A few years back, I owned two cars: a restored project Mustang that was mine since high school, and an E30 BMW that had been fully decked out for racing on the track. The Mustang was a fine car... for a while. Eventually, as project cars often do, it devolved into a never ending cycle of repairs that totaled up to more time and money than I could spend. So I did what any self-respecting car guy in that situation would do: I drove my track car on the street. Every day. And continued to do so for an entire year.
The experience was equal parts cool, horrible, nerve-wracking, dangerous, and awesome. And somehow, I got away with the whole thing.
The car: meet "Blau"
I’ve written about my old E30 before. Erroneously named Blau due to an acute colorblindness on my part, it's not what you would call a street car. Sure, it has street legal tires on it, and it has windows, but that’s about it.
First of all, there’s no horn, so trying to communicate with fellow drivers is an exercise in the futility of flashing your lights. Second, the (non-power assisted) brakes have track-specific pads installed. If you’ve never driven a car with race pads, just know that when they have some but not enough heat in them, they squeal. Loudly. Enough to make pedestrians turn their heads to find the source of the demonic screeching.
Every now and then someone would give a thumbs up or a knowing nod -- a subtle sign of respect that I was crazy enough to drive such a beast on the street. I might have had no other choice, but hell, they didn't know that.
Yes, that's a custom roll cage
Inside, there’s a fully race-ready roll cage. That means legit racing seats -- the hard shell kind that can’t recline, come covered in fire-resistant material, and have an expiration date. Instead of normal seat belts, you get six point harnesses -- the ones that cinch down so tightly, there's no way you're ever leaving your seat once you’re strapped in. You learn to appreciate them though, because otherwise, the steel bars of the roll cage are much too close to your head for comfort.
Once buckled in, I could barely move
Once you strap yourself in, good luck reaching the door to close it. Or using a drive-up ATM. Or getting fast food. Or even reaching your wallet.
I was very limited in what I could do, so I planned out every single move I’d have to make ages in advance. Ultimately, it was a year-long internship in ordered planning and I still reap the rewards of those lessons today.
Parking forced me to learn gymnastics
Parking was truly an athletic endeavor. When there's a steel roll cage in your way, you have to open the door quite a bit wider to easily get in and out. Unless there’s a car parked right next to you, in which case you have to hold the door with one hand, lift yourself up with the other, and carefully bend yourself out of the car. Definitely pulled a few muscles, all for the sake of not dinging any doors. You're welcome.
Rain? It sucked.
Carpet, sound deadening, air conditioning... it's easy to take all those silly little conveniences for granted. But Blau has none of those. So in a downpour, every droplet turns the roof into a deafening drum. The humidity collects on the windows, rendering visibility pretty much non-existent. Remember, those harnesses strap you in so you can’t move, so there’s no way to wipe the windshield, either. Opening windows helped clear it up, but obviously led to other water-related issues. When you’re on your way to an event and you need to look presentable, it’s not so great. So I ended up keeping a trusty squeegee in the car as an indoor windshield wiper.
I felt like a fugitive
The car had a valid registration, but that didn’t mean it was legal, strictly speaking. The “regular” seat belts that were tossed aside, the aforementioned lack of a horn, and the absence of a parking brake were all ticketable offenses if I gave an officer the slightest reason to pull me over.
I scanned the road like a hawk. A huge convex rear view mirror made it easier to spot an officer rolling up behind me and gave me time to take the next turn without seeming suspicious. I didn’t have to -- the cage is the only thing that looks truly conspicuous on the car, and it's not illegal in and of itself -- but I still felt nervous all the time. If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to be on the lam, try getting in a race car and driving it down the street.
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times
Driving that car in the summer in Texas sucked. Especially on a 110-degree day in the standstill of rush hour traffic, where the heat of the sun is only compounded by the concrete and other cars. Having enough water and Gatorade on hand for ample rehydration was a real concern.
But it was just as fantastic as it was horrible. When the weather was mild, or at night, driving that car was heavenly. Without traffic, every highway off ramp was a beautiful experience. Thanks to the suspension, I could feel every bump in the road -- things you’d never feel in most cars -- and because there was no insulation, I could hear every pebble kicked up by the tires. For a car guy, you can't get much better than that.
Years have passed since I drove Blau on a daily basis, and almost every time I get in a car I miss the rawness of the experience and the utter connectedness I felt with the pavement. Sure, the bad times sucked, but the good times were unbelievably life affirming.
Would I do it again? Of course not... but I'm awfully glad I did.
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