than a Lotus Exige S260. I figured at first that all these track-prepped sports cars didn’t really matter, since we were in the SUV class. We weren’t even racing those people, really. That’s when I saw who was in the SUV class. There were only four cars.
A Honda Odyssey minivan idled loudly in the paddock. “Honda Manufacturing of Alabama” stickers were all over it. There was a roll cage where the interior used to be. Under the hood was a 540 wheel horsepower Garrett Turbocharged Acura TL engine with a 6-speed manual transmission. The suspension came directly from the Acura world challenge cars. And they had a factory driver. Next to it, the SRT team in a gutted-and-prepped Grand Cherokee. It too was lacking an interior, and had a roll cage. It was also lowered 1.5″ on custom oversized wheels. And they had a factory driver, Marco Diniz, who is also the chassis engineer for that car. There was a Cayenne Turbo driven by a 17 year old virtuoso who had to get special permission to compete. Then there were was a hack journalist and that guy from TV in a BMW X5M.
Matt, Mike Musto, with Team SRT8: John Palazollo and Marco Diniz
The X5M proved it’s wet-weather chops immediately at the first event: Tire Rack’s wet skidpad challenge. This was as simple as driving events get: drive three laps around a 200-foot circle in one direction, then three laps in the other direction. Highest lateral G’s wins. I drove, and managed a .84g, good enough for first in class and 9th overall for that event. Most of the rear-drive sports cars didn’t stand a chance against our massive footprint, all wheel drive, torque and brake vectoring, and active anti roll control systems.
The X5M uses basically every conceivable technology in order to hide its inner porker, like Khloe Kardashian in Spanx. Purist “drivers” would call blasphemy, and they may be right, but if I’m going to drive 9 never-before-seen race tracks with massive transits in between and unpredictable weather at competition speeds, I’ll just say thank you.
The insane Honda Odyssey race car. Sadly, this was how it looked most of the time.
During each racing session, you’d get one reconnaissance/warmup lap, and then come to a stop at the Start/Finish line with the five other cars in your run group. At 30-second intervals, the flagger would signal and timing begins. You get a standing start, 3 hot laps, and then a checker and cool down lap. You aren’t timed in individual laps, it’s the total time that counts, so if you blow a corner or spin out, you can’t just call it a throwaway and do better next time. Consistency was key.
On the race went, track to track, tank to tank, shitty meal to shitty gas station meal. I got tired, very tired, quickly. Nothing made me happier than coming off the track after a good session, and nothing made me angrier than blowing a corner and losing a second. I felt like a racing driver, even for just three laps at a time. I beat myself up when I missed a corner or braking zone, and I
boasted like i just won the Monaco Grand Prix smiled quietly to myself when I drove well.
The winning Nissan “TopSpeed” GTR of Leh Keen and Doug Wilks
So, how did you guys do?
Wet Skidpad, Tire Rack, South Bend, IN – How do we have the heaviest car in this whole event by over 500 lbs, and yet the 9th best overall cornering in the wet? We even beat a few GTR’s. We’re going to kick ass here.
South Bend Motor Speedway – This track is stupid, I hate short ovals. Why do people even do this kind of racing? My lap time is like 20 seconds, and I don’t get out of second gear. I caught the Cayenne Turbo pretty quick though. Turns out the lap record here is 8 seconds. Really. I finish 43rd out of 75 at this event. The Jeep SRT8 finishes 44th, 6/10 of a second behind me. I feel good. The Honda Odyssey finishes 16th. We’re fucked.
Autobahn Country Club, Joliet, IL – Mike knows this track, so he’s driving. The BMW factory team with the M5 is recommending we run stock pressures, but we’d later doubt it because the front tires are wearing more down the center than on the sides. We notice the Jeep SRT8 team’s custom wheels are not only all the exact same size, but also running non-directional tires, enabling them to rotate tires and wheels at will. That was a good idea. We only get one session here, because the first three events are all the same day. Mike finishes 41st. Jeep finishes 37th. Honda finishes 25th. Ouch.
Mid-America Motorplex, Pacific Junction, IA – It’s raining, hard when we arrive for the track walk. Everyone is tired and miserable because there’s nowhere dry to hang out here, but I’m excited. I want to race in the rain. I’m driving, and the track is flat enough that you can see every corner, which makes me confident. It stops raining, the sun comes out, and wind dries the track just in time for the first run groups. I no longer have an advantage. The X5M is getting a lot of understeer, and Mid-America’s hairpin corners aren’t exactly it’s forte. After the first session, we drop the tire pressures by 5PSI hoping to get more even tire wear. It works, and drastically reduces the understeer on turn-in.
Except now I’m braking later into corners, and cooking the brake pads. Understeer returns. (I actually forgot this when writing the original post: I decided to try the second session with traction control fully disabled, just to see if I could go faster. Well, you lose torque and brake vectoring with all the systems off) I finish 29th in the morning, and 43rd in the afternoon. Lesson learned: brake early, turn in late, and power out, with M Dynamic Mode left on.
Matt and Larry Kosilla contemplate why someone would put the “Hallett” logo in the curbing, in 3-D,
right at the apex.
Hallett Motor Racing Circuit, Jennings, OK – One Lap has been coming to this track for 10 years. All the veterans know it. Mike has driven it once, for 3 laps. Everyone seems to have a completely different strategy about how to take the uphill chicane in the back. Our friend goes off in his GTR, hitting the “water bags,” then backs up and continues racing. He’s a bad ass. There are grandstands on an uphill hairpin, where we learn that the X5M likes to lift its inner wheels under load (see title picture). Before our second session, a Porsche 996 GT3 spills coolant all over the track. It takes 2 hours to dry, which is annoying because we have a 610 mile transit after our run. A pebble from the paddock lodges itself in our front left brake caliper, which makes a horrible noise. A quick 120 mph blast sends it flying with a series of almost comical pings. Mike finishes 39th in the morning, and 41st in the afternoon. He’s beating himself up, but Hallett is a tight track with short straightaways, and the veterans just kill it here.
High Plains Raceway, Deer Trail, CO – Last night we stayed in the single worst hotel I’ve ever been to, but I was so tired I didn’t care. In fact, I’m still tired. This track is too long to walk the whole thing, so I go look at what I think is the most complicated section and watch the rest on YouTube from my iPad. The back straight is very long here, and the track has more sweepers than hairpins, which is good for us. There is a blind hairpin into some falling esses, with surprisingly tall curbings. I can hit them flat, I’m sure of it, as long as I don’t blow the hairpin like everyone else is doing. I don’t blow it. My first session is fast as fuck, I can feel it. I hit 142 mph on the back straightaway and take the esses flat, bouncing high off the curbs and tracking out to just the edge. From the grandstands, firm winner Leh Keen tells my co-driver that I took that line better than anyone all day. In the afternoon, I decide I can cut even more and put two wheels past the curbs on the dirt. Turns out you can, but not if you want to make the straightaway. I drop a rear wheel in the dirt, and semi-drift my way through turn exit. Style points, yes, time, no. I finish 26th in the morning and 32nd in the afternoon.
One of more than thirty fuel stops in the 10 days of One Lap Of America.
Motorsports Park Hastings, Hastings, NE – This track is short, and tight. I’m not driving it, so I skip the track walk and nap in the X5M. Thank god we brought such a comfortable car, because I spend about 3 hours every day sleeping in it. Other people request to sleep in it. I beat them away with a stick, except for Hillary Koerner from the Audi TTRS team, aka “Token Hot Girl.” She beat me at Mid-America and earned a nap. I’m also getting quite annoyed with the fact that, because we have a large car and our friends have small cars, we’ve somehow become the luggage truck. I contemplate bringing a Miata next year, and making them carry my shit. While people race on track, there is an autocross, considered a separate event, in the parking lot. I’m good at autocross (at least while very hung over and being a journalist), so I walk the course because there are no recon laps. I note how close the course gets to a bit of armco, and to be careful there. A guy in a brand-new Boss 302 did not make that note, and hit the armco so hard, his car looked like this:
A brand-new Boss 302, still running but no longer pretty, after hitting a barrier.
Afterwards, the course was changed. I’d have been pissed if I was him, even though it was a major autocross fail. Turns out I am good at autocross: Mike finished 47th in the morning track session and 45th in the second, while I took 29th in the (updated for safety) autocross course. 660 mile transit to
Brainerd International Raceway, Brainerd MN – Everyone talks like Fargo here. I’m surprised my back doesn’t hurt after the 8.5 hour transit last night. Brainerd is one of, if not the fastest road course in North America, with a 4,400 foot front straight and a banked, sweeping turn 1 that can be, theoretically, taken at 130+. There is no wall on the outside of the banking, just a huge drop then lots of trees. Everyone says to be careful at turn 3, “that’s where people die.” Perfect. Our car is nearly 20 mph faster on the front straight than the Jeep SRT8 or Honda, I hit 154 mph before braking to about 120 for turn 1. I can go faster. The next 2 laps, I take turn 1 at 132 mph and turn 2 at 115, braking to 40 for turn 3. Now I see why you have to be careful here, you take the entire first half of the course nearly flat out. Brainerd is a wonderful place to drive a car. If there’s one thing I look for in a track, it’s that I want to be able to go fast there, really fast. About 80% of Brainerd’s full course is driven in triple-digit speeds, which I love. I finish an even 30th in the morning session. For the afternoon, they change the course to the “SCCA” configuration, which eliminates the long front straight. It’s much tighter now, and more technical. The brakes are getting hot from dragging this beast down from triple digits over and over. Losing my horsepower advantage on that front straight, and forced to deal with an extra four turns on front tires that are rapidly losing tread, I drop to 37th in the afternoon.
I line up the X5M against the Jeep SRT8 at Brainerd’s 1/4 mile dragstrip. He ran a 13.38.
Then, we have drag racing. I love drag racing, used to do it growing up. And the X5M has all-wheel-drive and launch control, so for the bracket portion, I’ll be good. I get a single run for the “Low E/T Challenge” and run a 12.84 @ 109 mph, good enough for 18th place. In the bracket drags, I make it through the first round, eliminating a BMW M3, but lose to a Panamera Turbo when I red-lit (meaning, jumped the green) buy 7/1000 of a second. The two fastest cars in the Low E/T Challenge were the TopSpeed GTR (10.51) and a stock Porsche 997.2 Turbo (10.88), but amazingly the Honda Odyssey won the bracket drag challenge, even after losing 3rd, 4th, and 6th gears in the previous day’s racing! We find a local tire shop and have them dis-mount and swap the two front tires while we eat at a place that said “Steakhouse” on the sign, but didn’t actually have any steak.
Road America, Elkhart Lake, WI – I know this track, I’ve played it in Forza. But Mike knows it in real life, so he’s going to drive. We’re just behind the Jeep in class points, and just ahead of them in overall points (I know, the system is really strange with class points, but believe me, this is a possible and common scenario). We journo hacks have become racing drivers, and really want to win. It’s the last road course in the route book, and also the most punishing. We decide Mike should drive as hard as possible, and not try to conserve the car in any way. He does, and from my viewpoint at Canada Corner, he’s got a fantastic rhythm going. And I was right, as his 30th position finish proved. The SRT8 Jeep came in 33rd, 2.8 seconds behind. But Road America’s reputation as a car-punisher is showing through, and Mike says the brakes feel a bit soft. A guy in a Cadillac CTS-V wagon claims brake failure after rolling his car over the retaining wall.
James Shipka’s LS7 – powered 1968 Camaro sounded amazing at Mid-America.
And then, we learned a valuable lesson. When racing a stock, German, Super-SUV, don’t fuck with it.
Mike decides he wants to bleed the brakes. “You sure?” I say. “They only need to last 1 more track session, and they have almost 4 hours to cool off by then.”
“No problem, we got this.”
They did not have this. I don’t know shit about bleeding brakes, so I step aside and get lunch. I return half an hour later with several people around the car, and Mike in a panic. “We’ve got no brake pedal,” he says.
“What. The. Fuck.”
“Is there somewhere at the track we can put it on a lift?”
I jump in our friend Todd’s Ferrari F430 and drive all over the track looking for a shop with a lift. Nothing but the Skip Barber shop and it’s locked up. There is a Viper Cup race there this weekend, and Mike convinces one of the race teams to help out, and we quickly learn that the X5M has two brake bleeders per caliper, instead of one, like a 1968 Dodge Charger. People are calling us idiots. They are right. 45 minutes of near-cardiac arrest, and Mike is now suiting up so he can make his run group. If you miss it, you lose 10 points. Miss the day, you’re DQ’ed. People are telling me there is no way they would go back on the track with “unconfirmed” working brakes. Mike wants to win. I like it.
Believe me when I tell you, Mike absolutely drove the wheels off that car, and the brakes functioned fine. He was quickly catching a 911, and by the third lap, it was looking like he would pass the Porsche. Except, he couldn’t, because in the last 1/8 mile of the track, the X5M failed us for the first time. The transmission overheated, lights came on, and it went into limp mode, refusing to rev over 2,500 RPM or shift for the rest of the lap. The SRT8 beat him by a single tenth of a second, over a three lap run. All the transmission needed to do was hold on for two more tenths, and Mike would have had him, again.
Dry Skidpad, Tire Rack, South Bend, IN – After a (theoretically) short 220 mile transit, which became 6 hours thanks to a massive traffic jam in Chicago, we arrive back in South Bend, where we started. As is tradition, the final Dry Skid Pad challenge starts at 10 AM, giving everyone a chance to get some sleep after getting completely shithammered, myself being no exception. Of course, I got so drunk, so late, that I was not physically able to drive the dry skidpad in the morning. In fact, I was not able to do much of anything, aside from sleep in the passenger seat of the X5M, even during a photo shoot for Roundel Magazine (seriously, pick up that issue and die laughing). Sadly, our tires were not what they once were, and though the car managed a .84g in the wet on fresh rubber, it could only pull off a .87g in the dry, on baloney skins, while all the proper sports cars, light enough to not completely destroy the tires in the past 8 days pull .90 and up. We finish 52nd. I’m too hung over to care.
Until I saw the final standings. The Jeep SRT8, having just rotated their serviceable rear tires on to the front, pulled off .94g, good enough for 38th position and more importantly, enough to edge past us in the overall standings by just 5 points, the smallest possible margin.
For the full race results, you can click here.
One of two Mitsubishi Evo X’s entered. As I correctly predicted, both experienced engine failure and
would not finish.
In the final standings, we finished a respectable 31st position overall and 2nd in class behind the SRT8 Jeep, which finished 30th overall. Leh Keen and TopSpeed’s Doug Wilks took home their third overall victory. At first, I was frustrated. After all, I had spent the last week as a racing driver and wanted to win. But then I realized something: two journalists, who most people assume can’t drive for shit, finished in the top half of a field dominated by sports cars with experienced, and sometimes professional drivers, in a 5,300 lb truck that gave us massages on the transit legs. It had a great radio, a good navigation system, and “overhead” angle backup cameras. It had automatic windshield wipers, headlights, and a heads up display. It was smooth, quiet, and had a 360 mile cruising range. And for 8 straight days, all we had to do was show up, unload ten suitcases, a bicycle, cases of water, and snacks from the cargo bay, put on our helmets, and race. We didn’t have to add a drop of oil, and we could have survived without even rotating the tires. The only time the X5M let us down, it was our fault for messing with it in the first place, and it got fixed in time to race. Other teams spent half the race under their hoods, rotating tires every day, changing oil, brake fluid, coolant, or adjusting downforce.
Not us. We got into this race because we wanted to have fun, not spend half our day worrying about our car. We wanted space, comfort, and performance. We wanted to drive, not wrench. We couldn’t have known that the SUV class was so competitive, that was an added bonus, and Marco and John, the SRT8 drivers, were the first to offer assistance when our brakes went out. The racing is great, but the friends, the camaraderie, the fact that everyone wants to win, but not because his competitor’s car broke down, that’s really the best part of the One Lap Of America.
At the awards ceremony, several competitors were recognized by the organizers for having participated in One Lap for more than twenty years. One of them has even run the same car every time! I want to be those guys. Which is why, on the way home, I told BMW I want to buy the X5M. Not just any X5M. This one. The one that survived nearly 7,000 miles and 10 race tracks in 2 weeks. The one that survived me.
I realize this was a ridiculously long article. But believe me when I say it could have easily been two or three times this long, had I included more about the excellent friends I made on this trip. Thank you to the following people for making One Lap so much fun.
Images by Dom Romney Photography
Mike Musto, Larry Kosilla, Todd Ford, Basil Ford, Peter Cassini, Chris Smith, Dom Romney, Evan Smith, Jeff Lacina, Bryan Humphries, David Chow, Nathan Sumner, James Shipka, Carl Cassanova, Neil Simon, Woody Hair, Marco Diniz, John Palazzolo, Bruce Deifik, Scott Coors, Hillary Koerner, Steve Loudin, Steven Manly.
And of course, Brock Yates and Brock Yates Jr.
BMW N.A. Provided the vehicle, insurance, and a tank of gas for this story.