Wiping out at a BMW Performance Driving School

By John Teng

John Teng and his friend Ed in front of a 2006 Z4 M at BMW’s Performance Driving School in Spartanburg, South Carolina.

Regardless of whether you ever aspire to drive a fast sports car or not, I recommended that everybody put it on your to-do list to take a performance driving class from professional drivers who will teach driving skills in a controlled environment. The driving experience will accomplish at least two things for you: 1) you will learn how to drive and handle a car in more extreme situations than you would normally encounter on a daily basis, but in doing so, you will become a better and safer driver 2) You can step on the gas and push a car to do things that would get you pulled over by the police on a public street!!!
So in December of 2006, I took a two day driving experience in Spartanburg, South Carolina was part of the new purchase for my BMW M5. http://www.bmwusa.com/Standard/Content/Explore/Experience/PDS/
The class allowed me to take someone with me so I invited my childhood friend, Ed, to go with me. I lived in California and Ed was in New York so we both met up in Charlotte North Carolina and rented a car.
Just walking into the BMW Spartanburg building, and before even seeing the race track, you know you are in a race car environment with all of the photos of the race car driver instructor’ s photos and bios hanging in the hallway.
There was a social evening the night before everything kicked off and we met people from all over the country who had flown in to participate in the event. From what I could tell, no one had any real race car experience, other than maybe a similar driving experience previous to this event. All in all, it was a group of people who just like to drive fast cars at fast speeds and this is how you get to do it legally and safely!
Over the course of the two days there was a lot of class time spent with various instructors who all had professional racing experience. The experience was about a lot more than just stepping on the gas pedal, it was built around teaching everyday drivers to feel confident with the control features of the M series cars. We were taught to drive a wet oval track at high speeds and then purposely put the car into a spin and to learn how to recover from spins. In another exercise, we asked to dive full speed on a wet straightaway and then step on the brakes to see how quickly the car could stop without sliding out of control. BMW pulled out a fleet of M5’s, M6’s and Z4 M’s to drive during the two day course, it was a car aficionado’s dream vacation!
The most memorable part of the trip happened on day one on a tight windy track in a Z4 M. Apparently the course instructor made some comments about being careful not to push the “M- Button” in the car. In terms of the 2006 BMW M5, pushing the “M- Button” increases the car’s horsepower from 400 to 500 and also turns off all the dummy proof stability and handling safeguards that apparently had been protecting me up to this point in the race class. In other words, when you press that little button, you are on you own with 500 horses underneath you. The Z4 M is not a powerful as the M5 but in any case, I must have mistakenly hit the “M-Button” in that car and during one tight fast turn the car spun wildly clockwise off of the track for about 360 degrees and then it suddenly jerked counter clockwise for at least another 360 degrees. I had lost total control of the car and I remember dirt and dust flying everywhere. Miraculously the car hadn’t hit anything or anyone during the spinout. But what I heard next was truly scary. All the cars had walkie talkies sitting in the passenger seats so we could hear the instructions from the teacher. The otherwise friendly and jokey instructor started swearing over the radio and told everybody to stop driving. I could tell he was trying his hardest to not go ballistic in front of everybody. And then after a few moments of silence, a quiet calm voice told everybody to drive back to the garage. I was sure that I was going to get kicked out of the class. It was a long short drive back to the garage. In the end nothing came of it and I got to stay.
On day two my friend and I drove together in an M5 and took turns at the wheel every 30 minutes or so. My friend got so dizzy about halfway through the event that he ended up taking a seat in a lawn chair in the middle of track while race cars flew by at full speed!
All in all I learned more about the limits of my new car, and most importantly, how dangerous the car could get if I was careless using the “M-Button” feature. Regardless of owing a BMW, this is a course that anybody can take and I do highly recommend it to improve your driving skills and to also have fun! One final comment would be to check with your medical doctor before signing up for a class like this as sitting in a race car is a lot more physically demanding than you might expect!

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