“You want to make sure with a race in which you'll be flying home with other drivers that you don't crash into them. It's happened before, and it can make for a little bit of a tense situation.”
Driver education on a higher plane
Some pilots choose to grow slowly from the skill level they acquired to earn the basic license, and they never venture beyond the confines of the standard envelope. Most, however, push that envelope, either for the personal challenge or for professional advancement. Aviation offers plenty of ways to do this, with ratings to be earned that advance pilots to instruments, two engines, seaplanes, gliders and helicopters. The best way to expand on the basic stick-and-rudder skills that serve as the foundation of all else is to turn the world upside down and learn aerobatics.
But what is there for a driver to aspire to? To a greater extent than pilots, drivers seem for the most part content to get by with merely reaching their destinations in one piece. And we've all seen alleged vehicle operators rolling down the highway eyes akimbo, eating, reading, grooming and texting while tasked with holding close-formation clearances as tight as those required of the Blue Angels.
Combine this sorry state of driver involvement with the woefully low standard of proficiency that earns a driver's license, and the appeal of courses such as those offered by BMW at its U.S. campus in Greer, S.C., is undeniable. I recently paid for our 22-year-old son and 19-year-old daughter to attend, respectively, the two-day adult ($1,095) and two-day teen ($895) driving courses at said BMW facility, and it was money well spent (see sidebars). BMWCCA members get a 15-percent discount.
This came about after I had placed the winning bid for a slot in a $3,295 two-day BMW Performance Center M School course that the car manufacturer had donated to a charity auction to benefit the late Paul Newman's Hole In The Wall Gang Camp. This course, too, is money well spent; the price includes hotel accommodations and all meals, and drivers get to keep the new helmet worn on day two as a trophy. The instructors are personable, patient and talented not just at driving but at teaching. They don't take themselves too seriously, either. During the introductions, one senior mentor shared with us that his hobbies are taxidermy and collecting vintage Barbie dolls. Matt Mullins, a racer who has driven cars on the ragged edge for many movies, led our course and it ran with a precision the military would be proud of.
Unlike the lower-priced courses on which two people share driving and riding in 135s and 335s, this M School course allowed 17 students to drive mostly solo in M3s, M5s and M6s. We started in M5s on the skid pad, a circle of polished concrete made ice-slick by water sprinklers, working at arresting oversteer and understeer and practicing one of the basic tenets of advanced driving-point your eyes where you want to go, and your hands and feet will take you there. Pointing them at the presumed point of impact, a powerful instinct for the uninitiated, seals that fate. I spent more time pointed backward than forward. More M5 work on a slalom course followed.
Other topics during the first-day ground school (mercifully short, considering the finely engineered classrooms that awaited outside) included basic but overlooked items such as steering-wheel grip, mirror placement and tire contact patch-where the rubber meets the road, it's all hanging on the surface area of a few ham sandwiches. The PowerPoint presentations showed us the theory on how to negotiate corners by identifying the braking point, turn-in point, apex/clipping point and exit point and explaining the dynamics at work on weight distribution and tire adhesion.
The real learning, of course, came from driving the cars the way they were designed to be driven and taking them to a level that would not be prudent on public roads. The course builds on itself, to the point that the afternoon of the second day offers the opportunity to put into practice on one uninterrupted circuit all the lessons learned in earlier segments on sight lines, braking, cornering, accelerating and upset recovery.
On the second day, we had been introduced to steering using the accelerator pedal on the longest corner of the track. Lifting off the throttle at the apex of the turn to shift more weight to the front tires persuaded the car to turn more tightly toward the exit point with zero movement of the steering wheel.
At the appointed time for our main event on day two, a thunderstorm moved over the track. Much as I cursed the heavy rain at the time, it handicapped all of us equally and provided a real test of ABS and compromised tire adhesion and traction in a controlled environment. In retrospect, this was a big bonus.
M School is the driver's equivalent of an aerobatics course. Even if I never take my M5 to the track, I now drive it having felt its limits and their onset, an experience that provides the quiet solace of knowing that the car offers a huge reserve of handling capability in the everyday world.
BMW Two-day Teen Course
I was lucky enough to attend the BMW Performance Center driving school for teens this past summer. When my dad told me about it, I pictured a bunch of teenagers stuffed in a car with an instructor, watching what should be done and then playing a "Chinese fire drill" sort of game when the time came for each to get a turn at the wheel.
Boy, was I wrong! In my class, there were about 20 of us, and each pair shared a car. We drove 335 diesels through about a dozen courses and obstacles. Our instructor led the group in the beginning of each course and explained what we had to do, and then he pulled off to the side and gave advice and comments through our walkie-talkies.
Of all of the courses, my favorites were the skid pad, the high-speed lane change and double lane change, the performance drive and the waterwall. We also learned the right way to brake, approach a tight turn and do a slalom at high speed. Since I live in New Jersey, it's essential that I know how to handle a car when it is skidding on ice. I learned that in this course, and the skill will definitely come in handy during our harsh winters.
In the waterwall exercise, we were directed to a straight road that had hidden fountains shooting walls of water into the air. Our instructor, a few hundred feet away, controlled which fountains went off and when. Through our walkie-talkies, he told us to approach the road and avoid the waterwalls at all cost, even if that meant having to brake almost to a stop to make a 40-degree turn.
It got more interesting, though, when our instructor told us to approach the road and, as we were dodging the fountains, we had to answer a question of his choice by talking into the walkie-talkie while driving. This exercise was done to show how hazardous it can be to talk on the phone while driving. Every person in our group hit the water at some point when answering the questions.
It goes to show that our brains were focused more on answering the question than on dodging obstacles, and we failed miserably.
The performance drive was one of my favorites because we had the chance to test a full lineup of BMWs and take them out on a larger course, which meant being able to push the pedal to the metal. The cars we tested included the Z4, 135, 550 and 750. I was impressed with the Z4 and 550 and would love to have gone home with either of the two. The 750 was, without a doubt, a strong and well built car but I felt as if I was driving a hearse-a fast hearse, that is.
I figured the performance drive marked the end of our dream, but again I was wrong. We then took X5s off-roading on a carefully built all-terrain course. The course had steep hills, rocks galore and a flowing river that we had to tackle. The instructor taught us to take advantage of the steep uphill and downhill controls, which were extremely useful in overcoming the obstacles. I have always loved the X5, so being able to try it out in the environment it is best suited for, beyond just driving it, was a dream come true.
The BMW driving school provided me with a thrilling experience. I have never had so much fun behind the wheel. With this in mind, I am definitely going to be a BMW driver for life-as soon as I can save up enough money to buy my first one. -Felicity Moll
BMW Two-day Adult Course
If my young driving career were to be compressed into a SportsCenter "Top 10" highlight reel, eight or nine of the clips would come from BMW's Performance Center in Greer, S.C. Our classroom for the two-day adult car control class was a fleet of alpine-white 335s and Imola-red 135s that drove as smoothly as on their delivery day. Each of our two days on the track began with a warm-up slalom through five or six cones where we were reminded of the importance of keeping our eyes far ahead of our most immediate obstacle. This highlighted an overarching theme of the training: that our hands and feet follow our eyes. The slightest glance away from one's intended line through a curve would pull the car inches or even feet off track and butcher an otherwise smooth, fast corner.
After basics had been established we were pitted against one another in timed trials around small, closed courses featuring obstacles such as slaloms and decreasing-radius corners. From these time trials, we relocated to the skid pad for lessons on recognizing and correcting losses of grip by the front or rear tires. These two exercises were designed to teach us another fundamental lesson of the course regarding the contact patches between tires and road and how braking and accelerating affect them. While these concepts were not new to me, there were students who had never considered them before but who nevertheless made huge strides in their ability to control a car in adverse conditions.
I learned a great deal about the physics of a moving vehicle during my time in Greer, and we had more fun than I'd ever experienced behind the wheel of a car. There is no better feeling than getting the knack of correcting oversteer as the car snaps back from the brink of total loss of control and all four wheels return the car to the desired direction. -Christopher Moll