According to Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” rule, we aren’t born prodigies. We don’t have an innate sense of car control at speed as we first get behind the wheel. But put in enough time, and you can get pretty darn talented.
MotorTrend‘s four junior staffers are decent drivers, but we wanted to push their envelopes a bit and increase their respective skill sets. We don’t necessarily need them to be racer-fast, but they do need to able to test the limits of a car while their brains and bodies are able to process those inputs and retain them long enough to get their thoughts on paper.
After all, it’s no good to you readers if our car testers are as fast as Lewis Hamilton but come back from a drive with nothing more than, “Wow, that was fun!” We want them to develop their inner-ear (or inner-buttock) sense of when brakes are wooden, when steering feel is spooky, or whether it’s compression or rebound that’s making a suspension uncomfortable going over freeway expansion joints.
When the BMW Performance Driving School reached out with just such an opportunity for our crew, we jumped at the chance. The PCW is located at the Thermal Club racetrack out past Palm Springs and offers a wide range of driving schools for people of all ages and capabilities.
And although the BMW folks offered up a day session in a GT4-level car, we dialed back those expectations to something a bit more real world in nature. The one-day driving school costs $849 per person (which BMW comped, full disclosure), but given what body shop and insurance bills are, that could be the best money you spend. There are teen-driving courses and less expensive half-day sessions, as well.
The daylong car control session is the equivalent of a 101-series course, whereas the “M School” would be a 301-series course. Personally, I have found nailing the basics is a far better way to improve and amplify your skills up to higher speeds, as opposed to avoiding your same old bad habits during a 130-mph joyride session. It’s easier to concentrate on nuance and learning when your hair isn’t on fire. It’s also a better way to learn how to drive vehicles while ingesting information so that you can write more informed articles.
When the gang of four expressed sorrow at the relatively introductory nature of their upcoming course, I reassured them that there would be plenty of wheel time at velocity and at the limit … just at a more controlled pace. We also agreed that if they could prove to the Car Control instructors that they were above the level of the course syllabus, they could always turn up the wick.
Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, certain elements of a traditional performance driving school were off limits. Chalk talk sessions would be limited in size and duration, and of course, the driving would be done solo with communication via walkie-talkie. That’s always harder because the instructor is just watching the attitude of the car from downrange but cannot witness the actions of the driver’s hands and feet that put the car in that position. It also prevents interventions by the instructor to put the car where it needs to be (as anyone who has driven with Hurley Haywood riding shotgun can attest).
What follows are the autobiographical accounts by our staffers about the mistakes they made, the bad habits they overcame, and the lessons they learned over the course of the day. -Mark Rechtin
Your brakes won’t break
I’m no racing driver, and most of my experience behind the wheel has been limited to the daily commute, the occasional road trip, and some “enthusiastic” driving when the going gets twisty. What I know about driving at pace has been learned through reading, pointers from more experienced members of the MotorTrend staff, and carefully watching professionals like Sebastien Vettel and Tatiana Calderón.
I’d been an associate editor for MotorTrend for scarcely a year out of college when the opportunity to attend BMW’s Performance Driving School presented itself. That’s intimidating but also thrilling.
What followed was a day of hands-on learning that did more for my skills behind the wheel than anything I could have ginned up on my own. And although much of the day’s focus was on going as quickly as possible, my biggest takeaway had nothing to do with speed.
Instead, I made my biggest gains when it came to slowing down. The challenge was to accelerate to 50 mph from a standstill and slam on the brakes as hard as possible once the nose of the car crossed a set of marker cones. It sounds straightforward enough, but most folks really don’t have the chance to practice threshold braking on a public road. Until you’re familiar with how hard you can smash a brake pedal—and the ways the car will buck, dive, squeal, and squirm underneath you—it can be downright terrifying.
At this point it’s worth noting BMW’s braking exercise wasn’t the first time I’d abused a brake pedal on track. The MotorTrend figure eight tests grip, acceleration, and, you guessed it, braking. My first-ever laps around the figure eight were in a BMW Z4 with testing director Kim Reynolds in the passenger seat. Right away he noticed that I was being timid into the braking zones.
“Why are you braking so softly?” he asked as we sped towards the left-hand sequence of el ocho. “Are you afraid the brakes are going to fly off the hubs?” After thinking about it, I stopped the car and simply replied, “I don’t really know.” Reynolds, in his own way, followed my answer with a story about the brakes on an AMG C 63 once catching fire around the figure eight. “Brakes have gotten a lot better in the last 10 years,” he concluded, and I believed him.
With that lesson hidden in my back pocket, I was able to attack BMW’s braking test with a bit more confidence. When it came time to slow the M240i from 50 to zero, I smashed the brake pedal with everything I had, and wouldn’t you know it, the little 2 Series did exactly what you’d expect: It stopped.
Over and over, I raced to 50 mph and jammed on the brakes the instant I passed the markers, and the car gripped down to a stop in the same distance every time.
In everyday driving, we barely use a fifth of the braking potential of our cars. This is for a number of reasons—mostly, we just want to preserve pad life and ensure we don’t blow hundreds (if not thousands) of dollars on a wear-and-tear item. But if you ever find yourself worried about stopping in a hurry, don’t be. Your brakes aren’t going to break.
Visibility is your BFF
I’m no racing driver. To me, driving is for pleasure and getting from one place to another safely. However, that doesn’t mean I couldn’t benefit from a performance driving course. Several lessons apply directly from the track into the real world. Proactively looking well ahead of where you’re aiming your car is the most important one because your eyes are your first line of defense against road hazards. The rest of your body, including your hands and feet, follow your eyes. After a one-day car control class at the BMW Performance Driving School, the importance of active vision was the most valuable lesson I learned. Why? Because that skill is as applicable on public roads as it is on the track.
The car control course puts you through different exercises, including slaloms, emergency lane changes, emergency braking, a skidpad, and autocross. Despite the different takeaways from each one, staying aware of where you’re going remained a refrain: “Look farther ahead and stop staring at the cones,” one instructor said over the radio. “Turn and look out of the left side window as you make the turn,” added another.
Staying alert is key on the track because it gives you time to react faster to achieve that perfect line, nail that apex, and apply the right amount of braking, steering, or acceleration. I lost track of how many times I heard, “Look toward where you’re going,” which helped create a new habit: keep an eye on your surroundings. That forces you to practice and develop new skills that may seem odd, like looking out of the side windows toward your intended direction or looking straight ahead while you’re snaking through a slalom. These also increase your level of awareness because constantly using these abilities while driving helps turn them into second-nature habits even when you’re not on the track.
On the streets, a high level of vigilance translates to constantly watching for danger. Being able to scan around or change your line of sight quickly enables a driver to react faster, allowing you to navigate dangerous situations safely and promptly. The emergency lane change drill stressed this grows in importance the faster you drive. Your eyes need to be way ahead at higher speeds so that you can make the proper steering inputs. Not doing so inevitably resulted in cones getting hit, especially after the instructor narrowed the gap between obstacles. In the real world, that could be the difference between you getting through a panic swerve safely or your car hitting something or someone.
The fast-paced environment of a track forces you to push yourself in a controlled environment while applying newly learned skills. If you make a mistake, you just skitter off into gravel, not into a guardrail or ditch.
Whether you’re on the track or simply cruising, using your eyes proactively allows you to get ahead of hazards on the road. Don’t just gaze straight ahead; turn your head and use those mirrors and windows so you know what’s around you, too.
Would I go back and do the car control course again? Definitely. This class teaches drivers new reflexes or fine-tunes existing ones. Together with finding the right seating position, establishing good pedal techniques, and holding the steering wheel properly, you get a comprehensive lesson in good driving habits for use on and off the track.
Racetrack to canyon
I’m no racing driver. Most of my driving is the perfect opposite of racing: running errands, cruising on the freeway—or dawdling in traffic. But when I review performance cars, count on me to head straight to the hills above Malibu. I’ll spend hours coursing up and down its canyon roads, doing my best to suss out the vehicle’s capabilities and retain those observations in my head.
Did my day at driving school make me better in any of those arenas? Not quite.
Don’t get me wrong, it was a blast, and I came away with new skills. That’s all owed to BMW’s team of pro driving instructors, who explained the science behind vehicle dynamics to hone my technique. Over the day they guided me through various exercises, two of which felt especially beneficial: the skidpad and the handling course.
A suggestion: Raze your landscaping, and replace it with a swath of polished concrete. You want a skidpad of your own. Sliding an M240i absent stability control was massive fun. But holding epic (-feeling) powerslides and drifts didn’t come naturally. Initially, I could catch little prods of the throttle with nervous twitches on the wheel, but linking the accelerator’s lower depths to a reaction from my hands was challenging. In my first few laps I managed to point the taillights in the wrong direction.
Calls came over the walkie-talkie to add more, more, come on Alex, more opposite lock as the rear stepped out. Suddenly, with the steering wheel’s bottom spoke waving at the headliner, I felt that catch point. Now I could steer with the throttle, modulating it to adjust my angle. It was a lightbulb moment, and by the end of skidpad study, I was looking ahead through the side window as much as I was through the windshield.
Next was the handling course, designed to combine each individual lesson we’d practiced. Made up of left-right transitions, sightline-testing radii, and straights just long enough to grab third, it drove like a flattened section of mountainous Malibu. As I pushed an M340i to my maximum, it was validating to feel how all the lessons from earlier came together. Nonetheless, maintaining consistency between laps was damn near impossible, renewing my respect for pros who do so for hours on race day.
But here’s the thing: That’s not how I drive in the real world—ever. Let’s just say I’m not trying to go slow when I’m in the canyons, but I never dare to take the car or myself to the limit. There are too many risks, and I can still get a feel for things below the extremes. Most of the time, the main limits I explore are how much stereo volume or heated seat I can tolerate.
What I learned at driving school simply doesn’t really apply there. Next time I’m at a track, I’ll feel more confident, but I’ll probably need to drive to the grocery store a few times before then. Look, any enthusiast who invests in driving school will have fun and learn a lot. I sure did. Just don’t expect to gain race car driver skills in a day—or the ability to flout diligence on public roads.
Grip and Grin
I’m no racing driver. I’ve played plenty of Forza, enjoyed blasting through the canyons on occasion, and put on a respectable performance at last year’s office karting party, but more experienced folks on staff could run circles around me.
That’s how I ended up at Thermal, in class for the first time since college, frantically tapping at a keyboard to record every wisdom nugget our stunt driver turned instructor, Brian, was willing to share. He detailed how and why to keep my eyes as far ahead as possible, the proper methodology to adjust my seat, and the reason I wasn’t taught to position my hands 9 and 3 (it has to do with World War II expats and Hollywood cinematography). But the most significant insights came from behind the wheel.
There are two limiting reactants in any cornering equation: grip and the nut behind the wheel. Extracting every last modicum of speed from a corner involves pushing yourself (said nut) and the tires to their limits without exceeding them, as doing so saps precious momentum and makes it tricky to keep your tires on pavement. More on that later. The only way to familiarize yourself with these limits is to push past them, and the skidpad and handling course at Thermal provided a safe environment where we could do just that.
After a much-needed slalom warmup (my first run had instructors watching me drive the wrong direction and flatten a cone), the four of us MotorTrenders formed a caravan of M340i sedans behind Adam—a tall, slim former competitive drifter with a cool Carolinian drawl. Think gymkhana McConaughey with a green M5 Competition in place of the Lincoln.
Adam led us to a circle of diamond-polished concrete with grip similar to a post-blizzard parking lot. At just 20 mph, a light throttle blip was enough to scoot the rear out. Our first sloppy pirouettes had me grateful none of us are dancers. With ample coaching from Adam via radio, we each learned precisely where the limit was and how to control the car with opposite lock and throttle once we had gone past it.
The skidpad facilitated our familiarization with the tires’ lateral grip limits, an ABS braking session did the same for longitudinal grip, and we had to test our own limits to bring it all together for timed laps of a technical handling track.
Driving too aggressively through the corners caused traction control to step in and cut power. Exploring how late I could brake, I shot off the track into the dust and had to be shuttled back to the start in the golf cart of shame. Only when I managed to stay within my own limits and those of the car did I secure the quickest lap of the day and bragging rights over my co-workers.
Few of the program’s lessons apply to everyday transportation outside reactive emergency scenarios, but I left the school with a greater confidence for driving quickly and a stronger familiarity with cars’ cornering and braking limits, should I ever exceed them on the street. Crazy fun was a welcome side effect.
Adam Seaman, BMW Performance instructor
How did our guys do?
All in all, the four guests were above average when compared to our typical Car Control Clinic students. They all had a basic understanding of driving dynamics, terminology, and theory before attending the class. With that being said, they all still fell victim to the normal mistakes that we see with 99 percent of our participants. After speaking with the other instructors, Bryan and Dave, we came to the conclusion that all of them would benefit from a two-day M School followed by either private instruction or the Advanced M School.
Improvements that could be made by the entire group were as follows:
- Vision: Disciplining the vision to stay ahead of the vehicle and continuously pick up new visual references without target fixating. This is the single biggest improvement that they could all make in their driving and would more than likely fix many if not all problems listed below.
- Braking: Braking either too little with not enough pressure or braking too late is a common issue when the vision has not been disciplined. It could also be a result of poor decision-making, but neither I nor the other instructors think that was the case with these guests.
- Steering Inputs: Many times the guests would abruptly ask the car to change directions by steering the wheel aggressively and all at once. This can cause many issues with the handling of the car, but the most common is inconsistent steering response due to understeer. When driving, steering inputs should always be done in a smooth and progressive manner, but this is especially true when we near the limits of the tire. Again, this can usually be fixed by disciplining the vision.
- Acceleration: All four guests had a tendency to apply throttle early while exiting from a corner. This is another mistake that can cause many different issues with the handling of the car, but the most common is understeer, pushing the car to the outside of the track too early on corner exit. Acceleration should be done in direct relation to steering input. Under the assumption that the driver is at the tires’ limits while cornering, acceleration can only take place when the steering wheel angle is being decreased. This is usually a mistake that can be fixed through experience and disciplining the vision.
One guest was very cautious in his driving. He had a tendency to find his comfort level and then stay there without challenging the speed much further. I don’t think that this should necessarily be considered a mistake or viewed in a negative light at all. Instead, I consider this good decision-making on his part. He knew his limits, and he stayed within that lane while turning consistent laps that were technically sound and easily repeatable. This type of decision-making is what I would look for in a driver if I needed controlled-circumstance vehicle testing done.
In closing, Alex, Duncan, Stefan, and Nick were all a pleasure to work with. They understood and responded to feedback without extensive explanations having to be given, and they displayed knowledge that our typical Car Control Clinic customers would not be familiar with prior to our school. This was fun for us as instructors because we were able to get into some of the more advanced teachings that we would not typically be able to share with the average customer.
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