Here’s The Damage from Last Month’s Braking Incident at VIR

“On our way home that afternoon, we stopped at my mechanic’s shop to hand over the #404. I rolled the car out of my trailer and pulled the Aerocatch hood latches open. Kevin quickly assessed the damage and felt confident he could repair it prior to my next race in mid-September.”

I ended last month’s weekend of racing at VIR on a bit of a dour note, having failed to slow my E36 M3 enough and bailing into the grass when I felt an impact with another car was imminent – and then impacting a Spec E46 330i anyway. Thankfully, neither car involved was damaged too badly, but there was some mending to be done on mine before heading back to VIR for another weekend.

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Waiting to see the doctor at FlimFlam Speed

Kevin is a racetrack friend that I don’t always like to see, mostly because he’s also my mechanic, and seeing him usually means I get to help finance his growing collection of neat old BMWs and also maybe a yacht. In any case, I dropped the car off at FlimFlam Speed & Custom Tuning on Sunday night and received an email with the prognosis the following Wednesday.

The damage to my E36 M3 was in line with what I saw from a cursory glance in the paddock. I’d sheared both metal engine mounts in half and as a result, the transmission had shifted (hah) off its mounts. With the drivetrain moving so much, the engine dropped a bit and the oil pan landed on the subframe, which put a hole in the pan. All of this movement also damaged the rubber flex disc (“giubo” in BMW-speak) connecting the transmission to the driveshaft. My electric fan shroud was pushed up against the engine.

Of course, the suspension took a beating, mostly where the impact was made on the front driver’s corner. I bent the driver’s side tie rod and the lower control arm balljoint was loose. The driver’s rear control arm, made of very thin metal, also deformed enough to require replacement.

With the oil pan removed for replacement, Kevin took a minute to remove one of the rod bearings. While my S52 engine isn’t known for wearing rod bearings like, well, any other BMW “M” engine (the perks of it being a bored-and-stroked 328i engine), it was worth checking while we Kevin had everything apart. He made the call that no noticeable wear was present and the rod bearings were in good shape.

Some of this work required extra labor on Kevin’s end. He noted one of the four bolts holding the front subframe to the chassis felt cross-threaded. “Lots of ugga duggas from the impact and very little motion until almost all the way out it free’d up.  Bolt had been stretched and threads were gone.” I recall laying on my back, years ago, reinstalling the front subframe after replacing a leaky oil pan gasket, and ramming that bolt back into the chassis using too many ugga duggas from my Ryobi cordless impact when it didn’t want to spin using hand tools. Kevin was able to chase the threads in the unibody and properly install a new bolt.

I’d noted the BMW was running hot at idle and Kevin noted a rubber cap I’d installed over an unused coolant port years prior was split, and had allowed a lot of water to escape the cooling system. He replaced what had broken and pressure-tested the whole system for leaks.

E36 M3 VAC oil pan baffle
The replacement oil pan got the same VAC oil pan baffle welded in place.

Following all of the mechanical repairs and some time with hammers and dollies against the body work, my E36 M3 was strapped down to Kevin’s dyno and “driven” hard for about half an hour to stress-test the drivetrain. Seeing no overheating or other concerns, Kevin made some official pulls to check horsepower and torque. Numbers looked good, and the car was deemed “repaired.”

Paying the bill hurt a bit, though I can’t say I was surprised when I opened the invoice and saw the total. Although the car looked “okay enough” in the paddock after the incident, I knew there would be a decent amount of damage no matter what. Everything performed as designed, though, and saved more expensive parts from being damaged or destroyed. The bent tie rod and rear lower control arm were both expected, and both items are designed to bend easily, instead of transferring heavy forces to the unibody. Engine mounts are meant to shear on impact so the engine doesn’t get shoved back toward (or through) the firewall.

Humpty Dumpty is back together to race again, and we celebrated seven years of ownership at the end of August. Standing by the trunk in Hoboken, New Jersey, having just purchased this cheap M3 from a recent college graduate named Pierce, I truly never imagined I’d end up going racing racing, wheel to wheel. I never thought I’d deal with all of the excitement and heartache and every other emotion that comes with fighting for position so you can muscle your old German sports sedan around some paved circuits as fast as possible. And yet, here we are.

e36 m3 005
I was younger, my shorts had longer inseams, and this E36 M3 was about to spend its final days as a street car.

In discussing the incident with several competitors and friends, we aren’t entirely sure what caused the whole event. The E36 M3’s Bosch ABS can go into “Ice Mode,” in which the ABS computer thinks the car is panic-braking on ice and reduces ultimate braking force as a result. Looking at my video and data, though, it appears I had full braking power, lost it for a brief moment, then had it applied again. My foot remained steadily, firmly applied to the pedal the entire time.

I’ll be racing, back at VIR, again this weekend with NASA Mid-Atlantic. I plan on being a bit careful with the brakes, notably on brake application. Slamming your foot down on the pedal is never a good idea, as the car will react better with a gentle (but quick) roll of the foot. Here’s hoping that a bit of focus will keep the ABS happy and see consistent, easy braking.

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