Brakes screech, tires skid, and cars seem to spin out of control. They slide to a complete stop and the drivers anxiously jump out. Their reaction? “Cool!” It’s a sentiment echoed all weekend long, aptly and succinctly summing up the BMW M Experience at the automaker’s Performance School in Greenville, South Carolina.
On this particular hot, sunny, humid weekend in September, adventure awaits 15 driving enthusiasts: executives, business owners, a physician, a professor, and me. We’re focused not on hydraulics and horsepower but the intensity of the rush after successfully executing a newly learned maneuver, such as directionally spinning a vehicle 180 degrees on wet asphalt. “That’s how I’m coming out of my driveway every day from now on,” jokes one of the participants.
The weekend begins with a Friday night buffet dinner at the Greenville Marriott. And after a round of introductions, Matt Mullins, the lead instructor, gives a brief description of the lessons to be learned and the challenges and goals to be met behind the wheel of the manual and SMG models of the BMW M3 (333 hp) and BMW M5 (507 hp).
BMW has a variety of courses that target specific driving skills, but the overall goal of the M Experience is to provide an exhilaratingly dynamic course while graduating better drivers. Some of the basic lessons include braking. “It’s 50% of driving,” says Mullins. Another lesson: Keep your eyes out in front of the car. It is the most important practice a driver can employ when trying to maintain control of a vehicle in a bad or desperate situation. “Most people focus on where the car is taking them,” explains Mullins. “But when you’re driving, your hands will take you where your eyes are focused.” So if your car is heading off the road, looking in the direction you want to go is the best directional approach for steering out of a trouble zone.
There was new vocabulary, too. Understeering is when a car underperforms to your steering and the front tires skid; oversteering is when a car overperforms and the rear tires skid. Then there’s drifting—trés cool—a sport all its own, which involves making all four tires lose traction with the road without losing control of the car.
Saturday was an action-packed eight hours of obstacle cones, wet track driving, rigid instructing, timed runs, and lots of fun. We were left with a warning: “You don’t want to be the one closing the bar at the hotel tonight,” says Mullins. “You’ll need all your energy for tomorrow.”
It was oppressively hot on day two, especially under the racing helmets we donned for events scheduled at Michelin’s LPG—acres of land with a dizzying array of test roads and tracks. Our group set out for three large, engaging courses: an autocross with cones and curves; a dampened figure-eight track where we were pushed to take the curves at the highest speeds; and the skid pad, a winding wet track with a rapid sprinkler system. We even had a special guest instructor,