"Something is wrong, it's misfiring." After just six laps of practice, I pull our E30 325i into the garage for repairs. And it's a repair that takes us four hours to diagnose and leaves us feeling like idiots: We didn't put any gas in it. And that was just the beginning.
(Full Disclosure: I was invited to drive in three endurance races this year with the brand new AER series in a Spec E30. We won the first event and went into the second race at Watkins Glen feeling really good about ourselves. It only took a couple laps for the cockiness to go away.)
Our first event at New Jersey Motorsports Park was kind of a dream. We stayed out of trouble, drove clean and fast, and claimed the overall win for the weekend. It went as well as wheel-to-wheel racing can.
This weekend at Watkins Glen... not so much.
After unloading, we decide to take the car on the track for a little shakedown. It promptly comes back in after two laps with a mechanical issue known as "the exhaust fell off." And when the exhaust fell off, the O2 sensor landed on the ground, basically sacrificing itself so the exhaust didn't grind down on the pavement. What a brave O2 sensor.
This means we have to get a new O2 sensor and install it, which loses us the entire morning of practice.
See, that's not ideal, especially since I've never been around the track at Watkins Glen. The more practice the better, and right now we I'm getting none.
After lunch, the car is fixed and ready to go. Team owner Josh shakes it down, then Andrea from the excellent Axis of Oversteer goes out for about a dozen trouble free laps. Now it's my turn.
Watkins Glen is a challenging track, probably one of the toughest in the United States. It comes from a generation that thought armco barriers right next to the track were a safety feature. If you don't have giant attachments, you won't be fast around WGI.
It's also one of those places that is full of tricks that you only know after racing there multiple times. Camber changes, concrete patches, where exactly to enter the bus stop... these are all nuances that you learn with time, not when you rush to learn a track. But I'm determined to be fast.
After a few laps I start getting in a rhythm and shaving time, my fifth lap is still nowhere near where we think we should be, but I keep getting faster. Other than noticing that the engine is down on top end power (more on that to come), I'm feeling good.
But then, disaster. Out of the undulating portion of the course known as 'The Boot,' the engine develops a terrible miss. It feels like something was wrong in the ignition, like a plug wire fell off or maybe the ECU went bad. It's ok on half throttle but at full throttle it's a mess. I bring it right to the garage, relay to the mechanics what is wrong, and go to work.
We take out the spark plugs, they look a little rich but not too bad. We replace the fuel filter, suspecting it's a blockage. We also replace the entire airbox, since the mass air sensor might have gone bad. The car goes back out on track with someone else behind the wheel. Not only do they experience the same issues as me, but they say it's "worse."
The decision is made to remove and replace the fuel pump. And when the fuel pump is out, that's when we discovered the real issue: The tank was totally dry.
Why we didn't check that first, well, I guess we'll never know. See, this E30 has a fuel pump that pulls fuel from the right side of the tank. When I developed that miss, it was out of a right hand turn, which means it was getting half the normal amount of fuel and was missing because of that. And the fuel gauge in our car doesn't work all that well. We made an honest mistake, and yes, we got a ton of ribbing from competitors about it. It was very deserved.
What was good was that we didn't hit the armco like a few other teams did. We also didn't have a true mechanical failure, just a brain failure. Even though we'd be starting further back in the pack than we'd like, we'd be on the grid the next morning.
The Next Morning
Here I am on a rainy, dreary, freezing grid bright and early. Not ideal conditions for racing. When I say not ideal, I mean really slick. Rally Baby's E30 convertible is a good example of how to handle the wet track:
We have a great start and pick off a bunch of cars, but we also come into contact with another car in the slick conditions. Our hood is a little banged up, but the alignment looks ok and we're not any slower. No big deal, car owner Josh carries on.
Then the chatter starts. The marshalls don't like our hood sticking up. Even if it was a front hinged hood that couldn't pop up no matter what, they black flag us. So we come in and started the repairs, and lose 45 minutes in the process because it just wouldn't latch.
And we're not the only cars with issues. The Glen is a tough track. There are spins and cars breaking consistently. The armco claims a few cars as does the high speed, high revving nature of the track. By the end of day two, attrition knocks the 30 car field down by a third.
My stint in the E30 is rather uneventful except for one moment when a Nissan's engine explodes right in front of me and another when a full course yellow comes out for a substantial crash in the back half of the course. Since I'm so far behind, I stay out of the way of the leaders and continue to learn. I feel comfortable with the track, but the speed isn't there, I'm off the pace of the other drivers in our car by nearly two seconds.
Josh has a fantastic final stint with some great racing between him and Jeff "Speedycop" Bloch, but, as you can see, we just have no power whatsoever:
It's a pretty great ending for the team after a seriously rough start to the race, but I'm not happy. Racing isn't always champagne and cheering. Sometimes it's disappointing.
Now I'm pissed at myself for not watching more videos of Spec E30s at Watkins Glen. I'm pissed for going into the weekend thinking I didn't need much prep. I'm pissed because I know I was better and faster than I was that day.
It's not like I lost Le Mans and I didn't lose the race for our team, but you're your own toughest critic. I was fast at NJMP, shitty at Watkins Glen. Everyone has days when they're off the pace, and they never get any easier to accept.
The good part with AER is that there are two races in a weekend. And I'm determined to be faster on Sunday.
As I get to the track on Sunday it's 37 degrees outside. And raining. Miserable conditions for racing. "Josh will start the race" I tell myself. "He'll want to make sure the car makes it through."
"Travis, why don't you get suited up, you can start. It'll be fun."
I'm nervous, but y'know what? He's right.
We start mid pack once again, about seventh or eighth in class, and over the course of my stint I get up to second in class. It's fun to pick off traffic and make some actual passes for position. I'm feeling good about how I'm driving, but not about the car.
Something is wrong (and no, it's not out of gas). Other Spec E30s are blowing us away on the straight like they have an extra 15 horsepower. I make up time in the corners and use momentum to make a ton of passes, but a lot of that is for naught when the other car can blow right back by on the straight.
Frustrating is one word for it.
Even with the obvious power deficit, I somehow lop a second off my time from the day before, which is a bit of solace after I beat myself up the night before. Josh and Andrea also have some great runs in the car, and our times are all roughly the same.
We stay in second for the entirety of the race, but it becomes a bit of a battle just to survive. The car runs consistently slower and slower and sounds sicker and sicker. Not good. Still, we get to take home the hardware for finishing second in our class. A job well done by everyone.
Josh took the car to the dyno a couple of days after we raced to see just how much power we were down. To give you a frame of reference, a well tuned Spec E30 makes about 155 horsepower at the rear wheels. A tired one makes around 145.
Ours? 133 horsepower.
That we were able to set the times we did with a deficit of 20ish horsepower is a testament to just how well we drove and suddenly made me feel far better about myself. My normal excuse of "it was the car, not me!" finally had credence and hard data behind it, not a vague feeling of less power.
It also put the tough start to the weekend in perspective. Imagine what we could do if we had power and knew when the fuel ran out?
We'll find out at Lime Rock Park on November 21st and 22nd.