A Racetrack Newbie Learns Road America in a BMW M4 Competition Back Seat

Ever thought about hitting up a racetrack from the other side of the barricade? As in not just being a spectator, but a driver? Although professional racing is a world unto itself, signing up to burn rubber as an amateur is comparatively simple. But as any autocrosser will tell you, ‘simple’ doesn’t necessarily mean ‘easy.’ And I experienced that firsthand recently at Road America in the back seat of a BMW M4 Competition.

Wisconsin’s Road America racetrack is a must-go for car, motorcycle, and racing fans

An overhead view of the Road America facility
Road America overhead | Road America

Although Road America is a racetrack, it’s not an oval like Talladega. Instead, the Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin track is a road course, aka a ‘road-racing circuit,’ with a mix of straights, complicated corners, and dramatic elevation changes, Car and Driver explains. It doesn’t incorporate public roads into its design, but it does mimic their variability.

Also, being a road course, Road America doesn’t bulldoze the land flat. Instead, the 640-acre facility preserves the Elkhart Lake area’s natural scenery, complete with rolling hills and trees. Those hills provide great spectator vantage points while the trees make it one of America’s most “picturesque” tracks, Road & Track says.

Also, the ‘road’ appellation goes further than the name and terminology. Road America founder Clif Tufte, together with the Chicago branch of the SCCA, created the track in 1955 to stop sports cars from racing on public streets. And over 65 years later, the 14-turn 4.048-mile track is virtually unchanged—a rarity in the racing world.

Put all this together and you have a racetrack that ranks high with practically every pro racer, R&T reports. And not just modern car racers, either. Road America hosts everything from IMSA GT Porsches to vintage Can-Am machines to a variety of motorcycles, including sidecar racers. And as a long-time NASCAR track, Elkhart Lake will no doubt echo with Next Gen racers’ bellows.

Before that happened, though, I got a chance to go around it. But first, I needed to learn the track layout. And that meant stepping into the back of a 2021 BMW M4 Competition.

A 2021 BMW M4 Competition back seat was my first-ever racetrack chariot at Road America

A yellow-green 2021 BMW M4 Competition driving on a forest-lined road
2021 BMW M4 Competition | BMW

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2021 BMW M4 Competition
Engine3.0-liter twin-turbocharged inline-six
Horsepower503 hp
Torque479 lb-ft
TransmissionEight-speed automatic
Drive typeRear-wheel drive
Curb weight3880 lbs
0-60 mph time3.8 seconds
Price$74,700 (base)
$101,095 (as ridden)

On paper, the 2021 BMW M4 Competition has the makings of a solid track car. Although it doesn’t offer a manual like the regular M4, the M4 Competition makes 30 more horsepower and 73 more lb-ft of torque. So, it’s even faster in a straight line than the regular M4, even without the 2022 version’s optional AWD.

But as noted earlier, Road America is more than just a banked oval or dragstrip. Fortunately, the 2021 BMW M4 Competition is well-prepared for some corners. In addition to a stiffer chassis than the regular 4 Series, the standard M4 has adaptive M Sport dampers, an electronic limited-slip differential, and upgraded brakes and tires. And besides the extra power, the M4 Competition gets additional chassis tuning as well as different wheels and tires.

Plus, the 2021 M4 Competition BMW shipped over to Road America came with some helpful extra options. The car I rode in had carbon-ceramic brakes, carbon-fiber bucket sport seats, and BMW’s M Drive Professional performance software suite, complete with M Drift Analyzer. Hence why, together with the carbon-fiber exterior and interior trim, as well as the bi-color wheels, leather interior, and green paint, it stickered at over $100K.

The 2021 BMW M4 Competition I rode in also came with the $2500 M Driver’s Package. This bumps the top speed from 155 to 180 mph. It also gives buyers a day of training with professional drivers and racers on actual circuits to learn the super sedan’s ins and outs. And because I’d never driven on a racetrack outside of a video game, I’m glad that box was checked.

What’s it like trying to learn a track from the back seat?

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Admittedly, I did some prep work before I got into the BMW M4 Competition’s back seat. Road America, along with several OEMs and racing organizations, has track footage videos featuring commentary and helpful tips for would-be racers. But memorizing the best way to get around 14 turns is surprisingly hard. When I arrived at the track, I felt like my brain was a swirling tornado of turn names, lines, and braking zones.

Although we—I was part of a group at Road America—weren’t racing, we did wear helmets for safety. My DOT- and ECE-certified motorcycle helmet was fine, but with the M4’s sloping roofline, the backseat was fairly tight. And it muffled the BMW driving instructor’s instructions slightly.

Soon, though, I was having trouble hearing for a different reason. Even though we weren’t traveling at racing speeds, the BMW M4 Competition was carving up the corners with aplomb. The well-bolstered sport seats kept me in place, but they also amplified just how hard this car grips and goes. With Road America’s trees, grandstands, hills, and bridges flashing past, the M4 Competition felt effortlessly fast. And not being the driver, I felt a bit like a bubble-wrapped gift going through the UPS.

Yet even at speed, with the sport exhaust crackling and roaring in the background, the instructor kept up his constant stream of tips and guidance. And as fast as the BMW M4 Competition was, its carbon-ceramic brakes slowed us down just as quickly. I almost thought my stomach would pop out of my mouth at one point. That ‘Competition’ appellation is there for a reason.

My legs were wobbly as I got out of the car’s back seat, while the flow of adrenaline left icy sparks on my skin and in my veins. But after a few minutes to calm down, I wanted to do it again. And, incredibly, once I did, I remembered most of the lessons I’d learned.

To be fair, most new racers would likely be better off starting with autocross or karting. But as the first taste of racetrack life, experiencing a pro manhandle a BMW M4 Competition around Road America got me hooked.

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