Taking An E36 On A Coast To Coast Rally

By Carl Ledgister:

Although I love my great state of Florida -the weather, no state income tax, some great breweries- I long for the challenging roads of the more northern states.  The Sunshine State is flatter than some ironing boards I know and there isn’t a hint of curvaceous thoroughfares anywhere for your driving pleasure… or at least, so I thought.

Around the beginning of April, my good friend Brandon Apgar (check him out on social media, @Extreme Daily Drivers) told me about Drive Florida; basically a group of guys that put together “rallies” throughout various locations in Florida.  I did my due diligence and realized this was a legit outfit, their tagline was “Dedicated to all things driving in Florida. Whether it be twisty roads, great cars or awesome events, you’ll find it here”.  That definitely grabbed my attention.

The Drive Florida crew had a rally planned that was rather close to me and Brandon, it started in the spring break and biker destination city of Daytona Beach.  The event was scheduled for a Sunday afternoon and would conclude in the western coastal city of Crystal River.  What really sealed the deal was the purported twisty roads and routes that would be involved.  I checked my calendar and it was chocked full of important things I needed to take care of… blah, who am I kidding? No nation like procrastination.  I’m in.

Brandon and I decided to meet up in Daytona and have breakfast with some of his friends before we started the rally.  As we were breaking bread at a local diner, we speculated about the ensuing drive.  Most of the drivers I met so far had Hondas, Acuras, and a few Subarus sprinkled in there, “slim pickings for the mighty M3!” I thought to myself. And yes, I was definitely sizing up the competition.

One car of particular note was a 2018 Subaru BRZ tS.  The color was a beautiful Blue Pearl with tasteful red accents and it had massive Brembo brakes behind eighteen-inch gloss black wheels, very pretty.  This thing easily was worth about ten of my cars! I decided to keep an eye on this one, as it had rear wheel drive and would make for a great dancing partner on the backroads.

After chowing down on some pancakes, we had a few more formal introductions and decided to make our way over to the staging area of the rally.  The front wheel drive compacts I was with peeled out of the diner, literally, and put on a good show of raspy exhausts and torque steer.  Not to be out staged by them, I switched off the DSC to show these front-drive newbies how to ah… how do the kids say it these days… “Drift-it”!  This was the automotive equivalent of a “hold-my-beer-and-watch-this” moment.

One of things I love about the S52 engine in the M3 and its balanced chassis, is how nicely you can control the tail with the throttle.  I laid on the gas and guided the M3 into a perfectly executed left hand drift as I accelerated around the turn.  I don’t know who was watching, but they got a good show for sure.  Establish your dominance early was my reasoning.  Petty? Yes… Fun? Also yes.

I must say the event organizers did a superb job of organizing this drive, they had plenty of parking available and was even able to get the all drivers to download a walkie-talkie app.  After the formalities and disclaimers were covered, everybody darted to their cars like closing scene of the first race in The Fast and the Furious.  Considering we had about four hours of driving in front us, I wasn’t sure what the rush was all about.  In any event, I followed suite and dashed over to the M3.

Cool cars must attract cool cars because somehow a turbocharged E46 M3 and an Estroil Blue M235i found their way next to my M3.  Certainly things were looking up now!  Perhaps my exploits at the corner of that diner already made its way to the masses.   

I estimate there were at least a hundred or so cars present; everything from a few Nissan GTRs, to a good chunk of domestic iron as well.  I’ll take a moment to recognize Brandon’s 1991 Honda Prelude Si.  He has spent the better part of the last four years building this 90’s era classic in his garage.  Nearly every part and system has been rebuilt, refreshed, or replaced and it shows.  The project isn’t complete, but then again, are they ever?

I was proud of the M3, it held its own against more powerful cars through the twisites.

I tried to maintain close proximity with Brandon and his friends in the Prelude club (they were nice enough to allow me to roll with them) but between the dozen or so stoplights and some bad weather, we quickly became separated.  An unofficial stop occurred in another parking lot as we reached the city limits.  This would’ve made for a good time to go around and meet everyone but the rain was relentless and plentiful.

As we departed that location, the sun came out and dried up the roads.  We ventured onto some two lane highways delving deeper into central Florida. Soon enough, small groups of cars began swarming together enabling them to at least stay with someone from the rally.

The Drive Florida crew put together a rigorous route skirting through the Ocala National Forest.

I eventually paired up with an Infiniti G37 coupe and a Mercedes-Benz C230 AMG Sport.  We kept up a pretty decent pace, blasting in between the stoplights as much as we could (all within reason) and liberally taking a few corners at speed.  Fun? Sure.  But I was expecting a little bit more.

All of the directions were in text making it hard to decipher when things were going to get spicy.  Luckily, I was able to hear over the walkie-talkie that a few groups in front of us were starting to hit the good stuff.  As previously mentioned, Florida is normally devoid of any kind of adventurous roads, but these Drive Florida guys have seem to hit the fountain of adventure if what was hearing held true.    

We got the all clear (cops, traffic) as we entered the Ocala National Forest, which was the gateway into the curvy roads.  Now yours truly is a veteran of a few trips to Asheville, North Carolina and that place is crawling with challenging roads.  I yanked on my shoulder belt locking it in, downshifted to third gear and watched the RPMs shoot up to 5 grand; we’re off!  The G37 got rearview mirror full of me flashing the high beams, which meant, “LET’S GO!”  I heard its VQ series six cylinder roar up the rev range as it puffed a little smoke out of the dual exhaust.  I checked behind me to see the Benz was playing along too! Nice!

The first set of turns were pretty basic; left right, right left, some third gear and back down to second gear stuff.  The M3 has a taut H&R/Koni set-up that’s pretty dialed in for street driving.  I was running some off brand tires but they still did the trick, lots of grip.  This sedan was stickier in the corners than the Gorilla Glue holding my glove box together (E36 problems).

As we were slicing and dicing, I realized that the G coupe was holding up the progress; I thought he had traffic in front of him but there was none.  My inner Ayrton Senna took over and a little voice in my head said- “wrecker or checker”… well maybe that was my inner Dale Earnhardt Sr, regardless, I needed to pass this coupe before the good roads ran out.

I see an opening in the oncoming lane and decided to make my move.  I dropped back a bit and gave the AMG the “come-with-me” hand signal.  I downshifted to third and nailed the throttle! We were booking! The AMG followed me and when I was next to the G coupe I could hear him kick-down a gear too!  The RPMs were getting close to redline as I approached triple digit velocity, a quick shift to fourth and the G coupe was just a distant memory as we safely passed him.  Tsk tsk.

Now it was just me and the other German marque, we collectively remanded the Infiniti coupe to back-up duties with our overtaking antics. The roads continued to impress me, as did the Benzo but it was no match for me and my M3 with open space.  I was diving into the apexes with aggression that resembled the British Touring Car Championship races of the 90s. The Benz driver did his best to keep up, but I eventually put some distance between us as well.

As a side note, if you haven’t driven a well sorted E36 M3 with purpose, I suggest you do.  I constantly argue that the E36 M3 is one of the best driver’s cars ever made.  It will undoubtedly put a smile on your face every time you ask it too, and even when you don’t.

After all those backroad shenanigans, we ran into some slower local traffic and had to dial things back a bit.  Once I was in cell phone range again, I radioed Brandon to find that he was only a few minutes behind me.  Perfect.  I grabbed drink at a gas station and joined up with the Preludes and Acuras shortly thereafter.

Gassing up before we make the 4 hour journey through Central Florida.

Not having a co-pilot to decipher the directions was challenging enough but I had the luxury of blaming myself on missed turns.  I noticed a few groups that were using their better halves to read off the route as they went along.  That’s playing with fire as far as I’m concerned, if you have ever been on the receiving end of instructions from an IKEA diagram from your loved one, then you know what I mean.

Now that I was paired back up with the front-wheel drivers, I decided to play it cool.  I knew none of them could really challenge me on the backroads or the straightaways for that matter.  Maybe I was riding on a high from the tryst through the forest but I was feeling particularly confident at this point.

Since we were all going the same place there was no need to read off the directions, because all we had to do was follow the leader.  Unfortunately, our leader must have been must have zigged when they should have zagged.  Imagine if you will, ten to fifteen cars all attempting to make a U-turn in the middle of a country two lane road.  Most of the Hondas and Acuras had to do a full three-point turn in order to get going in the opposite direction.     

Graceful it was not.

Being that all these cars were front-wheel drive, I took it upon myself to display a little “power U-turn” by sliding the rear end around within the confines of the road.  Now, on either side of the road were deep ditches accented by a white gravel surface.  No worries.  My precision U-turn skills would keep me clear of the edges and on top of the road.  Or at least that was the plan.

A good friend of mine once told me whenever you turn off the DSC, you typically get what you ask for.  Everybody is making the turn now and I was smack in the middle of the group, I guided my M3 towards the outside edge off the road, cut the wheel hard left and slipped the clutch.  My expectation was that I would break the rear tires loose, swing the back end around and power past everyone in one swift cool move, cementing my superiority as the cool rear wheel drive guy.

Refer back to the budget tires, just because they are cheap doesn’t mean they aren’t good.  Unexpectedly the rear end never broke traction, given how much gas I gave the engine, it propelled me towards the aforementioned graveled lined ditch and once the front tires touched those rocks, I lost all control!

As this exhibition of Darwinism unfolded, my inner panic-meter was off the charts.  In the scant few seconds of the M3 sliding uncontrollably towards the ditch, I only thought of two things; 1. How a front wheel drive car wouldn’t have this problem and 2. How I got exactly what I asked for by switching off the traction control.

The M3 held its own on the rally, one of the best drivers cars ever.

I jammed on the brakes with all the might my 185 pound body could muster and I remember frantically turning the steering wheel from side to side, with no results in directional change.  The steering wheel lost all feel as the front tires glided across the rocks, it literally felt like it was connected to a series of rubber bands tied together in succession.  Even though I wasn’t looking at the other cars around me, I could feel them peering closely and thinking “what in the Hell is this jackass doing?”

As fate would have it, the car eventually lost momentum and came to gut wrenching stop mere inches away from a solid three foot drop into the empty ditch.  I finally skewed my head to the left and saw everyone holding their collective breaths while waiting for the outcome.  If I could get out of the car, grow a tail and then tuck it between my legs, I would have.

I gingerly put the car in reverse and ever so gently backed up onto the tarmac.  I stuck my hand out of the window at this point and gave everyone a thumbs up like it was some errant computer malfunction that I had no control over that slung me into the ditch.  To back that gesture up, I waved to my compatriots like I was going to hold the gate of humiliation closed for them and not let anyone revisit my misfortune.  Valiant I dare say.

From this point on, I hung out in the back. Way in the back.  For all my rear wheel drive brashness and bravado, I ate a slice of humble pie topped with sprinkles of regret.  The good news was that I didn’t total my car by sending it careening into the abyss.  I’m grateful for that.

We reached the destination, Crystal River, in one piece!

A few dozen or so miles later, we made it to the final checkpoint of Fort Island Beach in Crystal River city.   It was a beautiful sight and from what I could tell, all the cars made it one piece.  The Honda boys ribbed me pretty hard about the off-road excursion, I tried hard to defend my actions, but it was only met with belly-busting laughter.

All in all, I had a great time, the Drive Florida rallies is a brilliant idea that gives us Floridians some local driving roads to look forward to.  They are organizing another drive in the near future and I’ve made it a point to attend.  Fear not, I have already emailed them and ask that they skip any roads with gravel lined ditches for those overzealous BMW drivers.   

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