Laguna Seca Road Trip; or, How I Learned to Love My M2C

November 2020

Like a lot of car nuts, I’ve got a list of tracks I’d like to drive on one day. I dig my local tracks--out here near Seattle, that means Pacific Raceways and Ridge Motorsports Park--but there’s something about the tracks where racing legends are made that calls to me. My list includes the Nürburgring, Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps, Interlagos, Monza, and (here in the US) Laguna Seca.

So imagine how I felt when I got a text message from the organizer of my local car club, Avants, asking me if I wanted to join a small group track event at Laguna Seca! on Monday, November 1. Two full days on the track, nearby hotel and meals, and instruction from a local racer who was coming along on the trip. When I told my wife about the trip, she didn’t bat an eye: “Tom,” she replied, “you’ve been wanting to drive on that track all your life. You’ve got to do it.” Now all I had to do was figure out how to get my car track ready and down to Monterey, California, in 3 weeks.

Carousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel image

The Prep

This wasn’t going to be one of those arrive-and-drive events; for this event, I’d be driving my 2020 M2 Competition. I had picked up the car just over a year ago. Someone had ordered the car and decided they didn’t want it, and it was my lucky break to walk into the dealership that day. In the 16 months that I owned the car, I’d been progressively testing its ample capacity, starting at the Maryhill Loops Road, then at a local autocross, and then at several high performance driving days at my local tracks. It was enough track experience to know how good this car was--and enough to teach me I had a few mods to make before I’d feel comfortable at Laguna Seca.

Job 1 was new brake pads. My last day out at Pacific Raceways I’d really been hammering on the brakes and as the day wore on they were starting to fade, not dangerously but enough to convince me to focus on my engine braking and downshifts for speed reduction. It was good experience, but my friends at Broadstroke, our local BMW performance shop, said this was as good a sign as any I needed to step up to some track pads.

I’m sure there are some people who would have dug the prospect of comparing specs on the available pads for their car, and would have had all the tools to put them on themselves. But I’m not that guy: I’m a guy who will obsessively watch track videos to try to visualize the perfect line and braking points, hoping that if I drive the track enough times in my head it will be easier when it’s real (generally true, by the way, but it’s also true that the map is not the landscape). But when it comes to the mechanical stuff, I can use a little help.

Luckily, I belong to some amazing car communities: Avants, first and foremost, but also the BMW CCA Puget Sound Chapter and a group of people I’ve met at track days and at AutoX at Evergreen Speedway. Between the advice from my car friends and some help from the guys at Bimmerworld, I had it all figured out: I was going with Carbotech XP10 pads up front, XP8s on the back, and I managed to track down what seemed like the last set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71R track tires left in the whole country. With this beefier equipment, I was ready to drive hard … now all I had to do was get there.

The trip

There's not much mystery in a road trip these days. Between Google Maps and weather apps, you can be pretty sure of what lies ahead.

I'm old enough to remember a different kind of road trip, one where you navigated from a Rand McNally atlas or a series of state maps and got your weather reports off local AM stations. The lack of predictability around what lay ahead made for some fun trips, like the non-stop run my brother Pete and I took from Salt Lake City to Detroit that got considerably longer when we found out--surprise--that a massive section of I-70 had been closed for nighttime construction and we had to do a major detour in the middle of the night. This was after we had finally eluded the crazy SOB who rode tight on our bumper for 30 minutes with his lights off in eastern Colorado. We could see the moonlight reflecting off his hood in our rear-view mirror, but we didn't want to stop or hit the brakes, so we just kept going until he finally backed off into the blackness. I've always wondered if he had as much fun as we did.

This trip should be pretty straight forward: Google reported 932 miles between my home in Snohomish, WA, and my end point of WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca (near Monterey, CA). The only possible complication was Siskiyou Pass in southern Oregon, which could pose a serious challenge to a rear drive M2 in a snow storm. I had a Plan B ready (a detour out to the coast before I hit any elevation) but I didn’t need it.

With my mounted track tires wedged in the back seat--yes, you can get all four in the back seat--and the trunk filled with jack, tools, helmet, and clothes, I was off and running. I started in a heavy rain, but it soon let up and the skies cleared as I blasted through Portland and then Salem, settling into the trance state of a long road trip as I wove a Tetris path between 18 wheelers and left-lane hogs, all the while digging the beauty of the mountains, especially Mt. Shasta, stunning even from the rest stops.

I had knocked off two-thirds of the journey getting to my overnight in Redding, so day two was always going to be a shorter drive. There was just one little wrinkle: somewhere in the 300+ miles I had left I needed to figure out where to do a tire swap. I left Snohomish on my winter tires (Michelin Pilot Alpin PA4s), but I was packing a new set of Bridgestone Potenza RE-71Rs, and I knew that if those brand-new tires were going to be ready to hit the track Saturday morning, I needed to get a few miles of heat on them first. So I pulled over into the Dunnigan Southbound Rest Area at 9:55 AM, found a flat spot, and prepared to execute my first-ever tire swap.

What do you picture when you imagine some guy jacking up his car in a rest area? I imagined some old beater car, the back seat full of clothes and sleeping bags and trash. So that’s kind of how I thought the world must be looking at me, wondering what kind of crazy mess I was going through to be putting my Bimmer up on jack stands. I fully expected someone to say something, anything, but despite a steady stream of motorists, nobody said a word. Maybe it would have been different if it wasn’t COVID, I don’t know. It was smooth sailing from that point on, and I pulled into Monterey early enough to watch the sunset from Point Lobos and grab a good night’s sleep. I was ready for the track.

Carousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel image

At the track

My brain was buzzing with anticipation as I drove out the Monterey Salinas Highway, then wound my way up the 16% grade to the entry gates before driving down into the large former lake bed filled with race track.

If you’re a race fan or a gamer, all the sights and signs are immediately familiar: the WeatherTech Laguna Seca banners on the bridges and the famous Corkscrew sign high up on the hill that obscures the actual corkscrew, one of the most famous turns in racing, from view.

Driving into the paddock in my little M2, I didn’t expect to be the belle of the ball, but wow! There was a whole row of race prepped 911s, with Porsche by far the dominant make among a smattering of other cars: Mustangs, a Camaro, some BMWs, Audis, a Caterham. The garages—there are 24 bays—are filled with the real precious cars, with more GT2RS models than you can count, Audi R8s, and real race cars as well, a stock car, and an LMP2 car I believe.

And then there was the real star of the show: a Gunther Werks 993 piloted by none other than the nicest race car driver on earth, Randy Pobst. Pobst holds track records for most makes of cars at Laguna Seca (including the M2, at 1:40.83) and he set one that weekend in the air-cooled 993 at 1:30.99. Pobst rolled up to the track in the most modest rent-a-car you can imagine—was it a Chevy Sonic?—and walked around and said hello to everyone. We should all be so comfortable in our own skin.

The weekend’s event was run by Exclusive Track Days, led by former pro driver Ace Robey and his excellent crew. All I can say is, these guys take the normal track day conventions and turn them up to 11. There were three run groups—Race, A, and B—and even in the B group that I ran in, people were out for speed. The ETD guys jammed 7 sessions into the day and it wasn’t a question of whether you could get your money’s worth; the question was, did you have the stamina to run all 7? Not everybody did.

The first session on a new track is always a bit of a blur for me. No matter how much I prep by watching track videos and studying racing lines, there is no substitute for having wheels on the ground. You simply can’t prepare for the elevation change, the sight lines, the sheer texture of the surface ... all the things that make reality so much more compelling than the virtual experiences.

Laguna Seca has 11 turns, and for most of our group that one that loomed largest in our minds was Turn 8, the famous corkscrew. Once you did it a few times though, Turn 8 wasn’t so scary. Turn 1 on the other hand, while hardly a turn at all, scared the crap out of me! Exiting Turn 11 you go full throttle down the straightaway, up a hill toward the slight Turn 1, knowing you couldn’t see what lay beyond. You know you should keep your speed up, but dammit you just don’t know what lay over that hill until you’ve done it time and time again. It took me at least a dozen laps before I got over the pucker factor going up over that hill and finally trusted that I could keep my foot to the floor.

Mark Manson, the author of the book The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, says that the secret to a happy life is finding interesting problems to solve—and that’s what makes driving on a track so damned fun. A race track is a whole bunch of interesting problems, all strung together in a row. There are so many variables: where you turn in, where and when you brake, where you apex, where you track out. The moment you master one problem, next level problems show themselves.

The biggest problem you’ve got to solve is the one in your head. You’ve got to be confident enough to hold your speed going over the hill in Turn 1, and then brave enough to hold off on braking too early in Turn 2. You’ve got to trust your grip going into Turn 9, which looks so simple and yet proved to be one of the most difficult turns for me to unlock. There’s a mental game to every corner on the track, and you have to match that to your skills. Sounds a lot like life, doesn’t it?

As the turns became more familiar, as I was able to see and feel more of the details, it became easier to take some of the coaching from pro driver Andrew Evans. The world needs more people like Andrew—who along with beloved Avants leader Adam Cramer organized the trip. Despite being a rising star in prototype racing, Andrew was incredibly patient and gracious with all of the drivers from Avants. Using the tips he gave me to unlock Turn 6 (brake at the second marker, turn, keep your wheel just off the curb, and right back on the gas) was one of the highlights of the weekend. And by mid-way through Day 2 I had trimmed my lap times down to the high 1:45s, taking nearly 10 seconds off my first decent laps.

By the end of two solid days of driving, I was wrung out, track drunk, ready to chill. But first, I had tires to change for the road trip home ...

Two days later, after taking the scenic route home along the coast, I sat by the fire sipping an Old Fashioned and explained to my wife that I had a new love: the Long Beach Blue M2 Competition out in the garage. I liked my car before this six-day journey, but during this trip I truly fell in love: not only was the car incredibly comfortable and trustworthy on the long road trip, returning nearly 24 miles per gallon, but it performed like a real champion on the track, providing me with all the driving excitement I could ask for. To be able to take my own car to one of the world’s legendary racetracks was truly a thrill of a lifetime … and it won’t be the last.

Carousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel imageCarousel image