BMW Performance Center
Two-Day School Experience
May 15 & 16, 2006
Day 2: May 16, 2006
Today's briefing was much like that of Day One. Matt reviewed what we'd be doing today and gave us the surprise of the day. It turned out that they had another use for the E90's after lunch, so we'd be using new 650's for our skidpad exercise. That's right -- V8 torque and DSC off! If that wasn't a recipe for FUN we didn't know what was. With tongue firmly planted in cheek, Matt politely asked whether anyone would have a problem with the change. Naturally, we all reassured him that although we were truly disappointed, we'd suffer through it. :-)
Two way lane change
The first exercise of the day was the two-way lane change -- an extension of yesterday's exercise -- only this time I'd have to make two quick lane changes, the first to the left and then to the right. The length of the course was such that we had only an instant to establish the car in the left lane before introducing another aggressive steering input to get us back in the original lane. And, like yesterday's exercise, it was relatively easy to do at the starting speed of 25 MPH, but became quite tricky as we increased speed to 45 MPH.
Hard to describe, so I'll just point you at a few video clips [YouTube]:
Imagine you're exiting the highway on a long sweeping off-ramp, but because of limited sight distance you don't see the car stopped at the base of the ramp. This is the scenario that the Highway Braking exercise aims to simulate. The exercise was a natural extension of the braking exercise we did on Day One, except it was staged on a portion of the handling course because of the higher speeds involved, ranging from 55 MPH to 70 MPH.
This exercise was actually two different exercises in one. The first phase involved accelerating to the specified speed and then commanding maximum braking as we past a couple orange cones. The goal, much like Day One's braking exercise, was to stop in the shortest distance possible while steering through the turn. Chip and I took turns doing that, and then we proceeded to the next phase of the exercise.
For the second phase, Matt and Jim set up four cones at a point a bit farther into the turn than the point at which we'd stopped for the first phase and then got on the radio and explained the goal. This time the orange cones didn't mean anything. We were to approach at successively higher speeds and apply maximum braking at the point that our judgment told us would stop the car precisely within the four cones. In other words, we had to apply the knowledge we'd learned from both braking exercises as well as our handling experience. I found this portion of the exercise challenging, but incredibly fun.
Of course, because I'm so used to modulating my brakes to achieve the stopping distance I require, without realizing it I cheated a bit. I wound up applying maximum braking and then letting up on the pedal an almost imperceptible amount. Of course, Matt and Jim picked up on it and, laughing over the radio said "admit it Doug, you cheated a bit there, right?" I looked out the window and laughed and held up my hands in a "oh well, sorry!" pose, but my last 70 MPH run was perfect. We came to a near screeching halt precisely on target.
The one thing about braking I took away from the entire course was that if you need a BMW or any other car equipped with ABS to stop in the shortest distance, you need to push the brake pedal through the floor and not let up in the slightest until the car comes to a complete stop. Try it sometime on a deserted road from 50 MPH or so and I guarantee you'll be amazed at how effective ABS is in general and BMW brakes are in particular.
The point behind the exercise as well as the lessons learned did not escape me. I quickly realized that while I thought I applied maximum braking in my panic stop ahead of the deer that one rainy night, I could have pushed harder. If I had, I may have avoided $2700 worth of damage. Food for thought the next time an obstacle suddenly appears in the road.
Chip enjoyed this exercise too and did quite well at it. See the video for yourself [YouTube]:
Just before lunch we drove over to a small flat section of asphalt on which Matt and Jim had configured a small oval "race course" and turned on the sprinklers to thoroughly soak the area. The point was to put two cars at the far side of the oval, much like the way they do with the skidpad, and go around the oval three times. The first car to cross the original starting line first, thus indicating he'd gained on the other car -- wins.
The course was small enough that we really couldn't accelerate to more than about 25 MPH, and I'm sure that was by design to keep us all in check, but the real fun in this exercise was the friendly competition it spawned between classmates.
We were permitted to run with DSC in DTC mode so we could use our skidpad skills to induce a bit of oversteer around the corners, but I kept things in check because I didn't want to risk losing too much traction. Others did the same. I won one round and lost the other by a hair.
Skidpad with 650's
After an hour break for lunch, we reassembled in the staging room before heading out to drive nearly a half-million dollars worth of 650's on the skidpad.
This was largely an extension of the first day's skidpad experience, except we had to first spend some time familiarizing ourselves with the 650's SMG transmission. We spent most of the time in second gear given the speed and because it allowed us to really hammer the throttle and get the rear loose.
We were encouraged to hold the rear in a drifting mode around the pad, but I just couldn't get used to the car, the throttle lag, or the sheer power on tap. I later learned that I should have put the car in sport mode, since that quickens throttle response, but we didn't really have enough time with the car to consider doing that. I certainly did my share of 180's and even one 360. I felt I regressed from yesterday's progress and almost wish I could have continued to drive the E90 for the second day as I felt much more comfortable in it. Chip, on the other hand, was happier than a pig in shit. He did a great job and really got into the groove of holding the drift.
The key to the skidpad appears to be the quick application of a LOT of countersteer to arrest the excessive acceleration of the rear, followed by very small movements, easily managed with hands at 9 and 3 and no more than 1/4 turn of the wheel (such that one hand would be at 12 o'clock and the other at 6) at the extremes.
The interesting thing about this skidpad session was hearing the sound of the BMW V8 for the first time. It's a deep throaty rumble that just doesn't seem at home in a BMW, but that's not a bad thing. I'm sure when the E92 M3 arrives with a V8 and 415HP I won't have any gripes about buying and driving one. :-)
Of course, we have a couple video clips you might find interesting...
Next to the skidpad and handling exercises, this was a close third in "fun factor"...and not just because I kicked ass at it. :-) The Autocross Slalom basically involved starting out on a curve, plowing through a slalom whose cones where set up along a gradual curve to add some excitement, followed by a 270 degree turn and a run through the cones again in the opposite direction finishing with a max performance braking maneuver as required to stop inside (but not beyond) a finish gate. This exercise was a great way to combine the skills we'd learned in the slalom, handling, and braking exercises with some good 'ol fashioned competition between classmates.
This was the first (and only) timed exercise to use official optical gate-based timing gear, so we knew our time through the course to one hundredth of a second. If we hit any cones or blew through the finish gate we had two seconds for each infraction added to our time. I made two runs, 30.91 and 30.02. The second qualified me for third place in the event. Not great, but I'll take what I can get! I had some stiff competition out there!
No still pictures, but that's okay. It's so much easier to describe with a video [YouTube]:
After we brought the cars back to the terminal area for a break, Matt and Jim let us know the plan for the remainder of the day and surprised us with the opportunity to take a passenger seat while instructors took the driver's seat in four red M3's equipped with the competition package and manual transmission for a "hot lap" around the track.
After watching the first round of people take the trip to the wild side, I just could not believe my eyes. While the drivers were obviously showboating and burning lots of rubber around the track, I never realized that the M3 was so powerful and capable a machine, or so far beyond the performance capabilities of the standard BMW 3 series.
When it was my turn to go, Matt was driving. We took off like a bat out of hell through what was left of the Autocross Slalom course with just the right amount of oversteer induced by wheelspin to keep our speed up. While I lightly tapped on the brakes past the last cone at the end of this very same slalom, when Matt got around the last cone he applied the M3's brakes far more aggressively. He effectively demonstrated the point he and Jim were trying to make to us for the past day and a half -- you can go as fast as you want, but the front wheels only have so much grip, even during the weight shift to the front under heavy braking. You need to decelerate the car rapidly to the point that the front wheels are able to take the turn, and then accelerate out of the turn once the car is past the apex and the steering input is being reduced (remember the string theory?)
As we passed the apex of the first turn he put it in 2nd and punched the gas, sending the rear around so we were going sideways, the wheels howling in protest, while I was getting a good breath of fresh air through my open window as the shift in relative wind permitted. He took each successive turn just as aggressively, cranked in a lap around the skidpad in a perfectly controlled drift, performed a quick right-left turn to exit the pad with the tires screeching and clawing for grip the entire time. The last portion of the run was a mad dash to around 80 MPH before a very strong deceleration and turn back into the terminal area.
As he brought the car to a stop, I thanked Matt for what had to be the most fun I'd ever had in a car without a woman present. -) With a sinister smile on his face he chuckled and said "you're welcome, Doug". I reluctantly extracted myself from the vehicle, shit-eating grin firmly planted on my face, and marveled at the smell of burning rubber and brakes still fresh in the air, the electric cooling fan running at maximum, and the tinkling of all the rapidly cooling metal. She was panting heavily, but oh did she perform!
I walked away from the car humbled by Matt's driving skills and appreciative of the many years of training and experience required to achieve that degree of skill. I also came away convinced that anyone who buys an M car and does not attend M school (or any other advanced performance driving school) is a fool. With DSC on or in DTC mode, the M3 is as well behaved as any non-M car, but with DSC off the car is downright dangerous in the wrong hands. I liken it to a loaded gun. Handled professionally by a skilled marksman, it has the potential to preserve freedom for all, while handled carelessly, it will hit everything but it's target and cause more harm than good.
I also came away from this experience sold on the M3. While this may not have been branded as a "sales pitch", it's hard to deny the impact of the experience on this potential buyer's wallet. I can honestly say that when finances permit, I'm buying an M3 -- no doubt about it. Up to this point I never thought the M-cars could attain that level of performance or were worth the $10+K premium, but I was SO wrong on both counts it's not even funny. Although I'm not particularly happy with where BMW is going design-wise lately, this experience renewed my faith in BMW performance.
Incidentally, I have no video of this because I didn't want to risk the camera becoming a projectile under high G's, and I needed both hands to just hold on in any case, but I doubt that any video could communicate the experience as effectively as being there. The hot lap is clearly not part of the 2-day curriculum, so there's no guarantee they'll do it if you attend the course, but I don't think the instructors would deny a request for the experience if you asked. What can I say, but ASK!
Lastly, I can say that it was this single lap around the track that convinced me that I want to come back for the M school and eventually the Advanced M-school in spite of the fact that I don't own an M car (yet). Lots of money, yes, but LOTS 'O FUN too.
Off Road Experience
I'm not a fan of SUVs (or SAVs as BMW calls them), but I have to admit I looked forward to driving an X5 for the first time in its natural environment for the simple reason that I'd never done any off-road driving before. As we approached the off-road course, Matt let us know that Jim helped design it.
The course begins with some teeter-totters, the point of which is to learn how to sense the balance of the vehicle at extreme angles and use brakes effectively. I'd never done anything remotely like this, so I was giggling all the way up the platform. As I sensed the weight of the vehicle balance on the center of the platform I applied the brakes and let the platform rotate over to the other side before releasing brakes and driving off the other side (still giggling).
Next came a sequence of deep water penetration (the X5 can handle up to 21 inches if I recall correctly), a steep climb, and then a turn around a 19 degree incline near a fence. The fence was obviously there only to mark the course we should take, as I'm sure it would not have prevented us from rolling sideways down the hill. :-)
We finished up with a test of the X5's downhill control systems which, when activated, allowed us to perch at the top of a steep decline, release our feet from the pedals, and allow the system to automatically control brakes to keep us at a steady 3-5 MPH. You can see one of our classmates letting the electronics take control in the picture.
This was a clear demonstration that BMW had integrated technology specific to this genre of vehicle, rather than just throw a big engine up front to make it a "fast" SAV. It also convinced me that if I was interested in buying such a vehicle, I'd very likely buy the X5. Of course, I think this is the intention of this very brief introduction to the X series, but I was still glad to take part in the exercise and do some things with a vehicle I'd never done before. Life is, after all, about experiences, and this qualified as one of the most fun I'd had.
BMW Driving Experience
The instructors saved the best for last. The BMW Driving Experience is the name given to the sequence of driving a sample vehicle from each BMW vehicle line two full laps around the track, the point being to apply the skills we learned over the past two days to each unique vehicle.
Before we were allowed to unleash the raw power of these vehicles, Matt had us gather around each vehicle so he could explain how to operate its systems. I got a great video of Matt explaining the 650's cockpit [YouTube].
He also explained that aside from having fun, the point of the exercise in driving all the vehicles was to get a feel for how differently they handled. He made a point of telling us that we could drive the vehicles in DTC mode, which would make things a bit more interesting, but that we should keep some of our skills in reserve. In other words, "know your limits". Point taken.
Purely by "coincidence", Chip and I were in close physical proximity to the M5 when the music stopped playing, so we grabbed it first. I could give each vehicle a long winded review, but I'll just run down some of the highlights and my general observations:
- M5 / SMG - Way too much power to use on the street. Even In DTC mode, DSC will not let you use anywhere near the full potential of the V8, even if the "go fast" (500 HP) switch is enabled as it was that day. Awe inspiring in the slalom. I wanted to get the rear out and power out of the first turn, but DSC wouldn't let me. Very sure footed, but definitely heavier than the M3. Its suspension almost makes up for the weight difference, which is impressive in itself, but if I wanted a track car, I'd just as soon pay $20K+ less and get the M3.
- M3 / SMG - The most fun you can have with your clothes on, particularly because this one is still priced within the grasp of mere mortals like me. Definitely the most approachable and rewarding to drive of the entire line. Nimble, confident handling. Summary: In my best Wil Smith voice..."I gotta get me one of THESE!".
- Z4M Roadster / MT - My first opportunity to drive a BMW stick and I almost do a money shift. First, second, FIRST? Fortunately I pushed the clutch before it hit 7000 RPM. After I managed to find third and brake at the end of the back straight, I glanced over at Matt and Jim who were standing in the adjacent grass. Jim was doubled over in laugher and Matt had his head back, gazing at the stars. At least they were smiling. What can I say? I hate short shifters and narrow gates. But what do you expect with 30 seconds of experience in a new car? The plus side? The M3 engine and manual transmission combined with the glove-like fit of the interior and the drop top translates into a very high fun-factor. It's not the thoroughbred racer that the M3 is, but it's no slouch either. If I had a wife, I'd buy her one so I could drive it when the M3 was in the shop. :-)
- X5 4.8is / Auto - If there was an M version of the X series, this would have been it, but I just didn't feel comfortable with it on the track. Way too top-heavy. I'd definitely buy one if I had a pile of money sitting around if for no other reason than it's BMW's solution to a lot of poor handling, gas guzzling foreign and domestic SUVs, but I guess I'll always be an car guy.
- 760i / Auto - In spite of the stupid interior and overbearing use of technology in this luxo-yacht, I was actually very impressed with its handling. For such a heavy vehicle, this thing hauls ass around the turns. I'd NEVER buy one under any circumstances (I'll never be THAT wealthy...or gullible) but its suspension earns the BMW name without a doubt.
- 650ci / SMG - I took this vehicle out with far more confidence (overconfidence?) than any of the other vehicles because of my skidpad experience. I really hammered it around the slalom portion of the course, which it handled admirably, and tried to get some rear wheel spin driving through the apex of the first corner, but the nanny (DSC) wouldn't let me do anything interesting. I think I'm ready for the M-school.
Debriefing and Goodbyes
And then, before we knew it or wanted it to be so, our two days of fun at the Performance Center were over.
Back in the driver staging room Matt and Jim congratulated the entire class for a job well done. They commented that based on some of the reactions to certain exercises (particularly the timed ones) they expected to see a few of us back for the M-school, and they were right. The racing bug had bit a few of us hard -- myself included. Chip later commented that he would be happy just to come back and repeat the 2-day school -- it was that fun.
As Matt handled out our 2-day school graduation certificates, he thanked us all for being their customers, smiled, and reminded us that "the speed limits have not changed since your arrival here". The entire class laughed and acknowledged the kind warning to obey all traffic laws and use our new-found powers for good rather than evil.
You probably know what I'm going to say here, but I'll say it anyway. This was the best $900 I ever spent on a course, and whether you have a BMW or are thinking of buying one, you'd do yourself and all those that drive with you a service by attending this very safe, fun, exciting, and, most certainly, educational course.
References and Thanks
First and foremost, thanks go to Matt and Jim for being great instructors. They genuinely seemed to enjoy their jobs and definitely helped us become safer drivers. They're a credit to the Performance Center and the BMW marque.
Thanks also go to the staff of TAC Air at the Greenville Downtown airport (KGMU) for making my arrival via private aircraft and subsequent stay a pleasant one. If you're planning to fly yourself and intend to stay at the Hilton Greenville, you can't go wrong by touching down here.
Thanks also go to my colleague and partner in crime, Chip, for helping to make the experience a lot more fun. While it's certainly possible to attend the class as an individual, I recommend attending with a friend so you can keep the other guy's ego in check when it comes time to tell the war stories. :-)
If you have any questions about the classes offered by the Performance Center, check the BMW website or call the Performance Center directly at 1-888-345-4269. And naturally, if you have any questions about my particular experience, feel free to contact me.