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I Did it My Way: Underdog Transforms $500 BMW Into a Rally Winner with Millermatic 212

Everyone loves supporting the underdog. Why? Because they have an uncanny ability to overcome adversity and achieve greatness. Such is the case for Bill Caswell. If you haven't heard of him yet, you will. He's just one underdog that picked up a blue welder and survived a World Rally Championship race. Not only did he finish the three-day event, but he placed third in the Rally America class using a $500 car he bought on Craigslist. 

Spectators and locals alike watch Caswell corner his BMW 318i in true Rally
fashion—with plenty of dirt and dust!

Caswell did it simply because he wanted to, because racing a BMW on World Rally Championship stages was a dream he had for a long time. Caswell has been competing on tracks and instructing with BMW Car Club of America for some time now, but the opportunity to run alongside WRC cars was too much to pass up.  But Caswell doesn't just race the cars, he works on them as well. 

"In many regards, part of me likes building the cars as much as racing them," states Bill Caswell. "The best part are the weekends of hanging out with your friends in the garage and welding up a roll cage. It's kinda fun; there's something that just feels right about it."

It all began when he came across a book on car repair that inspired him to purchase $150 worth of tools to start fixing up his college beater, which hadn't run in years. At this point Bill had never touched a car outside of filling it with gas and had yet to drive anything competitively.

The BMW Car Club of America was key to Caswell's development as it provided a place to start competing once he had the old car fixed up.  The club also has driver instruction programs to get novices out on racetracks which is how Bill started.  Eventually Bill went after his competition license and starting racing wheel to wheel with other cars in 2003. Throughout this process, Caswell has been teaching himself the art of fabrication and welding, so it was no surprise that he was comfortable when it came time to beef up the 318i's shock tower plates, upper frame rails and trailing arms.  After doing the math, Caswell fabricated the FIA-legal roll cage himself.  In the long run, downloading the regulations and buying a tube bender, notcher, and welder was about the same cost as paying a shop to do the work.  Since that first cage, Bill has fabricated up three more for various projects ranging from a 24hrs of Lemons car to a new cage for his track car.

In order to weld the cage, Caswell knew he'd have to upgrade his previous 110 volt welder. The Millermatic 212 Auto-Set welder was just what Caswell was looking for and provided a night and day difference in the weld quality.

"A friend of mine had one of the new Auto-Set welders in his shop. I kept thinking you've got to be kidding me," says Caswell. "I just walked up to it, dialed in the thickness of the steel and starting welding. From the very first contact it laid a perfect bead. I've never had that before. It just worked really well. It's not that it's magic, it just does what I think welders are supposed to do."

At home in the garage, Bill Caswell uses his Millermatic 212 to fabricate the
front skid plates made from ½-in. thick plate and tubing. 

Using a random-brand welding helmet, Caswell's eyes burned badly after a cage install, almost to the point that he couldn't go out to race. "I used to move my head and reposition (and the lens shading would finally trigger), but if you do that a dozen times each night, you're in bad shape." It wasn't long before he had an upgraded welding helmet in addition to the new welder.

"It's not just the welder that's absolutely amazing; the X-Mode on the Digital Elite helmet that I bought made my life so much easier," comments Caswell. "Most of the time when I weld a cage, the optical sensors on the helmet get blocked by a bar I'm welding behind."  It turns out that was the problem with the previous helmet, it only had one or two sensors compared the Miller's four sensors.  "But the X-Mode trumps the sensors by picking up the electromagnetic arc, even when I'm forced to weld behind the tubing, it kicks on no matter what."

Armed with his new welder and helmet, Caswell was no longer held back by any fabricating limitations. It was time to focus on getting out to race.

Once again finding inspiration in a book, Caswell studied the sport of Solo II racing, otherwise know as Autocross, where you race one at a time through orange pylons in a giant parking lot for the fastest time measured to the thousandth of a second.  After gutting the car to make it light, he entered it in a bunch of races, which led to driving courses and then instructor courses. To go rally racing was always one of his dreams.

Caswell was able to run the Mexico round of the WRC by entering the Rally America event which ran in conjunction with the WRC event. It effectively ran as a class within the overall event using the same opening ceremonies, facilities, stages, time controls, awards celebration, etc where he'd be competing with many of the pro-rally drivers. Originally, Caswell thought he was entering a class designed for his car as Rally America is the name of group he races with in the U.S., but it turns out that it's also the name of original Mexican Rally that was started 1979 and only brought back for the first time this year.  

 

Caswell, being a one-man-show, gets to work swapping out his tires
during a time-controlled stop during one of the WRC Mexico stages.

Always Resourceful

In the Mexico World Rally Race, Caswell had to be quick in the drivers seat and to make roadside repairs. With no crew, he had to do it all himself, and the two time-controlled service stops (one 30-min. at lunch and one 45-min. in the evening) didn't provide a lot of time between stages to make repairs.

Resourcefulness was often required, such as when Caswell used the stock tool kit found in the BMW trunk to remove a broken aluminum motor mount.  This allowed him to fabricate a new one out of scrap steel based on the measurements from the broken part while his car was in lock-down.  As a result, Caswell was able to make effective use of the 45 minute service window when all he had to do was install the recently fabricated part.

Click here to read the detailed play-by-play of Caswell's adventure in Mexico as told in Sam Smith's article on Jalopnik.com. The article includes Caswell's insights, photos and updates from the road.

Caswell's persistence and mechanical ingenuity helped him succeed against all odds and obtain a third-place finish in his class. Already, Caswell has his sights set on running a few more events (listed below) and is back in the garage getting the 318i ready. Thanks to the challenge of the Mexico course, his list of repairs isn't short. 

 

Did this really just happen? Caswell and co-driver Ben Slocum take in the
atmosphere at the finish line party.

 

Caswell makes a splash during a stage in the Mexico leg of the World Rally Championship.

Like any other type of racing you begin preparing for the next event by fixing everything that was just bent or broken. The right side engine support arm, cracked in Mexico, would need to be re-fabricated. The hood pins are now welded directly to the car's frame(the aluminum hood pins sheared off on a massive jump). Other required welding repairs included the drivers-side rear shock mount and a new sub-frame mount on the front right. He also plans to re-enforce chassis components and rear shock mounts and soften the front spring rates before his next event.

Today there is more than the original $500 in the 1991 BMW 318i that Caswell found on Craigslist last summer. But most of it is in the form of safety gear borrowed from his track car and a faster, 4-cylinder engine from the 1991 BMW E30 M3 which Caswell says was a "must have" item for Mexico, not because of the increased power but because it was part of the dream. This is the engine (and effectively the same chassis) that BMW raced in the World Rally Championship in the late 1980s which started the dream for Caswell.  With no crew, he entered the Mexico round of the World Rally Championship and drove to a third-place finish in his Rally America class! The journey along the way was filled with many comical and ingenious fixes, earning him respect from professional competitors and fans alike. 

Fun Fact: You can play using Caswell's car in the game Forza 3. Jalopnik reader Sam Carter created a beautifully accurate mod of the BMW right down to the bumper stickers. Click here for more detail.

Check out this time-laps video of Caswell working on one of his BMW race entries for the 24 Hours of Lemons series.

Caswell was also featured on the The Story with Dick Gordon.  The replay can be found here: http://thestory.org/archive/the_story_1021_Bill_Caswell.mp3

What's Next

Watch for Bill Caswell at these upcoming Rally America 2010 events and the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb:

Susquehannock Trail Rally, Wellsboro, PA

Pikes Peak International Hillclimb, Colorado Springs, Co

New England Forest Ralley, Bethel, ME

Rally Cross at New Jersey Motorsports Park, Millville, NJ

 

 

 

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