The M3’s Track Shakedown Didn’t Go As Planned

After quite some time with my E46 M3 in a state of “refression” – that’s my word now – I finally had it in a state where I felt it was ready for a shakedown at the track. My event of choice was SCCA’s Track Night in America at Dominion Raceway. At only $160, it’s cheaper than most. It’s also in the afternoon so I didn’t have to wake up before the sun. Plus, Dominion Raceway is closest to home, which I liked.

Being that my E46 M3 is SMG, like they should be, it’s naturally supposed to have problems. These issues usually appear in warmer climates when temperatures rise into the 90’s. Issues appear in the form of a gear/cog indicator illuminating on the gauge cluster. When this happens, the transmission doesn’t change gears. Instead, it kicks into neutral and the car coasts. Or, goes nowhere if it happens while stopped.

Ah, SMG!

The weather outlook for this September 3rd in Thornburg, Virginia was looking grim. Sunny, 94, with a 30% chance of thunderstorms. I’d take my chances with the rain, but that temperature forecast was spelling disaster.

As if the weather forecast wasn’t cause enough for concern, I left the house without my helmet. My GoPro didn’t have a memory card. The battery was dead, and the charging cable wasn’t long enough to reach the outlet in my car.

A U-Turn back home and a quick detour to Best Buy, and I was on my way.

No transmission issues yet but there was another hour and half to go before arriving to the track.

Cruising down I-95 South, the air temperature sensor was reading 95, sometimes upward of 97 degrees Fahrenheit. True outside air temperature? Probably not exact. Hot? You bet.

Around The Pits

I’ve found that Track Night in America events aren’t huge. Not sure if they limit the number of participants, but the last three events I attended all had a reasonable amount of cars without over crowding.

Being with the Coronavirus, it’s understandable that this event was on the lighter side. Still, there was a decent turnout and the mix of cars was interesting.

In attendance today was a new Corvette C8, C7, a pair of latest generation V8 Camaro’s (one ZL1), Toyubarus, S2000’s, a pair of new Civic Type-R’s, a 996 911 Turbo, a Cayman GT4, and the first I’ve seen one in the flesh – a Subaru WRX STI S209!

The Porsche Cayman GT4 was looking proper out here in white – to reflect the heat, of course! The owner told me it was pretty much stock with exception of those slick race tires. The driver was in the intermediate run group, so I didn’t have the pleasure of giving a point-by and hearing that flat-six at song.

Cayman GT4

The Subaru WRX STI S209 was on sticky RE-71R’s. Power was enhanced with an off-the-shelf Cobb Access Port, putting down 330 ponies to the ground. That outta be fun!

Then there was my E46 M3. The only E46 on the lot, actually. Perhaps all the other E46 M3 owners were busy converting to a clutch pedal. Or repairing subframes. Or changing rod bearings. Or refreshing their Vanos.

Or maybe it’s just a Thursday afternoon and they didn’t know they could be out at the track instead of working from home for the 168th day straight!

The Shakedown

An event organizer in a bright white button up shirt calls the Advanced driver’s together, but at least six feet apart. Everyone’s donned face masks. Coronavirus attends track days, too. And it’s just the right thing to do. The driver’s meeting goes about as normal, only with as little more social distancing. The message: the only trophy here today is yourself and your car.

In other words, it’s not a race, be safe.

Session One

“Advanced drivers to the pit lane!” blares faintly from the front straight pit out lane.

At least that’s what I think he said.

He must still be wearing a mask.

It’s 3:50 PM and what clouds are floating around up there aren’t helping us out. Luckily there’s a light breeze. It’s bearable, but it’s still 95 degrees and sunny.

And here I am. 60 miles from home, in temperatures that should make my SMG system throw an error code before turning over the ignition key.

I fall into the soft Cobra Nogaro Circuit seat, buckle the lap belt, and anxiously turn on the ignition.

All one hundred seventy thousand miles of the S54 fire to life. The cluster lights up, and then all the check lights disappear.

No cog light. We’re still good, although the pit lane to track entry is on the other side of the pits.

How funny to be thinking these thoughts before the car’s even made it onto the track. #smglife

Josh’s 2003 M3 in the pits

I was late down the pit lane. And by that, I mean there were no other cars in the pit lane when I rolled to a stop in front of the organizers. All the other cars in the advanced group had already made it out on to track.

Raising my left arm and rolling up my worn Sparco driving gloves, I showed the bright orange wrist band indicating my run group. Acknowledgment. We’re good to go.

“Good to go”. Are we sure about that, SMG?

The M3’s exhaust rasped in all it’s glory out of the pit lane and on to the track. Six thousand RPM shifts till the engine oil comes up to operating temperature. I pull the right steering wheel mounted shift paddle.

Second gear. So far, so good.

Turn left, hit the apex, track out, full throttle. The shift light indicators on the gray M3 cluster say it’s about time for another upshift. BAM! Third gear.

Turn two. Another left. Turn three, right. Esses. The another sweeping right.

I’m listening for anything that doesn’t sound or feel right. Was that rubbing? Were those seven millimetre front spacers too much? No.

Just tracked out to the left. The next turn is another left, but it’s trickier. Track over to the right, pointed toward the turn in marker. Brake hard, turn in left. Not enough brake. Understeer, but a moment longer off the throttle scrubs enough speed. Grip. More throttle. Begin unwinding the wheel. More mild understeer but there’s enough track to unwind the wheel a bit more. The front end bites and I’m reminded how great the Z3 steering rack is in this car.

Right foot down.

Up the back straight. Literally up. It’s a hill.

Eight thousand RPM. Click. 4th gear. Triple digits through the esses. Lift ever so lightly and keep majority throttle through. It’s a little hairy the first time but the Dunlops feel like they can take more.

Out of the esses and continuing full throttle up the hill. The last exit was a left. Tracking out to the right, now. The speedometer shows nearly 115 MPH before braking hard down to 40’ish for a blind left and immediate slight right, accelerating hard down the hill and under the bridge, staying right. The S54 echoes off the concrete walls. My right foot moves quickly and hard onto the only other pedal this car’s got. Splash! There’s a little standing water. The Dunlops needed assistance there but MK60 ABS system lets me know it’s got my back. There’s the turn-in marker. It’s a bigass bright orange traffic cone. It whooshes by the right window in a blur. Turn left. Up and over the curbing. Vibrations through the cabin and up my fingers to my elbow. Yes, the steering in this car is fantastic. More throttle. Track out to the right and full throttle down the front straight.

Upshift. Eight thousand RPM. Upshift.

120 MPH. Brake hard. Turn left into turn one. Repeat.

Confidence is growing.

Lap two.

Lap three.

Josh’s 2003 M3 in the pits

And then it happened.

Looking back, I have to wonder how I didn’t I notice the signs earlier. I saw it yesterday. I saw it on the drive down. The gauge on the far right in the cluster? The water temperature. The needle had climbed. just beyond the dot after center. It wasn’t yet in the red, but it was on it’s way.

Off the throttle. Thoughts racing. Oil temperature looks okay.

Was this normal operation for the E46 M3 or was I just being paranoid?

I’m light on the throttle for the remainder of the lap. Down the front straight and the water temperature is back in check.

Alright. Let’s try this again.

Turn one. Hard on the throttle. Unfortunately it took less than a full lap before the water temperatures were too high for comfort. I could rush the car from the first turn to the bridge before backing off.

Guess I found my “Bridget to Gantry” at Dominion Raceway. Gantry to Bridge? Whatever.

Checkered flag. Left arm out the window. Fist up. Enter the pits.


Cutting straight to the skinny: There were no SMG issues on September 3rd. Only water temperature issues.

I had not flushed the coolant. For all I know, it’s all the wrong stuff for track use. Of all of the maintenance I’ve done, I haven’t bothered with the cooling system.

And that’s all on me.

The radiator fins could be filled with pebbles. I could blame the unknown coolant or the outside temperature, but it’s still on me. This car shouldn’t be overheating.

I should have addressed it before registering for this event.


Sessions Two and Three

Of course I didn’t pack up and go home.

I wanted the seat time till SMG said enough. It didn’t.

The last two sessions were spent running hard from Turn 1-to-Bridge, then cooling off down the front straight or a little more.

Fast cars blew by me out of the bridge. I wanted to chase. I really wanted to give chase. But I couldn’t.

More Modifications To Come

Packed up at 7 PM and headed home. There’s something to be said about driving to the track and driving back. No truck. No trailer. No swapping tires or pads at the track.

That’s what I’m about with the E46 M3.

Next up on my list is definitely a radiator replacement. Then, perhaps a set of wider wheels to support some much wider rubber.

Who’s got the hookup?


Yes, I did take the GoPro so I had to record some video footage. And record, I did. All three twenty-minute sessions. Honestly, watching all 60 minutes of that would be pretty boring, so I made a much shorter cut with a handful of the better stuff.



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