Morning came and I awoke on Day Two. Another early one—I got up at 6:15 AM in order to have enough time to get ready for the scheduled 7:45 AM departure from the hotel to the BMW Performance Center. I went down to the lobby at that time, said goodbye to the front desk blonde, and met some people who were also doing Performance Center deliveries.
The couple from dinner last night were picking up an X5. They were from Greenville, about 10 minutes away, but they took advantage of the hotel stay to have a holiday from their teenage kids. Two guys from Philadelphia were also picking up an X5. They didn’t arrive until 2 AM; they were waylaid in Charlotte because of the severe thunderstorms that passed through the area last night.
A couple from Atlanta already had their Z4, but they had been unable to set aside time for Performance Center delivery when they first bought it. Later, they wrote a letter to BMW stating that they would like to schedule it for a later date and they were accommodated.
The last person in our group was a dislocated Englishman who was getting a 545i.
The hotel shuttle departed on schedule, arriving at the Performance Center around 8 AM. Bill and Nancy, hereinafter referred to as The Z4 Couple, took their own car and met us there. We were greeted by several BMW staff (all known there as “associates”), among them our driving instructor, Jim, and my delivery specialist, Jonathan. We were advised of our itinerary for the day while our luggage was being stowed.
The group split up. The X5ers were spirited away somewhere while the rest of us went with Jim to the training room where the “ground school” section of the driving instruction was to be conducted. The first order of business there was to sign a disclaimer. This was a good sign. As long as there’s a chance I can hurt myself, it must be good! Meanwhile, Jim introduced himself and gave us a quick sketch of his automotive background, which centered on two areas: monster trucks and drift racing. (Drift racing, relatively new to the United States, is a sport in which cars are essentially driven sideways around a track, in a synchronized sort of ballet.) I got the sense that this was a guy who loved cars, racing, and anything associated with them.
The chalk talk centered on honing driving skills, particularly with respect to the techniques we would be using on the track. We learned about the right way to use anti-lock braking systems (ABS) and dynamic stability control (DSC). I have had cars with both systems for many years, but I had never really learned about what they can do for me or how to most effectively employ them. I had essentially left DSC on all the time and taken ABS for granted. Jim peppered up the DSC lecture by recounting the humorous episode of a woman in a 6-series who panicked in the DSC drill on the skid pad. As the car was about to spin, she shrieked, took her hands off the steering wheel, and closed her eyes. As Jim noted, there are a lot of things one can do when the car starts skidding, but taking one’s hands off the wheel and closing one’s eyes aren’t two of them!
Jim laid out what we would be doing on the track.
First, there would be the ABS drill. We would approach a set of cones at various speeds from 45 to 55 mph, and then stand on the brakes. The line of cones curved sharply right to simulate an obstacle in our path. Our goal would be to safely steer to a stop without knocking over any cones.
Next would come the skid pad. This is a wetted-down tight oval where we would have an opportunity to get sideways in order to see how DSC works.
Finally, there would be a slalom course, which would allow us to test our limits and those of our chosen cars.
It all sounded good to me. Naturally, all of us were anxious to get out on the track. We were not kept waiting long. We got up, stopped by the cafeteria to grab some water and headed out to the track. Jim first demonstrated how to properly adjust the driver’s seat, mirrors, and steering wheel. The car that he used for his demo was an Imola Red M3 with competition package, which would be my ride for the track sessions. While demonstrating correct foot position, Jim noted that in Alabama, it was proper driving procedure to hang the left foot out the window.
Jim had a two-way radio with which he would be communicating with us as we performed the various drills. We each had a radio clipped securely to the driver side door. Jim gave us the direction to saddle up our mounts and start them up. I hopped into the M3 while the Z4 couple got into a Z4 (natch) and the Englishman slid into a 545i. The only difference between this M3 and the one I would take home, aside from the fact that mine hadn’t been driven by 180 people already, was the competition package (ZCP). I didn’t order it on my M3 because I didn’t see a need for 19″ wheels, cross-drilled brake rotors, and a couple of other dubious improvements for four grand or so.
As it started to rain, Jim got into a white X5 to lead us out onto the track. The parade took a couple of warm-up familiarization laps around the track as Jim narrated via the radio, describing what we would be doing in each of the featured areas, as well as how to drive the rest of the track. The first drill was to be the ABS braking drill.
We queued up behind a set of cones on a short straight-away, where each of us in turn would accelerate to a prescribed speed and then stomp on the brakes while steering safely around a simulated obstacle to a complete stop. The initial speed was 45 mph. Jim stationed himself in the infield area at the end of the braking course. That way, he could jump behind the X5 in case any of us screwed up really badly. After watching the 545i and the Z4 do their braking manever, hearing Jim’s words of encouragement, praise, or constructive criticism through the radio, it was my turn. So, naturally, the first time through, I forgot that I was supposed to stop. Once safely around the obstacle, I kept going. My radio blared out, “You were supposed to STOP!” I looped around for my next turn, which was at 50 mph. This time I stopped. Of course I knocked off one of the orange cones. The expected voice came through the radio loud and clear: “Do you know why you knocked over that cone? Because you didn’t LOOK. You should have been looking all the way around the corner, over here at me!” I looped around to do it again. This time, at 55 mph, I got it right and received much needed praise from Jim. The Z4 couple changed positions, so that each of them could do the drill. That meant that we all could run through it a few more times. By that time, I was anxious to get to the next exercise. And so it was that during one time through, I forgot to depress the clutch as I ground to a halt, and I stalled. The voice in the radio (which was audible in all the cars), crackled: “Good work! I won’t tell anybody that you stalled it.”
On to the next activity, the skid pad. We paraded over there while Jim turned on the high powered irrigation system to make sure the asphalt was good and wet. In this exercise, Jim conducted his instruction from the passenger seat. Thus, he could observe everything—and I’ll tell you, he missed nothing! He directed me to drive around the oval a few times at increasing speeds. We would then start the drill by turning off the DSC, observing the effects of taking tight turns on the slick surface. First time around, I did a few doughnuts, spinning out nicely. Great fun! The second time around—same thing. Cool! I wanna do it again! I was flying by the seat of my pants, while Jim was shouting “Come off the gas! Off the gas!” Yeah, right! Spinning was too much fun to try to think while doing it. OK, so then we tried the same thing with DSC turned on. Much as I tried to spin it, I couldn’t. The difference was dramatic. Several more times around to reinforce the point, and I was done. I got to watch the others go through their paces from a safe staging position off the track. By that time, the rain was coming down pretty hard, so my M3 provided a conveniently sheltered spectator seat for whichever member of The Z4 Couple was not on the skid pad. In each case, I got to listen to some pretty good comments about the other’s driving.
The last drill of the day was the slalom course. We were pretty much left to our own devices, as Jim watched from a safe distance. I pushed it quite hard. At one point, I blew the final set of cones away because I had to avoid the 545i, which I had come up behind too quickly. Jim admonished me that the reason for that was that I had exceeded the limits of the car and myself. Au contraire, Monsieur Jim! I could have made it if not for fear of running up the 545’s butt! The slickness of the course added to the fun of this exercise, decreasing traction to the extent that things that would normally happen at higher speeds would show up at lower speeds.
The rain pretty much eliminated any possibilities of doing full bore laps around the oval, so after the slalom, we were done. I could have stayed on the track all day, and the others felt the same way. But it was not to be. We came inside to take delivery of our cars, have lunch, and do the plant tour. I’ll cover these on the next page.