While I enjoy my job there are some days when I have the absolute best job in the world! Friday was one of those days, and was perhaps the best work day ever. My job helps support the automotive industry and after spending several hours with our client BMW, our team got the experience the BMW Performance Driving School in Spartanburg, SC.
The school is located across the street from the enormous BMW factory in Spartanburg, SC. This plant produces the X-series. Visitors to the factory can participate in a factory tour to see the production in action. While we didn’t get a chance to view the factory, we did get a chance to drive nearly the whole lineup. And what a driving experience!
After our meeting we met our driving coaches (both named Jim) and learned what we would be experiencing during our three hour course. Two of our team also were able to enjoy the BMW motorcycle course prior to the driving experience. While the track was too far away for us to see, we were able to watch them learn their bikes and get suited up for the ride.
During our introduction we learned that our day was divided into three courses:
- Off-road with the X5
- Performance Track: 3M Coupe, Z4, 335d (diesel) 5-series, 750 and the X6 (quite a lineup and my apologies for not getting the exact series model)
- Timed Track: 135i
First up was the off-road course. Being a former Jeep owner and member of an off-road club from my time in Arizona, I was skeptical of the BMW as an off-road vehicle.
Our row of shiny new X5s looked more suited to a soccer field than an off-road trail or desert ridge. After a brief orientation of the vehicle we each settled into our own X5 (I chose the starting vehicle). Even starting these vehicles is a bit high tech. If you’ve never driven a newer BMW everything from starting, engaging gears and the parking brake is a bit different.
We caravanned over to the off-road course and began to put these babies to the test. The course covers everything from a rather deep water crossing, moguls which balance the vehicle on two wheels to steep hills to engage the down hill descent technology. One highlight was a hidden ledge that as you descend down tilts the vehicle to a 37 degree angle.
All in all, the X5 is a damn impressive vehicle for off-road. Seems a shame that all too often the vehicle doesn’t get to live up to it’s potential.
Next up was the performance track. We each jumped into our vehicle of choice and took a couple of introductory laps around the course with our instructor (walkie-talkies are in each vehicle so the coach can provide tips and instruction). I started in the back this time with the X6. We’d each drive two laps then play a game of musical chair and switch to the car in front (for me, it was improving performance and speed with each change of vehicle, a great way to do the course).
The X6 while fun to drive was a bit of a tank. At over 5,000 pounds it powered through the course respectably, but without the thrill of the smaller cars.
Performance, speed and confidence improved as I worked my way down the line of cars. Our exchange of cars became a orchestra of squealing tires, skid marks, screeching brakes and the smell of burned rubber as we brought our cars back to the lineup.
Beginning with the 3-series, the performance became a bit more exhilarating as the cars were able to be skidded into the turns by us novice drivers. The course enabled us to hit 90 on the back stretch then standing on the brakes slide the car into a 90 degree turn to loop back around the track. The Z was one of my favorites until it was my turn with the M.
One my first loop with the M3 I overshot the turn by braking too late and skidding the car right off the track. No harm done and was able to jump back on to finish my course.
This car is a rocket. The handling is absolutely divine and for me on this course, a little too much power (lack of skill on my part!)
As our confidence and speed increased (along with adrenaline) it was time to move onto the timed race. Pairing up we switched to the 135i and were driven through our course. The timed track consisted of weave cones, sharp 90 degree turns and other cone defined obstacles. Hitting any cones resulted in a 30-second penalty as did not stopping the car in the stop box (which seems rather small when you hurl yourself at it going mach-10 in an M).
While we were paired up we each still were driving. Each driver got five turns around the course to achieve their best time. I started as a passenger and after two rounds had to sit out my colleagues other three (it’s like a roller coaster and my motion sickness kicked in).
The timed races were an absolute blast. Definitely a course where driving skill comes into play, which was a mixed-bag for me. I had two clean runs out of five and took out a fair number of cones on three of my runs. But, my time improved enough on the last run that I took third place beating out three of the guys! Our first place drivers results were in line with the coaches and drivers for the school!
Our last experience of the day was what they call the hot-lap. A full course run with a professional driver. And, what a run it was! The performance and handling on these cars is amazing in the hands of a pro driver. It felt like half the time the driver had the car driving sideways! One highlight was the skid track (a ring of highly polished concrete kept wet) where the front of the car pointed to the center throughout the entire ring, with the exception of when the driver spun the car in 360s for a few turns.
Wow. The experience was absolutely incredible. As I returned home and picked my car up at the airport, I found myself wishing to push it to the limit. Passing the BMWs on the freeway I just shook my head and felt sad for the driver who would likely never experience the true abilities of those amazing driving machines.