The BMW M1 holds a very hallowed place in automotive history. Some of that reputation came from some very respectful motorsports credentials earned in the in IMSA Camel GT Series, but it didn’t start out that way.
The BMW M1 was the star car in the Procar Series, which was, for all intents and purposes, an analogous program to the International Race of Champions (IROC) Series. The Procar series pitted professional drivers from the Formula One World Championship, World Sportscar Championship, European Touring Car Championship, and other international series against one another using identically modified BMW M1 sports cars.
Billed as an opportunity to see a mix of drivers from various motorsport disciplines, the championship served as support races for various European rounds of the 1979 Formula One season, with Formula One drivers earning automatic entry into the Procar event based on their performance in their Formula One cars. Austrian Niki Lauda won the inaugural championship. In 1980, the series held some events outside of the Formula One schedule, and was won by Nelson Piquet.
When David Cowart and Kenper Miller - two drivers very familiar to the IMSA Camel GT Series - decided to join forces to attempt the 1980 GTO season, they decided on the Procar BMW M1. BMW offered them the car that had been used by BMW Italia. The car was in pretty good shape, and had never been damaged.
They met Dick Munroe, who was Red Lobster’s restaurants marketing man, and struck a deal that would last for many years. They campaigned their first race of the M1 at the 1980 24 Hours of Daytona in February. The car had to be entered in GTX class, since it was not homologated for GTO. That ruined any chance of a season championship, since no class victory could be won. They raced against Porsche 935s, and with only 480hp, they stood no chance against the 600hp Porsches. The Daytona race ultimately ended with a DNF, as well as Sebring and Riverside. But they would turn things around, with a 6th at Mid Ohio, and another 6th at Road America. David Cowart took a solo 9th at the Road Atlanta fall race. In reality, 1980 had really been a trial run for the car.
The next year was a very different story. For the 1981 season, the car was now classified as a GTO car, which allowed for some very critical changes. Jack Deren, the team’s crew chief, had transformed the car into a real tubeframe IMSA GTO car. He had enlarged the grill and lightened the bodywork for a better weight distribution. The car lost about 200 pounds and could be serviced much more easily.
The race-prepped 3.5 liter M1 in it’s later stages produced 476 hp at 8,800 rpm, and 307 lb-ft at 7,200 rpm - a strong improvement over the factory car’s 266 hp!
The second Daytona race was not any better, with yet another DNF. Furthermore, the car was generating protest amongst the competitors, because the race was FIA listed and the car was basically now fully converted to an IMSA car. They had to modify the car quickly to make it legal for that race. At Sebring, they still stumbled and ended up 9th in class, but the car was the outright fastest in GTO. At Road Atlanta, things would change radically, with David Cowart taking an 11th place overall, but more importantly, took 1st in GTO.
The team then went on to win at Riverside, with Cowart and Miller winning the class over another BMW M1, driven by Albert Naon, Tony Garcia and Hiram Cruz. The remainder of the season was a successive string of victories. They won Laguna Seca, Lime Rock, Mid Ohio, Brainerd, Daytona, Portland, Mosport, Road Atlanta and the Daytona Finale. The entire season was even run on the same engine!
By the end of the season, David Cowart was the GTO Champion, thanks to his solo victories, and Kenper Miller was second in points. It was the first time that the first and second place drivers used the same car in a Championship. They dominated the GTO class like nobody else ever had.