The World’s Fastest M3…E36 M3 Salt Flats racer. The World’s Fastest M3… On salt! The story behind a record-breaking E36 Salt Flats racer from Australia. BMWs make fantastic racers. But this record-breaking Australian M3 is the first BMW salt-flat racer we’ve ever encountered. Words: Chris Nicholls. Photography: Chris Nicholls and Ben Read.
We got a lot of ribbing the first day or two. After my first run, one of the timing guys asked whether I had Mozart playing in the car, and another asked if I’d had my Chardonnay beforehand,” says Matthew Read with a laugh. In a world full of home-built monsters, often running pushrod V8s, it shouldn’t have been a surprising reaction though, especially as Matt had turned up in a car literally no one had ever seen in dry lake competition before – an E36 M3. “I mean, I doubt anybody else who has a BMW would be silly enough to do it!” he says.
Of course, this begs the question as to why he did. Initially, Matt just wanted to go salt racing. After many years competing in Targa Tasmania and other tarmac rallies, he was hankering after a new challenge. “We (my rally co-driver Rob and I) wanted to try something else. I always had a fascination with salt lake racing, like I do with a lot of other historic forms of motorsport. Also, I’m entirely convinced that if you go forward another 100 years, a lot of these events won’t exist… So for me, it was something that, while I had the opportunity and the time and the energy to do it, I wanted to”. However, while he initially planned to take his tarmac rally-prepped 911 SC, he quickly realised the huge difference in regulations between the CAMS (Confederation of Australian Motorsport)-sanctioned tarmac events he was used to and the Dry Lakes Racers Australiarun Speed Week, held at Lake Gairdner in South Australia’s outback every summer, were too great. After researching his options, and deciding a new car meant a small prep and tuning budget, he thus decided on an E36 M3.
“In Australia, BMWs are not crazy money [secondhand]. They’re quite affordable, so being able to find that car at a reasonable price point and build it, it’s been a nice project,” he says. Indeed, this example came in at just AU$11,000 (£6700), half what they normally go for there, although that’s mainly because the body wasn’t in great shape. (As you can see, there’s rust on the bootlid and rear quarter panel, as well as a large scrape on the front bumper, paint missing in a few places and countless minor chips elsewhere). Mechanically though, it was fine, and given the car would be caked in salt once a year, body rust was hardly an issue anyway. However, seeing as he knew very little about BMWs, Matt wisely decided to take it to his local specialist, Northern BM in Melbourne, to get everything bar the cage (which was done by Marty Brant from Garage 1) prepped. Serendipitously, not only was Northern BM an experienced race shop, specialising in E36s, it also had D/Pro record-holding salt racer Daryl Chalmers on staff, who knew exactly how to build a winning dry lake racer.
Not that building such a car is easy, no matter your experience. While Production (NA) class rules prevent body panel alterations (you can remove aero if it was optional from the factory – hence the lack of rear wing) or major mods like adding forced induction, it’s far from a case of strip it, cage it, fit a seat and you’re done. Yes, the mods on this budget build are minor, consisting mainly of slammed H&R coilovers, an S5032B oil pan and pump, up-rated bearings and studs, an oil restrictor in the head and Turner chip, but the safety gear is very, very serious and requires a lot of work. Dry Lakes Racers Australia references Bonneville regulations, which means the cage, for example, requires 3mm-thick steel tubing (so uncommon for local race cages that Matthew had to import it from the US) and bars that run under the seat, as that has to mount directly to it. The seat itself has to be either steel or aluminium, and in Matt’s case, had to be modified, as the American-market LHD seat’s head supports didn’t extend far enough on the right side to meet RHD regs. Underneath, you also have to fit a ‘scatter shield’ – a 6mm thick steel plate that’s bolted around the bellhousing to prevent your legs being severed if the clutch or flywheel explodes at high speed – and there’s 6mm-thick steel plate surrounding the entire driveshaft for the same reason. You even have to put protective steel sheet around the rear trailing arms, to ensure that they stay in place even if the bolts rattle loose. Outside, all windows have to have a thick safety film applied to help prevent shattering, and even Matthew’s existing FIA-certified clothing and helmet were out, as regs didn’t allow them. It may seem rather full-on, but then, so is an accident at 150mph+ when you’re 200km from the nearest bit of tarmac.
Having received his completed car, Matthew then set about planning for the 2017 Speed Week, the logistics of which alone were faintly terrifying. Given the event was in remote South Australia, getting there would mean a full day’s drive, followed by 200km on dirt. And given the fine red outback soil would get everywhere, Matt and his team (consisting of his rally navigator Rob and son Ben, who also took the on-location photos), would have to remove the air filter, stuff rags into the intake and exhaust and cling wrap the entire front of the M3 before leaving just to ensure it started on arrival. With temperatures averaging 45 or even 50°C each year, no running water on-site and only portable toilets and showers, the team also had to take 200 litres of water, plus food and other supplies with them. Due to the lack of any petrol stations after the hilariously-named town of Iron Knob, they also had to carry 150 litres of fuel – a third for the car and the rest in diesel for the Toyota Prado tow vehicle.
Even with all this prep, things almost fell apart before the event began though, with the harsh dirt road breaking the trailer’s suspension just before they reached the camp site (10km from the race ‘course’). However, proving the friendliness and camaraderie of the dry lake racing community, this was but a minor problem: “We were there for the first time, in a BMW – these guys have never seen a BMW on the salt before, they’re hardcore V8 guys – and they came out of the woodwork,” Matt says. “There were guys dragging MIG welders across the campsite and people just came from everywhere.
One of the custom car guys from Castlemaine, Rod Hadfield, and Lionel West, who is a fantastic fabricator, along with half a dozen other blokes, were pulling my trailer apart and within 45 minutes, they got it fixed. Rob and I could have sat there for a year of Sundays and never fixed it. And they didn’t want anything for it.”
Once on the salt, it was a case of building up slowly and qualifying on ever-longer courses (start at three miles and working up to five) to show he could handle the speed and length of the ‘long course’ – the six-mile stretch of lake bed that all the serious guys run. However, despite all his motorsport experience, this was easier said than done, with Matt describing driving on salt as being pretty much like driving on wet grass.
“The first run, I was really scared. I was really slipping and sliding and moving everywhere, and even at about 90-100mph, I thought ‘oh shit, I don’t know if I can do much more than this’, but I just pinned the ears back and thought ‘no, I’ve come this far, just pin it and see what happens’. It’s like tarmac racing – you’ve got to get used to how much grip you’ve got, and how much you’re prepared to let it slide,” says Matt with a wry smile.
Thankfully, as speeds increased past 120mph, so did the stability – something Matt puts down to increased air pressure forcing the car down into the salt. However, even at those speeds, crosswinds were still a problem, with gusts pushing him anywhere up to 20 metres left or right, depending on direction. And due to the M3s lack of outright grunt, it took him anything up to a mile to regain the 10mph lost due to those corrections. “We underestimated how much you’re beholden to the conditions and weather and wind and all that kind of stuff. The run where I got the highest speed for the week, there was no breeze. There was a slight breeze behind me, and so there was nothing on the side,” he explains.
As for that highest speed? 165.708mph, measured over the fourth mile of his Wednesday run (the week runs from Monday to Friday lunchtime). A new Australian record for the naturally aspirated 2.0-3.0-litre class, and only 1.45mph off the outright Bonneville record (i.e. the world record). It’s a speed that also makes his E36 the fastest BMW four-wheeled production car ever to race on salt. Not bad for a newbie, which is exactly why he won ‘Rookie of the Year’. The best part was, despite the initial shock of seeing a BMW on the lake bed, and the ribbing that followed, the tight-knit community really welcomed him and the team, and enjoyed seeing them win.
“I was really surprised when I won, and the thing that surprised me even more was that these guys were really cheering for it. They were genuinely thrilled for me,” Matt says. “You had 2-300 hardcore salt racers together and they were really happy and really supportive and encouraging and interested whether we’d be coming back, and whether we enjoyed it, so it was great. A really good event.”
Of course, having come so close to breaking the world record, and having enjoyed the experience so much, Matt and his team are indeed planning to be back next year. “To do what we did and not be too far off that 167mph record (I’d almost have rather missed it by 15mph than one), just makes you really want to go back and beat it.” In order to help him do that, he and Daryl from Northern BM are already planning what upgrades to make for 2018.
Given there’s still a bit of room within the regulations for mods, the most obvious ones are a full intake, exhaust and custom tune, as breathing-wise, it’s stock, but upgrading the cams is also allowed. After that, there’s gearing and other discussions too.
Sounds like fun, and no doubt we’ll be hearing more about Matt and co. when Speed Week rolls around in late February/early March next year.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1994 BMW E36 M3 Salt Flats racer
ENGINE: S5030B 24-valve straight-six, ARP head studs and bolts, ACL Race bearings, Northern BM engine oil restrictor, S5032B sump and two-stage oil pump, oil cooler divert to ensure 100 per cent of the oil flows through the cooler, billet steel SFI 1.1-certified flywheel and heavy-duty clutch, Turner Motorsport E36 M3 Conforti Performance Chip</span></p> <p><span style="font-size: 8pt;">DRIVELINE: Stock Getrag 420G gearbox and LSD, 6mm thick steel scatter shield bolted around gearbox bellhousing, 6mm thick steel scatter shield around driveshaft
CHASSIS: Unitary steel with steel body, Racing Dynamics strut tower bar
SUSPENSION: H&R coilovers, steel plate reinforcement around rear trailing arms, strengthened long stud conversion
BRAKES: Stock ventilated discs with 315mm rotors (f) and 312mm rotors (r), stock calipers and stock pads
WHEELS & TYRES: 7.5x17-inch (f&r) M Double Spoke II wheels, 235/45 (f&r) Sumitomo HTR ZIII tyres (alternate size of 225/55 rear purchased to change gearing but never used)
EXTERIOR: Rear wing delete, bonnet pins, all glass covered with anti-shatter film, M stripe decals
INTERIOR: Fully stripped interior, Kirkey Racing 70 Series alloy containment seat, DJ Safety five-point harness, custom Garage 1-built Dry Lakes Racers Australia (DLRA) and CAMS-compatible roll cage with 3mm-thick cro-moly tubing imported from US, window mesh, Momo Corsa steering wheel
THANK YOU: Marty Brant from Garage 1 for building possibly the only roll cage in Australia that confirms to both CAMS and DLRA regulations. Robert Williams, my rally navigator and crew chief for Speed Week who organised everything and ensured I didn’t die of heat exhaustion. Ben Read, my son, for the photos and moral support. Animal, Greg Wapling, Bob Ellis and Caroll Hadfield from the DLRA for their advice and support prior to and during the event. Ron Hadfield and Lionel West of Lionel West Fabrications for fixing my trailer on a dirt road and getting me to the salt. Last but not least, my wife, Mailu, for giving me a leave pass for the event and letting me do stupid things regularly.
“The first run, I was really scared. I was really slipping and sliding and moving everywhere… even at about 90-100mph”
The salt flats racing community is small and close knit but were very supportive of Matt and his rookie BMW team.