The Garage

Project Car Diaries: Track-Prepping My BMW 128i for GridLife at Laguna Seca

A wide variety of activities at the track and short race lengths make GridLife a very accessible motorsport event.
My BMW 128i is set to take on GridLife Track Battle at Laguna Seca
Let's hope this year's seat time pays off. Cali Photography

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A few weeks ago, I mentioned in a blog about my dear 2011 BMW 128i that I’ll be competing in GridLife Track Battle when the series heads to Laguna Seca October 20-22. Fast forward to the beginning of truly fall season—with the right soundtrack and all—and I’ve only got a few weeks to prepare. Luckily, there’s not much to prepare, thanks in part to the class I’ll be running in.

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It’s set to be an epic event, too. Dubbed GridLife Laguna, there will be so much more than just time attack—filling the schedule is a concours car show, drifting, GridLife Touring Cup wheel-to-wheel racing, an esports arcade, live music, and more. If you’re looking for an immersive motorsports weekend at one of our country’s best and most beautiful tracks, come hang out! Tickets are on sale, camping is available through the track, and nearby hotels are fairly inexpensive this time of the year.

You might even see me schlepping around, and hopefully not in the paddock trying to fix a catastrophic issue—Come say hi! To avoid anything scary, with good prep comes good peace of mind: This is my plan of attack for competing on Laguna Seca’s freshly repaved tarmac.

The naturally aspirated BMW N52 inline-six engine
The big aluminum-magnesium N52 in all its glory. Peter Nelson

The Class

After some pondering, I decided that the 128i would be the most competitive in ClubTR RWD, a mild prep class that runs on a spec tire: either Falken’s Azenis RT660 or RT615. Displacement is limited to 2.5 liters, but there’s an exception that includes non-M BMW engines. This makes my 3.0-liter N52-equipped steed a solid candidate.

I’ll have no turbo cars to worry about for competition, although I’m expecting any number of Miatas, Honda S2000s, and Toyobarus. They’ve all got me weight-wise, and I don’t have any aftermarket aerodynamic improvements, but at least my N52 in its current state of tune is very torquey. Combined with a good rear differential, strong brakes, good enough suspension, and a fresh track alignment, the 128i’s got a fighting chance. Oh, and then there’s the me aspect—I’ve only driven on Laguna once, and it was a few years back during a driving school—I’ll have Garmin’s Catalyst Driving Performance Optimizer helping me with dropping as many tenths as possible.

Utilizing my Autel scanner in my BMW 128i

Better Now Than Later

Between daily duty, wrenching, and track work, I’ve gotten to know my BMW 128i quite well. So, when the 1er started exhibiting some odd symptoms, I listened carefully and did my best to tend to its health.

Occasionally, especially while driving around on a particularly hot day, I’d start hearing a mild whirring sound. It wasn’t rev-related, but rather sounded like a CD drive spinning up—remember those? Then, whenever I’d come off the clutch while it was happening, I’d experience some light stumbling, as if I was a newb at driving stick.

Determined not to appear incompetent by passersby, but more to simply know what was going on, I broke out the Autel and scanned for codes. Two stood out: they hadn’t triggered the check engine light but had to do with the water pump, particularly speed deviation. I’m pretty certain this meant that the impeller speed was different than what the DME (that’s ECU in BMW speak) was telling it to spin at. Some quick research pointed to the electric water pump very slowly dying—it’s as if the 1er was telling me something was wrong before it went into limp mode or something far, far worse. So, a visit to FCP Euro for a complete water pump and thermostat kit (you might as well replace both at the same time), plus two to three hours of my time underneath the front end, and all was well again—no more noise or light stumbling. In fact, the car seemed to run slightly happier than before.

It was a relief getting this job out of the way. While I didn’t have a service record indicating it’d been done, nearly 100,000 miles is a long way for a BMW’s electric water pump to go. They usually die between 60,000 and 80,000 miles, sometimes earlier-—I figured it had already been knocked out at some point.

With that peace of mind guaranteed, I followed up a few weeks later with an oil change, fresh Castrol SRF brake fluid bleed, and new Ferodo DS2500 front brake pads. The DS2500 has been an all-around great compound; gentle on the rotors, not too loud on the street, great life after six or so track days, and ample stopping power during sessions.

Up next, I resolved the broken stud where the front sway bar attaches to the subframe, an issue I mentioned in my previous blog. It was a quick job and then followed up with replacing the nearby inner and outer tie rods. This was not only for more peace of mind but to also try and eliminate a minor creak in the front end that I’d been trying to hunt down. Joy of joys, that seemed to do it—no more creak!

I’m still in the process of mounting up the Falkens and getting a fresh alignment, but the latter I plan to take care of a few days before I head up to Laguna.

My BMW 128i in all its glory
Let’s see what this portly BMW can do. Peter Nelson

A Sort of Legacy

I’ve always held a high regard for GridLife. I attended GridLife Midwest Festival at Gingerman Raceway back in summer 2017 as a spectator and it was not only an immensely fun time, but a great introduction to time attack.

In the years since it’s been great to see the series grow and expand more across the country. This year, our own Andrew Collins and Maddox Kay attended GridLife Circuit Legends when it was at Lime Rock Park a few months back and had a ball. Then, fellow staff writer Chris Rosales took to Streets of Willow for GridLife’s Streets Special this past weekend and earned some hardware with his Honda Civic Type R in Street Class.

I’m excited to compete in the series for the first time at Laguna Seca, representing not only The Drive and my fellow N52 BMW track brethren but also six years of somewhat consistent tracking. There’s a good chance that I won’t be the fastest out there, and I’ll probably be out-gunned by vehicle weight, but I’m quite ready for the challenge and to give it my all.

And with that, I’m off to watch, re-watch, and continue to re-watch, footage of drivers with more skill than I take on Laguna Seca’s fun, rollercoaster-like succession of twisties. Come hang out the weekend of October 20-22, it’s sure to be a fun time.