Sunday, January 22, 2023

[M3] Road trip!! Palm Springs > SF, the boring way

After class, we enjoyed dinner at 1501 Uptown Gastropub and watched UGA thump TCU in the college football title game. I spent the evening downloading photos, packing up, and preparing the route for the drive home.

Our grand ambitions for the return journey dimmed when we studied the forecast for Tuesday, which showed heavy rain everywhere between SF and Los Angeles. We decided it was wise to stick to the freeways and stay out of the wet as much as we could, but even then, we were bound to encounter heavy rain. California's roads, cars, and drivers are not equipped to deal with precipitation and I started to get nervous about the drive. My tires (Advan A052) are essentially autocross tires with very little in the way of water management. To add another concern, highway 5 can be icy over the Grapevine pass in the winter months. 

So with some trepidation, off we went on Tuesday morning. What began as a dry morning in Palm Springs quickly gave way to drizzle, full rain, and finally full deluge conditions. On reflection I think this is the most nerve-wracking piece of driving I've ever done. For one particular 15-minute stretch on 210 west the M3 was essentially aquaplaning continuously. Traffic, which was thick, slowed to 40mph and it was full-tilt wipers to deal with the rain and the spray from the other cars. I had to shut off the music and start talking aloud to steady my nerves: eyes high, relax the shoulders and arms, light controlled grip, maintain safe distance and don't make any sudden moves. The M3 skidded around in little fits and jerks. Kevin's car, eager to add to the excitement, had one of its headlamps go out.

Mercifully the weather broke, and shortly after we joined highway 5 north. I really do have to commend the A052s - for what they are, they did a surprisingly good job. I expected to hit a patch of wet pavement and pirouette into the center median, but instead it was mostly OK with some small pockets of "controllable" aquaplaning. If such a thing exists.

The opening 3-hour stretch was so fraught that I didn't dare take a photo of the conditions, or indeed do anything that required taking my hands off the controls. So our first photo of the actual drive is from our lunch stop in Wheeler Ridge.

The M3s drew attention from some tourists in their Pacifica rental.

From there we were graced with generally clear weather. I-5 was its usual terrible self with long lines of semis and longer lines of people who don't know that the left lane is for passing. The wet January made for uncharacteristic and lovely green scenery.

We made our final gas stop in Santa Nella, where CA-152 connects I-5 to the 101. With a little more than an hour left on the drive, I felt like a horse turning home for the stable, picking up pace.

These next three photos were taken in Gilroy. There is not supposed to be a lake here - this is flooding from the winter storms.

Triumph - at about 4.30p we returned to my house... where the power was out. We'd just finished gathering candles and headlamps when the power returned.

So - success!! With the motors switched off, we were right back where we started, but with 1250 new and exciting miles on the odometer, and a couple of very dirty cars.

The car performed extremely well - in fact I had no issues at all. For that I have to thank Josh Johnson of HMB Motorwerks in Sacramento, who built my motor, overhauled my entire rear subframe, and just generally takes wonderful care of my car. I drive my car is intended; that is, to redline once it's properly warmed up and the conditions are appropriate. On this trip the car handled that along with the long stretches of freeway on cruise-control, the aforementioned crazy weather conditions, and multiple stop-starts for photo ops. 

Old and specialty cars can be a hassle, but as they say 'the juice is worth the squeeze' and these cars bring richness and color to my life. Kevin is just one of the great and lasting friends I've met through E30 M3s, dating back to my first car in 2015. I could have made this trip solo - I did it last year - but it was so much more enjoyable doing it together with Kevin, who has become a great friend.

So - go drive your cars. Get the rock chips, it's worth it. Thanks for reading.

[Event] BMW one-day M School at the Performance Center West (2023)

The alarm went off early on Monday. Palm Springs put on a desert light show to coax us out of bed - the big day was upon us.

We made a pit stop at Starbucks, then followed 10 east for about 40 minutes. The BMW Performance Center West is co-located with the Thermal Club, a private racetrack-community complex. BMW has their own corner of the campus with a handling course, polished concrete skidpad, and paved exercise area. One of the driving exercises uses a portion of the Thermal Club circuit - both times I've visited, I've been on the Desert Circuit (north end, green kerbs).

Yep - this is my second time doing one-day M School. Last year I joined on a late whim, when someone sold their spot in the class on short notice. You can read all about that experience here if you haven't already. Obviously I enjoyed myself enough to return in 2023.

It felt better, and more natural, to pull in to the school in my BMW. We were warmly greeted by the instructors and our classmates - it's become uncommon to see these old M3s out and about.

When we arrived, there was already a group starting their handling exercises. I believe this is the delivery experience, where owners get to drive "their" new cars (equivalent cars owned by BMW) on track with professional instruction. I love that BMW offers this! Modern sports cars offer performance capability that can only really be safely deployed on track. A program like this can develop in the owner an appreciation for the engineering of the cars, and a respect for the power available from modern motors. I certainly gained a huge appreciation for my Focus RS when I did the included driving school (link), so much that I started tracking it regularly, something I definitely had not planned to do.

The roster of cars for the M School was the same as last year - M2, M3, and M5 competitions. Last year the instructors were chatting about the M3 xDrive variant, so I thought perhaps they'd swapped RWD for AWD, but this was not the case.

Three takes on orange. The Lime Rock E92 is my favorite, but I'd be happy with any of these three.

The new front end treatment is a travesty on the 7 series, but I think it suits the x7 well. I've driven an X4M Competition on a brief street loop, I think it would be hilarious to try one of BMW's SUVs on an actual track. 

We started with approximately an hour of classroom instruction, and while I've heard most of it before, BMW has refreshed the instruction materials and the updated diagrams and explanations are well-done. This year I also had a different set of instructors, which is always valuable for gaining new insight to your driving strengths and weaknesses. Our classroom session was presented by Rob Stout, the chief instructor for the Performance Center West. 

Agenda for the day:

1. [M2] Handling course
2. [M5] Polished concrete skidpad 
3. [M3] Corner exit speed exercise


4. [M3] Lead-follow on Desert Circuit (+ instructor ride-along)
5. [M5] Rat Race (polished skidpad)
6. [M2] Handling course / autocross (timed)

First exercise: M2 handling course. This was familiar for me, the same cars running the same layout as last year. The M2 feels dynamically last-generation when driven back-to-back with the M3 and M5 in two ways. First - the M2's steel brakes take appreciably longer to come up to temperature than the ceramic brakes on the M3 and M5, and you'll do well to remember that coming into the first big braking zone. Second, the TCS and driver aid systems are markedly less sophisticated than on the M3. In the M2, when you ask too much of the motor when traction is not available, the penalty is a harsh, immediate cut in engine output. In the timed autocross this will kill your run. In the M3, the driver aids are much more subtle, and you can just detect them nibbling away at your power delivery, but in a much less binary way than the M2. Of course the M2 is an excellent car, I'm nit-picking. You could argue that the M2's system makes you a better driver by doling out harsher penalties for bad driving practices.

Second exercise: M5 on the polished concrete skidpad, set to RWD with all driver aids deactivated. This was the most frustrating exercise for me last year, because I wanted to be great at it, and I was not great at it. In 2022 I just couldn't get into a sustained controlled slide. This year, with the benefit of past experience and a recent visit to rally school, I got the hang of it. The key to my improvement was a skill learned at Dirt Fish: patience. Blip the throttle to break traction; counter steer; be patient and wait a beat while the car takes a set and is on the verge of regaining traction; then apply throttle to maintain that balance in a controlled slide. Last year all of my inputs were too fast, too much, because it feels uncomfortable to have the back end swing around like that. But once you acknowledge that momentary feeling of discomfort, and understand that it's required to let the car adjust its attitude - you can regain control. By the end of the exercise I was circling the skidpad continuously and playing with throttle and steering angle to see how much I could hang out the back end. SO fun once I got it.

Third rotation - corner exit speed in the M3. This was an interesting exercise, new for this year (last year this was another lead-follow session on track). The goal was to convey the idea that corner exit speed is of paramount importance, and corner entry speed is actually a minor factor in overall pace. We took a simple right-hand corner repeatedly, running through a speed gun about 100 yards past the apex. It was informative to get immediate feedback on pace through a corner, and repetition helped me focus on vehicle positioning, smooth brake release, and rolling into the throttle in concert with reduction in steering angle.

After the morning's three exercises, we took a break for lunch. 

The afternoon exercises offered a chance to deploy what we'd learned in the morning. Our fourth rotation on the day was a lead-follow session in the M3 on the Desert Circuit of the Thermal Club. Due to a small group size, Kevin and I were able to run at essentially full pace behind our instructor. I went into detail in last year's write-up, but to reiterate, the G80 M3 is unreal on track.

Just imagine if they'd made it good-looking. Oh well. Prohibitively expensive to purchase or run for me in any case.

Next up: the Rat Race. The instructors set up a diamond configuration of cones on the polished skidpad - two points wide, two points tight. Students compete head-to-head in a bracket tournament, lining up their cars opposite one another and then racing to complete three laps first, all moving in a counter-clockwise direction, one car trying to catch the other. The M5s once again have all aids and AWD turned off, so it's about managing traction and rotating the car to allow for short straight-line bursts of speed. Kevin bested me in our practice run, but we matched up in the group 'grand final' (only four of us to start with, ha). Our race was so tight that we went into multiple sudden-death overtime laps, and I eked poor Kevin right at the line.

Note: last year we did what the instructors referred to as the "Rat Race XL," which was generally the same concept but much larger, and NOT on the low-friction surface. I enjoyed that version but apparently the instructors find it nerve-wracking. I can sympathize, the speeds are much higher than on the skidpad and in 2022 I watched M5s spinning across the asphalt like like very large, very fast tops.

Our final rotation of the day was the timed M2 autocross. I leveraged the fact that I had essentially 2x the experience of anyone else in the class to claim top time of the day (sorry Kevin). Kevin was just behind me, and third place was claimed by our new friend Clark, who we discovered owns the Lime Rock M3.

Photo credit: Case Montgomery

We kept the medals, but I handed back the trophy after this awkward photo was taken. A solid improvement from last year, when I missed P1 by 0.15 seconds.

The day ended with distribution of some nice branded hats, and I bought a sticker for my helmet. The staff was nice enough to let us stick our M3s on the handling course for some end-of-day photos. 

I've found myself in a bit of a "progression pickle," similar to what I experienced after my 2-day class at Dirt Fish. I love this 1-day itinerary, but I would also like to take things to the next level and continue building my skills. The instructors recommended Kevin and me for Advanced M-School, but it's a big cost jump. This one-day course costs $1750 - I paid $1400 with BMW's 20% Black Friday promotion. The two-day Advanced M School is $4695. Even at a 20% discount, that's about $3750, a huge chunk of change. There is no question that I'll have a good time, but how many HPDE track days could I get for the same money? What am I actually trying to progress toward by purchasing more expensive school packages? I won't be turning pro anytime soon. 

In any case - I love this experience, and I like the idea of making it an annual pilgrimage. I'll consider my options for 2024.

Next entry: the drive home.

Saturday, January 21, 2023

[M3] Road trip!! E30 M3s in Joshua Tree

Kevin and I slept in a bit after Saturday's long haul. With the M School scheduled for Monday, we had Sunday free to explore the area around Palm Springs. We narrowed our options down to two: visit Joshua Tree, or do the epic driving loop that is CA74 / CA243 around Mt. San Jacinto. Sara and I did both when we came in the Focus for Thanksgiving in 2020 - you can read the blog post here. You can't go wrong with either option, so when Kevin's girlfriend and her pup joined us for the day, we opted to visit the park. 

Sonder the Cole - stupid name for a hotel, but good parking. The tidy little lot is just off Palm Canyon Drive but hidden from the main road.

This is where they produce the wind for all of California.

Kevin trying to talk down the $30 entry fee. When I came with Sara we entered from the south side and ended the day at the north exit; this time, we started north and made our way south.

Joshua Tree is my kind of national park experience - you can just drive through all of the beauty in a couple hours, or you can park and wander off into the landscape, passing as much time as you like.

On this particularly Sunday in January the park was not crowded, and the weather was beautiful. 70F and sunny while most of California was receiving record rainfall. 

Joshua Tree national park covers the intersection of two distinctly different types of desert biomes: the Mojave desert (north side), and the Colorado desert (south side). The geography, vegetation, and plant life are unique in each area. The eponymous Joshua tree is exclusive to the Mojave desert side, and when you drive south through the park you'll notice that they simply vanish. You've reached the Colorado desert.

It's hard to take a bad picture of these cars in this place.

If you come to visit, don't miss Keys View. Palm Springs is at the base of Mt. San Jacinto, top-left in the photo above.

These next photos are from the Colorado desert (south) side of the park - notice the absence of the Joshua trees and boulder formations. There is a great cactus garden down in the basin.

Layering up some proper dirt.

Myself and Kevin, *exiting Joshua Tree National Park. 

Next entry: M School and the drive home.