Red Mist: noun, Occurs only in males. "When testosterone and adrenaline mix at a ratio that causes spontaneous male combustion." -M School lead instructor Ben Burrell
The original M3 was a flamboyant, look-at-me, be-winged, wide-fendered, short-wheel-based thinly disguised race-car homologation special that deserves every bit of feverish hyperbole ever written about it. Along with the M1, it made the ///M badge famous. Though still sporting serious flares and an extra 100 bhp, the newest third-generation 333-bhp M3 carries itself in an elegant and understated way. So in an effort to maintain this iron-fist-in-a-velvet-glove decorum, I'll let you imagine just how entertaining the "accelerated learning" of BMW's 2-day, closed-course M Driving Experience might be.
WRONG! I guarantee your wildest imaginings are off by a factor of at least 10. Maybe I forgot to mention your time on the wet skid pads is spent in 394-bhp M5s? Or the off-camber slick-track rat races? Or day two's 100-mph autocross? We're talking fun-and a learning curve-that starts high and continues to ramp up exponentially until the end of the program when exhausted participants can only smile and wish they were coming back for more in the morning.
"The essence of the M School is learning how to drive a well-built car capably," said Ben Burrell. "These are awesome cars, and if you don't take the time to learn how to drive them properly, you can never appreciate just how good they truly are."
The program starts with a day at BMW's new (1999) Performance Center and its state-of-the-art 1.7-mile driving course. With remnants of Hurricane Frances still coming down, the morning's three exercises showed just how well BMW's Dynamic Stability Control works. But even that "hand-of-God" couldn't cheat physics and prevent several of us from exploring the M5's off-road capabilities while trying to drift around the 300-ft skid pad. Red mist perhaps? Just to keep everything in perspective, the stopwatches came out for the afternoon and the big man from Tennessee celebrated well into the night.
While performance oriented and not a "racing" school, that line blurs considerably on day two when the school visits Michelin's Laurens Proving Grounds. Speeds are up and the DSC is off. Thank goodness the sun was out. The format is the same: three exercises in the morning, three in the afternoon, in three different cars. You recognize elements from day one's braking/turning exercise in the autocross, but now the SMG-equipped (yes, there is a secret launch mode) M3s approach 100 mph on the long straight! The figure-eight, wet on the ends and dry in the middle, teaches patience and finesse with the manual-box M3s. And I could spend the next month playing on the water-soaked, half-mile skid pad in the mighty M5!
In fact, the skid pad provided my personal "Aha!" moment. Tiptoeing around with the front-end chattering on the verge of understeering off the big circle, I was sure there was no more speed left in the car. The stopwatch told another story. Somewhat deflated, next time out the goal was to "drift" as far around as possible. With no time pressure, it was almost euphoric accelerating up to third and waiting for the rear end to step out. Looking down I realized I was going at least 5 miles an hour faster-without trying. Balancing the understeer with a bit of throttle-induced oversteer dropped my previously lackluster time by more than a second and a half! And shouts out to my teammates Charles, Daniel and Patrick who absolutely owned the final team autocross!
If you own an M Car, you owe it to yourself to attend. If you don't, that's even more reason to attend. It's unlikely you'll otherwise ever have the chance to explore these legendary machines at their limits-and beyond. At $3,650 the M School isn't cheap, but factor in plenty of seat time, the excellent meals, two nights accommodation, airport transfers, new open-face helmet and a few surprise goodies (all included) and, comparatively, the class represents a solid value. With class size limited to 15 participants, seldom have so few had so much fun.
For more information on the M Driving Experience, Teen Driving School, X Driving School, One and Two Day Car Control Clinics, Women's-Only Driving School, the new Advanced M School or any other programs offered at the Performance Center, call (888) 345-4BMW. And if you can't catch a flight the evening after your class, be sure to try the crabcakes at Soby's downtown.