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Rolling up California's Highway 5 towards Lost Hills, California to then head Northwest towards Weathertech Raceway Laguna Seca, my buddy and crew member Nick checked Monterey's forecast for the weekend, and it looked like optimal weather for peak engine, tire, and brake performance. My 2011 BMW 128i was loaded up with gear, tools, Sour Patch Kids, and various caffeinated beverages: We were set for three consecutive days of ripping laps during GridLife Laguna, the operation's debut appearance at this iconic track.
However, for the first time, ever, my sturdy inline-six Bavarian coupe exhibited some minor wounds—that weren't its own fault—that threw a wrench in things. But in the end, these little annoyances helped form some solid trackside bonds with good folks. This is what track days are all about, and why it contributed to an overall kick-ass experience. Here's how the whirlwind of a long weekend went down.
Against the Clock
I was proud of the prep I'd done before heading up north. I did an oil and filter change, swapped in fresh Ferodo DS2500 brake pads up front, bled the brakes and clutch slave cylinder with fresh Castrol SRF, got a track-ready alignment by Andy's Alignment in Glendale, and performed some other little checks.
The final bit was the tires. But due to a delay by the shipper, Tire Rack wasn't able to deliver and mobile mount my set of 245/40/17 Falken Azenis RT660 tires until Thursday morning, just two hours before we had to leave and make it to check-in and tech inspection at Laguna Seca before dark. Thankfully, all went smoothly; in fact, mobile mounting is definitely a service I plan to use again.
However, during all of my preparation, I didn't factor in one crucial detail about the tires: I'd forgotten that folks say the RT660 runs very wide. Like, 245s-ought-to-actually-be-255s-wide.
The plan was to mount them up for the drive to and from Monterey—no street set in the mix—which quickly revealed the limits of wheel fitment on the non-1M E82 chassis: 245 width is the absolute maximum width without rolling either the front, rear, or all four fenders. Once we hit the road, the rear wheels lightly rubbed over larger bumps on the highway, making for a slightly unnerving experience.
Thankfully, the fronts had no issues due to generous negative camber and just enough shock clearance. Nick called his friends who were towing all the way from Chicago, and thankfully they packed a fender roller in their pit loadout. While I didn't have to worry about swapping wheels in the pits like I usually do, I had to factor in rolling fenders for the first time, ever. How hard could it be?
The Night Before
When we made it to Laguna Seca, we pitted next to Nick's friends, who graciously let me stash my gear in their trailer. These cats make up Twerk Team Racing, a Chicago-based, Honda-centric team that participates in as many GridLife events as they can all over the country. Alex of TTR handed me the fender roller and I got to work unloading my car and prepping it for some last-minute wheel well massaging.
The dark art of fender rolling and pulling involves modifying a car's wheel wells to accomodate wider wheels and tires, or when the car is substantially lower than stock (or both!). Depending upon how much rolling is required, it can become a bit nerve-wracking, as it could either damage exterior paint, cause unsightly damage to the metal, or some other wound. It's best to lightly use a heat gun to make the metal easier to work with, but in my case, I just had to take extra care.
But it went quite well: With a little added pressure from my jack, I pulled the fender ever-so-slightly outwards on both sides and smoothed out the lip in the process. I removed the roller, threw a wheel on, and we tested the clearance with a friend pressing down on the rear suspension from the trunk: both sides ended up clearing. Not only that, but it still looked quite stock on the outside—all the win!
After checking in, obtaining my decals, and passing tech inspection, I was good to go for the following day's sessions on track.
The following morning, Laguna Seca was covered in a thick, dense Monterey Peninsula fog, so the first sessions were delayed a few hours. I wasn't mad, in fact, I was relieved to have a little extra time to apply decals and get my car ready for grid.
With a little assistance from Nick, I had the 128i looking more like a race car than ever. Up next, I began tightening up the Koni Yellow dampers' rebound at all four corners for optimum body control. This is where I messed up: In my rushed brilliance (or, rather, stupidity), I cross-threaded the rear passenger side damper's lower mounting threads, which I ironically messed up almost a year ago to the day.
Remember, Peter: Remove the top nut, and then swing the strut out so it sits straight up and down for a seamless route for the lower nut to travel down, whether by ratchet or impact.
To fix this, I needed a tap and dye set. Alex of TTR came through once again: He handed me one plus a big box of hardware to sift through and find the proper nut and washer to match. Within a few minutes, I had some light threads cut in with a matching nut and washer. These didn't hold up during the session and caused a heck of a vibration during hard right turns on track—I cut the session short and went back to the drawing board.
Next, I cut deeper threads that required a lot more effort. Then, found a matching grade 8 nut and washer and sent them home with my impact wrench to cut the rest in—it worked perfectly! God bless sturdy, grade 8 hardware.
The 1er also popped its front passenger-side sway bar end link at some point, but luckily I had a spare on hand. Fast forward a week later during some front-end tinkering, and it turns out I had the front shocks on the wrong sides. After rocking this setup for well over a year, I'm not sure why this wasn't an issue until very recently.
Clear To Track
With the sun beginning to set over the hills nearby, I set out for my final session on Friday. The car felt back to normal and the new threads held up just fine. The best I could muster in the first session was a pitifully slow 1:58 on Laguna Seca's freshly repaved tarmac, whereas this time I laid down 1:51s. I was stoked to drop so much time, as well as to finally have a good baseline.
Ripping through it was such a thrill, too. I loved barreling up the front straight, foot to the floor through Turn 1, and setting up for my favorite corner, Turn 2—also known as the Andretti Hairpin. I got a taste of all of this a few years back in a Lexus LC 500, but this time I was behind the wheel of my own ride that I'd cobbled together into something immensely fun and rewarding to wheel.
Turn 3 was tricky, as you think there's ample grip but there actually isn't, and the camber feels quite off. Turn 4 was fun enough thanks to being able to carry a bit more speed, as were Turns 5 and 6, though I definitely over-slowed for those. The world-famous Corkscrew was a lot of fun to brake into, as there was ample grip to bring the 128i down from the top of third gear and turn in cleanly. I like to think I did alright at hitting the apexes here, as well as the rest of the track before the start-finish line.
The Garmin Catalyst revealed that a 1:50.XX was possible based on a session sector best-of (more on how it does this in a future gear review), but I knew a 1:48 or even 1:47 could be in the cards. If I could get within five seconds of more skilled drivers in my and other classes—who had more power at their disposal—I'd be over the moon.
Finding the Limits of My Setup
Up until this point, I'd been quite content with the 128i's suspension setup. The Koni Yellows, Eibach Pro-Kit springs, and stock sway bars make for a very daily-able ride quality that keeps body roll pretty well in check on my favorite California tracks, most notably Buttonwillow Raceway Park.
However, I quickly found its limits on Laguna Seca.
There's no shortage of stick on its legendary, freshly paved surface, but even with brand-new rubber and a focused alignment, the 128i experienced some pronounced understeer, body roll, and a general lack of grip. I had to be very patient with the throttle while exiting Turn 2—still my favorite corner—as it was otherwise a flurry of body roll and understeer if I got too eager. Then, the lack of controlled roll confidence in Turns 3, 4, 5, and 6 definitely inhibited peak speed. If I were just a few mph faster through each of these, I could've easily dipped into the sub-1:50 range. Even after installing rear subframe bushing reinforcements and a limited-slip differential in the past year, understeer still reared its ugly head at high speed on track.
I had all the hope in the world that I'd be able to set a sub-1:50 during Saturday's two sessions, but the best I could muster was a 1:53. This really stung, as my Garmin Catalyst optimal lap dropped to a 1:49.80, meaning if I utilized the small bit of extra speed and better apexes I exhibited in the second session, I'd be in the 40s.
This is embarrassing to share, but I think a lot of my less-than-ideal driving was rooted in frustration, which led to over-driving the car. I'm normally the first to ascend the bully pulpit and preach about figuring out how to competently rip within a chassis' limits, and here I was, pulling a very rookie mistake of over-driving my own car that I've put down many laps with. I wasn't even concerned with being competitive in class—I knew I was very un-competitive. While I thought I could've had a fighting chance in Club TR in my previous blog, that was definitely a bit too optimistic. But I wish I could've at least been in the same zip code as the top five, and I think my frustration got the best of me.
Sure, it was essentially a new track for me, but I knew I could've done better. I think with some continued chassis tuning, a little self-reflection, as well as really feeling out and pushing the car on familiar tracks, I'll do better the next time I show up to Laguna Seca. Or, any further participation in GridLife Track Battle's Club TR class. I'm currently coming up with a hair-brained scheme of showing up to a few Midwest events in 2024, though I'll have to really think about how I could make the rule book work for the N52-powered E82 BMW chassis.
A Glimmer of Hope
While I still had one final session on Sunday morning to set a decent lap time, Mother Nature had other plans as the track was still mildly damp after some rain overnight. Still, this actually ended up being my favorite session of the weekend.
Very few cars showed up to grid, so it felt like I had all the damp tarmac to myself. It was nice to rip along through picturesque NorCal morning lighting and not have to worry about anyone coming up behind me, or having to get around any slower vehicles ahead. Since I was limited by track conditions, and knew that a PB wasn't in the cards, I instead throttled back and just … had fun. I could methodically cut a good line around the track and even experience some fun little bouts of oversteer at corner exit here and there. Coming down the hill after the Corkscrew was a little unnerving, but correcting some hilarious and unplanned (I swear) tail-out action through the final corner put a huge smile on my face. It's not very often that I go out and not have lap times at least somewhat on my mind, but it's something I really ought to do a lot more. I'll live longer.
This might not classify as a full-on moment of clarity, but such a chill session helped me realize that the 128i's setup is still significantly better than stock and that I can wheel it pretty competently. I just need to continue refining it, as well as continue striving to be a better driver if I want to lay down truly respectable lap times.
One Excellent Weekend
GridLife Laguna had all the hallmarks of a whirlwind track weekend: Random fixes, lengthy time out in the sun, lots of prep, mixed emotions over one's personal performance, and too much lap analysis. It also had all the best social aspects that truly make the trackrat life worth living: Good friends, making new friends, great chats with solid folks, organizers that are well organized, watching other entertaining sessions, a badass paddock to walk around in, and all in an environment that absolutely never gets old. I love having the ability to blend motorsports with my career and am immensely thankful for every opportunity that comes my way, including this overall brilliant weekend.
I'd like to once again shout out the class-act dudes who make up Twerk Team Racing. They were so fun to hang out with, super hospitable, and I greatly appreciate their assistance in helping keep the 128i trackable all weekend. Plus, how could I forget my good friend Nick—he provided lots of moral support and BMW life guidance, and his crewing made life much easier all-extended-weekend-long.
If you haven't already, I highly recommend attending a GridLife event, whether to just walk around and enjoy the day, compete in time attack, or go door-to-door with a field of very talented racers. GridLife runs a tight ship and puts on a truly excellent event; and who knows, you might make some new friends along the way.
My weekend had its downsides, but they were all rooted in my own prep and on-track performance. It was an otherwise stupendous time, I just didn't want it to end while we were packing up on Sunday. I'm also glad that I was able to drive there and back, as any time you don't break or crash your car at a track weekend, it's very much a good thing.
There's plenty of tread left on the Falkens, and there are still a few events to attend before the end of the year—stay tuned for more blogs on the trials and tribulations of wheeling my beloved, naturally aspirated, rear-wheel drive BMW coupe. Big setup changes are due.