Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden & Arthur Treff
The gas pedal is pressed to the floor. My right fingers tap the paddle shifter up into 4th gear. Speed is projected onto the windshield: 90mph, and I’m thundering into a 180-degree corner. The landscape is a blur. My chest tightens as I fight the instinct to slow.
I’m behind the wheel of a BMW M4, on a quest for elevated driving skills. Early in life, I penned a personal edict: “Thou shalt go where the action is.” Therefore, the two-day M School at the BMW Performance Center is nirvana… personal perfection. The curriculum is targeted toward drivers looking to push their personal limits regardless of what they drive.
But, why take a class at a racetrack like the Performance Center? Most of us have been driving since high school—and, other than Driver Ed class, have not received any further driving education since.
Ask yourself: Has your car ever drifted or spun, and how well did you react? Have you had any crashes? Does driving in rain or snow frighten you? Maybe it’s time to tune up the driver in you. Education is never wasted.
At M School, students are introduced to high speed cornering, aggressive braking, drifting, and skid control—the very things most of us want to avoid out on the street. The curriculum contains the magic that teaches a driver how to place a vehicle exactly where you want it to go, regardless of the situation.
Six walkie-talkie-wielding wizards guide our class of 14. Seasoned car racers with years of teaching experience, they have all completed the rigorous instructor prep at BMW Germany.
During a short classroom session on our first morning, the instructors display an easygoing confidence and humility as they introduce themselves. This is a good group.
The driving alchemy takes place on BMW’s 150-acre facility, which boasts a 3.0-mile track and two skid pads. Staring at the aerial view during the initial classroom session, I feel a little giddy. The thought of being turned loose on that course in a powerful car brings excitement seasoned with a pinch of trepidation. Thou shalt go where the action is.
Thankfully, the track is designed with training in mind, so it can be configured to accommodate much smaller exercises. Over the next two days, we will be divided into small groups to work on individual portions of the track under close scrutiny of an instructor with a radio, which is piped into each car. It’s an adult amusement park.
Water is for Drinking
When we stop our cars at the skid pad for the first exercise, I’m feeling smug. Having lived in New England, I’m comfortable driving in slick conditions, I think. The skid pad is a polished concrete oval where it’s always raining hard, courtesy of the sprinklers, which drown the pavement.
The plan is for two cars to circle the pad with an instructor riding in each. Students are expected to increase speed until a skid is introduced, then react in time to avoid a spin.
“Okay, a little more speed,” says Paul, my instructor. I feel the rear kick sideways, but before I can initiate a recovery, the car snaps around and I’m sliding backwards in the downpour, windshield wipers clapping their amusement.
What?! Not me!, I think.
“Gotta move those hands, faster,” Paul chides. I get us back on course and begin to drive the circle.
“A little more speed, here it comes…”
This time I react quickly, but the car has a mind of its own and slides sideways, coming to rest on the outer edge of the pad. Dammit! Not again!
“Almost… you weren’t looking where you wanted the car to go. Try it again,” says Paul.
Eventually, I react quickly and keep my eyes where they should be. Confidence in my car handling skills goes up a notch, but the experience has humbled me. Perhaps luck more than skill has kept me safe on slick roads all these years.
Paddling into a Corner
We roll back into the paddock to switch cars and hydrate. Strapped into M5s, my group is off to practice proper corner entry. One at a time, we’re told to accelerate along a straightaway then brake very hard before the turn. Allison, our instructor, stands in the grass watching every mistake.
The exercise prepares us for the afternoon, when we’ll be driving a timed lap and approaching this same turn very quickly. We’re also introduced to the concept of trail braking—gradually removing brake pressure while steering into the turn—which assures better traction in corners.
“Gang, let’s not forget the eyes, they tell the car where to go,” says Allison. This corner is so tight; it requires that we look out the side window while we’re braking hard before turning the wheel. This is disorienting at first, but really fun once we get it.
Hell, the rapid acceleration is fun all by itself. These cars have 8-speed manual transmissions. Gears are shifted by tapping a paddle on the steering wheel without pressing a clutch or letting up on the gas.
All the driver does is press the gas pedal to the floor, then tap the paddle for each upshift; the car does the rest. When done right, you’re pressed into the seat, and the exhaust pipes snarl with a pronounced bark after each shift. To us gear heads, this is heavenly. We feel like stunt drivers.
After 20 minutes of rapid acceleration and very hard braking, we’re soaked with the sweat of exertion and passing each other thumbs-up and shouting encouragement from our vehicles. Learning a skill that requires us to overcome our fear is intoxicating. My group is tipsy and it’s not even lunchtime.
M is for Muscle Memory
“The courses are experiential; they’re a comprehensive blend of car handling and dynamics, which can save lives in terms of accident avoidance,” says Jim Clark.
He ought to know, as Jim helped create the Performance Center’s curriculum. A motorcycle racer in his twenties, Jim then migrated to auto racing. His track successes provided him with opportunities to coach other racers.
Jim had been instructing at the prestigious Skip Barber Racing School for years when BMW asked him to create a driving school for the facility they were building in Greenville, South Carolina. This was 2006. In the beginning, a few thousand drivers a year came to classes. In 2014, the track was open every day, and hosted 15,000 drivers.
Driving well is a combination of skill, experience, and muscle memory. The classroom sessions at M School introduce vital concepts such as weight distribution, oversteer, and understeer; but they’re not lengthy physics lessons. The curriculum is designed to accelerate a student’s acquisition of muscle memory skills. The car is where the real learning takes place.
…and Muscle Cars
And what cars they are. During M School, you drive new M3, 4, and 5 models. The cars are bone stock, right down to the plush leather interiors. Once you’ve driven them, it’s hard to believe that they haven’t been race-prepared or tweaked in any way.
The tires are also standard consumer items that can be purchased at any Continental Tire dealer. Since the cars are driven hard, tires are replaced often. Technicians mount the retail equivalent of one million dollars worth of tires annually at the Performance Center.
When you’re not driving, students are treated to what marketing calls, “The BMW Experience.” In addition to the plush cars, M School drivers stay two nights at a 5-star hotel, a shuttle takes you to and from the track, and all meals are included.
The performance center has its own dedicated building with classrooms that open onto a dining area decorated with large, high definition photographs of BMW hardware in action. It is here that drivers are served tasty cuisine prepared by BMW chefs.
Lunch is Served
This is good, because by lunchtime the drivers are hungry and need a break from the action. It’s also a good time for students to mingle.
They have come from all over the United States, and many have taken BMW driving classes before, and quite a few careers are represented. Present are two engineers, a psychologist, an IT person, a travel agent, a car salesman, a college student, and a few entrepreneurs. For some, M School is a birthday or anniversary gift, and for one individual, the course is a gift for achieving his weight loss goal. I’d lose weight to take this course again.
A middle-aged couple has flown in from San Diego, where they each own a BMW and regularly drive them in track events. Their stop in Greenville was the beginning of a Southern United States vacation.
Incidentally, owning a BMW is not a requirement to attend classes, though everyone in our class owns one, except for myself and another gent who said that he was “between BMWs” right now.
The learning comes automatically while having fun. I mean, who wouldn’t love throwing someone else’s expensive car around on a track, and watching yourself do better with each lap?
Shall we Race?
The final session on day one is the treat we’ve been anticipating: The sections of the track we worked on will be woven into a small continuous circuit. This will allow us to experience the tricky sections at a greater speed, and we will be timed on six consecutive laps.
There are only three cars on the track at a time, so the rest of us wait our turn in the center of the course. We become giddy watching these beautiful, powerful cars roar around the track. The bark out the exhaust pipes makes us itchy to get out there. Thou shalt go where the action is.
For the students, this type of education is very rewarding, because all the learning comes automatically while having fun. I mean, who wouldn’t love throwing someone else’s expensive car around on a track, and watching yourself do better with each lap?
Running laps is a confidence-inducing end to the day, and when we park our mounts in the paddock, the class cannot contain our excitement. There are high-fives, shouts of joy, and the ubiquitous hand pantomime as drivers reenact moments of glory.
Rather than dropping the class back at the hotel, dinner is served in the performance center dining room. This way, instructors and students can relive the day and blow off steam.
During the meal Johan Schwartz, the instructor team leader, announces the lowest track times. He is quick to tell us that in our group of 14, our times vary by less than four seconds, which he claims is unusual for a random sampling of drivers. To me, this tight grouping is indicative of how well the BMW curriculum works.
It’s been a busy day, and once dropped back at the hotel, many students fall asleep hours before their normal bed time, only to awaken on the dawn of day two, bodies oozing muscle soreness. Breakfast is eaten at the hotel. Cloistered in a private section reserved for BMW school attendees, students wonder what day two has to offer.
Sure, we can do that.
At the track, our bodily discomfort is quickly forgotten as we idle our M3s around a new section. We traverse a significant elevation change.
Affectionately called The Corkscrew, it’s a precipitous drop with an immediate S: a right turn followed by a left. But, there’s a catch: The S cannot be seen until the car is facing downhill. If you’re moving quickly and you’re out of position entering the corkscrew, you might find your car sliding in the grass off course.
Before we drive this section, students ride along with an instructor at the wheel to get a feel for what’s expected of us. Two of us buckle in an M3 to ride with Jim Clark. Initially, he takes us around fairly slowly, pointing out braking and turning points and where our eyes should be.
But on the second lap, Jim puts the hammer down in the straight and approaches the corkscrew at a much higher speed. My pulse rate has become wired to the speedometer.
“You have to hit this just right or you won’t make the next corner,” says a laconic Jim over the roar of the engine. I feel a slight flicker of fear as the road in front of us disappears.
With only the horizon to look at, the car feels weightless for a millisecond. As soon as the pavement comes back into view, I see what he means—there is no room to recover a bad line.
But this section isn’t over yet. Jim snakes through the S, then accelerates into the downhill straight toward a tight corner. He hits the brakes hard, he makes a quick right, then grinds us through a 125-degree corner. I’m thrown forward against my harness, then forced sideways by the corners, my shoulder banging into Jim’s. The low growl of the engine can be heard above the howling of the tires.
Exiting the car, my classmate and I feel disoriented as if we had been flying aerobatics. Sweaty palms close the door, my heart is beating rapidly, and walking is a challenge.
“That’s all you have to do! You guys got it?” asks Jim’s voice from inside the car.
This suddenly sounds ridiculous to us, “Riiiight, we can do that!” We erupt into laughter as we stagger back to our cars.
In truth, I did fine… we all did. We were coached to go slow at first, only increasing speed when we felt comfortable. Then we practiced the maneuvers repeatedly, a perfect combination for muscle memory education.
After another water guzzling break, I find myself in an M4 headed to the very well-hydrated skid pad. Here, one car at a time, we race the clock in a very tight figure eight under the sprinklers. Trying to make good time on a small, wet course is not easy, particularly in a 425 horsepower car with the traction control computer switched off. Slow and steady wins the race.
The spirit of competition is kept alive by instructor Justin’s running commentary on the radio.
“Sue is digging hard… looking good… she finds some traction, and…. yes! Sue’s shaved some off her last lap, we have a new leader in the clubhouse! Okay… into lap four, she’s braking hard… nice… looking for speed…. and oooohhhh!… that slide’s cost her a second…”
The other three drivers sit in the air conditioned comfort of our cars, but we have the windows down so we can listen to the beautiful exhaust note as Sue punches the gas, followed by the swish of the tires pushing water under hard braking.
Slow intense lapping puts us into a trance where something magical happens. We begin to develop a sense of where we can brake harder and accelerate quickly on the slick surface. We’re learning to feel for traction, and it becomes instinctive. There’s that muscle memory thing again.
Oh boy. We first run the circuit in the M3, and it’s a blast. With each lap, we loosen up and let the cars run. This is so much fun, it feels illegal.
After a sumptuous hot lunch, we convene on the track, which has been converted to a complete one and a half mile course. It includes all the sections we’ve worked over the last two days, including the corkscrew, a bunch of turns of varying radii, and a long straightaway followed by the 180-degree high-speed corner.
We find out we’ll be running this circuit continuously for 20 minutes… twice! Oh boy. We first run the circuit in the M3, and it’s a blast. With each lap, we loosen up and let the cars run. This is so much fun, it feels illegal.
Cars on the track are widely spaced, but there’s no room for passing, so when a driver is being blocked by traffic, he’s directed by radio into the shortcut built into the circuit. In this way, the exercise allows everyone to push personal limits, regardless of their speed.
After we’ve had our way with the M3, we’re back to the paddock and strap into the M5 for the second session. We are coached that our technique might have to change a bit.
This car has a longer wheelbase, so it doesn’t turn as tightly. It also weighs 1400 pounds more than the M3 and puts out 135 more horsepower. One hundred thirty-five horsepower more… (Does my Honda Accord even make 135 horsepower to begin with?)
Running so many laps in powerful cars makes us all feel like little speed racers, and back in the paddock we pop out of our cars like champagne corks, overflowing with excitement. We cannot believe how much we pushed these magnificent vehicles. We’re all saddened to learn that the course is over.
Drive like a Pro
But there’s a surprise. We are to pile into M3s piloted by our instructors for a “hot lap” of the 1.5-mile course. From the passenger seat, we will use up our remaining adrenaline as we experience how it feels to ride with a professional.
Jim Clark adjusts his seat, and his face is more serious now than it’s ever been over the last two days… the instructor is morphing back into a race driver. In a low voice he asks us about seat belts. After a quiet, “Everyone OK?” he hits the gas.
Traction control has been turned off, and the rear tires spew blue smoke. We’re two car lengths behind another instructor thundering into the 180-degree corner. The speed Jim holds in the turns is ridiculous, and our laughter is the only response possible. His face is locked in concentration, but Jim’s hands are relaxed as they dance over the wheel.
Rocketing through the back straight, I realize that his morning demonstration of The Corkscrew seemed fast, but this time, Jim shows us what fast really looks like.
In the post hot lap excitement, we conclude that as hard as we worked and as quick as our lap times were, there is always someone who can do better. This proves what is possible when you practice driving (or anything) for a lifetime.
Piloting my demure Accord home was interesting. Compared to what I’d been driving the last two days, it felt grossly underpowered… more like a go-kart than a modern automobile. But, I was still feeling for traction.
I was pleasantly surprised when, driving through a tight uphill corner, I could feel the front tires losing traction… it was very slight. Automatically, my foot let off the gas just a touch, and I felt the traction return.
I was not driving an M car, but my experience proves that the skills are applicable to any vehicle. I learned a great deal, most of which is stored in my muscles, applies to my everyday driving, and I had a blast. BMW M School wasn’t on my bucket list, but it should have been, because education is never wasted.
The original article is below. Click to open in fullscreen…