SPARTANBURG SC (WSPA) – The BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg offers driver training courses for teens that teaches them to avoid complicated dangers on the road with instruction from professional racecar drivers.
“We’re one of the only places in the country where a kid can come and drive somebody else’s car on a private track with a professional instructor. We’re teaching real car physics,” said Derek Leonard, lead driving instructor at the BMW Performance Center on the East Coast. “We don’t teach railroad crossings or turn signals. You know, we’re teaching slide control interstate braking, decision judgment, big emergency, dynamic lane changes. We’re teaching real car physics to kids.”
The driving school offers one and two-day courses that teach teen drivers how to avoid obstacles by aggressive breaking, perform double-lane changes and panic breaking scenarios at highway speeds.
“You hear people joke around at work. Sometimes we go, Well, we’re not curing cancer, we’re not saving lives. And I always tell our instructors, but sometimes we are because the things people learn,” said Matt Mullins, chief instructor for BMW Performance Center.
“And we have people who send us emails, they call us, Hey, I’m back, 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.
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 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.
“It’s not so much that they 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. His car had chicken-wire for a windshield.
“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 real 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 is that they can be ratted by pressure. This is an important lesson for eye-discipline, keeping your eyes on the road and not let obstacles distract you.
“If you can get in [another racecar driver’s] mirrors and just really make him uncomfortable with what’s happening behind him, if he gets worried, if he starts to look up and look around, it takes his mind off of what he’s doing and then he’s made a mistake,” he said. “He’s missed a braking zone. He’s missed an apex. And that’s going to shave seconds off his lap time. And now I’m around him if I can get around him and then not fall prey to the same problems that he just did then maybe I can finish ahead of him.”
Mullins said he always wanted to race in NASCAR and never had dreams of becoming a driving instructor.
“I always want to be a stock car driver. I grew up in the South. That was kind of my, my dream. And so met some guys out there in California, and one of them was one who ended up in running a NASCAR school in Charlotte that was called Fast Track. So I was able to, through some connections, meet up with him,” he said.
Mullins 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, but he soon found an opportunity as an instructor.
“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.
Mullin’s racing team had to replace him with another driver after the accident, but when that door closed another opened. A friend who already worked at the BMW Performance Center contacted him for a gig at the driving school. He’s been there for 20 years now.
“It’s a great profession. You know, I don’t know that I ever thought that it’s a possible thing to be a driving instructor for some cool brand as a full-time job,” he said.
The BMW Performance Center offers several courses for adults and teens in Spartanburg, as well as several other locations.