My rally weekend in my new-to-me 1995 BMW M3 was going about as well as possible. I was picking up real speed, getting comfortable in my newly-built car and somehow, everything was going relatively smoothly. Until it wasn’t.
If you’ve been following along, you probably know that my rally car build just barely came together in time for New England Forest Rally last weekend. The roll cage was finished just two weeks before the race and after that, I still had a ton of work to do on the car. Nothing was really ideal, but somehow, with the help of many friends, the car came together.
Honestly, it was more than just a hastily thrown-together rally car. Even with a mandated 55-mm restrictor plate on the M3’s 240 horsepower engine, this thing was flying. Literally.
After a minor battery fix we passed the tech inspection without much issue and the inspector, who was also the person who log booked the car two weeks prior, said he was shocked we made it to the race.
I’m happy to report that despite the tight deadline, the car was great. And it was a totally different experience from the first and last time myself and my codriver, Road & Track Social Media Editor Brian Silvestro, had competed in a rally two years ago. And it was the same damn event.
At NEFR 2017, we had raced a 1987 Subaru RX. That car was slow — all-wheel drive, but barely able to get out of its own way. For a novice rally driver, it was perfect for building the confidence of being on a rally stage, and for getting the practice of dealing with all the confusing timing stuff and competition rules that come up in this sport.
But compared to the M3, the Subaru felt like it moved slower than a cloud. At this race, in a completely different car, Brian and I were consistently getting air, carrying significant sideways speed and well, trying very hard not to crash.
And we were doing well! That is, until I slapped two very large rocks on the outside of an L4 corner on the 21km Sturtevant Long stage on the second day of the rally.
We came into the corner a little too far outside, and the car’s rear-right corner got pulled into a pair of two massive rocks like a magnet. My theory is that I tried to stay right to avoid those big, orange-painted rocks on the inside, but obviously, that was a bad call. Thankfully, I managed to avoid hitting our friends Fabio Costa and Ryan Symancek in the 420 car (nice), who also managed to go off in pretty much the same spot just before we did.
After building up speed over the prior day and a half, my car’s grip limits were met and my talent ran out.
Following the initial hits I was able to keep driving the car down the stage at about a medium pace. Something was obviously wrong, but it could drive. So in the true spirit of rally, we pressed on regardless.
Well, we did until we heard the “pop” of our rear right tire de-beading, violent rotational noises coming from that corner of the car and it suddenly becoming much harder to control.
We pulled over on a small straightaway where we wouldn’t be in the way of any of the other competitors, set up a safety triangle and prepared to try to change out the flat tire. It was then that we got to see the true extent of the damage caused by the wheel-to-rock impact.
At an initial glance we saw that the bumper ripped off, my right rear lower control arm had snapped, the wheel was badly bent and some of the extended racing lugs were also bent on my hub. It wasn’t too bad and I thought that if we were able to swap the spare tire on, we might be able to limp it off the stage. But because of the bent lugs, we couldn’t get the wheel off. And then one of the lug nuts got stuck in our socket, which just made everything worse.
After about 20 minutes of getting sprayed with gravel and watching the rest of the cars go by, Costa and Symancek stopped after they got pulled out and lent us their 17-mm socket (they are true gentlemen) to try and get the rest of the lugs off. Unfortunately, I didn’t take their ratchet and ours was the wrong drive size for the borrowed socket. We were stranded until the end-of-stage rally sweep crew came by.
Once the sweep made it to us, with a rolled Nissan 240SX in tow, they said that we would either have to leave the car where it was or try and drive it off the stage. The course was about to be run again for a second time and we were apparently the last things holding it up. Stupidly, I decided to attempt to drive it the rest of the five or so miles down the stage to the finish.
That was a mistake.
We made it just over a mile down the stage until the car stopped moving. It felt like the transmission popped out of gear. The engine was revving freely, but no power was getting to my rear wheels. I don’t know if an axle failed, the differential ate itself, or what, but we couldn’t move on our own juice and we were no longer in a position where it was remotely reasonable to leave the car. We were in the middle of the stage.
Since now we were really holding up the whole rally and the car couldn’t move at all, we had to get flat-towed to the finish line. That meant dragging my car’s whole right rear corner over sharp rocks, crests, and through dirt for around three miles while Brian and I sat in it and left my skid plate to do some real work.
Trust me, it was making some very gnarly sounds. I wouldn’t wish that journey on anyone.
The only thing that made the dragging better was the spectators who remained lined on the sides of the stage. I knew they were waiting for the stage to start back up and to see David Higgins fly through perfectly in his factory Subaru WRX STI race car, but it was nice to pretend they were all waiting to see us and my car make it through the timing checkpoint one way or another. It helped my imagination that they cheered as I free-revved and honked as we made it down the course.
Once we got to the car’s temporary resting spot at the end of the stage, we met our sole crew member and my rally angel, Ethan Naylor. He’d been tracking our location on the mobile rally app, and saw that we stopped in the middle of the stage. Ethan knew we were probably mostly OK, since the stage had continued and a nearby announcer gave some details of the cars stuck on the stage, so he wasn’t too shocked to see the car being dragged behind a sweep rig.
Drenched in dust, we gave him the lowdown as he showered us with well-needed snacks and well-needed Gatorade. We loaded up his Jeep and took the hour-plus drive back to the hotel to shower and pick up our borrowed Dodge Durango SRT race hauler.
By the time we returned to the stage, the rally had moved on. The other race cars and spectators had long made their way to the other stages. But we still had to manage to get our non-driving car up onto a winch-less U-Haul auto transport trailer.
Using two straps and an off-road jack as a winch, Ethan and “comrade cheerleader” Justin Westbrook, as he called himself, managed to hand-winch the E36 all the way up onto the trailer, with the right rear corner dragging as it had been doing. I can’t stress enough how terrible it is to winch a non-driving, non-rolling car onto a trailer, but somehow, they managed it.
Though the rock hit definitely ended our day of stage driving, it hardly took me out of my rally high. Brian and I made it through almost eight stages at the two-day rally going faster than either of us had ever gone on dirt, in a car that I’d never previously driven on loose surfaces. And the crowd loved it!
Countless people came up to me to tell me how they admired the M3’s exceptionally obnoxious exhaust noise, and how they were rooting for us as we went sideways through spectator areas.
Crashing is just part of rally, and so is driving your car even after you crashed it just to try and stay in the game a bit longer. That’s the fun of all of it, and I don’t regret it.
I can’t wait to get back out there.