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March Madness

Historically, when discussing March Madness, I have been referencing college hoops ... until now. (And I really don't want to talk about my Tar Heels' first-round loss.)

Last weekend, I took part in the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) March Madness weekend at VIRginia International Raceway. It was incredible. Except this time, I ran into my first real issue on track. And I wasn't prepared.

It was the third of four scheduled sessions for my driver education (DE) 2 group. I no longer need an instructor in-car, but I had a coach with me, pushing me as he typically does. He was shouting commands at me like brake, gas, careful, and shift. I think right before my fourth lap when I was really pushing it, I saw a red light on my dash appear. I checked it again and realized it was my "BRAKE" light. Up until that moment, it had only ever meant that my parking brake was engaged, but I knew that wasn't the case because there's no way I would have been able to drive the way I was driving with my parking brake on. So I did, in that moment, what every driver who doesn't want to leave the track does. I ignored it. Especially because my brakes were very competently working, and I didn't feel any difference in the pedal.

But my coach noticed the light, too. And once we finished lap four, which was my fastest ever at VIR as a 2.19, he asked me about the light. I admitted I had noticed it two laps earlier and I reluctantly agreed to go in, as he said it was probably my brake pads sensor. He was right. Once we pulled back into the paddock and took a look, my rear pads were close to completely worn. The M5 has a fancy sensor on your brake pads that warns you when they're nearly gone. No brake pads equals no braking. Losing your brakes on track equals a crash. So while having sensors makes changing out your pads more expensive and a much bigger ordeal than just popping out some pins, in that moment, I was grateful for them. (At the end of the blog, there's a brake pad tip for everyday drivers.)

Because not many people track M5s, no one was going to have brake pads at the track that would fit my car. I worked the phone to track some down. The closest BMW dealership had them in stock, so instead of tracking my last session Saturday, I drove to Durham to pick up brake pads. While heading there, I worked on finding a way to get them installed, and was very blessed to get Quantum Speed Works at the track to set up an appointment for 7 a.m. the next morning.

Needless to say, one of many things I learned is that from now on, I'll always carry a spare set of front and rear brake pads with replacement sensors to the track. My toolbox is getting pretty heavy, as I already carry a tire pressure gauge, a torque wrench with a 17-mm hex socket (to check my lug nuts), performance brake fluid, and spare oil. Thank goodness I've been working out.

While at Quantum Sunday morning, I ran into some Spec E30 racers named Dave and Doug whose car had engine trouble, so their weekend fun had been foiled. My coach had tire trouble early Saturday morning, and then while testing out his car's new aerodynamic equipment on track, his new wing cracked where it connected to the trunk, sending him to Quantum for a weld. He still managed to break the record at VIR on Sunday for his Time Trials class (TT2).

Anyone who watches racing knows that so often, winning is about everything on the car working well, moving quickly past mistakes, and some luck. There are so many things that can go wrong at any moment with one of the hundreds of moving mechanical or electronic parts of a car. Every day at the track is an opportunity to learn something new and make the best out of a bad situation. In fact, the track is one of the places where grit, determination and perseverance really matter. So much of this sport is problem-solving, thinking fast, working well with others and offering help. It's not unlike the teamwork and skill-set required to win eight-straight, winner-takes-all games to be crowned NCAA basketball champions.



Not many cars have brake pad sensors, but they're pretty unnecessary, especially on a daily driver car whose brake pads last a LOT longer than a track car. If you read this blog and are now worried about driving around town in your car and your brake pads suddenly wearing out, causing you to crash, take heart. When you go into a shop for normal maintenance, the mechanics will generally go through a checklist that includes inspecting the brake pads and other parts of your car. If yours are really worn, they will tell you and recommend changing them if they need it. A good question to ask is how many more miles you can get out of the pads before replacing them. If you change your own car oil or do other basic maintenance yourself, you can buy a brake pad measuring tool to check your pads periodically.


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