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Budget Track-Day Car

We tried to build a cheap track-day car, and ended up shaving 25sec off our lap times. Mission accomplished!

Greg Emmerson
Mar 3, 2011 SHARE

It started as an idle conversation with Will Turner one day. We were discussing his new Turner Motorsport M3 GT racecar and that he was selling some of his older touring cars. I suggested we should put one on the road before he told me why that wasn’t practical and how much they cost. Gulp!

Eurp 1104 01 o+budget track day car+turner motorsport m3 gt racecar Photo 2/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

So I may have called him a big girl and he may have said he could turn any car into a racer, so why do it with the expensive ones. I’m not really sure of the details because it quickly got ugly. Whatever happened, we felt obliged to call his bluff. The rest is history

The Plan
Basically, we’d get the biggest piece-of-shit we could find for the least amount of money, and Will’s Turner Motorsport crew would transform it into a track-day tool.

We would install a series of upgrades and measure the improvements, if any, in lap times. We’d stick a young hotshoe (Michael Marsal) behind the wheel; one who was familiar with the track for consistency, but who wouldn’t blow up our POS on the first lap. What could possibly go wrong?

To be honest, we were terrified our ’92 BMW 325is was too far gone to actually see improvements; that no matter what we did, the car would never get any faster. And we were hideously embarrassed to sully the Monticello Motor Club with our $2.3k nail.

As you can see from our photos, the private member’s track is the playground for Porsches, Ferraris, Lotuses, etc. In order to gain access to the garage facility, we had to move a Ford GT and a Lamborghini Murcielago, for example. I had a vision of the track being closed to wipe our BMW’s oily guts from the main straight...

Without doubt, we were the only vehicle on the premises costing less than the golf carts used by the staff. However, we’re delighted to report that by the end of the day we were passing CTS-Vs, the occasional Lotus and, famously, a 911 GT3 (enjoy the video).

The incredible improvements that we measured were the result of some well-chosen mods and a good platform to build on. Despite its age, the 325is is still a beautifully balanced car and a great starting point for a cheap track-day or autocross project, as we hope to prove conclusively here

The Operation
With Turner Motorsport’s rig on the road and a problem with its support truck, all the components were piled into the 325is and Will’s personal minivan. TMS techs Kevin Holmes and Jonny Reed would do all the wrenching, while Mr Turner supervised, Mike polished his helmet and I tried to capture it all.

Before the car even arrived at Turner Motorsport (TMS), we had to replace the cooling system with a number of parts from Bavarian Autosport. The car had overheated, requiring a new water pump, thermostat and radiator just to keep it on the road we’ll have the story online at eurotuner.com

Once it reached the TMS workshops, preparation work was done for the track. Several parts were trial-fitted to avoid problems on the day, and excessively worn parts replaced.

For general maintenance, the E36 got a new driveshaft guibo, valve cover seal and Sachs clutch because the stock one was finished.

It also got E30 steel front control arms with offset bushings, stronger E36/E46 M3 rear trailing arm bushing limiters, as well as heavy-duty front sway bar end-links. These components replaced the worn stock parts and are common upgrades to improve suspension durability and geometry.

Turner even had to fit reinforced rear shock tower mounts, larger front upper spring perches and upper washers supports to strengthen the aging chassis.

All these parts were pulled from the extensive repair and tuning stores at TMS, where they also found the performance parts we’ll be covering here.

After all the preparation, Kevin and Jonny worked from a single toolbox, with two jacks to get under the car. Everything, from the coilovers to engine parts, were fitted in a matter of minutes. It’s certainly impressive to watch Turner Motorsport’s race techs work on a road car!

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1. Here goes nothing
With the intimidation factor of being surrounded by supercars, and the prospect of a mechanical breakdown ending our day prematurely, Michael Marsal’s first few laps were the most nerve-wracking.

We had to set a benchmark time for the stock car before fitting any performance parts, but it’s very easy to miss a gear change in the E36, resulting in a buzzed engine and a bent valve. With Mike having never driven an E36 before, he was briefed by Will and sent on his way.

The Monticello Motor Club track is 4.1 miles long, so each lap is more than 3min a long time to nervously await the car’s reappearance. And yet that’s what it did.

Lap after lap, the 325is soldiered on. As Michael got comfortable behind the wheel, the lap times began to fall, but then the tires and brakes started to go off, causing the lap times to rise again.

Once he’d got the best from the stock car, Mike returned to the pits for the first modifications.

Lap Time
The best time was 3:14.986 on the second lap, after which the brakes, tires and suspension overheated. This was our benchmark and a time we hoped to improve upon.

Michael’s comments
There was massive brake fade and very low grip after the first lap, causing lots of understeer in the high speed corners, but overall I was surprised at how predictable the handling was and how enjoyable it was to drive.

2. Brakes
Our first modification would be the brakes. Will Turner reasoned that the worn components and old fluid were the first major limitation to the car’s lap times.

Eurp 1104 02 o+budget track day car+brake kit Photo 3/32   |   TMS slotted rotors and stainless lines, Cobalt pads and ATE fluid offered an effective brake upgrade

For the test, TMS had provided its own slotted rotors with Cobalt pads, TMS braided lines to improve pedal feel and ATE Super Blue Racing DOT4 fluid to flush out the old stuff and increase the boiling point.

The new components would be able to withstand considerably more heat before fading, allowing the driver to brake later.

Changing the brakes was difficult because the stock parts were extremely hot, but the guys got down to it, removing the stock calipers to swap the rotors and pads. The new pads didn’t have wear sensors, so that’s something to consider as the miles rack up.

Eurp 1104 03 o+budget track day car+brakes Photo 4/32   |   At the end of the day, the brakes had clearly worked hard, glowing red on the pit straight, but they’re still working well to this day

They quickly flushed the fluid, bled the lines and had the car ready for action in about 30min.

Michael was sent out to bed-in the new brakes and run a cool-down lap before committing to timed laps.

Time saved
With the new equipment, Michael ran eight laps in total, setting a best time of 3:13.558. This was a saving of 1.43sec and although they did eventually fade, it was much later than before.

What the new brakes did was highlight the terrible grip from the stock all-season tires. Without enough grip, the car was understeering even more as the tires overheated. We knew what we had to do next

Eurp 1104 04 o+budget track day car+brake install Photo 5/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

Michael’s comments
There was a massive improvement in braking power but the tires were unable to keep up, causing the front to push and the ABS to trigger early. This was a great upgrade but we now need tires to compliment the brakes.

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3. Wheels & Tires
Our chosen one-piece cast Privat Rivale wheels offered a huge cosmetic improvement over the stock wheels. What’s more, they appeared to be slightly lighter than stock (sadly we didn’t have scales to verify). Yet the biggest advantage was the larger 17" diameter that would allow a low-profile tire for better turn-in and steering response, while the 8" width would also give us a wider contact patch.

Eurp 1104 05 o+budget track day car+privat rivale wheels Photo 6/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

Finished in silver with machined lips, the classic five-spoke styling of the Privat wheels instantly looked at home on our 325is, with the three-piece appearance lending a touch of class that disguised the cheap purchase price (see table).

As soon as the wheels were on the car, it had a new sense of purpose, while the later suspension lowering would finally make the car look like it deserved to be on the track.

Eurp 1104 06 o+budget track day car+wheel mounting Photo 7/32   |   Mounting the Conti DW tires on the Privat Rivale wheels instantly looked better and performed far beyond our expectations

The grippy 225/45 R17 Continental ExtremeContact DW tires had been fitted at the request of Will Turner. He’d been the driver for our 2009 performance tire test (et 12/09), which was won by the same DW rubber. As a result, he’d become an overnight fan of their high grip and predictable handling. The sidewall shape and rubber compound gave excellent turn-in response, producing a fast road tire that does astonishingly well on the track, as our recent eurotuner GP (et 2/11) proved.

Time saved
With a lap time of 3:06.954, we saved a massive 6.5sec on our previous best lap. This was truly astonishing, but also reflects the power of the brakes now that they were able to find sufficient grip to work properly.

In retrospect, we might have changed the tires first since they were clearly a major factor. Reducing our lap times by almost 8sec with brakes, wheels and tires, it represents amazing value for money, particularly with the wheels and tires costing only $1130* plus $750 for the brakes. We were literally speechless at the improvement and had to check the timing gear to be sure it was correct!

Eurp 1104 07 o+budget track day car+privat rivale wheel Photo 8/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

Michael’s comments
These tires have significantly more grip, as you’d expect. Not only have they reduced the understeer, but they’re very predictable when they slide and allowed the brakes to work more efficiently, making it much harder to trigger the ABS system.

4. Suspension
Giddy with success and giggling like schoolgirls, we moved onto the suspension upgrades with greater enthusiasm. Turner had selected Bilstein’s PSS9 coilovers and his own TMS front and rear sway bars to gain control of the wayward BMW.

Eurp 1104 08 o+budget track day car+pss9 front struts Photo 9/32   |   Reinforcing top washer for PSS9 front struts would strengthen towers against increased stresses

Again, the coilover installation was done on the ground using jacks, but the crew had pre-assembled the front struts to allow a speedy swap. They’d built them using late-E36 top-mount reinforcing plates to prevent the towers from mushrooming under the stiffer suspension. A pair of ’96-99 E30/E36 M3 upper strut mounts was also incorporated; these were reversed to give about 2.5 negative camber.

The upgraded steel front control arms mentioned earlier have better ball joints than stock to improve suspension movement and reduce wear. Fitted with ’95 M3 offset bushings, they increase caster angles for better cornering.

Eurp 1104 09 o+budget track day car+strut mounting Photo 10/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

On the rear, TMS supplied its own adjustable camber arms that allow easy and precise rear geometry set-up. They also fitted new factory trailing arm bushings with a TMS limiter kit to reduce the range of deflection, creating a stiffer suspension without sacrificing ride quality by using solid race bushings.

The front and rear geometry was pre-set at the workshops to operate with the PSS9 coilovers, which dropped the car about 1.75" front and 1" rear.

The premium mono-tube gas shocks allow a range of ride height adjustment from 1-1.75" and also offer nine damping adjustments for compression and rebound. Our aim was to send the car out with the dampers set fully soft, and then reset them to fully stiff to see how much time could be saved using this technique.

The TMS sway bars were the icing on the cake, fitted using stock rear end-links but adjustable TMS components up front for further fine-tuning (adjustable parts are available for the rear from TMS).

Eurp 1104 13 o+budget track day car+suspension Photo 14/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

The 30mm front and 24mm rear sway bars were developed from the company’s extensive motorsport experience, which found a thick front bar was most effective at taming E36 understeer. They are provided with all the mounting hardware and are among the thickest on the market.

Time saved
With the PSS9 coilovers, TMS sway bars and TMS chassis components, the car shaved another 3.3sec from its lap time. Stiffening the dampers resulted in a further 0.2sec improvement, although time constraints prevented us from fully exploring all the different adjustments in caster, camber, damper and sway bar settings. Despite this, a saving of 3.5sec in total was well worth the effort and meant Michael was suddenly able to pass a GT3 RS and hold off a Lotus Exige, so we were starting to gain some respect on the track.

Michael’s comments
With the new suspension, I immediately noticed a significant reduction in body roll and a much better feel for the track surface. There was less dive into the corners and less squat coming out, with the steering feeling more direct as well. And with the dampers set stiffer, it felt even better in transitions and further reduced the body roll, but now the car was more easily upset by bouncing off the curbs!

Eurp 1104 14 o+budget track day car+m3 gt racecar Photo 15/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car
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5. Engine
Our next step was adding horsepower. If time had permitted, we’d have tested each component individually. However, we opted to fit a UUC Corsa cat-back exhaust, aFe cold-air intake and TMS ECU chip to see if the 192k M50 2.5L six cylinder engine would reward us with better lap times.

Eurp 1104 15 o+budget track day car+afe intake Photo 16/32   |   Engine tuning consisted of aFe intake, UUC Corsa exhaust and TMS chip

We were slightly concerned this might overwork the old girl, but we’d come this far

First up was the aFe intake. Fitting took a matter of minutes once the cruise control and air temp sensor were disconnected so the air box could be unclipped and removed. The aFe heat shield dropped into place and was fixed using existing mounts. The new intake tube and cone filter were clamped to the airflow meter and the job was done.

Installing the chip meant removing the ECU from under the rain tray, opening the lid, ensuring no static and soldering the new TMS chip into the circuit board. In the expert hands of Kevin, this again took a few minutes.

Eurp 1104 16 o+budget track day car+stock exhaust Photo 17/32   |   A. Stock exhaust past its best

The only component that put up a fight was the UUC Corsa cat-back exhaust. Trying to fit the T-304 stainless system on the floor presented its own challenges, but once the supplied brackets were fitted, it didn’t take long to secure the UUC on the car.

The Corsa features mandrel-bent tubing, TIG-welded seams, angle-cut round tips and, thanks to Corsa’s Reflective Sound-Cancellation (RSC) technology, it’s claimed to be drone-free when cruising. Made in the USA and offered with a lifetime warranty, the exhaust sounded superb.

As soon as the engine fired it was more potent. It was as if a big weight was lifted from it. The 325is exited the pits with a new lease of life and was starting to get some respect from the other drivers. Check out our video for a sample of how it sounded.

Time saved
Having initially worried we’d blow-up the engine, jaws dropped when the timing sheets showed another reduction of 5.5sec per lap. This was phenomenal, if only because it represents a major power increase from an engine that should have retired years ago. Yet it sounded sweet and pulled hard to give us some great lap times.

Michael’s comments
After the engine mods the acceleration out of corners was much better; we gained about 5mph on the back straight, which certainly contributed to the faster lap times. It was nice to have the extra power and it certainly represents good value for the money.

6. Slicks
As a final upgrade, Turner wanted to fit some of his used Continental ExtremeContact DWR racing slicks to an identical set of 17x8" Privat Rivale wheels.

Eurp 1104 23 o+budget track day car+m3 gt racecar Photo 24/32   |   With more grip, see the brakes glow red into the first corner

We’d originally chosen the wheels and tires because TMS used 225/45 R17 slicks on its BMW 328i Grand-Am ST racecar, so this would be an interesting comparison between a high-performance street tire and a racing slick.

Every team in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge uses Conti slicks, so there was a used set in the workshop. They were too far gone for competitive touring car laps, but would have more than enough grip for our purposes.

Although technically the same size as the street tire, the slicks were almost 1" wider thanks to the uncompromised construction. As for the amount of grip, the stopwatch would soon tell.

All we knew was the lettered slicks looked great on those Privat wheels, and since the other drivers wouldn’t know what we’d done, Michael was anxious to get on track and mess with a few minds.

Eurp 1104 24 o+budget track day car+conti dwr slicks Photo 25/32   |   Conti DWR slicks from the Grand-Am touring car series were the final makeover element, added just for fun

Time saved
At this point, we didn’t know what to expect. The lap times had come down so quickly from our relatively mild mods, that we could only guess what a set of slicks would do.

As Micheal slipped past the pits with the TMS rotors glowing, the engine growling and a slew of CTS-Vs in his wake, we knew the times were going to be impressive.

And there it was; almost 7.3sec shaved of our previous best lap time!

Our stock best of 3:14.986 was now down to 2:50.636; an improvement of almost 25sec in one day, using off-the-shelf parts and the expertise of Turner Motorsport.

Michael’s comments
This was amazing; I had loads more grip and much higher cornering speeds. Where the street tires had been squealing on the limit of adhesion, the slicks were almost silent as they gripped with very little sliding. The only problem was that we now had more grip than brakes, causing them to overheat at the end of the main straight, taking us full circle and requiring more tuning to keep up with what we were doing!

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7. Easy-Peasy
For about $5000 in mods, we took a $2300 basket case and transformed it into a track-day car. We wanted to prove you don’t have to own a GT3 RS to have fun. Most people could buy a ’92 325is and modify it over time with these components. We didn’t use anything exotic or unobtainable, although the driving abilities of Mr Marsal shouldn’t be underestimated. But with practice, most people would be able to benefit from the improvements we saw here.

Eurp 1104 28 o+budget track day car+m3 gt racecar Photo 29/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

So anybody who doesn’t want to risk their daily driver on the track, or their driver’s licence on the road, you now have the blueprint on how to build a track-day or autocross racer for the price of a used GTI.

You’ve got no more excuses for not building the racer you’ve always dreamed about. We’ve proved it can be done without a bottomless wallet or fancy workshops.

We took an 18 year-old car, some bolt-on parts and built a fun car you could drive to the track; a car that’s still being enjoyed by its owner in local autocross events and track days (see sidebar).

Michael’s comments
This is undoubtedly a great car for the money. Every upgrade improved the lap times, with the wheels, tires and suspension seeming to be the best bang for the buck. But the entire package has a great deal of adjustment built in to find more time as you grow accustomed to the car, without adversely affecting the car’s reliability.

If I had to do one thing, it would be the suspension because of its adjustability, but it’s the combination of parts that really made the difference.

For future mods, I’d recommend a racing seat and harnesses for better support now that the cornering speeds are so high, plus a rollbar for safety.

Turner Motorsport
Based in Amesbury, MA and founded in 1993 by Will Turner, Turner Motorsport (TMS) is the leading BMW specialist in the USA. In addition to a full range of service and maintenance parts for your BMW, the company was established to provide BMW fans with performance parts at reasonable prices.

Eurp 1104 29 o+budget track day car+turner motorsport Photo 30/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

In addition to its tuning, the company is equally well known for its racing, currently competing in the Grand-Am Continental Tires Sports Car Challenge in GS and ST classes as well as the Grand-Am Rolex Sports Car Series in the GT class.

Motorsport has allowed TMS to test hundreds of the parts it sells, and develop many of its own. All come with a guarantee of performance and have been tested to destruction.

So whether you need service parts for an E30, want to tune an E90 or prepare an E46 for the track, TMS has the parts and expertise to ensure you won’t be disappointed. Its fully-equipped workshops will also get the job done if you’re not into DIY (turnermotorsport.com).

1992 BMW 325is
Originally costing $31k and fitted with a factory limited-slip diff, our Calypso red E36 coupe cost a meager $2300 thanks to the 192350 miles on the odometer. However, the original owner kept it until 2009 and was meticulous with its care. All the original body panels were straight, the engine was regularly serviced and the interior was in good condition.

Eurp 1104 30 o+budget track day car+1992 bmw 325i Photo 31/32   |   Budget Track-Day Car

Inevitably, age took its toll on many of the suspension bushings, and our first long journey resulted in a cracked radiator and blown water pump. Fortunately, Bavarian Autosport had all the repair items for the cooling system (see online story at eurotuner.com) and we were quickly able to get the car back on the road.

As you’ll read in the story, TMS had to replace a variety of worn bushings to prepare it for the track, upgrading wherever possible to offer improvements in longevity and operation.

Since our test, the owner has competed in a track day at NJMP and an autocross at the Meadowlands Stadium. The owner reported that the car performed flawlessly, completing more than 50 laps of the 2.25-mile Thunderbolt track at NJMP, holding its own among 700hp retired Nascar trucks, Corvettes and E92 M3s. Where the car really shone, we’re told, is on the autoX course where modified Miatas, Minis and E36 M3s were running in the low 50sec/high 40sec range. But the 325is beat most of them by up to 5sec, proving that a well-sorted car doesn’t have to be expensive.

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Modifications Lap time
stock 3:14.986
TMS brakes 3:13.558
Conti DW tires/Privat wheels 3:06.954
Bilstein coilovers/TMS sway bars 3:03.668
stiffer damper settings 3:03.461
TMS chip/aFe intake/UUC exhaust 2:57.976
Continental DWR slicks/Privat wheels 2:50.636

Part TMS Price
TMS slotted rotors (front, each) $69.98
TMS slotted rotors (rear, each) $54.98
Cobalt pads (front) $218
Cobalt pads (rear) $157
TMS stainless brake lines $112.45
ATE DOT4 fluid $12.95
225/45 R17 Conti DW tires (each)* $127.77
17x8" Privat Rivale wheels (each)* $155
Bilstein PSS9 coilovers $1549
TMS sway bar set $399.95
TMS chip $249.95
aFe cold-air intake $275
UUC Corsa exhaust $899.99
Continental DWR racing slicks $N/A
Total $5255.29
*Price provided by Discount Tire Direct

Monticello Motor Club
The track at Monticello Motor Club is 4.1 miles long, with 22 turns and 12 possible configurations. With over 1.5 miles of straights and 450ft of elevation change, the Monticello Motor Club has some of the fastest track segments available anywhere.

It was designed by racer Brian Redman and track architect Bruce Hawkins. It sits at the foot of the Catskill Mountains, making it the closest motorsports venue to New York City, which is 90 minutes away by car.

The Monticello Motor Club is open from April through November for private members, offering up to 200 track days per year. It essentially combines a world-class racetrack with a private club for like-minded people.

Launched in July 2008, the facility includes a pavilion with a full-service kitchen, bar, classrooms, members lounge, pro shop, locker room with showers, plus the temperature-controlled garages we used during our visit. MMC also offers a full automotive service center and storage facilities as the beginning of more member benefits they hope to introduce in time.

For those who can afford it, Monticello Motor Club must rank as one of the finest facilities of its kind. We are very grateful for access to the track and garage area. For more details visit monticellomotorclub.com

Michael Marsal
Our tame racing driver was 23 year-old Michael Marsal from Bedford, NY. After completing both Skip Barber and BMW Performance driving schools, he started in spec Miata racing, moving to a Porsche Cayman in PCA races for ’07 and ’08. This led to races in Porsche 996 and 997 Cup cars in ’08 and ’09 before joining Turner Motorsport for the full season in 2010.

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Teamed with BMW works driver Joey Hand in a TMS E46 M3, the pair finished second in the Grand-Am GS championship with two race wins, just three points off the top spot.

For 2011, he will continue to partner Joey in an E92 M3 in the Continental Tires GS series, as well as sharing a Mazda RX7 GT for the Daytona 24 hour race and even competing in some IMSA Lite events.

It’s going to be a busy year for Mike and we wish him the best. We must also thank him for looking after our BMW. It would have been easy for him to push it too hard but he kept it together and gave us some great lap times.

Look out for Michael Marsal on Speed TV in 2011 and the following seasons as a star of the future.

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Sources

Turner Motorsport (TMS)
Amesbury, MA
http://www.turnermotorsport.com
Privat Wheels
Plainview, NY 11803
516-822-5700
http://www.privatwheels.com
Monticello Motor Club
http://www.monticellomotorclub.com
By Greg Emmerson
1075 Articles

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