Dateline: Friday, December 2, 2021

A notice from the scR motorsports department of errors and omissions: In the last newsletter, I stated that Spa was in France. Shockingly, it is not. Rather, it is in this little, obscure country called Belgium that according to Wikipedia is “…known for medieval towns, Renaissance architecture and as headquarters of the European Union and NATO.” Who knew?

In my defense, Belgium borders France.

Being completely transparent, I actually should have known this, for in sixth grade (that’s back in 1982) I did a research report all about Belgium. I got an A+ on the report but failed to mention anything about the racetrack. Oh, the naiveté of youth.

Now to put this grievous misstep in perspective, France and Belgium are both pretty small. Combined, they fit inside my home state of Texas. I have even seen T-shirts printed to this effect, y’all. So, it wasn’t like I told you Spa was in New Zealand or something. However, if you made any travel plans to visit Spa while in France, I apologize for any economic or emotional loss you may have sustained as a result of this blunder. Enjoy a trip to Le Mans instead (yes, I checked, and it’s in France).

I found this on the Internet, so it must be true.

Now, back to our regularly scheduled newsletter.

Q: What’s this all about? I thought the 2021 season was over.

A: It all depends on how you are defining the word “season.”

Q: Last time we caught up, the GT4 SprintX “season” had concluded. And then you did that IGT-8 thing.

A: That’s right. And although the “…weekend at The Brickyard was a definitive turning point in my 24-year racing journey,” I just couldn’t end 2021 on that note.

Q: After all of the trouble and turmoil this season caused, you went back for more?

A: Well, you just can’t have enough trouble and turmoil, can you? Sounds like it’s time for some Haiku.

Can we find closure?
Sixteen hours to redeem.
What can go wrong here?

Q: It ended badly, didn’t it?

A: Not to be a spoiler, but yeah. Badly. In spectacular fashion. And not only because I was at the track (again) on Dana’s birthday.

Q: You didn’t!

A: I did! More Haiku?

Note to future self:
Your wife values her birthday.
Next time, stay home. Please!

Q: So this wasn’t a GT4 thing?

A: No. I foolishly spent my wife’s birthday campaigning a 1996ish BMW E36 M3 in the World Racing League’s year-end Intergalactic Championship 8+8 held at the Circuit of the Americas.

Yes, inspired by Jeff Gordon. At least, in part.

Q: This sounds (and looks) like something new.

A: It was. The World Racing League, or WRL, is a relatively new organization that evolved out of the various “budget” endurance series that have seen huge growth in the past 10 years or so. It’s sort of like a grown-up version of the ChumpCar (now ChampCar) series that we used to frequent with our awesome $500 Saturns.

Each WRL race weekend typically consists of two endurance races – one on Saturday and one on Sunday. This weekend was no different, with an eight-hour race being held each day. We were going to be competing in the “GP1” category, one step down from the top-dog “GTO” category.

Q: It sounds like the IGT-8 thing without the super-duper GT3 cars.

A: Now you’re getting the picture. Another key difference between the IGT-8 and this WRL extravaganza was that true race tires were not allowed to be used. Each WRL competitor was required to bolt on “normal” tires. And because of this, most teams can generally go the entire race duration without needing a tire change. Drivers are swapped and fuel is added every hour or so, but those poor tires see eight hours of continual abuse.

Q: Who were you racing with?

A: Believe it or not, my accountant got me into this.

Q: Shouldn’t your accountant be the person to talk you OUT of something like this?

A: Well, he’s a pretty cool accountant. I have been working with him for a few years now, and he has been continually peppering me with offers to abandon my “fancy” racing in exchange for a weekend at the track with his team, Montgomery Motorsports. Jay (my accountant) and his buddies Shawn (not an accountant) and Kevin (also not an accountant) have spent the past three or four years racing a variety of cars in WLR competition, most recently the GP1 E36 M3 shown in the picture below.

Oh, I don’t know. Let’s call this the “before” picture. Sound good?

Q: So to make sure I am keeping up, you raced an old-school M3 with Jay, Shawn, and Kevin at COTA for 16 hours?

A: Yes and no. You are keeping up just fine, but we certainly did not race an M3 at COTA for 16 hours. Although to be fair, that was more or less the original plan.

Q: Do we have to wait to hear about the spectacular failures? Or will you share some of that now?

A: You will have to wait. I am not done with the backstory yet. But here’s a mild teaser photo.

I guess we should call this the “after” photo. Those are Jay’s legs in case you can’t tell.

Q: How was the car to drive?

A: You’re assuming I got to drive the car. Which is a pretty big assumption. But I did get to drive it for at least a little while and it was a hoot. At least, once I got over the steering wheel issue.

Q: (Hoping for a loose steering wheel story) The steering wheel came off?!?

A: Sorry, nothing that dramatic. But the car’s seat was down so low that I could not see over the top of the steering wheel. In fact, I really could not see over the speedometer. I was as convinced that the steering wheel was in the wrong location as they were convinced it was in the right location, so I drove the entire weekend sitting on a phone book. Which might be a slight exaggeration, but it creates a great visual.

The wheel that caused far too much discussion and anxiety.

Q: You still haven’t told us about how the car was to drive.

A: Friday was a practice day, and I was slated to drive for two of the five sessions. In talking with Jay about the subtlety and nuance of driving the M3, I asked how sensitive the brake pedal was and how much oomph was needed to slow the car down on the big straights. His reply was something to the effect of, “Well, the car doesn’t have anti-lock brakes, but you really won’t miss it because you can’t push on the brake pedal hard enough to lock them up.”

Jay was wrong. And way more wrong than me telling you that Spa is in France. This would be analogous to Jay telling you that Spa is on the moon.

Coming out of a GT4 car where near-superhuman strength is required each time it’s necessary to slow down from terminal velocity, I quickly determined that the M3 needed no such leg strength. Unfortunately, this was not before I made lots of long, straight, black marks on the track surface heading into Turns 1, 11, 12, and 15.

Q: Other than the brakes, how was it?

A: Surprisingly good! I forget the actual numbers, but the car made (that’s the past tense of the verb “make” on purpose) about 280 horsepower and weighed about 2,700 pounds. That’s a pretty good ratio and made for a car that never felt underpowered. The 285-section-width tires at each corner made plenty of grip for a “normal” tire, and the M3 is simply a great platform in the first place. So, in summary, it turned well, accelerated well, and was a basket case under braking. But that’s my personal impression and should be taken with a grain of salt. I’m spoiled by racing with ABS these days, it appears.

Q: You’re just now realizing that you’re spoiled?

A: I’m going to ignore that comment and continue on with Friday’s practice session.

It was during my initial stint behind the wheel on Friday morning that I discovered that I could not see over the steering wheel, so I spent most of my time trying to figure out how to actually see the track. This was made all the more challenging by the fact that there were 89 other cars on the track with us (this was a huge field), and it was virtually impossible to drive a lap without being passed by a faster car (this was about 2 percent of the time) or needing to pass a slower car (this was about 98 percent of the time). We were definitely on the faster end of the spectrum, and putting in a clean, fast lap was just not an option.

As an added benefit, much of the field was comprised of relatively new racers who didn’t have the greatest sense of situational awareness. Which means they were not using their mirrors. Which means they were horribly unpredictable. Now I’m not going to be overly critical of novices here, as everyone who races has been there at some point, but it was the incredible density of the unaware masses that made every lap an exercise in risk management. And because it wasn’t my car, this resulted in an added layer of caution that exacerbated my own generally robust sense of self-preservation.

Q: This now sounds like you are making excuses for being slow.

A: Not really. My lap times were certainly competitive, but it was obvious I wasn’t driving in full-kill mode. Due to poor weather that rolled in later on Friday morning, only Shawn and I were able to turn in laps on a dry track. My memory might be suspect at this point, but I recall that I was running 2:34’s pretty consistently in traffic against his best of a 2:33. In our field of about 15 GP1 cars, Shawn’s time put us in second place on the grid, but to be fair my best lap time on its own would have been good for third place in our class. So, I didn’t exactly suck, but these guys can hang pretty OK on their own.

Unfortunately, almost all of the pictures I have of the car are while it was sitting in the garage.

Q: Does this bring us to the race on Saturday morning?

A: Yes, but this part of the newsletter will be painfully brief.

After taking the green flag at exactly 8:00 AM, Shawn made the pass for first place. This was a cause for great celebration. For the next 19.1 minutes or so, Shawn slowly put distance between himself and the E46 M3 that had qualified on the pole.

Q: Are we getting ready for a spectacular failure?

A: Well, one of them. And it was pretty spectacular.

Roughly 19.2 minutes into the race, Shawn radioed back to the team that he felt some sort of a vibration. It wasn’t obviously slowing down the car, and there wasn’t any way to diagnose it by remote, so the consensus was to “just drive it and see what happens.”

Q: What happened?

A: This.

So small, yet so important. And now, so broken.

Q: Assume I am not one of your car guy friends. What are those?

A: Even if you were one of my car guy friends, those are teeth that used to be attached to the M3’s ring gear.

Q: Is that bad?

A: The ring gear is one of those parts that facilitates the car moving under its own power. So yes, that’s bad. Really bad, actually.

Q: Where is the ring gear normally found?

A: In an M3, the ring gear is part of an assembly known as the “differential.” Although, if your name is Mark McVea you will argue (correctly) that the differential is but one component in the M3’s “rear end assembly.” And some people call the rear end assembly a “pumpkin.” Personally, I can’t stand the taste of pumpkin, so for today, we’re just going to call the whole shebang “the diff.”

This is the outside of an E36 M3’s diff. It is not happy because it is not installed in a racecar.

Q: Thanks for the automotive etymology lesson. Do you have a picture of a ring gear?

A: Of course. Because I had a lot of spare time of my hands this weekend, I was able to take a lot of pictures. I took 70 alone of the diff and the shrapnel that came out of it. This is one of my favorites.

This is the inside of an E36 M3’s diff. It is not happy because it is missing a few teeth.

Q: I’m glad you didn’t share the other 68 pictures with us.

A: Everyone is.

Q: Is that the sort of thing you could fix for Sunday’s race?

A: Yes, but we actually fixed it in time to finish (sort of) Saturday’s race. Turns out my accountant can also turn a wrench (see his legs in the photo above). Between that and the good fortune to know a fellow competitor with a spare diff for sale, we had the new part back up and in the car with about an hour to go in Saturday’s contest. We nominated Kevin to take it out for a few laps since to this point in the weekend he had not driven the car at all.

This is Kevin strapped in and ready to dominate.

Q: Please tell us the diff stayed together.

A: It did. But it’s now time for the second spectacular failure (to be honest, it wasn’t all that spectacular of a failure, but stay with me here).

After about three promising laps, Kevin felt the car get all sorts of stupid going through the Carousel. He smartly brought it straight in and parked it. It only took about 10 seconds to realize that there was water everywhere and it didn’t take one of my car guy friends to see that this was most likely because the lower radiator hose had completely separated from the radiator. It was a simple fix but wasn’t exactly how the team wanted to end the day.

This is Kevin after not exactly dominating. That face says it all.

Q: This seems like a good point to insert some Haiku.

A: Indeed!

Shattered ring gear teeth.
Hose clamps that fail to, well, clamp.
Yet Sunday, aim high.

Q: Where did you start Sunday’s race?

A: Because Shawn had set the fastest GP1 lap of Saturday’s race during his 19.1 minutes of glory, we were starting on the pole for Sunday’s race. And simply because Jay had not yet seen any action all weekend, he was voted into the starting driver’s role.

This is Jay on the false grid trying to look nonchalant while preparing to dominate.

Q: Please tell us the lower radiator hose stayed together.

A: It did. But it’s almost time for the third spectacular failure.

At the green flag, Jay fell one position to second place but maintained good pace for the entire duration of his stint. He held on valiantly for a solid 90 minutes without any drama whatsoever. I was scheduled to be the second driver that morning, so when the team gave me the signal, I grabbed my phone book (to see over the steering wheel, remember?) and headed to the pit wall.

This is the only picture I was able to take of the car moving under its own power all weekend.

Q: With all of your GT4 experience, was the driver change pretty seamless?

A: Almost. The most critical part of the handoff was that I needed to adjust the seat forward in order to reach the pedals (recall that in a GT4 car, the seating position is fixed). Unfortunately, the seat wasn’t too happy about that, and remained in Jay’s all-the-way-back position in spite of my very best cursing, yanking, and pounding. When fueling was complete there wasn’t any time left to worry about it, so I tightened the belts with Jay’s help and rolled out on track sitting much farther back than originally planned.

Q: Did that slow you down at all?

A: I really don’t know. My laps times were similar to what they were on Friday, but I do know that I had to fully extend my big right toe to push the gas pedal all the way to the floor. Which was mildly uncomfortable, but after about a lap or two blended in with the rest of the experience. At least I had my phone book under me and could basically see my way around the place.

Q: Are we getting close to another spectacular failure?

A: Very.

I would love to say that I took over from Jay in second place and drove triumphantly to the front of the pack, but that’s not quite how it went down. For the first hour I simply maintained position, dodging the (few) faster GTO cars and navigating my way through the (many) slower GP cars. First place in GP1 was about 45 seconds in front of me and third place in GP1 was about 45 seconds behind me, so there was no clear and present danger coming from either direction.

And then…

Q: Spectacular failure number three?

A: Spectacular failure number three.

As I was heading into the braking zone for Turn 11, the car picked up a really bad vibration. The seat of my pants told me that a tire had suddenly gone flat. I immediately hit the radio button and let the crew knew I was trying to diagnose this on the fly, but I really had no idea what was going on.

Thinking that I would just nurse the car around the track and back to the pits, I took the wide line through Turn 11 and attempted to accelerate down the back straight. It was at this point that I discovered that the car wasn’t running any longer and there was a copious amount of smoke coming from, well, everywhere.

Without asking for permission, the car simply coasted to rest at the exit of Turn 11 in eerie silence. And there I sat as the smoke rolled.

Just your everyday E36 M3 with its James Bond-style smoke screen deployed.

Q: Were you actually on fire?

A: At the time, I really didn’t know. However, I did learn that as you sit in a racecar that is potentially on fire you don’t think about much else other than, “Am I actually on fire?” You might occasionally let your mind wander into asking, “Does anybody see me over here?” but it then immediately snaps right back to, “Am I actually on fire?”

Thankfully, the smoke show I created was visible from downtown Austin, so there was a rather immediate response from the safety workers. Upon pulling up alongside the M3, the first thing they asked me was, naturally, “Are you actually on fire?”

Q: Were you actually on fire?

A: Thankfully, no.

Q: So, what caused all the smoke?

A: A 1996ish BMW E36 M3’s engine contains about two gallons of coolant and about five quarts of oil. Under ideal conditions, the two fluids are kept separate from one another, and neither is allowed to seep into the six combustion chambers. It is the responsibility of the “head gasket” to keep hydrostatic law and order in this regard.

However, these were not ideal conditions. While the prognosis is still underway as I write this, the coolant and oil apparently combined at some point to create the equivalent of an automotive milkshake, the contents of which were subsequently mixed together by a 7000-RPM blender. The frothy concoction then managed to find its way into the combustion chambers, where it unsurprisingly didn’t burn quite as cleanly as the 93-octane gasoline also trying to make its way into the engine.

I have way too many pictures like this one.

Q: Is a head gasket the sort of thing you can change easily?

A: Only in the sense that Rome was built in a day.

Q: So, the weekend was over?

A: Yeah, that’s sort of it. After opening the hood in the garage and seeing foamy liquid covering virtually everything, the white flag was raised, and the car was pushed up and into the trailer.

Q: You know, it sounds like you didn’t get the closure you were looking for.

A: I’m not sure that’s true.

*reflective pause*

Ok, it’s true. But I really can’t complain.

*reflective pause*

Ok, I really can complain. But I’m not going to.

*reflective pause*

No, really, I’m not going to complain. But GT4 season parallels are just too obvious to ignore. Lots of potential and flashes of speed accompanied by a pile of really expensive, broken parts.

But I do need to thank Jay, Shawn, and Kevin once again for making it a great experience despite the multitude of maddening mechanical maladies (that’s a linguistic technique known as alliteration, there). These guys are the perfect embodiment of the grassroots enthusiast, and it was a pleasure to hang with them for the weekend.

Q: Any more races coming up this year that you haven’t told us about?

A: Hell, no. I can’t take any more of this!

Q: When do you plan to reveal your 2022 racing plans with us?

A: That’s all TBD at the moment. Super-secret stuff. As soon as we are ready to announce that I am returning to GT4 SprintX in a BimmerWorld-prepared BMW M4 with the number 34 on the door, you will be the first to know about it. But for now, that’s all still a secret.

See you at the track!

#34 GT4