Say the name "Bill Auberlen" to casual race fans and there's a good chance they know the name, but probably not the whole story. It's surprising when you consider the impressive results he's achieved over nearly 30 years in motorsport: 6 championships, 92 wins, 200 podiums, 60 pole positions, 87 fastest race laps, and 119 records. He's the all-time leader of pole positions in American endurance sports car racing, and second in wins only to Scott Pruett. However, one distinction arguably tops all. Auberlen has driven more races for BMW than any other driver in the world—376 and plenty more to go.
At 47, Auberlen is twice as experienced as many of the guys on the grid, but you wouldn't know by looking at him. Wearing a flat-brimmed team hat and fashionable Prada sunglasses, Auberlen looks more mid-thirties, and certainly has plenty of step without the creaks common with that many track miles. His racing life reflects this youthfulness.
"He's not the youngest guy out there, but he drives like he is," says team owner Bobby Rahal. "It never concerns me what frame of mind he's in when he shows up to the race track every day. He shows up ready to go, and that's a big plus."
Dirk Werner, Auberlen's German co-driver, echoes Rahal: "I'm really impressed with his speed. He keeps on pushing all the time and working with the data. You see a lot of guys driving as long as he does but they kind of fade away. They lose their focus and motivation a little bit, because it's difficult in this sport to always push yourself. But Bill is pushing."
Part of Auberlen's rise in sports car racing came with driving for Turner Motorsport—another company that's maintained a long-standing racing relationship with BMW.
At Lime Rock Park one weekend in 2001, Will Turner, owner of Turner Motorsport, had a seat he needed to fill in a third BMW 328is race car. When a fellow team-owner from another series heard, he offered Auberlen who currently drove for him, to Turner with confidence he'd win.
"No way, you can't just put a guy in a World Challenge car and win the race. It's a totally different car," Turner remembers. "But it intrigued me so I checked around the paddock and everybody was telling me, 'Yeah, he's really fast. Maybe you should give him a try.'"
After only a couple of laps, Auberlen blew the engine.
"So it didn't really start out the way I planned," Turner says with a chuckle.
Auberlen still got a shot at the race, qualifying 23rd out of a 44-car field. But before the start of the race, the Connecticut skies opened up into a torrential downpour. While other cars lined up on the grid, Auberlen made the switch to wet tires, which required a start on pit lane and dropped him to the back of the pack.
After two laps, the first caution came out. Taking the time to check with his drivers, owner/racer Turner asked how the newbie, Auberlen, was doing, assuming he was struggling toward the rear of the field.
"My car chief told me, 'Uhhh, I don't think you have to worry about Bill,'" Turner says.
Unbeknownst to Turner, Auberlen had already made his way through half of the cars and eventually won the race by more than 11 seconds.
"This was my first time in the car and my first race," Auberlen said in an SCCA report. "We get our first victory after starting dead last. Can you believe that? It was just one of those days where everything came together and happened perfectly. But it took a lot of work getting through all of those cars."
Currently, Auberlen co-drives the number 25 car of Team BMW Rahal Letterman Lannigan in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar GTLM Championship. It's the first season that the team has run the larger, more powerful M6 GTLM, having made the switch from the much smaller, agile Z4, and getting to grips with the new car has been a challenge. The highlight of the season so far has been a second place at Sebring—the team's sole podium finish in the first three races.
During the third round at Long Beach's legendary street circuit, a spirited drive from Auberlen saw him beat his lap record from last year on his way to his second consecutive pole position at that track. By the end of the race, Auberlen and Werner would only finish fifth, despite a determined drive from Auberlen in which he held off a faster pair of Porsches for the first 16 minutes of the race.
"There's people who can qualify or run quick laps but there aren't that many good racers out there, and he's a good racer," Rahal says. "That's probably the biggest advantage or trait he has over some others."
The next round of the championship at iconic Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca saw more problems for the team. With the inclusion of several IMSA GTLM teams in this year's 24 Hours of Le Mans, all teams in the class were required to run Le Mans-spec tires. Two of the teams running the race in Le Mans, Ferrari and Ford, had a weekend at Silverstone to test the new spec tire, but others like BMW suddenly found the race weekend transitioning into a test session to learn about the new compound. As a result, the M6 GTLM was failing to warm up the tires quick enough and struggled with grip, consistently down on time to the Fords and Ferraris. Despite the frustration on track, Auberlen did well to keep a positive attitude around his legions of fans.
Repetition is the name of the game for a racing driver, and despite how many times Auberlen was asked the same question, he never failed to pretend like it was the first time he'd heard it. It's not uncommon to see Auberlen in the middle of a storm of enthralled followers eating up every word, a look of childlike fascination on their adult faces. He elaborated on the problems facing the team, while taking the time to address any other questions offered—from how the turbo in the BMW works to whether any teams are sandbagging.
"Clearly, he's a great representative for BMW," Rahal says. "When people talk to him he's very straightforward, and he's believable. He's got integrity and that comes across with what he does. He's a real pro. He really is the face of BMW and racing here in North America."
His devotion to fans extends away from the track where he maintains communication via social media outlets like Facebook to answer questions, and he even sends some fans memorabilia items from time to time. Auberlen also uploads videos that offer behind-the-scenes glimpses of his life, from interpreting data to a tour of his M6 GTLM race car for the BMW fan who can't make it to the races. Auberlen's career shows no signs of slowing down, especially as his pace behind the wheel keeps speeding up.