Eric Johnson Shares His Performance Driving Experience

The BMWCCA, working together with the BMW Performance Driving School in Greer, South Carolina, came up with a special day for Club members only. BMWCCA picked up the tab for about 20 people from various chapters to participate in a one-day special M School of sorts. I was the lucky fellow that had his name pulled out of the hat at the Saint Louis Chapter meeting on July 11th, 2017. I have never been to the Performance Driving Center or the BMW factory in Greer/ Spartanburg before, but have given it some thought in the past.

The event was to take place on Saturday August 19th. It turns out that the Greer/Spartanburg/Greenville area was to be dead center for the total solar eclipse on Monday the 21st, so hotel rooms were a bit scarce for the weekend. I decided to fly down on Friday and return on Sunday. Since my flight was to arrive at noon on Friday, I decided that I wanted to see the BMW factory museum (Zentrum) as well as the BMWCCA Foundation Museum and Archive nearby.

The Zentrum had quite a nice display of BMWs from days gone by including, a Z1, a Z8, an E30-M3, the David Hockney 850CSi Art Car, plus several of the newer offerings from BMW. They have a nice little café, called Isetta complete with an actual Isetta on display, and the obligatory gift shop with lots of great gear for BMW fans of all ages and genders. A factory tour was not available due to a retooling going on at the plant for the next generation of vehicles.

The next stop after some lunch was a visit to the BMWCCA Foundation Museum and Archive. They have another nice little gift shop that has many offerings of older shirts, hats, model cars and such. They also have a nice selection of artwork available for decorating your car collection area. The main attraction of the museum, for me, was the display of vintage BMW Motorsports vehicles in the exhibit “Heroes of Bavaria, 75 Years of BMW Motorsport”. They have a great collection of vehicles on loan to the museum from all eras of racing, including E9 CSL Batmobiles of the early seventies, several 2002 variants, M3 race cars from E30, E36, E46, and E92, and a couple of F1 cars. The exhibit runs through January 12, 2018. If you are into BMW racing history, you don’t want to miss this show.

Saturday morning the weather was perfect for a day of driving fast cars provided by BMW at the Performance Driving Center. Upon arriving, I was greeted by one of the host instructors. The main building houses a dining area, a few conference rooms for the classroom sessions, restrooms, and of course, the obligatory gift shop. The facility was first rate. We were all asked to find a seat in the conference room to fill out the liability waver, begin the introductions of the instructors, and have a little classroom briefing on what to expect throughout the day.

The lead host instructor was named Jim Clark. He introduced the five other instructors that we would be working with throughout the day, most of which have many years of professional and amateur racing experience from motorcycles to open wheel cars to sports cars and even NASCAR. The briefing consisted of some car handling dynamics, which helped to understand what happens when you throw a vehicle around from a physics perspective, along with the four main goals of the day. Those goals were: Safety, Fun, Excitement, and Education in that order. They also explained what the exercises were that we were going to get to participate in.

There were twenty people in attendance, and they broke us up into four groups of five drivers each. The number worked out well because they had twenty current model BMW M vehicles for us to drive. We would get to drive the M2, M3, and M4 cars throughout the program. My group started in the M3 and headed to the awesome circular wet skid pad for a little car control exercise. Our instructor for this first demonstrated the goal with three students in a car and really made it look easy to drift a car around in a big circle. We all knew it wasn’t going to be that way for us

For this event, our instructor would ride along with each of us and coach us on what to do. Taking a 425 hp rear wheel drive car around a slick wet circuit with stability control off is quite the wake up call. We started in a slow controlled manner around the circle, then brought speed up a bit. Then she told us to goose the throttle a bit and the back end came around in a heartbeat. The object is to catch the car before it goes all the way and bring it back under control. I’m not sure I ever really achieved that on this circuit, but we had more opportunities later to practice the skill.

There would not be an instructor in the car with us for the remaining sessions. They have walkie-talkie radios in all of the cars and the instructors talked to us throughout the exercises. Next up was a braking and turning session in the M4 on a short road course.

A different instructor led us around the loop and showed us the proper line to take and what he wanted us to do while talking to us through the radios. One by one we would firmly accelerate, get going fast and then brake REALLY HARD at the marker cone before turning into the next turn. They really want you to stand on the brakes much more so than we do in a normal drive around town obviously.

The M4s were equipped with the ceramic brake option in order to take the abuse of the school. This exercise was also done with one of the track modes activated so there was limited intervention by the stability control systems. The instructor was standing by the side of the track watching each of us go through one at a time and giving pointers as we drove by. The idea is to be smooth in your accelerating, hard breaking, and turning to hit the marks on the course as shown by the marker cones spread around. Everyone had several laps around this short course to practice before going back to the pit stall where all the cars line up for the next session.

My third session would be in the M3 again in what they call the Rat Race. This takes place on a different flat large square area of asphalt that is also mostly wet thanks to the sprinklers. They have a circular course laid out where two cars will start on opposite sides of the circle and chase each other around for five laps or so. Whichever driver is better at catching the other scores a win. Each driver gets several opportunities to give it a shot and then there is a championship round for the group. There was a lot of sliding around here as well, and lots of laughing and smiling. Again, traction control is turned off for this event so we get to learn a bit about throttle control and drifting.

The final session of the morning was a short autocross type of course with a slalom section and a couple quick turns and an increasing radius turn in the M2. After we are escorted around the track a couple times, we are let loose to lap at speed with an interval between us to keep us safe. Again, the instructors are positioned at a couple spots along the course and give feedback over the radio as we go by. It really is fun driving these powerful, nimble cars around these circuits. One of the others drivers noted that he felt the brakes beginning to fade on the M2 on this circuit. The M2s did not have ceramic brakes like the M3s and M4s.

Lunch was the next order of the day. They provided a nice assortment of cold sandwiches and wraps along with salad, chips, and some huge chocolate chip cookies. Soft drinks, coffee, and water were also available at all times throughout the day. After the lunch break we were gathered again in the conference room for a short briefing on the afternoon’s schedule.

The afternoon consisted of four events:
– A longer version of the road course in the M3.
– A short road course that included some elevation changes in the M4.
– A figure 8 loop on a wet portion of track to let us do a little drifting in the M4.
– The autocross track in the M2, with timing equipment set up.

Again, we are led through each course by the instructor to guide us on the proper lines, acceleration and braking points. The afternoon is when the game stepped up a notch.

My group went out to the long road course section in the M3s for some high speed lapping. The instructors were positioned around the course so they could again give feedback as we drove. All five of us in the group were on course at the same time so one of the things that the instructors are watching for is that we don’t get bunched up. There is no passing allowed. There is a section of track that is a pit area that they will have us drive through to space us out as needed and this worked very well. The pit area was also used if a driver wanted to take a little “time-out” of their own. It is interesting seeing how much distance it takes and how hard you have to brake to slow a car down from 100+ mph before making a hard left into a 270 degree turn.

The next event for me was the timed autocross in the M2. The course was the same as before with the exception of having a square box of cones that you had to stop in at the end. Each driver would get about 5 attempts to lay down a good time. As with most autocross competitions, if you hit a cone or don’t stop inside the box, penalty seconds are added. Funny how it seems that the harder one tries to go fast, the slower one gets. My skills definitely could use a couple hundred more laps to work on smoothness.

The third event was the second road course section of track that has some elevation changes to deal with. For this session, we would be driving the M4s again. The instructor led us through this track and talked about what to expect with the left hand turn at the end of the fast straight leading up the hill to another left as you crest the hill. This was definitely a tricky part of track. Again, once we had our briefing, we were allowed to do fast lapping while the instructor observed and guided us over the radio. He also directed traffic through the pit area to keep us spread out to safe intervals.

The fourth, but not quite final, event was back on the wet square pavement where they had set up a figure eight loop with two sets of cones on either end. We were in the M4s for this and had the traction control off to allow us to slide around as much as we wanted. Our instructor showed how it should be done with some great control of drifting around each end of the figure eight loop. She made it look so cool and easy. One by one we each took to the track. I was able to go first and the car spun all around in the first couple turns. This is going to take some practice. A few of the other drivers were a little too timid for our instructors liking. They were so much in control and not sliding around that the instructor had them check to make sure their traction control was off. Again, we each had several laps around the loop, and I certainly wasn’t shy about spinning the car and trying my hand at drifting. I actually did have a couple nice drifts once in awhile.

When our time was just about up our instructor asked if anyone wanted to try a fun spinning “J” turn. One other guy and myself said yes, and we received a quick tutorial from the instructor. She rode shotgun and operated the shifting of the transmission. We started at the top end of the wet pavement, put the car in reverse and drove real fast in a straight line. When she gave the signal, I spun the steering wheel left and lifted off the throttle while she put the car into neutral. As the car spun around toward 180 degrees, I looked to the right toward the end of the pavement and unwound the steering wheel to straighten the car and came to a stop. It was pretty fun and we each took two turns at it. My second one was pretty good.

We took the cars back to the paddock area. Before we went inside for the days debriefing, we were offered a hot lap with the instructors driving an M3 loaded with three students. We all piled in and had a great thrill ride with a professional driver. There was a lot of tire smoking going on, driving sideways, and people leaning in the cars and laughing. Everyone had a great time on this ride that was way too short.

We returned to the conference room for a debriefing and awards for the day. They handed out a couple items for the top three times in the autocross. They also handed out the bag of goodies for all the participants. There was a brief written survey to fill out about your experience at the Performance Driving Center and brand loyalty. Everyone gave a round of applause to the instructors for all their hard efforts.

The Performance Center offers the Teen Street Survival School, One and Two Day Car Control Schools, Motorcycle Schools, and also SUV Schools with an off-road course on site, in addition to the One and Two Day M Schools. The center operates seven days a week with various programs, and they encouraged us to put together groups of enthusiasts to enjoy the experience. I’m not entirely sure how the One Day M School is different than what I experienced, but they did say it is a different program. BMW has a separate but equal facility in southern California at The Thermal Club racetrack near Palm Springs if you are looking for a winter getaway.

All in all, I highly recommend putting this adventure on your to-do list in the near future if you haven’t already been there, or want to go again. The facilities at the BMW Performance Driving Center were top notch, the cars were all in great shape, and the instructors and staff couldn’t have been nicer. As I understand, BMWCCA members do get a discount of 15% on the cost of the programs, which does help some.

I want to once again thank the BMWCCA national and local chapters for putting this special members day together and allowing me the opportunity to participate in this experience.