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Rose City Opener XVI

5/6 May 2007

After the teething problems (and other, uh, "episodes") that kept me from racing much last year, and especially after the enduro earlier this year, I was rarin' to go racing with the M3. Unfortunately, and despite a decent end-of-year race in 2006 and an awesome day with the BMW Club in February, there was more than one time during the week-end that I would fondly recall the "start it and go"-reliability of my Integra.

"This never happened to the other fellow."
   —George Lazenby as the first "James Bond" after Sean Connery


Pictures from this event

Friday

One of the major downsides (well, the only one, really) to racing in Portland is getting there on Friday. If you don't leave by 2 o'clock or so, you're pretty much doomed to sitting in traffic for 4+ hours. (My personal "best" was a 6-hour trip one time.) With that in mind, and knowing that I had to wash and prep the car after picking it up from Colin's, I elected to take the day off from work. A rough night with my youngest meant that I got a later start than I'd intended, off by an hour before the day had even begun, but I'd built in a little buffer for unexpected delays. Colin had already washed the car by the time I came to retrieve it, which saved a decent chunk of time, but I managed to squander some of it by finding the one place in the parking lot where the ground was goofy enough to change the approach angle to my trailer ramps. Takes talent, it does.

Back home and watching more of the day slip away as things took longer than expected, it rapidly became clear that my new target was 2pm rather than my initial 1 o'clock plan. Still quite achievable, but the rest of my tasks were going to have to proceed smoothly if I was going to avoid the worst of the traffic. Unfortunately (c'mon, you saw that coming), I ran into some MAJOR problems loading the car onto the trailer. The winch that got thrown into the deal when I bought the trailer was intended for a Spec Miata and so has always been on the edge of suitability when it comes to loading my heavier (but not by all that much) M3. That being said, it's worked well enough (if noisily and slowly) since I've owned it, although towing up the driveway at our new house and up onto the trailer has consistently taxed it such that it shuts down due to overheating partway through the load. Inconvenient, but not fundamentally a real problem... until this day, at which time it also chose to start ignoring the freewheel clutch, which meant that letting off positive tension for any reason resulted in the car rolling back down the ramps. I ran back-and-forth to the rear wheels with wheel chocks as fast as I could, but it was more of a case of "one foot forward, three feet back" until the winch inevitably overheated.

At that point I was pissed off enough and frustrated enough that I decided to throw caution to the wind and just drive the car up on the trailer. The lightweight flywheel and race clutch are the main reasons I don't normally do this, but I found a new reason: I knew I'd have to gun it to go uphill onto the trailer and in order to keep it from stalling, but I neglected to consider the relationship between slightly damp tires and the 2x10s I use to decrease the approach angle to the ramps (don't want to take the front bumper/splitter off every time) and came that close to wheel-spinning right off the boards and high-siding the car on the ramps. With about 2 inches of rear tire still on the boards, I gave up on that idea and returned to winching, awkward and inefficient as it was. Finally, finally, I got the car loaded up and tied down. I had already loaded everything else in the truck, but it was now 3:10 in the afternoon and I was in the middle of our typically crappy Friday afternoon commute. Somehow, after everything that had happened, I managed to have a little "Zen moment" and just relaxed.

Instead of arriving at the track at 5-ish in order to get a good spot in line for the usual land grab that happens for paved paddock spaces, I arrived around 7:30 to find a larger-than-expected crowd that wasn't making very good use of the available space. Even if I hadn't been looking for an area that would enable Eric and me to pit together, I would've found myself up on the meadow that borders the pavement to the north. Even that was crowded to the point that I had to drive to the end of the access road before I could pull off into the grass. Registration and tech went quickly and smoothly, and I returned to my paddock space to find that Eric had arrived and was about half-unloaded. We got everything buttoned up by 8:45 and went to check in at our hotel, where we turned in early.

Eric likes to watch TV before turning in (we've shared a room before) and we ended up watching some guy [Bear Grylls, as I later learned] on "The Discovery Channel" who demonstrates survival skills in various parts of the world. In this episode, he had parachuted into the middle of the African savannah with nothing but a canteen and a knife and, in the course of talking about finding water where there is none, but where there are elephants... squeezed a huge, double-handful of elephant dung in order to get at "the liquid" within. Eric couldn't even watch the guy drinking it, but I thought it was a fitting end to my day.

Saturday

After a decent night's sleep, we drove the 50 yards next door to Elmer's for breakfast, where splitting our bill apparently confused their system and caused all kinds of chaos, eventually requiring the involvement of three different employees.

We got our little camp prepared for the day and then Eric started on some pre-track maintenance items. He was still buttoning things up when I left for pre-grid for Group 4's first practice session. I thought for sure he was going to miss the session, but we got held at pre-grid after the five-minute warning. We sat for so long that my engine temperatures starting getting a little high (little did I know!) and so I switched off the engine. We got the one-minute warning roughly three minutes later and when I went to re-fire the engine... nothing. No stutter, no grind, nothing. Didn't we fix the battery-drain problem? After having had no problems since Colin replaced the kill switch—and I would have no electrical issues the rest of the day—this had happened at just the wrong time. Once everyone else (including Eric) had left pre-grid, some of the marshals tried to push-start the car, but there just wasn't enough juice for even that to work. They finally just pushed the car back into the paddock, where I found Greg Swanson's jumper cables and a Spec Miata driver willing to use his truck to get me a jump-start.

Later, Group 1's practice went off without a hitch and I even managed a 1'19.380" on my 5th lap without feeling like I was really trying. Compared to my previous best time in this configuration, a 1'21.658" in Eric's 968 during the 2005 8-hour, I was feeling pretty good about the performance of the car. Early that afternoon, in Group 4's first qualifying session, I was immediately back into the 1'19" range, but I couldn't seem to improve on my practice time. I discussed this with myself and concluded that I was going to need something in the 18's if I was going to consider this a reasonable session and tripped a 1'18.575" at the line on the very next lap.

Later in that same lap, under braking for Turn 10 at the end of the back straight, I noticed a small splash of water on my windscreen. With no rain or any other water having been in sight for a couple of days, this definitely caught my attention. I looked down at my dash and finally realized that my water temperature was up to 270°! I dialed it way back for the next lap, but the meter actually went up to 275, at which point I decided that I had peaked for this session and it was time to pit before something worse happened. (Again, little did I know.) There was a nice plume of steam coming from the car all the way back to my paddock space, along with that unique squeal of escaping high-pressure gas. I couldn't find an obvious leak or loose fitting anywhere, so I (foolishly?) decided to just add water and give it another go. How much water? Nearly 2 gallons, which is not much less than the total volume of the cooling system! (Yes, this should've been something of a warning sign all by itself.) The water temperature looked good on the way to pre-grid, but one of the marshals checked under the car for me and said there was a steady dripping of water coming from the radiator area. I thought (hoped?) it might just be residual dripping from where I'd purposely overfilled the system (Colin suggested I fill it until water came out the bleeder valve in order to get any air out of the system), but I wasn't terribly confident as I entered the track for Group 1's first qualifying.

On the first lap out, the situation was still looking good as the water and oil temperatures climbed at their normal rates and stabilized where I'd expect, but I got a warning light on my dash at the same time as the green flag was waved to start the session. I thought I might be able to squeak a couple laps or three out of the car before it got too hot, but it was back up to 270° after only half a lap. I gave up on the session and returned to the paddock where, as the system hadn't gotten as hot for as long, it cooled enough for me to add water more quickly than before. Despite the much shorter duration between filling the system and having a problem, I added nearly 2 gallons of water again, so clearly there was some kind of serious problem with the car, but I was still unable to find any cause. Nothing loose, nothing missing, and no water in the oil, but neither Eric nor I could figure out where all my water was going... until I jacked the car up so Eric could look around when I restarted the car. He immediately said "Yeah, I see the problem," so I got out of the car to see water pretty much gushing out of the radiator cap. We checked out the cap, and tried putting it on in different ways and with differing levels of torque, but large volumes of water came out no matter what. It was likely that the seals in the radiator cap were blown, so I hunted around the other E36 guys to see if someone had a cap I could borrow. The session had just finished for everyone else, though, so both Michael Lord's and Mike Blaszczak's cars were too hot for me to use their caps, but Mike managed to find a spare cap (who carries an extra radiator cap, of all things?) and I ran back to give it a go. Success! No leaks and running the car for a bit saw the water temperature stay right where it's supposed to.

(Neither Mike nor I knew what a radiator cap cost, so Mike said "Oh, just send me another one in the mail or give me $20 or something," so I brought him $30 as an extra "thank you" for saving my week-end. Later, talking with Colin to update him on the result [I'd called him a couple times earlier to consult on the situation], I learned that these things only cost about $10 each. Mike tried to give me back $20, but I told him to think of it as "trackside prices." :)

The lap charts for the day showed I was 11th overall (3rd in class) in Group 4 and my solitary lap in Group 1 was still good enough for 16th overall and 9th in class. Eric and I buttoned things up for the night and then went to BJ's for dinner and beer. The more we talked about all the paddock spaces that had opened up when the large Novice field had packed up after their day, the more we thought we should relocate to the pavement. The move went surprisingly quickly and we were back at the hotel by 9pm. A rough day, but the problem was solved and I would have two more chances to qualify before the races.

Sunday

We grabbed a quick breakfast and arrived at the track early enough that I had plenty of time for some housekeeping-type chores: Reattach a section of the left fender that had come loose, check a brake duct that looked like it was coming loose, retorque the wheels and check tire pressures, and add fuel. I also verified that, yes, the water level in the radiator was where I'd left it the night before. I finished with plenty of time to get ready for Group 4's second qualifying session, but the timesheets indicated that the best I might do was to improve one spot overall, but not in class, so I thought the best thing to do was use the session to ensure that the car was back in order.

Once again, though, I was only a few laps into the session when the water temperature warning light came on, so there was still a major problem floating about. Eric was right on my tail for a few corners and would later say he didn't see any fluid or steam, but returning to the paddock found the cooling system empty again. Thinking that perhaps pressure was building up excessively and the radiator cap was blown again, I added water and fired up the car, expecting to see water pouring out of the cap again. Nothing. Since I hadn't really revved the engine during our test Saturday afternoon and we had begun speculating that perhaps the pressurization issue (if there was one) was tied into the higher RPMs we experience on track, I revved it in increasing amounts and varying durations all the way to redline, but we never saw any leaks. I had noticed that the engine was a bit rough at low RPMs and was sounding slightly guttural, almost as if the exhaust had been holed, but it was apparently subtle enough that other people didn't react to it. Eric and I discussed possible causes a bit more, and with Bill Spornitz who'd wandered by, and the prevailing opinion was that it was likely to be the cylinder head gasket. If true, this would be a race-ender for sure, and possibly a season-ender if the effects on the engine were bad enough, but we still weren't seeing any water in the oil, so it might not be as bad as all that.

After talking things over with Eric some more, I decided that Group 1's second qualifying session (coming up quickly) would decide the week-end for me: If things went well, I'd give the Group 4 race a shot; if it didn't, that was it for me and I'd head on home. I started up the car and drove over to pre-grid earlier than I normally would, as much of the slower Pro-3 grid had already arrived and I was determined that, if my week-end was likely to be over, I wanted to put in the best laps I could manage in the limited time I'd have available.

Although we don't get a green flag until we get to the starter's tower at the end of our first lap out of the pits, the track is technically "green" from the moment we leave pre-grid, which means passing is allowed. I was pretty sure the car was going to overheat again, so I did what I don't usually do on that first lap and just BLEW by anybody and everybody in front of me, to the point that the car was a real handful on cold tires and I almost lost it in a few corners, and "bad" corners at that. When the warning lights inevitably went off, I had tons of clear track available and was able to push as much as possible but the car was really down on power (should've seen it coming, I suspect) and the best I could do was a 1'19.477" (11th overall, 7th in class). After two full laps in the session, and even a surprising splash of water on my left ankle while braking for Turn 6, I gave up on the week-end and parked it.

As a final insult to a very frustrating few days, the car wouldn't start back up when it was time to get it on the trailer and we had to jump-start it again.

The bad news

I dropped the car off at Colin's on Monday morning and got "The Call" a few days later: Yes, the head gasket had blown and the water had been going through cylinder #4 and out the exhaust. (Strange that nobody noticed 2 gallons of water coming out my tailpipe on 4 occasions.) He was heading out of town to support some guys in the IMSA Porsche SuperCup series and didn't have time to replace it, so onto a truck and and across the freeway to my buddies at CarbConn it went. John stayed late one night to disassemble the engine and pull the head, concluding that the head was probably mildly warped. The gasket had failed in two places and the lead plug had melted, but the cylinder walls and combustion chambers looked good and I'd probably gotten off lightly. I took the head to Mike Kolbet at Accurate Engines on the following Monday, only to find out in a matter of minutes that, nope, it was shot. It'd warped .020" near the middle cylinders; combined with the .005" we'd removed when rebuilding the head in the first place, decking it again would just take too much material away. Time to find a new cylinder head.

I spent part of the next couple days contacting all the common wrecking yards in the I-5 corridor that carry BMW parts, as well as some in Indiana, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey. Nobody local had one, and those that I could find out of state were running 2–3 times what I wanted to pay, partly because they were complete heads ($500-600 seems fair for a "bare" head without valves, springs, cams, etc.) and partly because they were overpriced. I thought it was possible, if I just bit the bullet and shelled out the asking prices, to get a head and put the engine back together in time for the race at Pacific Raceways coming in less than a week, but then I ran the numbers and realized that, on parts alone, I was blowing roughly 1/3 to 1/2 of my season's budget. At that point, it was time to bite the other bullet and withdraw from a race I really, really wanted to do.

Luckily for me, fellow BMW Club member Ray Kulina contacted me with a very reasonable offer for a complete head from a 1996 328. After some quick checking around, I learned that later-year E36 325s and 328s use the same head casting as the 3.0L M3 and my 3.2L M3 engine. I picked it up a day or two later and delivered it to Mike, who looked it over and called it good, so it looks like I'll be able to give Portland another shot in mid-June. Here's hoping my current "oh-fer" with this car at Portland turns into something better. :)

The good news

Believe it or not, there was at least some good to come out of all this: I'm becoming more comfortable with the car all the time, I was having lots of fun driving it (well, when I wasn't worrying about cooking my engine), and the car was fast.

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