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How BMW’s driving schools unlock your inner Bruce Lee

October 26, 2012

There are driving schools and there are driving schools. And compared with parallel parking in a high-school lot, rocketing BMW's hottest cars around Connecticut's Lime Rock Raceway puts the "high" in higher education.

BMW's Performance Driving Schools works from Spartanburg, S.C., within sight of the factory that produces the X3, X5 and X6 crossovers. More than 15,000 BMW fans make the pilgrimage every year, from track events and teen driving schools to the Performance Center Delivery program. The latter lets buyers take personal delivery of any new BMW, and it includes a free one-night hotel stay, a factory tour, a short introductory drive program and a hot lap on track with a pro driver.

Now BMW is taking its high-speed show on the road to tracks including Road Atlanta and NASCAR's Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, N.C. New locations are in the works. One tasty possibility has BMW eyeballing the new Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas, the nation's first purpose-built Formula One Grand Prix track.

Here at historic Lime Rock, an overcast day is brightened by rows of gleaming 1-Series M Coupes, M3 and M5 sedans — the Bavarian cream puffs of BMW's vaunted high-performance M division. And instead of the typical round-the-block dealership test drive, we're about to drive their doors off for an entire day. As students gather and introduce themselves, you can practically smell the adrenaline wafting with the morning coffee.

Our M Experience school is led by Matt Mullins, the irrepressible pro who's been BMW's chief driving instructor for 12 years. An opening chalk talk outlines Lime Rock's short-yet-rollicking 1.5-mile track. Mullins covers such concepts as weight transfer, the proper racing line and key driving techniques -- eyes up, turn your head, relaxed grip, look where you want to go, plan your future — that apply "whether you're trying to set a track record or just survive on the street."

Mullins asks us a rhetorical question: When you crash a car, what's the last thing you remember seeing? The answer is almost always the same: The thing you ended up hitting. "It's the ditch you're sliding toward, or the bumper of the car you end up rear-ending," Mullins says.

Instead, just as race drivers are craning their necks to see as far ahead as possible — ignoring every obstacle, from track walls to the car ahead of them -- street drivers learn that a car tends to go exactly where your eyes are looking.

"Fix your eyes, and your hands wake up and you turn into Bruce Lee," Mullins says.

As with most schools, students range from track newbies to experienced drivers. And this being a BMW program — at $2,500 per student, versus $1,450 for the same school on BMW's home turf — we've got a sprinkling of doctors, attorneys, entrepreneurs, even a 71-year-old Yale biochemistry professor who doesn't look a day over 59.

Split into groups, the fun, um, learning begins. We start with a braking exercise, then tackle a wet skidpad for some drifting and skidding exercises. With Mullins urging me on, I eventually manage to carve a few controlled, lazy drifts around the orbit. Lime Rock's excellent karting track doubles as our timed autocross course, where the stopwatch get everyone's competitive juices flowing.

Moving to the big-boy circuit, a few lead-and-follow sessions behind the instructors familiarize us with the circuit, including Lime Rock's blind uphill that tests our nerves and skill.

The track environment instantly reveals the talents and personalities of each car: The compact 1M Coupe is the feisty terrier, chewing the heels of the bigger dogs; it's also the only car here with a manual transmission, a six-speed that operates with signature BMW precision. The M5 is a brute with remarkable capability for a midsize sedan, including a stentorian 560 hp that lets it catapult ahead whenever the road straightens. Yet its relative bulk and luxurious isolation are also apparent, especially when I need to negotiate fast corners. And with apologies to loyalists of other BMWs, one lap in the M3 proves it's still this brand's performance king, a classic blend of V-8 power, braking and handling sensation. As ever, the M3 also feels more at home on track — more agile, precise and ultimately enjoyable -- than some larger-bore sport sedans, including the Cadillac CTS-Vs and Mercedes E63 AMG.

Our day winding down, I chat with students including Greg Papazian. Just a few days before, the Boston-based internist performed impromptu surgery on his well-aged 1995 M3, a car he used to street park in his Dorchester neighborhood: Stripping the interior and installing five-point harnesses to prepare it for club racing.

"I'd been to a couple of track days, and decided I loved it," Papazian says, noting that today is his first taste of professional instruction. "I wanted to learn from real racers, to see what they're doing and what they're thinking."

It's what driving schools are all about, Mullins says. And if car lovers happen to test drive a new BMW and fall head over heels, so much the better.

"We get guys and girls addicted to driving cool cars," Mullins says.