By Rachel Meyer
It was an overcast Saturday in March and the clouds were suggesting rain. Despite cold weather and fog, racing enthusiasts could not be kept away as about 50 of them ventured to Wampum, PA to participate in a track day at BeaveRun Motorsports Complex. At 8 a.m., drivers and spectators assembled for a day of racing and automotive admiration. The event’s guests included M3 and 5-series BMWs, S-series Audis, Lotus Elises, Mazdas, Mustangs, a 1967 SS Camaro and the usual host of Porsches and their helmet-clad, enthusiastic drivers.
The cars and their handlers were divided into five groups based on skill and experience. Novice drivers were accompanied by instructors while higher-level drivers were set free but made to adhere to higher safety regulations. The $165 entrance fee bought drivers five 25-minute sessions on the track. Senior Stephan Laputka was in attendance and his 2003 540i Sport BMW was put to the test on the 1.6-mile long track. Thanks to the in-car camera Laputka installed, I was able to watch videotape of his view from the cockpit.
Taking curves at 85 MPH and reaching 125 MPH on straight shots looked to be exhilarating and Laputka confirmed that it was better than that. His need for speed has drawn him to several tracks around the country and has even inspired Laputka to make modifications to his vehicle. With the goal of turning his “ultimate driving machine” into an ultimate racing machine, Laputka’s modifications have included an enlargement of his intake manifold, the addition of a free flow exhaust, dedicated track brake pads, race compound tires, engine software that increases the compression ratio and the red line (maximum engine speed). His BMW is a veritable speedster.
Laputka tells me that the modifications have helped him take his car to the next level. Before tuning his engine, his 540i Sport could generate 5,900 RPM, whereas it can now reach an astonishing 6,800 RPM. Also, before replacing his braking system with a racing one, Laputka had gone through 11 sets of brake pads, five sets of front rotors and two sets of rear rotors (all of which the BMW warranty covered). Now that he has modified his vehicle, BMW will no longer cover his indulgence under warranty – but the performance is much improved.
According to Laputka, the reason that the brakes go so quickly in race cars is because the friction from having to slow from triple-digit speeds on straightaways to normal speeds on turns creates so much heat that the brakes can melt (since they are made out of metallic compounds). He explains that if a car is on a track for an extended period of time, the braking system can get so hot that the brake fluid will actually boil. This is a result of the 800-degree temperatures that braking systems often reach when racing on the track. The driver will experience heavy brake fade if the braking system begins to meltdown. At $145 a set, BMW drivers can get about six track days out of a set of racing brake pads. Similarly, racing tires can withstand much higher temperatures than average tires are able to tolerate. Laputka tells me that tracks require cars to take two warm-up laps around the track to bring the tires up to temperature.
The track at BeaveRun encompasses 10 turns and two straightaways. For insurance purposes, the event cannot be called “a race,” but track days usually involve a lot of informal racing. Passing on the track is highly regulated and designated to particular areas of the course. There are also braking checkpoints strategically located along the track so that drivers can find their optimal braking position.
Laputka told me that the excitement in racing is that different cars require different skills and that the more you know about your own car as well as the other cars on the track, the more easily you can finesse your driving experience. He tells me that 90 percent of people do not realize the full potential of their car when they are driving. In a BMW 540i Sport, Laputka’s track experience is characterized by high exit speeds through turns, meaning that he cannot corner as hard around turns as smaller cars can.
Although empowering and mighty exhilarating, track driving can also be supremely dangerous. High speeds mean higher damage when an accident occurs. Many safety precautions are taken to avoid mishaps, but inevitably, they occur. Laputka tells me about the “close-call” he had at BeaveRun a few weeks ago when a rare Porsche – an RS America – that he had been chasing around the track over-steered and spun out of control and off of the track. Laputka was in such close proximity to the Porsche that his adjustment caused him to spin out of control and off the track as well. “There was lots of dust, but no paint traded,” he said.
Racing is a fun hobby for some and a way of life for others. If racing appeals to you and you’d like to put your car to the test, there are any number of enthusiast clubs you can join. The Porsche Club of America and the BMW Car Club of America are two specialized organizations that promote the racing lifestyle. You could also become a member of a more general club such as the Sports Car Club of America, which hosts regular events and sells racing merchandise.
If Route 12B has been your racetrack to date, then you might like to try your stuff on a real race track. With Watkins’ Glen only 45 minutes away, what are you waiting for?!