A few weeks ago I had the privilege to attend the BMW Performance Driving School in South Carolina. Nestled at the base of the Blue Ridge Mountains between Greenville and Spartanburg, the institution teaches both drivers and riders everything from drifting techniques to off-road maneuverability. The most fun and absolute hands-on learning experience I've ever encountered, it's the brand's ultimate playground and classroom.
In the 60 hours that I spend in Spartanburg, I got to experience a crash course in everything the school has to offer. We drove a number of powerful M Class vehicles on the racetrack, learning to time our braking and acceleration with turns and straightaways. We mastered maneuverability and control of the GS series, taking these incredibly agile and precise motorcycles on and off road. We even drove X5s on an all-terrain crash course. To top it all off, we ended the trip with a tour of the BMW factory responsible for all production of the X3, X5 and X6—yup, BMWs made in America.
The first day was GS day, or super powered, multi-terrain, all-wheel-braking motorcycle day. We got to try out the R1200, F800, F650 and G650—all amazing bikes in different sizes featuring the best engines and technology BMW puts out there. Nobody was very excited when we awoke early that morning to rainclouds, but in the end the wet weather made for a more challenging adventure. We began by learning some on-road techniques, covering everything from riding position to cornering styles to avoidance maneuverability.
Then, it was off-road time. The muddiness and difficulty maneuvering due to the weather only raised the learning curve and in a way made the whole day that much more fun. (And now I can assure you that BMW's waterproof riding gear is definitely waterproof.) I had basically no experience riding off-road and the whole idea of standing up at all times was new to me.
Thanks to the instructors however, I learned how to climb and descend hills properly and rode ruts, whoops and logs (obstacles designed to mimic real-life road conditions) in no time. There was all sorts of terrain including gravel and—by far the most challenging surface to ride—sand.
Now, I've never ridden dry sand, but I can tell you riding wet sand is hard. However, there's nothing more fun than being thrown from your bike onto the soft surface. Likewise, there's nothing more rewarding than getting across the entire sand pit with wonderful instructors there to coach and assist you the whole way through. I can't praise the instructors enough for their patience and overall good attitude, as I was, well, rather insistent on crossing that sand pit.
The following day it was car time. I have to say, I've never had more fun driving a car then I did that day racing M3s and M5s around the track. First, we learned a series of valuable driving techniques, most importantly when to accelerate and when to brake. The instructors taught us how to time ourselves around turns to maximize speed and control. Then we raced.
Basically, we got to drive some of the world's highest performance vehicles as fast as we could around a twisting, winding track. It was awesome. What really blew me away was the seven-speed sequential manual gearbox. To quote from the BMW website, "SMG allows for a true manual transmission without a clutch pedal, allowing the driver to keep the accelerator depressed through upshifts. An electrohydraulic system shifts the gears electronically, without any mechanical connection, for shift speeds as fast as 80 milliseconds—far faster than even the most experienced driver could achieve using a clutch pedal."
The driving school offers all sorts of experiences behind the wheel including a water wall and skid pad. We were of course all rather giddy about the prospect of drifting and the instructors obliged by taking us on a roller coaster ride through the course. We sat shotgun, while they showed off their incredible skills on the course, drifting and sliding about as we giggled and held on for dear life.
Finally, we tackled the dedicated off-road area to showcase the true capabilities of BMW SUVs. I can definitely assure you, the X5 isn't just for soccer moms and is more than capable on some insane terrain.
From first-rate facilities to talented instructors, the school is truly BMW driving heaven. Overall, it was not just a fun adventure (a true vacation from daily life) but a valuable education that I'm already applying to driving in NYC. Offering one-three day courses in motorcycles and cars alike, and an array of terrains and experiences, the school makes an ideal place to hone your skills and emerge as a more confident driver or rider.
All photos by Jon Beck.