A bit more than a year ago, I bought a BMW E36 compact so that I could finally get into racing a bit more seriously. Here’s a summary of how, probably, a typical first year in racing looks like for everyone. Also, there’s a small list of tips at the end for those who wish to get into racing themselves.
(Full disclosure: My old BMW wanted to me to write this story so much that it has actually managed to stay relatively intact for two events in a row. This is the first time it’s been that long between visits to the garage for repairs, quite a weird feeling.)
For those of us who don’t have an eidetic memory (sorry Sheldon) and thus have no recollection of my first two posts a bit more than a year ago: in late 2014, after saving a bit of money, I decided that it was time to finally get into racing a bit more seriously than by borrowing friends’ cars for a few events a year. With my main goals being: a) getting into a competitive car and b) having as much fun as possible; it was clear that a rear-wheel drive car was what I need. After a bit of searching, I found it - a 1997 BMW 323ti Compact (m52b25 engine with an aluminium block) which had already been raced for a while, meaning that most of the things that needed to be done (thick aluminum sump guard, slightly upgraded suspension, etc.) already had been, so all I had to do was race.
As it happens, most of my first races were spent with me finishing somewhere in the middle of the table in my class, which is actually quite good. Still, you can always wish for better results, and I had hopes of being in the top 5 in the RWD class in the national championship series in supersprint (the closest to this is probably SCCA Rallycross, but the racing in supersprint takes place on mixed surfaces and there are very few cones, with the events typically taking place on karting tracks).
Since I had a somewhat competitive RWD car with about 180 horsepower, I also decided to give drifting a shot. After all, if Tanner Foust (a biologist) could do it, a guy with a degree in theoretical physics (me) should be incredible, right?
Well, to be honest, I probably wasn’t completely useless - entered three events and did get some points in qualifying in each (out of 30+ entries in my class in each event, there were typically nearly 10 who got a zero as their qualifying score).
Drifting is quite a bit more difficult than it looks, although it is very fun. Had I just focused on drifting, I might’ve been more competitive, but it was just something to do for fun in my first year - all I did with the car was throw on the cheapest coilovers, install a hydraulic handbrake and, well, that’s it. For the last few events, I didn’t even bother to change from my LSD to a welded diff, as the difference between those two isn’t really that big.
Still, it was much more fun than I anticipated, so I’ll probably occasionally do some drift events in the future as well.
By the time the drifting season came and went, my supersprint season was also underway, and I was actually close to the top five in the standings.
However, sometime in early June it was clear that the m52b25 was on its last legs, and I was actually lucky to not have spun a bearing on my way to the service after an event. After opening the engine, we saw that the block was worn out and we’d have to change it. Well, since that would need to be accompanied by quite a few additional changes as well as a general tune-up, a decision was made to up the capacity to 3.0 liters, making an m52b30 engine.
There were quite a few problems along the way, so the engine build took about 2 months, but, in August, it was finally ready. We didn’t do a dyno run, but the power should’ve been in the region of 240 horsepower.
Hoo-boy, once I got the engine in its power band it made me tingle in all the right places. Since the car weighs a bit under 2700 lbs and has a 3.93 diff, I couldn’t really complain about the way it accelerates.
Shortly after installing the new engine, I also had a chance to have some fun on a closed rally stage with a co-driver, and came back with the unsurprising conclusion that rallying is probably the most fun thing you can do with a car.
Getting back to my national championship series in supersprint, it was now time for the third event of the season and, with it taking place on a 100% asphalt track (where I’m a bit more competitive than on gravel), I was actually excited to see what I’d be able to accomplish.
It turned out to be the best event of my season - for the first time in my career I finished second, getting a spot on the podium in a national championship event.
Fresh from that success in supersprint, I decided to go and do some practice for the upcoming drift event as well. That, however, didn’t turn out as fantastically as I had hoped. My skills had improved a lot since the beginning of the season and I was able to drift nearly the whole karting track that I used for practice, but, after one technical section, there seemed to be a bit more smoke coming from the car than usual.
Initially, we thought that it’s probably not that big of a problem. Just towed the car to the shop to see what would need to be changed.
Well, once the cylinder head was removed, we saw the problem - an OEM valve had snapped in half and decided to have a party in one of the cylinders. This resulted in a hole in the block, destroyed the piston and pretty much managed to fill every part of the engine with various engine fluids.
The good news are that we found the bottom half of the valve and I now have a (very expensive) souvenir from my 3.0 liter engine.
Unfortunately, since I’m just a regular guy with regular guy income and no sponsors, building another 3.0 liter engine was out of the question. Instead, we found a good m52b28 (also aluminium block, since I’m in Europe) from an e39 and installed that. There are a few very minor mods to the engine and the power output should be in the region of 210 horsepower, which is actually pretty good for such a light car.
The car was up and running for the last few events of the season - while I didn’t manage to get on the podium in any of the remaining three events, the results were good enough to fulfill my own goal and finish fifth in the season standings, while being the best among rookie drivers.
With the conclusion of the national championship, it was now time to do some winter events for fun. I’m not very fast in true winter conditions yet, but that’ll probably come with experience.
Now that I’ve got a bit of experience under my belt, the results are also slowly improving - I have actually won a few (albeit not national championship level) events, and feel much more confident in the car.
If you’re thinking about getting into racing, here are a few tips from my first year in racing. Most of these are nothing new, but have to be reiterated as we all (myself included) tend to think that we’ll be gods gift to racing and nothing bad (or expensive) will ever happen to us our our cars:
1. You DEFINITELY need to pick a car that has cheap and easily available parts. Even if you stay on the track and don’t damage the car, parts will break all the time.
2. Don’t spend a ton of money on engine modifications. Having more power is actually bad when you start racing, as it’ll mask some of your mistakes. The best way is to start with a really slow car, learn to get everything out of it, and then move to something more powerful. You can, however, do some suspension modifications, as those will just help you better feel the car - driving a car with completely worn out shocks will not teach you proper racing technique.
3. The secret to being really fast? Practice. All the top drivers have either been racing for a long time, or have put in a lot of practice time to get up to speed. Practice as much as you can. This is actually what’s hurting my own performance - I don’t really have time to practice between events, so my progress is not as fast as it could be.
4. The best way to measure your progress is by choosing a racing series and sticking to it. I actually did quite a few more events than listed in the (admittedly, ridiculously long) post above, but they were mostly one offs, which meant that it was difficult to judge where I was at compared to others. It is much better to do a full series of, say, five events, than to do a single event in six or seven different series. With a single racing series, you’ll be able to measure your own progress compared to the leaders. Of course, the more you race, the better.
5. The secret to being really fast if you don’t have time to practice? Tires. You can have the best car on the planet, but if you’re driving on crappy tires, the result won’t be any good. Used and/or bald tires are great for practice, but try and use new rubber when you’re actually competing. It is very easy to get used to more grip, so there’s no need to worry if you practice on bald tires and race on new ones - you’ll get up to speed right away (if not on the first, then on the second run).
6. Is racing expensive? No. It’s actually ridiculously expensive. Here’s a few things I could’ve done if I hadn’t raced for the past year:
But you know what? Despite the, frankly, ridiculous costs, racing is awesome.