SPARTANBURG SC (WSPA) – The BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg offers driver training courses for teenagers that teach them how to avoid complicated hazards on the road with instruction from professional racing drivers.
“We’re one of the only places in the country where a kid can come and drive someone else’s car on a private track with a professional instructor. We teach real automotive physics,” said Derek Leonard, senior driving instructor at the BMW Performance Center on the East Coast. “We don’t teach level crossings or turn signals. You know, we teach slide-control interstate braking, decision judgment, big emergencies, dynamic lane changes. We teach real automotive physics to children.
The driving school offers one- or two-day courses that teach teen drivers how to avoid obstacles by braking aggressively, performing two-way lane changes and high-speed panic scenarios.
“You hear people joking at work. Sometimes we say, well, we don’t cure cancer, we don’t save lives. And I always tell our instructors, but sometimes it’s because people are learning,” said BMW Performance Center chief instructor Matt Mullins.
“And we have people who email us, they call us, Hey, I’m back, and they say, Oh, my God, you know, I could have missed an accident or hey, my teenager, you taught him in teenage school, a deer ran past them, they were able to get around it,” he said.
According to instructors, one of the most important lessons in school is to train your eyes to focus on the intended path rather than on distractions.
“And it seems pretty easy when we’re sitting here in these chairs, you know, at zero miles per hour, but on the highway, when things go wrong and things go wrong, keep your eyes open and no on the issue is much more difficult,” Mullins said.
Classes are led by experienced drivers from the BMW Performance Center, most of whom have professional training in competitive racing.
“It’s not so much about being the fastest driver in the world to be a great instructor, but part of it is your ability to perform under pressure,” Mullins said.
Competitive racing Pedigree
Leonard got his start in competitive driving racing a four-cylinder Pinto, what they call a baby bomber, on a dirt track at Cherokee Motor Speedway in Gaffney, South Carolina. His car had wire mesh for the windshield.
“One of the old sayings is, you know, guys are either wreckers or ladies. Either they’re gonna win or they’re gonna crash. I try to be really consistent and be there at the end, to try to make myself relevant in the last five laps,” Leonard said. “Where some guys, they want to be in front as fast as possible and they just want to stay in front, which is a perfectly reasonable strategy.
According to Leonard, the most common weakness in professional runners is that they can get rattled under pressure. This is an important lesson in eye discipline, keeping your eyes on the road and not letting obstacles distract you.
“If you can come in [another racecar driver’s] mirrors and make him really uncomfortable with what’s going on behind him, if he’s worried, if he starts to look up and look around, it distracts his mind from what he does and he makes a mistake,” he said. “He missed a braking zone. He missed a peak. And this will reduce his lap time by a few seconds. And now I’m around him if I can get around him and not fall prey to the same problems he just had, then maybe I can finish ahead of him.
Mullins said he always wanted to race in NASCAR and never dreamed of becoming a driving instructor.
“I always wanted to be a stock car driver. I grew up in the South. It was kind of my, my dream. And so I met some guys there in California, and one of “Them was the one who ended up running a NASCAR school in Charlotte called Fast Track. So I was able, through some connections, to meet him,” he said.
Mullins competed in the Legends Car Series which raced around Charlotte and eventually entered the NASCAR Sportsman Division, then the ARCA Series, then ended up in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
His racing career ended abruptly after an accident, but he soon found an opportunity as an instructor.
“I was in a, a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the ARCA series, I had a big accident, I broke my neck, I got robbed in the back of a helicopter,” a- he declared.
Mullin’s race team had to replace him with another rider after the accident, but when that door closed, another opened. A friend who already worked at the BMW Performance Center contacted him about a gig at the driving school. He’s been there for 20 years now.
“It’s a great job. You know, I don’t know if I ever thought it was possible to be a driving instructor for a cool brand as a full-time job,” he said.
The BMW Performance Center offers several courses for adults and teenagers in Spartanburg, as well as several other locations.