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Swimming with the Sharks

By Michael Barrett

 The Southeast Sharkfest is a celebration of BMW’s modern classic coupes; the E9, E31 and the eponymous E24, whose shark nose gave rise to its nickname.  Now in its 17th year, Sharkfest is an annual gathering of likeminded people who meet each spring somewhere in the southeastern United States to have some fun, swap some tall tales, and share their love for these classic machines.  This is my story of attending the most recent event, held April 25-28, 2019 in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

(Click on Photos for a larger view)

Part I – (In Which I Confirm My Wife’s Belief I Am an Idiot, and She Saves My Bacon)

Since this year is the 30th anniversary of the introduction of the E31 8 Series, Sharkfest agreed to highlight the model.  Sharkfest began as an E24 6-Series group, but has expanded to include both the E9 and E31.  Being privileged to own two of the latter (a 1996 850Ci, and a 1994 850CSi), I opted to bring both to this year’s event, and managed to sweet talk my wife Linda into not only attending, but also driving our 850Ci.  However, nothing ever goes as planned.

We weren’t a mile from home when the 850Ci threw a Check Engine light.  It’s been doing this every six months or so for the past couple of years, for no discernible reason.  My dealer hasn’t been able to diagnosis the issue, but since drivability isn’t affected, I typically just reset the light and soldier on.  I knew, however, that my wife wouldn’t want to stare down that light for the next four days, to include over 16 hours behind the wheel, so we returned home so I could reset the light.  Problem solved, but now we were 45 minutes behind schedule.

The next glitch occurred during our lunch stop.  Having become accustomed to driving a new X5, which doesn’t even require a button push to open the doors, I couldn’t seem to unlock the 850CSi when I returned after eating (I was pushing the wrong button).  So, I just opened the door with the key in the door handle, which set off the alarm – and also disabled the ignition.  My wife said “here, try my key,” which she had brought with her.  Problem solved, and on we went, pausing only long enough for her to point out how lucky I was that she was so thoughtful.

Next, the phone charger in my wife’s car stopped working, and her phone died.  We bought a new one (at outrageous truck stop prices) when we stopped for gas.   While my wife used the restroom, I pumped gas in her car, and then started pumping gas in mine.  I cleaned the bugs off her windshield, and then cleaned them off of mine.  Both pumps having clicked off at this point, I noted that her car took 15 gallons of fuel, then buttoned mine up without ever actually looking at the pump.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, my pump had clicked off without actually adding any fuel.

Back on the road, I noticed that the fuel gauge still read less than ¼ of a tank. “Crap,” I thought, “the fuel sender has broken.”  In my defense, this had happened a year or so ago to my wife’s car, and I assumed lightning had struck twice, as I blithely watched the fuel level march steadily toward zero.

Somewhere near the North Carolina/South Carolina state line, my Check Engine light started to flicker, and the car started to die.  I darted off at the exit that suddenly appeared, coasted to the bottom of the ramp, and stopped in the middle of the road where the car died, and refused to restart.  At this point I sheepishly told my wife I might be out of gas (without explaining why), and sent her up the road to find a gas can and a couple gallons of fuel.  These cars always attract attention, and several people stopped.  One helped me push it out of the road to the shoulder, and even offered up the name and phone number of the closest foreign car repair shop.

The car gods smiled on us, because while the nearest gas station had no gas cans, it was right next to a Dollar General store that sold them.  Fortunately, the gas did the trick, and got me started.  I drove back to the station, and this time actually filled the tank.  While at the pump, an admirer commented on my car, and, assuming I was a local, asked me if I had ever seen another car like it in the area.  I pointed to where Linda was parked across the parking lot, and asked “You mean like that one?” “That’s it!” he exclaimed.

Shortly thereafter the air conditioning in Linda’s car died.  Luckily the weather was mild, and, although not her preference, driving without the a/c wasn’t unbearable. 

We managed the rest of the trip without any significant issues, but arrived about three hours later than planned, getting to the restaurant where that night’s dinner was held just as everyone was leaving – but we both felt, at the very least, that a margarita was required. 

Part II – (In Which We All Have Big Fun)

The next day was the real start of the Sharkfest events.  Despite an early forecast of rain throughout the weekend, the weather turned out to be perfect.  Most of the attendees lined up their cars for a Spartanburg Police Department escort through town on our way to the Michelin Proving Grounds test track, and an opportunity to test our high-speed driving ability in our own cars.  As we were running our officially sanctioned third red light, Linda commented that this was probably the first time so many BMW drivers had no fear of the police.

The Michelin track was a two-mile road track, with twelve curves, some sweepers and some fairly tight, combined with several elevation changes.  Lacking a long straightaway, it was more about finding the line and car control, rather than reaching top speed.  Liability issues precluded actual timed events, which would be considered ‘racing’, so I just focused on hitting the apexes and getting around as fast as I could.  My 850Ci has a mildly modified suspension, and I’ve wanted an opportunity to test it for several years.  I was fairly pleased with my performance, and more so when I later heard a 6er driver tell a non-attendee that ‘you could only get up to about 60 mph or so’ – since I was pushing 80.  However, there were a few E24 drivers who no doubt went even faster.

More importantly, Linda (who loves performance driving, and is a proud graduate of the BMW Performance Center M-School), asked me to ride with her as instructor. I thought she did a fine job, and took all my instruction well – no arguments or hurt feelings. That’s proof to me of a strong loving relationship!

After we returned from the test track, there was free time to just relax or check out Spartanburg’s Spring Fling, which was happening just a few blocks from the hotel. However, most of us starting cleaning and polishing our cars in anticipation of the next day’s main event – the concours. While Sharkfest and its sponsors provided a venue for washing cars, I decided to look up touchless car washes online. I candidly confess that as I age, some shortcuts look better and better to me. I drove to a nearby one, only to see a fellow Sharkfest attendee washing his 6er in a wash bay. I had recently had both of my cars ceramic coated, so I just wanted to clean the road dirt off the car. However, midway through the wash cycle, the carwash froze, and just continued pumping soapy water on my hood. The owner quickly appeared, and told me a recent power outage had affected the equipment. He directed me to a wash bay, and he rinsed all the soap off my car by hand before directing me back to the car wash to try again.

Same result. Again, he rinsed all the soap off my car, but by this point, I felt that I had achieved the desired result of getting the car clean, so I returned to the hotel to get ready for that night’s dinner.

Everyone had an enjoyable dinner at a local restaurant, with most of us sharing stories about the day’s events and getting to know new friends or reconnecting with old ones. Then it was back to the hotel. Despite normally being a night owl, I went to bed early in order to get up early and wash the other car before the concours event.

The weather the second day was even more beautiful than the day before. After breakfast, I took my other car to a different car wash, and then we all lined up in order of model, and judged or non-judged category, in order to arrange them all on the lawn next to the hotel. 

All told, there were 6 fantastic looking E9 coupes; 16 E31s, including 4 850CSi’s, and one Alpina; and over 80 E24s of every variety – M6s, 633 and 635CSi’s, Euro models, as well as a couple of race prepared coupes. While many attendees come from the Southwest US, there were more than a few of us Yankees in attendance, some from the mid-west, and one enthusiast came all the way from Japan. He promised to not only come back next year, but to bring his car with him!

Another couple of hours of final touch ups, and it was ‘rags down.’ We had a great lunch on the hotel patio overlooking our cars, and then it was free time while the judges did their thing. I had entered one car in “Clean” and, for the first time, one in “Super Clean”. That was a learning experience for me, both in terms of all the extra work I had to do, as well as watching the judges pore over the cars in the Super Clean category.

The judges literally crawled around each car on all fours, and poked, prodded and explored each car more intimately than my family physician during my annual physical. The beautiful weather even allowed me to get my first sunburn of the season, much earlier than I normally would back home in Pennsylvania. We spent the rest of the day mingling, ogling each other’s cars, and generally enjoying the comradery. Because of the proximity of Spartanburg’s Spring Fling, we even had several local citizens wander in to see what we were all about.


Finally, it came time for our banquet and awards ceremony in the hotel ballroom. While a slide show of the past two days events played on a big screen, we enjoyed drinks and good company, and then came the all-important awards. First, Second and Third prizes were awarded to the best E9, and two sets of prizes for the E24 and E31 cars, in both the Clean and Super Clean categories. There were so many great looking cars at this event that I don’t envy the judges, but the top prize really came as no surprise to anyone. Roger Wray’s recently restored Alpina B12 5.7 – one of only 57 in the world – not only took first place in the E31 Super Clean category, but also Best in Show, as well as the People’s Choice award. A well-deserved trifecta for an absolutely gorgeous car.

There was also a raffle of prizes to raise money to help offset Sharkfest’s expenses. While obviously a BMW oriented group, it isn’t affiliated with either BMW NA or the BMW CCA. This year saw some really great swag raffled off, such as P21s car care kits, gift certificates, motor oil and filter kits, and some extremely nice cordless tools from Chicago Pneumatic. Linda won a P21s car care kit, which she declared would be my Father’s Day gift, and that I should use it on her car. While some of the group stayed up late swapping more tall tales, we retired early for an early start on what we hoped would be a pleasant but uneventful drive home the next day.

Part III – (In Which All Our Dreams Come True)

Our drive home took us through some of North Carolina and Virginia’s majestic mountain scenery during even more outstanding weather. We couldn’t have asked for a better ending to a great long weekend. The cars performed as they should, the streaming music from Spotify sounded great, and the gasoline went where it was supposed to, in the desired quantities.

One unexpected consequence of our trip occurred when we arrived home. Linda, truthfully, has never been quite the E31 fan that I am. However, she announced that she really enjoyed driving the car; despite owning one for more than 18 years, she had almost always been a passenger, rarely a driver. I expect that will be changing in the future. In fact, her last words of the day were “Next time I want to drive the 850CSi.”