Modern Day Track Junkie

David S.
By David S. Wallens
Jun 15, 2017 | BMW | Posted in Features | From the Dec. 2016 issue | Never miss an article

Photos by Kevin Adolf

It is a belief not uncommon that time on track is simply beyond the average person’s grasp–too expensive, too exclusive. You have to know the right people, be born into the proper social circles and, of course, be loaded.

Many people, however, simply fall into the sport, unaware of the perceived barriers to entry.

Meet Christina Lam, a NASA Time Trial instructor and participant. She falls into that second group.

Step 1: A Little Curiosity

Like so many bad habits, this one started innocently enough–just a small taste that welcomed a series of life-changing circumstances.

“I was visiting a friend in Germany, and we went to go drive the Nürburgring as a visit-Germany bucket list item,” Christina says of her 2012 trip. “I knew it was a famous track. And that I had seen it on TV, but that was about it.”

Before she left home, Christina had prepared–meaning that a friend spent five minutes teaching her how to drive a stick shift in his Nissan Sentra. “I didn’t understand how it all worked,” she admits, “just that there was now a third pedal I had to work in.”

Once at Nürburgring, she practiced a bit on a simulator and then rented a car–a race-prepared Suzuki Swift. “Which, despite the name, was not very swift,” she notes.

“I had an instructor in my car,” she continues. “I think he was worried I was going to try to show off my expert racing skills so he tried to scare me before we started driving. Told me about all the fines I’d have to pay if I hit anything. And how people die there every year.”

Was she scared? No, she says. “And I told him that it’s pretty much my second time ever driving stick. In a full-blown, caged car with Toyos. On a track. And asked him if he was scared. He gave me a disapproving look.”

Step 2: Racing Among the Cones

Christina doesn’t come from a famous motorsports family–you won’t find a grandstand at Indy bearing her last name. She didn’t grow up reading car magazines in study hall. In real life she’s a 20-something systems engineer for a defense contractor.

“Nobody in my family is into cars,” she says. “I knew absolutely nothing about them until fairly recently. And honestly, I still know nothing about them. I bought my first car, an ’09 E90 328i, because it was pretty. It was all-wheel-drive and autotragic.”

After that Nürburgring outing–her first taste of motorsports–there was a slight pause. Then one day boredom got the best of her, so she contacted an old college friend.

“I knew he did some sort of autocross on the weekends,” she recalls. “I was worried that I needed a 335i or a manual transmission. He assured me that it would be fine.”

Where Nürburgring required a trans-Atlantic flight and a race car rental, this was simpler. “I was surprised at how affordable it was,” she says. “I always had the impression that any sort of motorsports would be expensive and that maintenance would skyrocket. So I showed up at this huge event at FedEx field–completely overwhelmed at the amount of cars and how seriously some people were into the sport.”

She approached the day with a simple plan: “My goal was to not get lost on course. I must have walked the course five times.”

Going in, her friend gave her simple instructions: drive fast. So she did, even if her definition of driving fast meant ignoring the brakes.

“My friend thought we were going to die,” she recalls. “Somebody else gave me some more advice before my second run, and I was a whole 15 seconds faster. Shows you how slow I was the first time around. But I picked up time each run and by the end I was pretty excited with my progress.”

She would run three more autocrosses in 2012, followed by a full season of co-driving a Street Touring-class Mazda MX-5. This was in addition to running her own car at BMW CCA events. “I dropped a pretty penny on renting the car for the ’ring, so i was surprised at how affordable autocross was. I was autocrossing three out of four weekends each month.”

The owner of the MX-5 decided to take that car to the Tire Rack SCCA Solo National Championships, so Christina flew out to co-drive. “I figured all or nothing,” she says of the decision to cap off her first real year of autocross with an appearance at the big show. How’d she do? Fifth out of sixth in Street Touring R Ladies.

Step 3: Getting on Track

Like her Nürburgring outing, her first stateside track event was supposed to be a once-in-a-lifetime bucket list experience. It was only a year after the Nürburgring trip when she decided to run that track day with the Porsche Club of America on the Shenandoah Circuit at West Virginia’s Summit Point Raceway.

“Shenny is like a glorified autocross, so I felt right at home with all the autocross I had been doing that year,” she reports. She ran her BMW 328i. “I got the oil changed and put new brake pads on. I don’t recall being nervous. I went into that weekend accepting the fact that I was about to do something I had no experience with.”

Christina says that she listened to her instructor and together they worked on improving her skills. “He was really passionate about instructing and it made my experience so much fun because we were both on the same page when it came to learning and making progress,” she adds. “Before the weekend was up, I was passing all the cars that I had pointed by on Saturday morning.”

Step 4: Answering the Phone

The next year, 2014, didn’t go exactly as planned. “My original plan was to build a Miata,” she says. “Because really that’s the answer to everything.”

Then a call changed everything.

“I got a phone call from a friend in the middle of the day,” Christina recalls. “He usually never calls me, which was strange.”

Good news awaited, though: Her friend knew someone who was going to trade in an E36-chassis BMW M3 on a new Kia. The dealership offered the friend $3500; it was hers for $3000.

“I talked to a few people, and everybody said it was a good deal so I made an urgent excuse to leave work early and headed to the bank,” she says. “I had no idea what I was going to do with it.” Autocross? Track events? She wasn’t sure.

“I knew nothing about cars, and now I had this rickety old BMW with the wrong transmission,” she recalls. She started reading the forums and talking to friends in order to learn what was needed to convert it from an automatic transmission to a manual. Parts were found via craigslist.

“I live in a condo, so I rented an extra spot to park the car,” she explains. “Condo rules said no working on cars, so I’d go back home and drive the car to a friend’s place after work.”

A lack of real workspace or formal training didn’t deter her, though: “I followed a lot of DIYs on YouTube. Read up on a lot of walkthroughs before attempting stuff.”

Step 5: Going All In

She admits that motorsports soon consumed her: “Autocross was like the gateway drug.” By 2015 she was an official with NASA Mid Atlantic, driving the pace car, working events, and doing whatever else is needed for events to run smoothly.

She also added NASA Time Trial events to her schedule. “And then in August I passed Instructor Clinic. That’s a whole ’nother level of busy and chaos.”

All the while, her M3 soldiered on in mostly stock condition. NASA’s Time Trial program classifies cars based on horsepower-to-weight ratios, so participants can make things as simple or complex as they’d like.

Her main wheels are the stock pieces from an E39-chassis 5 Series. “I pick up street tire scrubs from my autocross friends who are always after the latest and fastest tire of the year,” she says. “I also have a set of Apex ARC-8s with Hoosier R7s. I feel like the ARC-8 is the spec piece for all BMWs, but they really are a strong, lightweight, affordable wheel.”

Under the hood there’s just one big modification: She replaced the original intake manifold with one from a BMW M50 engine. It’s a popular, low-buck setup that improves top-end performance with little downside.

The biggest difference from stock can be found inside the car: a gutted interior fitted with a pair of racing seats, including a Racetech for the driver. “In one of the ‘Speed Secrets’ books I read, Ross Bentley started off the first chapter with how important your seat and seating position is. So I splurged on the seat once I tried it out and have no regrets.”

Finally, there’s the hard-to-miss pink roll cage.

Step 6: Licking Wounds

Christina entered 2016 ready to go– and then things tried to go off the rails. At Watkins Glen this past April, the M3 blew a head gasket. Handling issues have cropped up all season, leading to lots of “trial and error tuning.”

More disappointment: At NASA’s July event at the new Dominion Raceway, the car ran warm. “Came home and tore apart the cooling system,” she reports. “Boyfriend came home to find me boiling the thermostat on his stove and just gave me a weird look.”

She admits to ending the season on a down note. “I recently took three weeks off from the car,” she says. “Didn’t set foot in the garage at all because I was so frustrated and heartbroken that at every event I was battling some major issue from overheating to really tragic handling.

“Somewhere during that time I realized that giving up on the car would be way worse than driving a broken car. So here I am in the garage tearing stuff apart again. Found a clunk from the tie rod/front control arm tonight. New bits will be ordered in the morning.”

There have been some silver linings, she adds, with podium finishes at all of her local NASA events except one. She also scored her first win and track record at that Dominion Raceway event. “It’s a brand-new track in our area and it was fun to see everybody on an even playing field having to learn the track from scratch,” she says. “This is probably where the autocross experience helped me.”

This past year she also made her wheel-to-wheel debut, doing some American Endurance Racing events in an E30-chassis 3 Series. “I am part of an all-women’s team called Shift Up,” she says. “I hope that together we can promote more women in motorsports.”

Step 7: Looking Forward

The winter is when many of us regroup, take stock of things, and make plans for the new year. Christina’s to-do list is rather modest, as she’d like to exorcise her M3’s demons while taking a look at NASA’s new Time Trial 4 class. The rule allowances would permit more aero tweaks.

She’d like to keep running AER endurance events while also considering her full slate of instructing gigs. “Instructing is still the most rewarding part of this hobby for me,” she reports. “My boyfriend is starting to track an old $800 E30 he bought, and I’ll hop in the right seat with him.”

Step 8: Paying It Forward

Christina has come a long way in just a few short years. She has some advice for others new to the sport-or those considering involvement.

Advice for Wrenching:
“Patience. Read the instructions twice, and then read them again. There will always be something that doesn’t quite work out the way you plan. Somebody may have replaced a bolt with a different size. Or you realize you are short a critical tool.

“It’s really frustrating to have to stop and go out to get another part or tool. No matter how prepared you are, it will just happen. I’ve learned a lot of patience since owning this car. It was infuriating at first.

“Oh, and collect the tools. They will come in handy. I used to borrow everything and then I realized it was easier to just own the basics.”

Advice for Those on the Fence:
“Get out there and get some seat time. Don’t worry about modding the car before you go. It’s not the car that needs mods, it’s the driver that will need the most work at first.

“You can literally autocross anything. I even saw some kid bring his mom’s minivan out to an autocross. So whatever excuse you have, it’s not valid.

“Get an instructor in the right seat. No matter how much experience you have, there is always some advice that can help you. And listen to your instructor!

“I do hope I keep seeing more girls come out to events. So far I’ve had tons of girl students. And it’s really rewarding to see them keep coming back to events to hone their skills.

“If you aren’t sure about driving an event just yet, just show up to the paddock at either an autocross or NASA HPDE event. Talk to the people there. Talk to the students. Talk to the instructors. Talk to the racers. Once you hear the passion they have for their cars and what they do, you will want to do it, too.”

Advice for Women:
“We look better driving a car by default! Jokes aside, come out and give the sport a shot. Most of my female students have been better drivers than my male students.

“It has always been a very relaxed experience working with other females on track. I think most instructors have had similar experiences. Most girls walk into autocross or DE with a willingness to learn. The hardest part is just showing up.”

This article is from an old issue of Grassroots Motorsports. Get all the latest how-tos and stories for just $20 a year. Subscribe now.

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View comments on the GRM forums
Robbie GRM+ Memberand UberDork
4/27/17 11:13 a.m.

I thought the track junkies were the ones playing dice behind the dumpster at the track...

nderwater UltimaDork
4/27/17 11:18 a.m.

Great article, and she's still moving up:
(swiped from

JBasham Reader
4/27/17 11:20 a.m.

I remember in 2015, Ms. Lam and I were attending different events on the same weekend at Summit Point Motorsports Park.

She and I each happened to pull up in front of the closest convenience store near the track, at the same time. She had her E36 and I had a 2013 E92 M3 that weekend.

Some boys from the neighborhood were milling around in front of the store. One of them said loudly, "Hey, mister, would your car kick her car's butt?"

I said, "No, she's a better driver than I am, so she will win every time." His eyes popped. She laughed, and went on in to the 7-Eleven.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/27/17 11:31 a.m.
nderwater wrote: Great article, and she's still moving up: (swiped from

Yup. The car just--like, just--got a bit of a redo. In fact, there's a little update on Christina in the next issue--the one in the mail. She and her boyfriend now own a Spec E30 as well.

alfadriver GRM+ Memberand MegaDork
4/27/17 2:04 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens:

Possibly a new Randy Pobst? (start in small events, move up to the pros kind of potential)

Fitzauto Dork
4/27/17 2:25 p.m.

Inspiring article. Now I wanna get on the track even more.

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
4/28/17 3:15 p.m.
Fitzauto wrote: Inspiring article. Now I wanna get on the track even more.

Yep, very inspiring. Now get out there and have some fun.

Rupert Dork
5/3/17 10:23 a.m.

Great story!!

I know a woman who did pretty much the same thing, minus the Ring trip, back in the 70's. She whipped my butt on more than one occasion!!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
6/15/17 3:48 p.m.

Just checking Twitter and see that Christina and her M3 are off for another weekend at the track. The car looks mean since its redo.

jere HalfDork
6/15/17 8:41 p.m.

Need more girls in car pics to start brainwashing the 5 year old (going on 16) daughter please . The soon to be ex wife has been pushing her too far into the prissy princess fashion model direction. NEED HELP

jere HalfDork
6/15/17 8:43 p.m.

I love success stories too. thanks!

David S. Wallens
David S. Wallens Editorial Director
6/15/17 9:03 p.m.
jere wrote: Need more girls in car pics to start brainwashing the 5 year old (going on 16) daughter please . The soon to be ex wife has been pushing her too far into the prissy princess fashion model direction. NEED HELP

Totally. You know, she's probably just old enough to drive a kart, right?

jere HalfDork
6/15/17 9:46 p.m.

In reply to David S. Wallens:

christinaylam New Reader
6/16/17 6:40 a.m.

All the fast drivers started in karts! Sounds like a great opportunity to get your daughter started!

z31maniac MegaDork
6/16/17 10:44 a.m.

Yep and around that age as well.

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