(Editor’s note: During the month of March, the Journal will present a series of stories about driving schools, including first-person accounts.)
Over the years I have attended a number driving schools, and I have learned something at each of them. They have varied from racing schools to off-road driving and each made me a better driver.
The first school I attended was the Buck Baker Stock Car Racing School, now called the Seat Time Racing School. I attended the school in 1996 just as I was getting into NASCAR racing as a driver. I went because the list of graduates included Jeff Gordon and both Jeff and Todd Bodine.
I had run a few stock car races in the NASCAR Winston Racing Series at the time and both my crew chief Bob Johns and I knew that I desperately needed some instruction as I really did not know what I was doing out there on the track.
At the school I learned drafting and passing techniques, and even pit stop skills and strategy. After the three days I had learned quite a bit and a few weeks after attending the school I got both my first Bud Pole award and my first race victory, both at the old Altamont Raceway Park in California at the wheel of a NASCAR Supertruck.
The next school I attended was the Land Rover Winter Driving Experience. This school was completely different and caused me to relearn everything I knew about driving.
The key to the instruction was to drive as slow as is possible and as fast as necessary. This was especially important as we were driving over sheets of ice, heavy snow, traveling on both steep uphill and downhill terrain. I did things with a number of Land Rover vehicles that were so extreme they seemed to defy physics. The school not only improved my driving but thoroughly demonstrated how immensely capable Land Rover vehicles can be.
The most recent school I attended was the BMW Performance Center 2-day instruction, with the first day for performance cars at the wheel of an M2 and second day at the wheel of a X5.
For the first day we started with an autocross — no, I did not hit any cones — and then we moved to the track for some high-speed runs, finishing with time on the skid pad.
What this school did beyond just improving my own driving skills, was to demonstrate the capabilities of the technology in BMWs vehicles.
The autocross segment showed how well BMWs stability control could work with the ABS braking system, and I learned that you could brake while making evasive maneuvers in the car and at quite high speed, and the car would never miss a step.
The high-speed track portion showed me the extreme level of performance available in the M2 and how good a track car a bone-stock M2 was with no modifications.
The second day with the X5 began on the track and I was amazed at what such a tall and heavy sport utility vehicle could do on the track. I was simply dumbfounded that the car could corner at the limits, again with the X5 never missed a step. The X series vehicles can do almost everything that the cars can do, and more.
That more was demonstrated on the off-road segment with the X5 on the all-terrain part of the performance center. We started out on a course which many times put the X5 at severe angles, so severe that when you looked out the driver’s window you were looking at the ground. Next we went up and down a series of very steep inclines, so steep that when going up all you can see is the sky and while going down you can only see the ground in front of you.
Finally, we came to the stream. Even with the water midway up the doors, the instruction was to slowly drive across, which I did, and this was a standard production version of the car with no snorkels or other add-on equipment.
On graduation from the school I received a certificate and a special hat, only given to school participants. Sadly, I lost that hat while driving my Z3 with the top down a few months later.
My takeaway from such schools is that they are beneficial for every type of driver, whether you are an aspiring racing driver or just want to improve your confidence on pavement or off road.
They are fun and informative and they have the added caveat that attending one can actually lower your insurance rates, especially with collector insurance companies such as Hagerty.
I always came away after each school a better and more confident driver and look forward to my opportunity to attend another session soon. I’m pointing toward a BMW school that uses the M4 GT4 and that awards graduates with an SCCA racing license.