SPARTANBURG SC (WSPA) –Teenagers learn how to “unlock total car control to the limit” at a driving school taught by former racecar drivers at BMW’s performance center in South Carolina.
The Ultimate Teen Driving Experience, held at the BMW performance center in Spartanburg, offers training courses for teens that teach them to avoid complicated dangers while having fun, according to the school’s website.
Among those former racecar drivers is Derek Leonard. He used to race a Ford Pinto with chicken wire for a windshield on a dirt track at the Cherokee Motor Speedway in Gaffney, South Carolina.
“We don’t teach railroad crossings or turn signals. You know, we’re teaching slide control interstate braking, decision judgment, big emergency and dynamic lane changes. We’re teaching real car physics to kids.” said Derek Leonard, a driving instructor at the BMW Performance Center on the East Coast.
The driving school offers two courses that teach teens how to avoid obstacles by panic-breaking, practice emergency lane-changes and drive while distracted, according to the school’s website.
“You hear people joke around at work. [Some of them say], we’re not curing cancer, we’re not saving lives. And I always tell our instructors, but sometimes we are because of the things people learn,” said Matt Mullins, chief instructor for BMW Performance Center.
One of the most important lessons at the school is training your eyes to focus on the intended path instead of distractions, according to instructors.
“And that sounds pretty easy when we’re sitting here in these chairs, you know, at zero miles per hour, but on the interstate, when things are happening and things are going wrong, keeping your eyes on the opening and not on the problem is much more difficult,” Mullins said.
The courses are led by experienced drivers at the BMW Performance Center, most of whom have a professional background in competitive racing, which they say gives them specialized training to teach people how to avoid or recover from extremely dangerous conditions, under pressure.
“It’s not so much that they have to be the fastest driver in the world to be a great instructor, but part of it is your ability to function under pressure,” said Mullins.
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 the Cherokee Motor Speedway in Gaffney, South Carolina.
“One of the older sayings is, you know, guys are either ‘wreckers’ or ‘checkers.’ They’re either going to win or they’re going to crash. I try to be really consistent and try to be there at the end . . . try to make myself relevant in the last five laps,” said Leonard. “Where some guys, they want to be out front just as fast as possible and they just want to stay out front, which is a perfectly reasonable strategy.”
According to Leonard, the most common weakness in professional racers, and ordinary drivers, is that they can be rattled by pressure. This is when eye discipline becomes very important, he said, keeping your eyes on the road and not letting obstacles distract you.
As a teenager, Mullins said he wanted to race stock cars in NASCAR, The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing.
“I always wanted to be a stock car driver. I grew up in the South. That was kind of my dream. And so met some guys out there in California, and one of them ended up running a NASCAR school in Charlotte that was called Fast Track,” he said.
He never imagined that, instead, he would become a driving instructor.
He competed in the Legends Car series that was racing around Charlotte and eventually got into the NASCAR Sportsman Division, then into the ARCA series and then ended up in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series.
His racing career ended abruptly after an accident on a track, he said.
“I was in a, a race at Atlanta Motor Speedway in ARCA series, got in a big crash, broke my neck, got flown out of there in the back of a helicopter,” he said.
But he soon found an opportunity as a racecar instructor. One of his friends who worked at the BMW Performance Center contacted him for a temporary gig teaching at the driving school. He’s been there for 20 years now, he said.
Leonard and Mullins have both retired from racing. They are among several instructors at the driving school who teach courses to teenagers and adults.
“We have people who send us emails, they call us, and they go, ‘Oh, my gosh, you know, I was able to miss a crash’ or ‘Hey, my teenager, you guys taught him in the teen school. A deer ran out in front of them. They were able to swerve around it,’” he said.
The BMW Performance Center offers a one- and two-day course for teens that start at $999, according to the school’s website.