Some people join the BMW Club to get a discount on a new car or parts, others for the camaraderie of like-minded individuals. Still others join the club to pursue high-performance driving in their Ultimate Driving Machines, and a few of those end up being pretty serious about the whole motorsports thing. American road racing has plenty of drivers who started in BMW or Porsche driving schools.
Puget Sound chapter member Michelle Miller’s story is a bit like that, while also a bit different. After starting in fairly typical fashion, with autocrossing and a few track days, she’s now a full-time instructor at DirtFish Rally School. She managed a rally team for a while, too, co-driving with Lucy Block—wife of rally superstar Ken Block—in the American Rally Association. But we’re getting ahead of our story.
Growing up in Mossyrock, Washington, Michelle always liked cars, mostly because they led to independence. For her parents, Michelle getting her driver’s license meant she could ferry around her little sisters, relieving her parents of those duties. But motorsports? Nothing but a silly dream for a small-town girl. “I thought motorsport was for rich men, and just another thing to spectate for someone like me,” Michelle says.
Insomnia while attending the University of Washington in the 2000s led Michelle to Speedvision, and its late-night European rally programming with lots of cool cars not available in North America. After college, Michelle finally had some extra money, so she and her husband Chris started modifying her first car, a 1982 Mazda RX-7, to run in Mazda club activities. Parking-lot meetups and scenic drives soon led to autocross, the gateway drug for many a racing enthusiast.
“I’ll admit, I was terrified to attend my first motorsport event; and afraid both of being slow, adhering to traditional stereotypes about female drivers and not being accepted as part of the boys’ club,” Michelle says. “It turned out that everyone was very welcoming, and my initial apprehension was misplaced. That experience, of being welcomed, has been repeated many times since. Taking the first plunge was the hardest part.”
Autocross provided a cost-effective and relatively easy entry into motorsports, with no roll cage required and minimal risk to Michelle’s street car. In 2011, Michelle earned a spot at the SCCA nationals in Nebraska. She finished last in her class at her first attempt, but the next year she won. “I was so nervous at that first event but had such a blast meeting so many people and being part of an event of over a thousand race cars,” she says. “Forward I focused more on being competitive, building the car to my driving style and taking lots of classes, including doing my first track days with the BMW Club to get more comfortable carrying speed.”
Her reward? Three SSCA Solo championships.
Michelle and Chris had joined the BMW CCA in 2007, when they bought their first BMW, a used 2000 E39 540i. “Like many current members, I joined to get parts discounts, then I got hooked on the brand.” She and Chris have since purchased an S54-powered Z3 M coupe, a Z4 M Coupe, an E36 M3, and a MINI Cooper, while their club activities have ranged from social and driving events to high-performance driving schools. Michelle also got involved in club governance, serving as the Puget Sound Chapter’s concours chair, treasurer, and president.
While serving as treasurer, she learned bookkeeping, a useful skill in her roles as the owner of a local pub and rally team manager. As chapter president, she learned how to motivate volunteers when compensation isn’t part of the package. “Working on the board was an amazing experience. I learned a ton of skills which helped me in my future career, and it was a blast to be a part of the team so passionate about the brand and the member experience. Being a part of the BMW CCA Oktoberfest at Laguna Seca was a once-in-a-lifetime trip, as well.”
Her active involvement on the chapter board was interrupted when the DirtFish rally school came calling. One of two rally schools in the U.S., DirtFish is located in Snoqualmie, Washington, about 40 miles east of Seattle in the Cascade foothills. What once was an old Weyerhaeuser lumber facility—and a location for the Twin Peaks television show—is now 300 acres on which drivers can learn to drive fast on dirt, gravel, and rocks. It’s especially challenging for those used to paved racetracks, but Michelle is expert at helping students learn to drive fast and with confidence despite the lack of grip. “Loose-surface driving is a special skill set; learning how took me countless hours of seat-time and learning to put aside pavement habits,” she says. “Speed on the dirt looks a lot different than speed on a track. The skills I have now make me a much more well-rounded driver and have made me faster in any discipline.”
She’s been working full-time at DirtFish since 2013, and in 2017 took on another challenge from DirtFish owner Steve Rimmer: managing the DirtFish Global Rallycross Lights Team. While plenty of women were already playing supporting roles in Global Rallycross, none were in a leadership position. “It took me a while to become confident in this new arena,” she says. “I had a fantastic team surrounding me that always had my back and accepted my leadership.”
When Global Rallycross folded its tent, she returned to instructing at DirtFish. She drives and navigates in rallies, campaigning Subarus, Fords, but not yet a BMW beyond test days. “I just love being in race cars, whether in the driver or the co-driver (navigator) seat,” she says. “Navigating is currently the majority of my rides, and being a driving coach, makes it an easy transition for me from work to racing.”
Her ability to drive makes Michelle a particularly good co-driver, as does her love of building pace notes and riding along for the timed stages. That’s what brought her to the attention of Ken Block, founder of Hoonigan Racing. Block’s wife Lucy is campaigning a Ford Fiesta Rally3 in nationwide American Rally Association events, with Michelle as her navigator. Ken and Lucy’s 15-year-old daughter Lia is racing, too, in a Fiesta R2T. “It is so fun racing with the family,” Michelle says. “They are each other’s biggest fans, and they work hard to get the most out of every event.”
At 15, Lia has none of the fears that Michelle had more than a decade ago—that she wasn’t fast enough, and that she wouldn’t be welcome. Michelle is now 45, and she hopes to keep racing and rallying as long as she can. She’s still a member of the BMW CCA, and she still has that S54-powered Z3 M coupe. It’ll be with her for quite a while, ready to go whenever she’s hit by the urge for an autocross or a fun Sunday drive.