You will find no bigger cheerleader for Spec3 in all of NASA than Taylor Johnson.
Johnson had been a volunteer for NASA Mid-Atlantic since 2015. He has worked grid, registration, tech and has even announced events and served as a backup pace car driver. Johnson started in HPDE1 in 2018 in a Volkswagen GTi, but sold it the following year.
A longtime fan of BMW, Johnson has owned E30s, but when he discovered Spec3, he set out to find a chassis he could convert for racing. When he found one — which he now races in Spec3 in his rookie season — he got right to work and in the process became a driving force for Spec3 in his region.
We caught up with Johnson to find out a little bit more about him and Spec3.
Q: How affordable is Spec3, really? Minus the donor car, roughly how much does it cost to buy all the parts to build one from scratch?
A: Against the advice of all of my friends, I’ve kept a detailed account of how much money the racecar has cost me. I started this build just a year out of college, so there’s been a really tight budget. From December 2018 to August 2021, it has cost me $23,449 to build from a stock car, and run every event, including all consumables like oil, tires, brakes, water wetter, fixing the car after hitting a wall at VIR, and even rebuilding the engine — twice, because I’m an idiot who didn’t notice a huge coolant leak before going on track earlier this year — and other miscellaneous expenses.
The total to build the car starting from scratch, including purchase price of the vehicle itself and even all of my own safety gear was $15,494. We’ve had built Spec3 cars sell this year for $13k to $15k, but those were snatched up pretty quickly and were on track within a month of sale. It’s usually cheaper to buy a car pre-built, but these cars are just about the cheapest to build of any class I can think of, and not many people are selling theirs now that the class is taking off. If you want to run with us, you’ll probably have to build one. Luckily, one of our Southeast drivers, Joel Barber of Barber RaceWorks is ramping up to start building more of these cars.
Q: It looks like Spec3 has some momentum going again in the Mid-Atlantic. What other regions have growing Spec3 fields?
A: Momentum is an understatement. At the fall VIR event in 2020, we had 4 registered Spec3 drivers. At the VIR event here in August 2021, we have 12 registered Spec3 racers as well as three finished, legal Spec3 cars being used in HPDE2 and HPDE3, all with intentions of running with us next year. We also have several folks with comp licenses looking to make the jump from other classes for the 2022 season in NASA Mid-Atlantic. I hope to see our first 20-car fields next year!
For other regions, we’ve seen a huge surge in interest since I started up our Facebook and Instagram accounts — @NASASpec3 on Instagram and Facebook.com/NASASpec3 — and started spreading the word of the series. I found that our lack of popularity wasn’t because of the class or cars, it was just that no one had heard of us. We look to have three or four finished cars with licensed drivers in the NASA Southeast Region to start the 2022 season with a few people building cars and nearing completion while they work through HPDE. Some of those drivers also likely will run NASA Mid South.
Beyond that, I’ve received a lot of messages from folks in the NASA SoCal region wanting to build cars, and I really hope to get a few builds started out there so they can also get the series going on the West Coast. Now that Southeast seems to be taking off, the likely next stop is NASA Great Lakes, since we already run a joint event with them at PittRace or NASA Northeast. All you need is two people to have a race! I encourage anyone to reach out if they have any interest in the amazing experience of starting a class in a region. There are so many E36s out in California, this class could really explode out west.
Q: I read in Grassroots Motorsports that Spec3 had some rule changes between 2020 and 2021. New, larger 17-inch tires are one of them. What did that do for the cars?
A: Short answer? Everything.
These 17-inch wheels completely transformed the cars. Not only did they give us a slightly more favorable gear ratio at the tracks we currently run, but the increase in grip has been amazing. We are basically rediscovering what the E36 chassis can do. I finally upgraded to the 17-inch wheels in my last race at PittRace in July and it was a religious experience for me. We are seeing multiple seconds per lap improvements at some tracks. The difference is staggering. Plus, these cars look so mean on the 17s. I wish we made the change sooner!
Q: Spec3 cars also are now allowed to use new front bumper covers. What’s the story behind that rule change?
A: The practical answer is a new M3 bumper can be found on eBay or Bimmerworld for like $150. It makes sense from a cost standpoint for when people need to replace theirs. Additionally, people want a car that looks cool, and these cars did not look cool with 15-inch wheels and the 325i bumper. The rule changes this year for appearance have made such a drastic difference that I just stand in front of my garage and stare at the car some days, and mine is definitely the ugliest of the bunch!
Q: How hard is it to convert an automatic for use in Spec3? Or can you even do that?
A: It’s as easy as it gets, and plenty of people did it/are doing it. There were nearly 300,000 325i/325is models produced worldwide and the manual E36s in general outnumber the autos 3:1 across the globe, so it’s not really that hard to find a good manual car. However, if you’re looking for an extremely cheap, extremely clean 325i, an automatic is the way to go and the swap can be done in a day if you’re determined. Everything swaps right over between cars (Transmission, cross member, shift assembly, pedal box, driveshaft), and the wiring is minimal. Only a few wires need to be cut and spliced. The parts are usually pretty easy to find as well since the transmissions can be found in E36 318 models as well as the E34 525i.
Q: How about power steering? Do most racers remove that, too? How hard is it to drive a Spec3 without power steering?
A: Most of us — if not all of us — retained the power steering. The power assist and feedback is good and there’s not much need to ditch it. We do, however, usually delete the turn signal stalk. We are driving BMWs after all.
Q: What is the reason for the limited slip differential rule that says it must break away at 70 foot-pounds or less?
A: Being a spec class, we want to keep everyone on a level playing field. We require a 3.15:1 limited slip differential with the same lockup as the factory 3.15:1 diff from the winter package 325i cars. It’s a really good differential and cheap to acquire. The rule is there to make sure someone doesn’t rebuild one outside of the factory specifications to try to gain an advantage or order a custom one with a different spec to get a leg up. Since so many cars came with these differentials from the factory, there’s no need for an expensive, custom-order differential just to get the car competitive. All of the stars aligned with the E36 to make a competitive chassis from the word “go.”
Q: I’ve noticed a lot of photos on the internet of people thinning out the wiring harness, which I’m assuming is necessary. How much weight does that remove from the car? Also, are there other reasons for removing excess wiring?
A: Our new class weight for 2021 is 2,825 with the driver in the car. That’s pretty close to the limit on how light an E36 can get without really getting crazy with the modifications, so wire harness thinning is a good way to shave off around 20 pounds while also really simplifying the wiring in the car. The good news is that there are folks out there that will take your harness, thin it for you, and send it back all neatly packaged up.
Q: What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone considering the E36 for racing, either in Spec3 or some other class?
A: The E36 is a great chassis and I’m really amazed at how many different places there are to race all of the different models. The E36 M3 is a great GTS car, the 318ti is oddly popular in rally, the 325i, of course, has Spec3. The E36 has a place to race from the lowest trim to the highest and you can’t really say that about many other models of cars. Best of all, these cars are like Lego sets. I’m running an engine out of an E34 automatic wagon in my Spec3, the control arms from a 97 M3, the transmission easily could have come from a 318i, and my front fender is from a 328i.
The parts are so easy to find and swap from most any model to the other. You’re never without a spare at the track since there are so many E36s around! The main thing to look out for with these cars is that, like most any BMW, chassis reinforcement is strongly advised if you’re going to ring it out on track. Luckily, reinforcement plate kits are cheap and readily available at place likes AKG Motorsport, Bimmerworld, Condor Speed Shop, etc. The E36 is not plagued with the common problems of other chassis like the trunk floor ripping out, or the rod bearings needing to be replaced early.