Renting a Racer with the BMW 328i

I’d poured over the Hooked on Driving 2015 schedule. I was looking for a good date to get one of my buddies out to the track. He has a modified STI hatch that gets a good work out up in the hills where we live, but he’d never tracked his car. So we found the date (A weekend at Thunderhill Raceways new 5 mile track) and paid for our slots. I’d booked the room, and all that was left to do was to swap out the failed clutch slave cylinder on my 2002 MINI Cooper S. There was a screw up in shipping, and there I was, over a grand out of pocket, and no car to drive! What to do, what to do?

My wife has an electric car, and it comes with a $500/year rental credit so that one can still take that camping trip or whatever, and because we have other cars, we’d never used it. Figuring it was worth a shot, I booked a “premium” car, called up the rental office, and let them know I was looking for something sporty. Much to my surprise, there was a shiny black 328i sedan sitting outside for me to take. And take it I did! As far as I could tell, this was as close to a “stripper” BMW as you can get in the US. No leather, no nav, no satellite radio (and sadly, no manual transmission), but it did come with the standard BMW fare of an exceptional chassis and most of the normal BMW goodness.

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Oddly enough, I wasn’t too happy at first. The turbo 4 is pretty pokey off idle, but when the turbos spool, you know it. I was finding that to get a smooth start, I’d squirt the gas pedal (to spin the turbos), and back of to a more normal gradual pedal. If I just did my normal tip-in, the car would start slow and then surge. This got very, very old while doing errands. While getting my last little details done, I grew more accustomed to the car’s particular tendencies, but wasn’t really happy with launch from rest. But beggars can’t be choosers, and at least I’d be getting to the track!

Saturday started with the usual paperwork and drivers meeting, and then we were off. Everything that frustrated me on the street was a non-issue on the track. Even this stripper BMW was a thing of beauty at speed! The little I4 turbo really, really screams! Now, for a confession. I’m only a so-so track driver. My technique is very good (or so says Steve, one of the Hooked on Driving coaches and Gordon, a HoD coach who took a video of my line on the West Loop), but I don’t carry enough speed through the turns because I’m a bit of a pussy. I really, really didn’t want to go off track, and the car had some All Season Run Flats that, while better than I feared, were a limiting factor in sharp turns. (Well, not just the sharp turns.)

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Thunderhill Raceway has undergone quite the transformation. It used to be a pretty long track at about 3 miles, but now, the full track is just under 5 miles long! To put this in perspective, Circuit of the Americas and Daytona International Speedway are both about 3.5 miles long. Thunderhill, at 4.8 miles, is now the longest dedicated paved road course in the US. While I’d driven the “short” track before, I sure had a lot of new turns to learn! The intermediate “B” group is a really fun group to run with. It doesn’t require dedicated safety equipment like a full cage or fire suppression, but you don’t have to deal with the newbies who don’t know what they are doing, and don’t know how to use their mirrors. There were low power cars like a MINI Cooper S and a new Miata in “B”, as well as high power cars like the Boss 302 Mustang, a Challenger SRT, more BMW M cars than one could count and even a Ferrari FF! Even though I was at the lower end of the power spectrum, you’d never know it from the car’s pace. (Here’s a little secret, most think that a faster car makes a quicker lap time, but really, it’s all about the driver.) The FF was pretty slow at the beginning of the weekend (he found a lot of speed over the two days though) and there were times when no matter what I did, I couldn’t gain on the Miata (until the straights, that is).

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Turn 2E is a huge, flat 180 degree sweeper. This is where good chassis really shine. Once you learn that you have to look over your shoulder, way, way, wayyyyyy down the track to see the apex cone (about 3/4ths of the way around the turn. It’s so far away you think it’s in another county), the turn is everything you ever want in performance driving, once you take a set, you keep your hands fixed and play with very, very small throttle corrections to change car balance. This is the first turn I ever really felt this years ago, and it’s still a wonder, even more so with a great chassis to work with. In the 328i, minuscule changes in throttle are a treat. A tiny lift, a small forward shift of weight, and the nose tucks in. A little more throttle, the nose lifts a bit, and the arc of the turn widens. But the real wonder here is when you get it just right, with perfect throttle and steering, when you wind out post apex, the car just glides across the track, all the way to the blue and white berm before turn three, and no matter your skill, you look and feel like an expert. This is a fourth gear turn, fast and smooth, and the 328i was staying with pretty much everything on the track (well, at least for two to three laps, when the tires started taking too much heat, and they’d start to plow and scrub.)

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Let’s not talk about turn 3. I hate off camber turns, and I hate this one too. I’ve never mastered it, lets just say turn 3 and I have come to an understanding. I won’t push there, and it will let me stay on pavement! On this turn, I suck. But the little 3 didn’t care. While the tires howled a bit, it stuck fine, and was more comfortable on the turn than I was. The next place the car really starts to shine is on the turn 6 entry, after a brake tap to move weight forward, you just roll on the power quickly and hold on for as long as you can. Turn 7 is a kink between two relatively long straights, and any car can take it flat out if you have the cohones to do it. I didn’t take it flat out on Saturday, but on Sunday my confidence was a bit higher, and the car did just great through 7. I think I’d be hitting 80 or so at the apex and accelerating (but there’s no time to look at the speedo). I’d get too scared to take 8 at the fastest speed (to do it fast, you do a mild brake tap to shift weight at turn in, then roll on power just prior to the apex for that great run out feeling.) I’d always brake a bit too much, but a couple of times carried enough speed to really track-out properly. Here, the little Bimmer was in its natural environment. The fact it’s not a manual doesn’t matter, it’s all about chassis balance. And it has wonderful balance, that’s for sure.

The new track (called the west loop) is a whole different world. It wasn’t till Sunday afternoon that I really nailed the sight lines to a distant hill for aiming over a bind crest, but then you have an 8% downward grade going to a sharp 90 degree left hander. Because of the hill, even slow cars gain speed quickly. The 328i is much quicker than one would think, and when I was getting speeds at the end at 90 or over, fear started to dominate over excitement. (Easy cured with early braking, but not the very fastest way around the track.) If the front of Thunderhill is about speed and control, the back is about car placement and rhythm. Once one learns the line, it’s really a lot of fun. Massive fun! But there are two 2nd gear turns (both nasty, left-handed hairpins) that no matter what I did, the car couldn’t do well. At first it was me, but after I learned the line, it was the tires. You come into both hot, brake late and hard, very, very hard. Then you have to crank the wheel for the tight turn, and the front tires would squeal like stuck pigs. Every time. I had a good line, but these were the two turns that nothing one did would make the car happy, short of slowing to a crawl. I just accepted the fact that the tires weren’t up to the job, and punished them for their shortcomings! Normally, track driving shouldn’t make tire noises like I was generating pretty much all day. I really wonder what the corner workers were thinking. It probably wasn’t very complimentary. But in Sport model, once I’d learned the rhythm, the BMW could dance with the best of them!

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Did I mention that it was hot? It was almost 80 degrees at the Drivers Meeting, and just got hotter and hotter. Sunday air temps were 104, and the ground was so hot that the soles of my track shoes melted off! A minor off caused a grass fire that closed the track for 40 minutes. I didn’t like the heat and the tires didn’t either. But they took the abuse better than I thought. One lap, I got a huge vibration, and feared that I’d chunked the tires, but while feathered really, really badly, I’d just picked up some really sticky track boogers. (The Porsche Racing Club was using the track the same days, and they’d leave race rubber marbles.) But other than tire issues, some of which was from the heat, the car did great! A track session would average a bit over 7.5 MPG, meaning I was at full throttle and full boost of a large amount of the track, yet the temps held just fine.

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There were a couple of signs of wear from the days abuse. The tires will need to drive a lot on the street to undo what I did to the tread blocks. (In fact, we swapped the tires front back Sat night to even the wear.) And while the service indicator started with 14,000 miles till the next oil change at the beginning of the weekend, it read 600 miles at trips end. All the car needed was some better tires and maybe some brake pads and it would have been perfect! At about $300 for the three day rental, this was about the cost of consumables for my own car (Between tires, brakes and lubricants). If there were a way to do this often, the unofficial BMW Rent-a-Racer program may be the least expensive way to track a car. But I’m pretty sure I broke pretty much every rule in the rental car agreement, so it’s not risk free. Now, I did take the car numbers and class letter off the car and put the tow hook back in the trunk. As I drove the little 3 back to the rental agency, I reflected on just how much it exceeded my expectations. The 328i is really a gem in the rough (rough tip-in, and rough start-stop, to be exact.) But it really shows its roots in the Ultimate Driver’s Machine when it’s on the track and gets to stretch it’s legs. I was very, very impressed. I thought I’d just end-up with a car to beat like a rented mule, but instead was rewarded with an exceptional ride. But if you do find yourself in a 328i rental car with a Hooked on Driving sticker in the change well, drive it like you stole it, I sure did!

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