“Race Six” – Donington Park

Not a moment too soon, the car is ready and our story comes up to date. A few finishing touches were still being made on Friday morning before I headed to the circuit for the first race of the season. It felt great being back in the paddock, and even before that driving the car to a race meeting has a nice sense of purpose to it. It seems to be attracting more attention with its aerodynamic appendages, too – I’m sure more kids point at it than before! I got signed on for the meeting and went down to scrutineering, getting chatting to a gentleman racing an AC Cobra-looking machine with a 7.0 V8 producing 657bhp. The car weighs 1100kg. Such is the insanity of the wonderful Bernies’ V8s series!

As usual, the car passed scrutineering without a hitch. Even when you’re happy with your preparation and not expecting any problems, it’s always a sigh of relief to find you haven’t overlooked anything! I got myself set up in a garage, and immediately found my shopping list expanding, as I was sharing with Imran Khan’s very serious 328i coupé. Running at the front in Class B, Imran was all too happy to show me how you get one of these cars down to 1090kg with half a tank of fuel on board, and making 260bhp to boot. Nothing like realising how much work you have left to do than being presented with the same car, but 130kg lighter!

Leaving the circuit for the night, it still felt like beer garden weather, so it was hard to take any sensationalist reports of the notorious “Beast from the East” returning very seriously. But man alive was it cold when I went back in at 7:30, with snow flurries dropping every half hour! Nothing settled on the circuit, so we didn’t worry and I got the car set up for qualifying. By 10am we already had a remarkable support force of friends and family, despite the cold, and were feeling ready to see what we could do on the track. Here’s the qualifying session:

Astonishingly enough, what we could do was place third of the ten cars in Class C. This was a far better showing than I’d expecting, knowing we were making a big leap up to this class and that the car was well down on the power-to-weight limit. Despite the sub-zero temperatures, the car felt great on its Nankang NS-2R tyres. I was very pleased with the 1:55.19 we clocked up, and with Adam’s performance on his very first sight of the Grand Prix loop – we’d only been able to test on the National circuit. We’d sit 22nd of 36 cars overall.

Some race schedules leave you a long gap between qualifying and race, but we had only two and a half hours to wait – barely enough time to worry after we’d gone to the drivers’ briefing, had some lunch and refuelled the car. Perfect. Things started to go a little awry as the next session was delayed and cars held in the assembly area while another snow flurry blew over, though. Rather than send the cars out, an early lunch break was called, through which we could hardly say the weather improved…

But, as snowy as the pitlane and car park looked with nothing moving, the track surface was clear and we were itching to get out and race. We filled the time by making yet more tea and triple-checking everything on the car, the garage full of a dozen expectant supporters.

It wasn’t until Andy Marston and Brett Evans switched their Class A M3 over to full wet tyres at around 2:30 – half an hour after our billed race start – that I felt moved to go and have another look at the track surface. I got on the pit wall just in time to hear commentator Josh Barrett announce that the entire race meeting was being abandoned, Saturday and Sunday, with no prospect of any cars going out again that weekend.

The sense of deflation was profound. All that rush and prep and nerves and buildup, but no chance to go out and race. I felt worst for Adam, who’d got himself properly psyched up for his first-ever race to then have to go through that process all over again for the next meeting – closely followed by his parents, who’d travelled down from the Scottish border! It was a real shame letting down all the family and friends who’d come out to support us. The only thing to do was pack the car up and call the post-race BBQ early – and indoors – and get everyone back home and in the warm.

Thank you to all the friends who came to Donington – your support meant so much to us, it was a real boost having you along, and if you’ll brave it another time your tickets are on us. That means you, Sav, Shiv, Calum, Jack, Adam and Jack!

Next stop, Brands Hatch. It had better not snow in Kent in mid-April…

Sam

Into 2018

Present day: Just in time for the first race of 2018 – tomorrow! – our story comes up to date. This afternoon I’ll be driving over to Donington Park to sign on for tomorrow’s meeting, and try to update live as much as I can. But what happened over the winter?

After a couple of months’ well-earned rest, by Christmas time work had already begun on making the car better to drive, more durable and of course faster. We’d be contesting 750 Motor Club’s Roadsports series once again, with Adam now driving alongside me, but this time in Class C. This meant much more than just going from 160 to 180bhp/ton. The competition is much fiercer in Class C, with a lot of very well-prepared and proven race-winning cars from other championships, and budgets are larger. So every area of the car needed to improve if we were to stand up to the test.

This started with a significant amount of undressing! I had three reasons to remove the whole front end of the car. First, I wanted to replace more of the crash-damaged components. Second, there are parts in there  (AC condenser, for one) that we don’t need and are adding needless weight. But third and most important, I wanted to fit an oil cooler and this is the best way to achieve access to do that.

Once we’re in this state of undress, it’s relatively simple to remove the standard M52 engine’s oil filter housing and replace it with the part from an S50, a 3.0 M3 engine. This already has a feed and return to an oil cooler that’s factory fit on M3s, and bolts straight up to my engine block. I could then mount a Mocal 13-row air blast cooler in front of the radiator, hanging from the (new, uncrashed) slam panel on rubber bushes. I used a new slam panel to further straighten things up, and reassembling without the AC condenser, drier, electric fan and the cross-brace to support them all saved me 8.7kg.

Removal of that electric fan that hung on the AC condenser left me with no active cooling at all, since the viscous coupling fan driven by the engine was damaged in the accident and removed. So I added a 12″ SPAL high-power electric fan (1.6kg), mounted directly to the back of the radiator. The car doesn’t need this when out on track, but when in heavy traffic or idling for long periods, it helps manage the temperatures in the rad. I wired it to a simple switch in the cabin so I can turn it on from the driver’s seat when required.

That’s engine cooling taken care of, but what about more power? The 328i is in the fortunate position of having a very simple solution to gain significant power. Due to German tax laws in the 90s, when BMW replaced the 190bhp 2.5-litre 325i with a 2.8-litre 328i, it produced.. 190bhp. Far more mid-range torque, yes, but no more peak power to avoid heavy taxation. This was achieved by restricting the size of the inlet manifold runners. Happily, an unrestricted 325i manifold shares the same bolt pattern to the cylinder head, and requires only some playing about with breather hoses, oil separators and vacuum lines to fit. It helps if you have a James on hand to guide you through the process – thank you once again! The difference is plain when you have the parts side by side:

This lets the engine breathe more freely, unlocking additional power and a much more linear feel as it pulls towards the rev limiter. A typical gain once properly mapped on a rolling road is as much as 25-30bhp. Time didn’t permit getting the car set up ideally for this manifold, but we still pulled a healthy 213bhp on 750MC’s dyno, giving us a target weight of 1183kg to hit the class limit. In the end we got to 1194kg without any fuel, so there’s some work to do over the season to gain some power and/or lose more weight!

Power, as we know, is nothing without control. That’s where these Gaz Gold coilovers come in.

With 750lb/in front springs and 350lb/in rear, they’re not only stiffer than the four-year-old HSD Dualtechs that were fitted until now, but they have vastly superior dampers with a much wider adjustment range. The quality of these parts was impressive, and they felt worth every penny of their £1200 price tag. The reduction in body roll was so stark you could see it from trackside, and after a bit of work getting the car set up right, it felt immeasurably better to drive

Finally, you’ll notice some extra appendages on the car…

As much as it pained me to step away from the “standard road car” aesthetic, performance needs to come first sooner or later, and a race car isn’t complete without some aerodynamic enhancements. Wanting to keep things period and correct, I chose a front splitter and rear wing that are replicas of the parts used on the M3 GT road cars, a “homologation special” for BMW’s touring cars of the time. So not only do they look right on an E36, their function is proven, unlike many aftermarket alternatives.

There’s been a whole host of other little changes and improvements over the winter, culminating in a successful test day at Donington Park last week. We had a little bonus play at Silverstone’s Grand Prix circuit as well, courtesy of RMA Trackdays – here’s how the car looked there.

Now, I’m off to get the car finished and ready for tomorrow’s race! Hope to see you there…

Sam

The Team

A review of the 2017 season could never be complete without acknowledging the wonderful people who help me get out on the circuit and play at being a racing driver. Sometimes people ask “have you done all this yourself?”, and the answer’s not simple. Yes, it’s my own car and I’ve decided and driven everything that’s gone into it, and done a lot of the work myself. I do lead the events and planning, from race entries and kit lists to what time the car needs to be ready for each session. There’s no team principal, no payroll of mechanics or race engineers, and nobody else calling the shots. But the reality is that I could never have achieved any of this without my stunning support cast. So the McKee Motorsport team:

It’s fair to say that my mum Joy is responsible for, well, pretty much everything you see here. She’s indulged my passion for cars and driving for as long as I can remember, from teaching me to drive her Audi A6 when I was 14, through putting me through my first ARDS course to get my race licence at Silverstone aged just 16. She’s always been there, at every event, always fussing and making sure everyone has everything they need – and always putting up with mass BBQs back at her house after a nearby race! She’s certainly handy in the pit lane, having been watching and attending motorsport events for longer than I’ve been alive. But it goes deeper than that, and her unwavering faith in my ability to really get out there and do this is largely to thank for me ever being brave enough to take the plunge. Thank you, always.

Never far behind my mum in always being there to support is my grandad David. At 85, it’s still no trouble to be out in the freezing cold and blowing gales attendant at every circuit, and seeing his smile when I bring the car back after a session or a race makes me feel like a superstar. An absolute icon, loved by all. Even when he’s stealing your chocolate bars.

And of course there’s my long-suffering partner Emily. Starting the season engaged, we married on 10th August 2017 in Scotland and honeymooned for a week in Barcelona. That’s why we missed the Silverstone round of Roadsports, it took place the day after we arrived back at Glasgow airport at 11:30pm. It says all you need to know about Em’s support of my passion (and early gambit for the “coolest wife of the year” award) that she was straight on Google Maps trying to work out whether we could get to the circuit in time to still race, because “it’d be awesome doing that straight after our honeymoon!”.

Another core part of the team, is Em – she can be found on the pit wall with the live timing screens open on her phone, frantically slotting data into the pit board as I lap the circuit!

There follows a small army of friends whose support has been absolutely invaluable. From things as simple as a message to say “this is awesome, so happy that you got to follow your dream”, to giving up days of their time to help me work on the car or support it at a race – there’s many a time I’d have been buggered without the help of a friend, and I’m so lucky to have it given so generously on so many occasions. Even when not actively helping out, just coming to races to support and be there is a fantastic boost. So, in no particular order:

Before even the first race, old friend (and best man) Adam had called to volunteer his services as a race mechanic for the season. He cheerfully drove himself across the country at his own expense to come and support me and help me run the car, a generosity I’m now only starting to be able to repay by putting him in the car himself for his racing debut in 2018! Having someone I know and trust to work on the car as if it were his own gives a peace of mind that’s hard to convey, especially when I’m so used to doing everything myself. Half the reason I got into motorsport at all was to share experiences with my friends, and this has been top notch for it.

Ever self-deprecating but vastly more useful than he thinks he is – my friend and housemate Kevin, who selflessly gave a weekend to supporting us at Donington for that first race, covering everything from chauffeur to pit boss to mechanic. That’s not to mention the countless times he’s lent an extra pair of hands in spannering, or served as a sounding board for some of my more outlandish engineering ideas. It was the least I could do to have Kevin try the car for himself on a track day after the end of the season – and pretty handy he was too, so maybe there’s a future prospect there!

The car might get out and race without friend, colleague and fellow E36 addict James Butt, but it certainly wouldn’t be anywhere near as fast. He’s been fettling these cars for years longer than I, and his expertise has been invaluable when tackling the bigger jobs. Never afraid to give up an evening by coming straight over from work to get on the tools, his eternal optimism overcomes my fear of potentially knackering perfectly serviceable parts in seeking performance! Special mention also needs to go to our expert phone-a-friend Sam Carpenter of JustDeutsch – what he doesn’t know about an E36 is barely worth knowing.

The list could go on and on, from the brilliantly personable Chris Stevens of Autosport to those who’ve come along to watch and support. Andy, Emma, Shiv, Nicol – thank you.

Oh, and James – I reckon we did OK in the end, didn’t we? There’s plenty more where that came from!

Sam

 

Race Five – Rockingham

September 2017: Our final race of the 2017 season would take us to Rockingham, a technical infield circuit inside an oval. James and I both knew the track quite well, but I’d made some changes that warranted testing – one was finally moving to full-specification racing brake pads, fitting Performance Friction 08 endurance-compound pads in place of the Z-Rated that had been in before. The other was far more invasive to achieve, and dramatic in performance enhancement…

One man’s misfortune is another’s gain, and Brian Love’s E36 race car being broken for parts gave some very interesting options. I picked up oil coolers for both engine and differential (neither fitted for 2017), but most importantly a freshly rebuilt 3.91 ratio medium-case diff with four friction plates. This would give an enormous gearing reduction from the 3.15 I’d been using up to now, and far better locking performance too. A two-man job to install, made possible only by the selfless and knowledgeable James Butt! I also failed to mention the new seat in the Cadwell race report – among the best money I’ve ever spent on this car was a Cobra Evolution Pro. The support and control this offered was truly priceless.

When testing the car before I race, I generally find myself worrying or hunting for issues or obsessing over the onboard footage to find the best line around the circuit. Rockingham was the first time for a long while that I just got out of the car smiling. At long last, it felt like a racing car. The directness, the feel, the aggression the diff allowed you to use, the sheer power and impact of those brake pads.. Incredible. All through the development of a car, you only get a few moments like that where it all comes together and makes sense, and it’s a brilliant feeling. I couldn’t wait to get out there and race it.

Race day started out dry, and the car felt great through qualifying. We were both able to get some good space and put in good laptimes, with both drivers clocking best laps within a second of each other and putting the car on class pole for the fourth time that year. I was particularly pleased with my quickest lap, a 1:46.42, putting us 20th of 27 cars on the grid overall. Here it is:

We’d been gifted a dry morning to really feel the performance of the car, but the weather quickly turned threatening, with downpours through the earlier races of the afternoon. We weren’t too fussed, as we knew the car suited the wet quite well and we were both very familiar with it, so we were happy with our abilities in challenging conditions. Challenging, however, quickly became absurd – it’s hard to convey just how black the skies became before our race start, but I hope these two images go some of the way!

Almost every race before us was red-flagged at least once due to incidents, and when our time finally came, James was to lead. The circuit had mostly dried out since the last downpour, but the intent in the skies was clear as James made his way to the grid:

A slightly slow getaway at the start left some work to do, but after only a few minutes’ racing the heavens opened. I was on the pit wall at the time, and the rain came down so hard it actually hurt – you can hear it hitting the car in the onboard video, even over the noise of the engine at wide-open throttle. The race was brought under safety car after just seven minutes, a decision warranted by a Ginetta in our class spinning directly in front of James even with the race neutralised. The safety car stayed out until the 24-minute mark, long through the pitstop window opening. This left me a difficult decision to take – all of our key competition was pitting to take advantage of the slower pace under the safety car, but James had barely had any race time. I left him out in the hope he’d get some chance to drive the car properly, and after the race went live again, I called the car in at the last possible moment before the pit window closed.

There followed one of the best driving experiences of my life. I joined a drenched circuit, so wet that even pulling second gear in the pitlane led to wheelspin, with small rivers crossing the track in half a dozen places. Being the only ones pitting outside the safety car period, we were at the back of our class and, briefly, dead last overall. I had fifteen minutes to fight back.

The circuit was treacherous, faster traffic was coming through, but I felt completely in touch with the car and was comfortable taking it well beyond the grip limit for lap after lap. Racetracks are generally extremely slippery in the wet, and among them Rockingham is famously lethal, giving the impression of driving a colossally powerful car with nowhere near enough tyre to control it. In short, exactly my idea of a good time! The conditions made all sorts of new and interesting passing manouvres possible, including going around the outside of competition, and in the end I was able to fight all the way back to second in class and twelfth overall. Here’s the race video:

I got out of the car feeling absolutely elated. Not only was it a truly wonderful drive to finish on, but we’d made it through the season. This leggy old 90s repmobile had been reborn as a racing car, and two novices had not only got it to the chequered flag in every race, but it had finished on the podium every time as well. The final tally from five races was two class wins, three second places, four poles and four fastest laps. In short – beyond my wildest dreams.

All that was left to do was load the car up, drive it home after the most successful year I could have imagined, and start planning for the next one…

Sam

Race Four – Cadwell Park

July 2017: With the car freshly rebuilt, we headed to Lincolnshire and the notorious Cadwell Park circuit. Billed as a mini-Nürburgring of our very own, this is a narrow ribbon of tarmac that winds its sinuous way through huge elevation changes, surprise cambers and challenging complexes. It’s thoroughly enjoyable when it starts to flow, but needs approaching with care and respect. Not the simplest of places to prove out the car after its shunt!

As usual, we did a track day two weeks before to check the car over and learn the circuit. I was relieved – and mightily impressed – to find the car seemed no worse off for its ordeal. Is there no limit to the punishment a leggy 90s German saloon can take?!

Race day came swiftly after, and served up the most dramatic qualifying session we’d had so far. All was going well for the first two laps of my run, until suddenly a loud, boomy vibration and occasional scraping noise could be heard in right-handers. It wasn’t until I heard a loud scrape climbing The Mountain that I realised the back half of the exhaust had come free, and was so loose it was moving around to foul the body and even the track surface! I managed to finish one more timed lap before I was shown the black-and-orange flag to bring me into the pits. The marshals made it clear that unless we could fashion a means of securing it, we couldn’t go back out, and James wouldn’t be able to qualify to enter the race.

With the last few precious minutes of the session ticking away, the true spirit of club motorsport came through. Our chief competition, Adam Chafer in his Peugeot 206 with his family team ISLA Motorsport, jumped into action to help us get the pipe secured enough to get James out and do some very gentle laps to qualify for the race. We’d have been deep in it without our rivals helping us, quite possibly not making the start – they came to our rescue because they wanted the chance to race against us, which is what it’s all about. Hats off to them.

It turns out that it’s still possible to set the class pole position lap while your exhaust is flailing around in a mad bid for freedom..! That was more than enough excitement for one day, yet when the start rolled round I found myself sitting 18th overall on an incredibly cramped grid of 27 cars on a circuit that felt big enough for maybe six. I hadn’t felt nerves as bad since my very first race, but I got away cleanly and managed to survive the first few laps and give some good battle to the cars around me.

After around ten minutes there followed a long safety car period to extract a BMW from the barriers after Charlies corner, after which I was able to do some really great racing. The car felt good and the circuit was making sense, and I had cars around me at competitive pace – it was a brilliant feeling being able to race the car hard for lap after lap. I came into the pits from the class lead with twenty minutes left on the clock.

We were hobbled once again by a success penalty adding 25 seconds to our one-minute pitstop, and rejoined several places down. James was left with a relatively quiet stint to bring the car home, mostly focusing on traffic management as faster cars from the classes above came through, trying to lose minimal time in the process and pull back to Adam Chafer’s now class-leading 206. Sadly it wasn’t enough, and we crossed the line 2nd in class and 19th overall, 28 seconds behind Adam – a scant three seconds more than the success penalty had cost us, robbing us of the opportunity for a close fight to the flag. Here’s the race video:

As much as it felt a shame to “only” finish second, I came away feeling quite satisfied. We’d managed to get the car to the next race after suffering a crash on the road, and it still had shown class-leading pace in qualifying and in the race. Bearing in mind that I’d started the season with the idea that finishing races would be a huge personal success, we were still flying high!

Sam

Disaster

June 2017: You’d think that after a day spent sharing a tiny circuit with 35 other cars at racing speeds, the drive home would be the easy bit. But heading back from a successful race at Brands Hatch, I got 130 of the 136 miles home before a rather daft lady pulled out straight in front of me on a roundabout. It’s funny how the mind works – in the tenth of a second before the obviously impending impact, I was able to process how utterly heartbreaking the concept of crashing this car was, how angry I was that I saw her and knew damn well she didn’t even look before coming out, how ironic it was that I’d spent all day in fireproofs, race suit, helmet and HANS only to now crash in shorts and a T-shirt, and at the very last moment a vague wonder of whether it might hurt.

This is how the car looked when it came out. The engine was still running after the impact, which didn’t feel too bad, but I was shocked – and bloody worried – to find the gear lever not where I left it. After much fumbling to find where reverse had moved to, I managed to extract the car from the side of the Yeti and take stock. It looked bad but fundamentally driveable, though I could only get second and fourth gears. This was enough to crawl it home after getting insurance details and having a very helpful attending officer summarise the situation rather succinctly, without passing any comment at all on it clearly being a race car: “Well she’s just pulled out on you, hasn’t she?”.

The mood was sombre that evening – with no opportunity to inspect the damage before nightfall, we really didn’t know whether the car might have turned its last wheel. It meant a lot to me, and the thought of reshelling the parts – or worse – was awful. With any racing car you accept a level of risk, but to have it potentially destroyed by something as stupid and unnecessary as a low-speed road collision really hurt. And of course, we had a test day at Cadwell just four weeks hence…

My insurers, Equity Red Star, had little work to do. The offending Yeti driver’s underwriters called me first thing Monday morning to apologise profusely on behalf of their policyholder and ask how they could make things right. They sent an assessor to inspect the damage, who understood well what the car was and even humoured me by looking at comparable cars on racecarsdirect.com to value it properly! We arrived at a sum for “cash in lieu of repairs”, allowing me to sort the damage out myself with no impact to the car’s status. This is a real opportunity to point out the value of declaring everything to your insurers – they knew it was a racing car, knew every modification I’d made, and had agreed a value with me at the start of the policy. The peace of mind that gave me when I actually needed to use the cover was priceless, and made the £330 premium seem like small change.

In the following days, a proper assessment could be made. I’d feared the worst on thinking the body was damaged badly enough to push the engine back, but in fact quite the opposite – the engine and gearbox simply sheared all their twenty-year-old rubber mounts and kept going forward as the body stopped around them, leaving the thermostat housing jammed up against the fan shroud and the whole lot about three inches forward of where it should be.

The fact that the car had driven OK, albeit gingerly, after this was nothing short of astonishing. The sump was resting on the front subframe and the steering column, and that was pretty much all that kept it in the car. The bonnet, front wing, slam panel and grille carrier all came off rather badly but other than that, it wasn’t terrible. I’d only get the true picture once I got the powertrain remounted and tried to drive it – before then, who knew what damage had been done to the driveline, subframes or even the body itself. So I got a new headlamp and some polyurethane engine and gearbox mounts ordered, and set about getting everything back where it should be.

Mercifully, there is a happy ending. After a lot of pain getting the powertrain remounted and the panels back to nearly-straight, I went for the most tentative shakedown I’ve ever done, gradually building up pace and watching temperatures over an hour until I was comfortable enough to start pushing the car. She drove perfectly. I could not fault it in any way. Stunned, and just in time for the test at Cadwell before the next race, I stopped to get a photo marking the reincarnation. One of the very last Avro Vulcans being in the background is a nice bonus… There’s no stopping this car.

The viscous cooling fan on the front of the engine was damaged so removed, letting the car rely on the electric auxiliary fan on the AC condenser. This served it well until a proper solution could be made over the winter. I only replaced the slam panel and the shock-absorbing “crash cans” behind the front bumper, to get the car structurally sound and give the right positions to bolt new parts to. The bonnet and wing were bent back as close to straight as Kevin and I could get them, and the less than ideal fitment accepted until the car needed to lose weight – fibreglass panels would be a more appropriate replacement than more standard steel. So it’s fairly easy to tell whether a photo is pre- or post-shunt! Onwards and upwards, to Lincolnshire and Cadwell Park…

Sam

Race Three – Brands Hatch

June 2017: Brands Hatch is a fabled stretch of tarmac, and with good reason – it’s set the scene of many an iconic race, from Grands Prix to Group C. The full GP circuit is fast and flowing, but rarely used for club racing, which tends to keep to the Indy loop. This is only 1.2 miles long, around the pits and back, but far from tame – the elevation changes are dramatic and there is plenty to upset even the best set-up cars. Paddock Hill bend sees you commit to an apex you can’t see, blind over the crest like the start of a rollercoaster. Anticipation was high!

This was another circuit that I’d never driven, so two weeks prior found us testing in the pouring rain. So wet was it, in fact, that it wasn’t worth swapping off the Uniroyal Rainsports tyres I use to get the car safely to events in all conditions – they were ideal for the job! Conditions like this demand confidence from the off, and are great to learn the car, allowing you to overstep the limit with minimal risk…

Fortunately, it dried up over lunch and we were able to get some good dry running done to figure out the quickest way around the circuit. In what felt like no time at all, I was sitting in Friday afternoon traffic on the M25 in 32°C heat getting the car down to scrutineering.

Qualifying two drivers at Brands is a little easier, since the circuit is only a 58-second lap, so we got 18 racked up in the session. James went out first to do eight timed laps, then I jumped in for a turn. Annoyingly, we started to suffer from fuel starvation going over Paddock Hill, so ultimate pace wasn’t to be found, but we still did enough to beat the only other car in our class and put ourselves 30th of 37 overall.

We’d planned for James to start the race, which meant my very first time standing on the pit wall to watch my car leave the grid in the middle of the pack. It felt like quite a momentous occasion, enough to move me to actually face the camera for once…

James got through the busy start without incident, and set about doing some good racing, putting in some laps even quicker than his qualifying run. The car managed to produce some extra drama of its own five minutes in – in making a particularly hurried third-to-fourth gearchange to complete a pass on our Class D competitors Ollie Steek and Matthew Ellis, James pulled the gearknob off, not realising this until he next needed it.. braking late and off-line into Paddock Hill!

Showing impressive presence of mind and keeping his cool, James realised what had happened, got the gear with his palm and not only kept the car on the black stuff, but held his position. Long after the circuit got busy with Class A cars carving through the field, he handed the car over to me from the class lead.

 

Sadly, the rules in Roadsports include “success penalties”, whereby cars that have won or finished on the podium in previous races must serve a time penalty in their pitstop. I was held for an additional 25 seconds for having won the previous two races, more than enough for the #24 BMW Compact to retake the lead. After just six short laps of reeling in our opposition, an incident brought out the safety car and ate up valuable race time. We were only live again for another three laps before a heavy crash at Druids stopped the race six minutes early.

The final tally shows we finished 25th of 34 starters, but thirteen seconds behind our class competition of Steek/Ellis. Mixed emotions – we’d been the faster car, we’d passed them on the circuit and set the class fastest lap, but the race was cut short and our success penalty had robbed us of another win. It seemed a shame to realise that Ollie and Matthew also felt a hollow victory, knowing that it was only the “balancing” rules that had handed it to them – a strong argument against such artificial influence in race results, we thought. Here’s the footage from onboard the car:

The report of this race wouldn’t be complete without talking about the heat. The temperature never dropped below the high twenties all day, and in the car – with no insulation at all between us and the engine and exhaust heat – the conditions were punishing. I take my hat off to endurance drivers who can stand hours-long stints in cars that run even hotter than ours – twenty minutes was more than enough to leave us gasping! The need for driver fitness and taking proper care of oneself was underlined by seeing Petteri Jokinen, whose turbocharged Mini would certainly have been harder work than our car, collapse from heat exhaustion after the finish.

Still, we left the circuit feeling we’d had another successful day. We’d got through scrutineering, qualified the car, shown good pace and finished a hectic race without incident. That can never be a bad result when competing in a road-going car with such limited budget.

 

Sam

Race Two – Snetterton

April 2017: The second race of 2017 came just five weeks later, at Snetterton in Norfolk. After the success of the first outing, it was time to put another driver in the car. Enter James Lewis-Barned for his racing debut. As neither of us were familiar with the circuit, we went for a track day two weeks before the race to get comfortable and find the quickest way around. We got plenty of miles racked up, and performed a simulated race run once again – complete with rapid driver change to get the car back out within sixty seconds. It was great, if a little strange, standing on the pit wall and seeing my car howl past without me in it!

James drove very well, and put in fast and consistent lap times throughout his run. We came away feeling pretty confident, if well aware that the long straights meant there was no hope of finishing so high up the overall order this time – any more powerful car was going to walk away from us.

I ran the race weekend in the same way as Donington – arrive on Friday night, get through scrutineering and get set up in the garage ready for Saturday morning. This time, I had the company of Adam Mealand, selflessly driving himself the 140 miles across the country to support and wield the spanners as required. I was momentarily confused as to why the car registered nearly 1600kg on the weighbridge in the scrutineering bay, until I realised it had four spare wheels, all my tools and race kit, and my support crew still inside it!

Qualifying required more thought than last time – we both had to put in three timed laps to be allowed to race, which with your outlap and pit-in lap is five each. On a circuit that’s almost 2min30 long, really is all you can fit into a 25-minute session! We decided that I’d go out first, put in my minimum laps, and let James go to the flag in the hope that he’d get more time to get used to the car.

The circuit felt a bit busy despite only 26 cars out, and we each only got one really good lap in, but the pace was encouraging – we clocked 2:21.53 and 2:21.97, with both being easily enough to claim fastest in class, the nearest competitor only managing a 2:23.96. But as we predicted, we sat 21st overall, with all the more powerful cars further up the grid. Hopefully this would at least lead to a less dramatic start than Donington!

We’d decided in advance that we’d alternate who started the race and who got in at the halfway point to drive to the finish, and as it was his first event, James was happy to let me take the start and get the highest risks out of the way. So it was that I lined up on the grid next to the pit wall, waiting for the lights to go out once again…

In what felt like barely a heartbeat, the lights were out and we were racing. My reaction time was quick but I laid down too much power and lost some drive to wheelspin. No matter, as my next concerns rapidly became an M3 Cup car that had fluffed his start in front, then Ivor Mair’s E36 Compact going for the same gap as me. Barely a few seconds later, I was into the first corner and trying to go around the outside of Jeff Williams’ Ginetta G20. There followed twenty minutes of constant battles, though sadly most of it defending from cars behind me, which means the footage doesn’t show a lot of it! I resolved to get a rear-view camera for the next outing. I came into the pits from first in class to hand the car over.

The pitstop went like clockwork and we sent James out to bring the car home. A bizarre feeling, having fought hard for half a race, to then simply get out of the car and watch it drive away! James was thrown straight into the deep end, with Adam Chafer’s 206 to contend with in his first lap out. Having won at Donington meant we had a 15-second time penalty added to our pitstop, intended to stop any one car dominating. This meant James came out with the 206 straight on his bumper, and coming fresh out of the pits made him vulnerable – Adam went through.

The 206’s awesome brakes and sticky tyres gave it a major advantage in the corners, but it lacked the punch of our car’s big straight-six, and James was able to set up a good run out of Williams corner, re-take the class lead down the Bentley straight and start building a gap. In the end we were deprived of a battle to the flag when the 206 developed mechanical issues, and we won by a convincing 87 seconds.

A shame not to have cars to race against all the way through, particularly as all the action seemed to have been in my stint and left James essentially driving a practice session for most of his run – but we couldn’t forget that this 180,000-mile ex-repmobile had once again come up with the goods and performed faultlessly over a race weekend. The drive back home up the A14 felt a lot sweeter with a trophy in the passenger footwell beside me!

There weren’t likely to be any concerns about a quiet race at the next event – Brands Hatch, all 1.2 miles of it!

Sam

Race One – Donington, part 2

March 2017: For all the mad rushes and sleepless nights poured into getting the car ready for a race weekend, the time between qualifying and race start can feel long. Typically four hours, punctuated only by a fifteen-minute drivers’ briefing where the club stewards cover series-specific regulations, unless you have major work to do on the car there’s a lot of time to worry about what could go wrong. This does also mean plenty of time for the hot engine to dry out your race boots, though!

Fortunately, there’s always plenty to be doing in a club racing paddock. Fellow competitors to talk to and learn from, other series’ qualifying and racing to watch, and a huge variety of beautifully prepared race cars to pore over and pick up ideas from.

My process was to get all the key checks on the car done first: fluid levels, tyre pressures, get some fuel in, check torques on critical fasteners and so on. Then a run round with the glass polish to give the windows the best chance of staying clear, put the cameras and transponder on charge, and try to unwind a bit. Before long, we were being called back to the assembly area for the race.

Starting the race might sound simple, but you need to be paying attention. Cars are formed up in the assembly area in a big semicircle, and when the time comes – after a good fifteen minutes of severe nerves as rain keeps falling! – you’re waved out onto the circuit in sequence. You all drive to the start line at moderate pace, where a marshal guides you into the correct slot on the grid. You need to remember some landmarks for where this is and which cars are around you, because next is the green flag lap – the cars are released to do one last sighting lap before starting the race. This is your only good opportunity to do a practice start, trying to gauge the correct engine revs and clutch engagement to get a good launch. When you come back round to the grid, with minimal supervision you stop in your slot and await the start.

Now, nerves and adrenaline are at a peak. After the last car forms up, a 5-second warning board is shown, then the red lights over the start line come on. You hold the engine at your best guess of starting revs, with the noise of every other car surrounding you doing the same, and poise to release the clutch – after a random interval of a few seconds, the lights go out, the hammer goes down and you’re racing!

I made a good start, but the lofty qualifying position meant I was immediately swamped by faster cars, and the first two laps were solely focused on protecting the car and finding where the grip might be. Or not, as in the majority of the circuit! A safety car period was triggered early when a brand new BMW M235i Cup car ended up in the pit wall, but after this, I was able to find a groove and start hunting down the cars ahead. I was amazed to find that I could not only catch cars in my class and even the ones above, but get up to them and pass them! Here’s the full video, with notes to find interesting bits:

“Overtaking manouvres at 16:15, 19:30, 20:30, 30:20 and finally on the leader of my class at 32:40. This was a bit sketchy – I tried to go around the outside, but just as I was turning in, heard him lock up and push me down to the edge of the circuit!

Tripping over a backmarker at 39:15 leaves me then, rather confused, hanging onto the back of the race-leading car for much longer than I expected.

There’s gratuitous oversteer throughout, some of it even intentional, but particular moments to be found at 30:05, a small off in Craner Curves at 30:50, and overstepping the mark at both Redgate and Craners from 41:10. Finally come round to take the chequered flag at 45:00″

The last half of the race was a truly fantastic experience. I knew I’d made up a lot of time and passed cars in my class, but when I saw Kevin hold out the pit board with the cards every driver longs to see – “P1” – I could hardly believe it. The circuit was drying, the car felt brilliant and I just wanted to drive faster and faster, but made a conscious effort to rein myself in (and stop sliding around so much, however enthusiastic some of spectators might be!) and make sure I brought the car home.  I took the chequered flag first in class and 17th of 39 cars overall, setting the class fastest lap on the way. What an unbelievable start to my racing career!

As I drove back to the paddock, the car was weighed and power-tested on the dyno to check it was within the class regulations. 199.5bhp and 1255kg gave me 159bhp/ton – perfect against a class limit of 160! Then the team caught up with me, in almost as much shock at the outcome as I was. The atmosphere felt surreal, but the sense of achievement between us all was simply amazing. As a spectator it’s sometimes easy to forget that motorsport’s impossible as a solo venture, and behind every driver is a team, whether they build and run the car or simply lend a hand and give support where it’s needed. No result at all would be possible without this bunch behind me, never mind a class win. So thank you all for selflessly getting me there!

How to top off such a great result? Drive the race car home and get the BBQ lit, of course. Next stop, Snetterton…

Sam

 

Race One – Donington, Part 1

Nerves not shown!

March 2017: The first race of the season was set for Donington Park’s Grand Prix circuit on Saturday 18th March. The run-up to the weekend was frantic with last-minute work on the car, making kit lists, and checking timings. As ever, all the little jobs ended up right at the end, culminating in applying race numbers in the dark on the Thursday night and devising a means of disabling the door locks (to guarantee marshals can get in from outside the car in case of an accident) with some self-tapping screws and a block of wood. One thing came out in my favour, which is that Donington’s a home circuit, being only an hour from home and fifteen minutes from my mum’s house, so I had a handy base.

The first hurdle is technical checks on the car. Called scrutineering, this process is required at every race meeting before the car is allowed on circuit, and all the safety equipment is checked thoroughly as well as selection of other items to make sure the car is in line with regulations. Your racewear is also checked for certification and condition. 750 Motor Club take some of the stress out of a race meeting by making scrutineers available the night before, so I got the car to Donington on the Friday afternoon to sign on for the meeting and get through the checks in advance – hoping to ease my blood pressure and give myself a chance of some sleep that night! The very friendly and helpful scrutineer found a few minor issues which I could resolve for the next meeting, but passed the car and my kit and issued the all-important slip:

 

Once thus professionally mounted in your side window, the slip is your ticket past the assembly area marshals onto the circuit when your time comes. Another major advantage for the competitors in Roadsports was being assigned garages. Unlike British Touring Cars or Formula 1, a garage is a rare privilege indeed for a club racer, as there are typically several hundred entrants at every meeting only 30-40 garages in the pitlane. Roadsports have the good fortune owing to the longer races – doing 45 minutes with a pitstop means we’re given garages in which to base our second drivers and any equipment we need in the stop, and give a consistent place to aim to stop the car.

So it was that Friday evening saw the car prepped, scrutineered and ready to race with all the club and series sponsor decals applied. I locked it up and left it until morning, getting a ride home with ever-generous friend Kevin who’d volunteered his weekend to provide his Mondeo estate and his spannering skills whenever required.

Amazingly enough, I slept well the night before the race. The comforting knowledge that the car was through scrutineering and safe in the garage helped immeasurably – the biggest fear is never having the chance to turn a wheel for whatever reason! But I knew that no matter what happened, I was going to be able to get out on the circuit at my first-ever race meeting.

The morning started early, as ever in motorsport, and damp as well! While in some ways I was pleased to see rain, as it’s a great leveller of car performance and leaves the laptime far more in the hands of the driver, mostly it just made me nervous as a wet circuit is deeply unpredictable and I didn’t have much experience on the wet. First up was the special briefing for those who had never raced at this circuit before, covering essential information such as the assembly area location, procedures for getting on and off the circuit (which are often totally different to track days), and special notes for areas of caution. The key feature was that there’s gravel everywhere here – and in the wet, it’ll trap you good and proper!

Next up was the practice session. Roadsports runs a 25-minute practice in the morning, which doubles as qualifying. It’s the only chance you get on the circuit before the race, there’s no other free practice or warmup beforehand because of the sheer volume of series and championships at each meeting, so you need to make it count. You have two jobs: complete three timed laps safely, which is the minimum requirement to qualify you to start the race; and try and set the fastest time possible, as the cars are put on the grid in order of laptime from this session. It’s usually best to treat these tasks separately – get your three laps done while taking it relatively easy, feeling your way around the circuit, making sure you stay on the black stuff and then once you’re qualified, start to build the pace to a laptime.

Before going out on circuit, you’re called to the assembly area. Here all the cars in your session wait until the previous championship have finished and freed up the circuit for you, and the wait feels agonising. You have all the time in the world to worry about temperatures, torques, tyre pressures, suspension settings.. all while already strapped into the car and too late to do anything about any of it!

Going out into my first live session at a race meeting, in the wet, with 38 other cars sharing the circuit – 35 of them with significantly more power! – was an eye-opener in the extreme. Unlike a track day, there are no courtesy rules for overtaking or proximity to other cars, and in appalling visibility everyone was immediately right on top of me. The only way was to carve myself some space, try and feel where the grip might be, and get some safe laps done. Quite a few cars fell off the circuit, highlighting the treacherous conditions, and caused a long yellow flag period. I came in the pits once so Kevin could check tyre pressures and I could have a quick word with the rest of Team McKee – fiancée Emily and mum Joy! – before heading back out. Here’s how it looked:

After that run, I was astonished to find that I’d qualified 22nd overall of 39 cars, despite being one of only five cars in the bottom Class D. I was also the fastest of four 328is in attendance, with all the others being in the class above. This was such an encouraging result – not only had I survived my first live session and qualified to enter the race, I’d set a solid laptime and put myself mid-pack on the grid. The worry was that the rain was still falling, and I had a huge number of much faster cars starting behind me and wanting to get through… 2:05pm would bring the race start.

Sam