Season Finale: The Joy Of A November Track Day

Winter is coming. For those of us who live in the North or in the high country—or both—those three words instill a sense of urgency. Preparations must be made: winter tires must be mounted, firewood must be chopped, and the more precious cars must be tucked away in their heated garages. As the days tick toward the bottom of the year and the foreboding darkness of the coming cold months creeps ever earlier into the late afternoon, I long for the chance to get out and have one last rip before putting my cars away for the winter. The best opportunity for that in Colorado is a November track day.

The Village Bicycle, an E36 M3 that has been previously owned by four of my friends. [Photo: Alex McCulloch]

[Photo: Alex McCulloch]

[Photo: Alex McCulloch]

[Photo: Alex McCulloch]

[Photo: Alex McCulloch]

This year, despite a questionable forecast, the first weekend in November offered the perfect opportunity. Coincidentally (or not so coincidentally), I had also just purchased another track car—an E36 M3. Technically, I didn’t purchased it, my business did, and I plan on using it as a tool for the business in the form of marketing, driving instruction, and light competition. It’s a 1998 M3 coupe in Arctic Silver over Dove Grey leather, although the seats have been removed. I know four of the previous owners of this M3, and despite it being passed around like a village bicycle (or perhaps because of that, thanks to those owners), it is an exceptionally well-sorted M3. It is currently built for NASA and BMW Club time trials, although, it wouldn’t take much to make it a full-fledged racecar. It sports mild power upgrades that are good for close to 240 wheel-horsepower, an MCS dual adjustable coilover suspension, Stoptech brakes, Recaro seats, Schroth harnesses, a Motion Motorsports extendable front spoiler, and a genuine M3 Lightweight rear spoiler with gurney flaps.

The S54-Powered M Coupe would make a good testing companion. [Photo: Alex McCulloch]

[Photo: Alex McCulloch]

I slapped a few stickers on the M3 to compliment front and rear Lightweight Motorsports decals and off we went to the track, High Plains Raceway. We also brought my (Z3) M Coupe as a barometer to compare the M3 to—at least that was my excuse. The M Coupe’s S54 engine is good for 315 crank horsepower, along with a TC Kline dual adjustable suspension, floating front Euro brake rotors, aggressive brake pads, and Sparco seats with Schroth harnesses. The M Coupe was wearing Bridgestone RE-71R tires, while the M3 had more dedicated BF Goodrich R1s. The M Coupe should be, and often is, the faster car when put up against most E36 M3s, but it has a severe disadvantage in temperament. I’ve often described the M Coupe when driven near the limit in canine terms; it is a nervous healer, while an E36 M3 is an obedient yellow lab—always happy to please. There are few better cars to drive fast, than a car that’s easy to drive fast, and that is where the E36 M3 shines!

Only a 1.6 second difference between both cars. [Photo: Alex McCulloch]

The goals for the day would be testing, the temperature was cold and no records would be set. I was more interested in learning the M3 and seeing how it stacked up against the M Coupe. The M3’s better manners, along with more aggressive brakes and tires should even the playing field, but the M Coupe has a power advantage and High Plains Raceway favors power. The morning sessions were spent dusting the rust off of my driving—it’s been a minute since I’ve driven High Plains (only two other times this year). By afternoon I was putting down consistent times in both cars and traffic had thinned out enough to set some fliers. The temperature was hovering around the high fifty-degree mark and occasional cells of very light drizzle passed through. My best time ever in the M Coupe at High Plains is two minutes even, while my best lap on this day was a 2:04.25. The M3 was only 1.6 seconds slower at a 2:05.88, which is impressive, but not unexpected.

Most of the M Coupe’s advantage happened on the fastest section of track. [Photo: Alex McCulloch]

 

[Photo: Alex McCulloch]

A look at the data, thanks to an AIM Solo 2 data logger, shows where the M Coupe pulled ahead. In the first image above, the M Coupe is in green, while the M3 is in blue. The blue line below the overlay shows the difference in time graphically. The M Coupe achieved virtually all of its time advantage on the two straight-aways, illustrating how similar the cars are in the turns. In the second image above, zoomed in on the fastest section of the track, you can see that the speed differential there equaled a significant time differential, but I was able to brake later in the M3.

The fastest, slowest, and and average speeds. [Photo: Alex McCulloch]

Elsewhere on the track, and the lines are virtually identical, but close scrutiny shows that the blue line of the M3 has smaller valleys than the M Coupe does. The M3’s top speed was lower (112.0 mph vs. the M Coupe’s 122.5 mph), but its slowest speed was also faster (35.3 mph vs. the M Coupe’s 31.6 mph). The average speed was only a one second difference (72.2 mph vs. the M Coupe’s 73.2 mph). The R-comp rubber on the M3 certainly helped it close the gap, but I’ve found the Bridgestone RE-71R tires to be very fast for what they are—a dam fine cheater AutoX tire.

One last rip for both until spring… [Photo: Jeff O’Brien]

[Photo: Jeff O’Brien]

The story behind the data shows that behind the wheel of the M3, I really was more confident. I could hold the throttle wide open in places where I had to “chicken-lift” in the M Coupe. I could transition between turns easier too. There are sections where the M Coupe’s more antiquated rear suspension forces me to take a beat pause and settle the rear-end between turns. The M3 just did what I asked of it with no drama, and that is the beauty of an E36 M3. I reckon, given more seat time, I could close the gap completely in the M3, but I also think pushing it in the M3 will improve my driving in the M Coupe. I know there is a sub two-second lap in the M Coupe at High plains, and the M3 will help me get there, but that will have to wait until those long dark days of winter are over. —Alex McCulloch

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