Mihld took victory in the first NASA SoCal race of the season at Chuckwalla. The following day, he placed second and nearly matched the fastest lap of the day.

As a young man watching his heroes racing at Riverside, NASA SoCal racer Michael Mihld dreamed he would one day race a Trans Am car.

Success in business as well as NASA Spec E30 made a step into pro racing a real possibility for Mihld, so he called Howe and placed an order for his very own TA2 Camaro. Part of the appeal was the relative simplicity of the car, which arrived in a hundred different boxes at his doorstep. If he followed the instructions, he’d be able to assemble the car with the help of a mechanically inclined friend in the course of a year or two.

After 16 months and many late evenings in the garage, he and two committed buddies transformed all those boxes of parts into a running Trans Am car. A tube-frame chassis weighing 2,700 pounds with 500 horsepower, a dogbox, and big slicks was a recipe he’d dreamt of for decades, and getting to experience the real thing did not disappoint.


Meet Your Heroes

He’s not the type to lust after a car without any plans for racing it, though. For Mihld, the main objective in motorsport is to test his mettle in competition with others in similar machinery.

When he finished the build in 2019, the West Coast series was booming and its fields were full. Running the numbers was encouraging. A full season would not, as he was told, cost more than the purchase price of the car, so Mihld committed to making the leap and realizing a childhood dream. He also raced it in NASA Super Touring.


Nobody on Mihld’s team had been stretched so thin before. The delegation of tasks was almost a job itself. Mihld had to bring on another two employees, bringing his total team count to five. “I had everyone’s tasks written out on pieces of paper they wore around their necks like credentials,” he said.

After arriving at the track, the pace never slowed. The exacting schedules were as stimulating as they were draining. “You can do it all yourself in club racing, but there’s no way in Trans Am. Between marking tires, media obligations, radios, and compliance, you need several people assisting you at all times. It’s overwhelming,” he admitted.

Still, their planning paid off and the team never fumbled once, which made consistent performances possible. Mild still had his hands full trying to come to terms with a car unlike anything he’d raced before.

The Howe Camaro originally came equipped with a Detroit Locker. That combined with torque and traction made the car buck violently under acceleration, which posed a problem for Mihld, who was accustomed to the softer edges of the forgiving Spec E30.

“The Camaro was a little more on a knife edge. It wanted me to roll through the corner and get on power late — something I struggled with,” he said. “If I was too eager with the throttle, it’d pick up the nose and understeer.” The car had a very narrow operational window and maintaining the concentration to drive it correctly over long distances was difficult.

The series’ 90-minute races are great tests of physical fitness. “You just get thrown around so much. It’s hot inside the car. I struggled to last until the end of the races,” Mihld said. “It’s just so physical. Being fit always helps in a racecar, but it mattered less in the E30 than it did in the Camaro. Honestly, I wasn’t fit enough then,” he admitted.

Backloaded Bargain

As if managing the schedule and lasting the race distance wasn’t enough to handle each weekend, the car needed constant work to run at the front. Unpacking wheel bearings, rebuilding brakes, and other ways of regular fiddling took place on an almost hourly basis. This wasn’t a car that could just be set and forgotten.

It seemed that every track demanded a different setup. Additionally, changing weather and general track conditions required regular setup adjustments. On top of all that, the service intervals were short. The differential needed a rebuild after three events and the shocks after four. “It was a lot of work, but if you kept up on servicing, it was a very reliable car,” he stated.

Once in the car, he was always satisfied. Whenever a race event took him away for days at a time, Mihld felt completely detached from any mundane concerns — few forms of racing were as pure and as completely engrossing.

After sorting out the car and getting comfortable pushing it, Mihld finished the 2018 West Coast season in second place. The following year, he took third. “Both those years, I had several podium finishes and they were always fun. Trans Am always had a top-notch podium presentation with trophies and champagne. After spraying the other drivers with the victory fluid, I would try to get the officials as well. They would run as soon as they heard the cork pop,” he added.

However, time at the track had been taking him away from work — his sole source of sponsorship. Furthermore, the budget he had been told would be sufficient came up short. “We ran a used motor, we cobbled some parts together using secondhand stuff, and we relied on help from volunteers. It wasn’t shoestring, but we weren’t the best funded team by a long ways.”

“Parts costs kept escalating. There were also last-minute travel plans, occasional overnight shipping, and a few unforeseen costs that just made it tough to keep up.”

After two years dedicating himself to the pro circuit, he had exhausted himself physically and financially. The joy was still there, but he had to wonder what he was willing to pay for it. He had to ask himself what he truly valued in racing.

Not to say that he had seriously considered quitting Trans Am. As the new year dawned, Mihld had the money ready for another frenzied season. However, none of that would matter much when the pandemic put the kibosh on most motorsport as well as office work.

One of the few local circuits to keep its doors open in the middle of the pandemic was Willow Springs, where Mihld would run ad-hoc races in his old Spec E30 with a few close friends. The return to the casual club environment made his life much more pleasant amid the world shutting down, and, with the boxy 3-series shell keeping him safe from infection, he could socialize, get his speed fix, and live a less sedentary existence than the rest of us binging on entire seasons of TV shows every weekend.

While COVID put the world on pause, Mihld spent a few weekends installing a new Katech motor in his Camaro. The hope for more was still flickering quietly in the background. However, he knew that to do it justice, he’d have to commit fully. “I didn’t want to do anything half-assed, and the thought of being totally dedicated to another season was no longer appealing. I wanted more freedom.”

And so the Camaro began hibernating in the corner of his garage. When the world returned to some semblance of normalcy, Mihld had a new idea he wanted to pursue. He went searching for a modern car that would combine the simplicity of Spec E30 with some of the speed and excitement of Trans Am.

There were a few appealing classes in the club world, but he was wary of choosing one too eagerly — he wanted this next car to check the greatest number of boxes possible. ST3 was intriguing, but the fields weren’t well populated enough.

For less money and a little less pace, there was Spec E46. Faster than the E30, friendlier than the Trans Am, exciting, and competitive. For another $10,000 more than what the old E30 cost to build, he’d enjoy minimal maintenance and comparable running costs. He also got to build most of the car.

Kontrolle did the wiring, the cage, and the interior painting. Mihld and friends did the rest.

Once peace of mind was factored into the equation, outright speed and intensity no longer carried the same sort of weight they once did. The long list of perks and absence of problems helped Mihld regard a decrease in speed and horsepower in speed as something acceptable. Winning the 2024 season opener with NASA AZ by six seconds made the change that much more enjoyable.

Barely Bothered

Two of the E46’s definitive qualities are its easy adjustability and serviceability. “What takes 20 minutes to fix in the old car might take twenty seconds in the new one,” Mihld explains.

More room to wrench and an easily adjustable suspension setup makes fixes much simpler with the SE46.

Being newer, the E46 requires less maintenance than the E30, and the occasional jobs are easier to accomplish because they require less guesswork, contorting, and tricks than the E30’s often do.

When parts need to be replaced, they’re not hard to come by. Unlike the high-strung S54 in the E46 M3, the milder M54 is fairly common, having come in eight different models.

In terms of running costs, the difference between old and new is negligible. The heavier E46 drinks a little more fuel and runs slightly pricier tires, but its superior balance helps them last a little longer. Pad costs are comparable and so are their lifespans.

However robust the newer car might be, it isn’t quite as happy to take abuse as the older car is. “The E30 is a tank, and the E46 is a little more fragile. The E46’s arms are aluminum, so you have to be careful when hopping curbs or rubbing fenders,” he said. “They will bend, though I haven’t had any issues yet.”

Driving Differences

The big M54 makes roughly 60 more horsepower across a broader power band than the old M50. Combine that extra shove with better ratios and a sweeter shift, and the Spec E46 starts to feel legitimately quick compared to its forebear, which is undeniably a momentum car. It’s not a powerhouse, “but you must be mindful of your throttle exiting slow and medium-speed corners,” he added.

The Spec E46’s M54 makes roughly 60 more horsepower across a broader powerband than the Spec E30’s M50.

Additionally, the E46’s overall balance is better, its brakes are easier to modulate, and the bump-steer issues that plagued its predecessor are nearly negligible. It’s better aerodynamically, too. Its shape is softer and that helps it cut through the air better than the E30, which Mihld likens to a toaster. The result is a car that can lap Willow Springs consistently in the 1:31s.

The Holistic Approach

“I realized that there were other pleasures in life that I wanted along with racing.”

“I loved racing the Trans Am, but I couldn’t justify everything else that came along with it. That speed was what pushed me toward making a compromise — and I’m sure I made the right one. I can work on the car myself, I can prep it on Thursday. Most weekends at the track, I only have to open and close the hood once.”

Does he miss the rabid Camaro, its speed, and the regular fitness checks it gave him? “Of course I miss it, but I’d say I’m getting about 60% of the satisfaction I got from driving the Camaro, but without any of the headaches.”

The Howe-chassis Camaro still sits in his garage, like a big yellow elephant in the room. Mihld hasn’t quite decided on the right course of action. For now, he’s enjoying himself with a simpler, less frenetic form of racing. The Spec E46 and its net-net appeal have won out for the time being. It doesn’t drain. It only provides.

Images courtesy of HERB LOPEZ, caliphotography.com, Michael Mihld and Brett Becker

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