Hello There! So.... it's been a few days since I last Blogged. Dear Lord, where have I been? What have I been up to? Why have I kept you - my earnest readers waiting? For some very good reasons my friends, for some very good reasons... reasons which I hope will bring the same silly, childish grin that I have worn on my face to your face.
Much has happened since I visited my beloved New York City, I have paid tolls, bought more gas, put more miles on the M5 and had fun...fun...fun...fun, glorious fun while basking in the some amazing Southern hospitality. My roving has taken me south, through the great states of Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. As I write tonight, I have even traveled through Tennessee where I met a Dragon and said a brief hello to a King. I am now sitting in balmy Louisiana with many a tale to tell.
For now, I am going to share one of my fondest adventures. It is one which saw me going back to school to have fun! For this adventure, my travels took me to Spartanburg, NC... the US location for BMW, the plant where cars like the X5 are assembled. I was aware prior to going down that the Zentrum Museum was closed for some renovation or refurbishment so I wasn't sure they would even be doing plant tours during this period. The good ole interweb stated they were still doing this and were open so I decided it was worth the risk. It was on my way to Atlanta anyway, so why not?
As I pulled off the freeway - highway to my across the ocean brethren - there was a sign that indicated going left would take me to the plant, however going straight would take me to this place called the BMW Performance Center. A sly smile greased my face, I was in an M5 with go fast bits on it and looking like a prized fighting bull spoiling for a challenge. I kept the steering wheel point straight and headed for the Performance Center.
When I finally got to the building, I realized that I was actually at the BMW Performance Driving School. WHOO HOO!!! That fabled place where all BMW owners dream of driving an ///M powered Ultimate Driving machine on a BMW track. I was home..... no wait, I was at school! Time to go get registered for class. It would be Performance Driving 101 for me please, give me ALL 16 units!
I turned into the driveway leading up to the building and it was with either shock and horror or bemusement that I looked at the sign that said, "No Concealed Weapons Allowed." I kid you not people! What was going on here? Were jealous Audi or MBZ spies sneaking on to the premises? Volkswagen executive desperate for new jobs? Were GM designers being chased off with loaded guns to stem the rate at which they were catching up with German marquees?
I have to mention something before I get too deep into this story. Weeks before I set off on my journey, I had contacted BMW USA in NJ - the Corporate offices. I had asked if there was any way I could visit with them while visiting New York or the East Coast. I was not asking for anything other than a friendly hand shake and just to feel that my patronage of the brand was appreciated. The response I got back left a bad taste in my mouth. I got a standard, "we get a lot of these responses, blah, blah, blah...... " Basically I was told that I was not really important and they did not have time for some lowly customer. I responded by telling whoever was behind that screen and key board that I have always owned BMWs, and at the moment was about to embark on an adventure with one of their most iconic and most successful models - this seemed to fall on deaf ears. This chap could not even be bothered to show some empathy. I took a moment to remind him of the current Audi ad where a legacy BMW customer decided to try something new and something different.... that might be me after this trip. Wait..... that gun sign! Maybe that was for me?????
Anyway, fast forward to the day I arrived at the Performance Center. As I drove towards the parking lot, I drove by some staff members and what I assumed were Performance School customers. It was so uber cool to see everyone pause as I drove by and wave at me. I felt special, and not short bus special this time - I felt super, full size, ///M-Powered sedan special. Make way people, a real ///M car was coming through!
At the parking lot, I saw a Titanium Silver M5 of the same model range - an E39. I smiled to myself here. What were the chances one of these would be in the parking lot? I decided to park beside it. I figured the owner would get a kick out of it once he/she came out and saw them side by side. Make a mental note of this, it is a very important part of this remarkable story. Sometimes, the automotive Gods really do smile on us gear or petrol heads. After parking, I made my way to the main building. As I walked past the M5's, a newer X5 drove past with a couple of BMW staff members. They cheerfully waved at me and I waved back. It started to seem that the chap in NJ was an adopted evil step child of the larger BMW family.
When I got to the building, I was greeted by a cheerful team member. I told him what I was up to. He thought the idea of my trip was really cool. I cheekily asked him if it would be possible to get an impromptu tour of the facility, maybe even a sneak peek at things. I would understand if none of this was possible as I had just dropped by unannounced. He walked me over to another area to see if there was someone who might be able to help me. Enter Mr. Matt Mullins - Instructor Extraordinaire! From this point, to say that my day took on a positive upswing of gargantuan proportions would be an understatement of similar proportions! Just so you guys know, Matt Mullins is the Chief Driving Instructor at The BMW Performance Center..... that is his official designation. I am just going to refer to him as That Cool Guy :)
Matt came out of his office oozing with warm southern hospitality. He cheerfully asked me what was going on. I explained my trip to him and that I had decided to drop in hoping to get a quick look at the BMW plant and maybe this facility. We got to talking and I explained my trip in more details and that I was doing the tour in a BMW E39 M5. Matt then tells me he too drives an E39 M5. He then turned to the glass front doors - I assume to show me his car - and then says with a grin, "Did you just park beside me?" I think the silly childish grin on my face answered that question. What were the chances???? As I said, there are those moment in a gear head's life when all the Gods of Mount Dingolfing smile on us.
Matt and I stepped outside to compare notes about our cars which were of course parked side by side. It was such a pleasure to be talking with not only another car guy, but one who also drove an E39 M5 AND is the Chief Instructor at the BMW Performance School. It was like instant brotherhood as we talked. Talk about having friends in the right places. Oh, and there is more. As Matt and I talked, he mentioned the other BMW Performance School in the Palm Springs area of California. I told him I remember seeing Jay Leno and Laurence Fishburne test out cars and bikes there. Matt then informs me he was the guy that was out there with them. How cool is that ????
After our great chat about our cars, Matt and I walked back to the main building where he was going to give me a tour of the facility. How cool was that and how generous and kind of him. When we got back to the building he quickly popped into his office and came out with a White Form. He then uttered a few words that would send my day up into a whole new strata !!!
"Here Michael, fill this out and sign it. You will need to do that to get on the track." Have you ever had one of those moments in life when you think you hear angelic music all around you, everything seems to go into slow motion and you can barely hear people talking beside you. I had that moment. I still don't know what expression I had on my face. I WAS GOING TO GET TO GO ON THE TRACK!!!! This must be how lottery winners feel. Come to think of it, I need to check on the lottery ticket I bought that day. Before you could say BMW Performance School is the coolest, I had filled out and signed the form.
Matt and I then made out way out to the apron where and the cars were parked. I heard him ask over is radio if there was an M5 available for us to take out on the track. I can't remember the last time I was this giddy with excitement. I asked him if we would get an M5, he responded by saying what else would us M5 guys take out on the track?
We came to a Metallic Bronze F10 M5 and Matt declared this was our chariot. As we climbed in and strapped in, he informed me about the features on the car. Apparently the cars a the BMW Performance Center were usually loaded with every possible feature - down to the ceramic brakes on this beauty. My ears perked up when Matt told me the F10 series would soon be on their way out to make way for the new cars. The old cars would be sold at auction. Are you taking notes people? The school at any point in time has about 150+ cars that are fully loaded.
Matt fired up the car and took us out on to the track. He asked me to hold on. Someone really should have had a camera on my face. I am sure my eyes were as round as orbs with excitement. As we got on the track, Matt turned the car to the right and roared off to the first turn, and I mean roared! The engineers at BMW must have been present at Jericho when the walls came down - this must surely be how the trumpets sounded! That engine, oh my that engine! We were roaring all around the track. The engine was putting out a most glorious symphony of sound, I was being firmly held in my well bolstered seat as the car threw itself with much gusto around the track. I told Matt I had to take back my thoughts that cars this big could not handle. This thing was like a hot knife through butter with how precise it's handling was. They got this one VERY right from BMW Motorsport. We were on what is referred to as a HOT lap of the track. No doubt, those rubber donuts on the wheels were indeed hot. Hot with speed and hot with grip.
It was funny how Matt was talking in his smooth southern drawl about the virtues of the car, point out things like the BMW test track, the fleet of cars, the wet skid patch that he used to take the E39 M5's on and there was me...... responding in a high pitched, excited voice with a grin I could not get of my face. Could I move here? I could just live on a caravan parked beside the track!
After the hot lap, we got to do a cool down lap. We watched a group of students taking different models around a secondary track, another group getting ready to tackle the off road track with X5's and then, off in the apron area.... I spotted a glistening M1. It was being prepared for the BMW 100th Year Anniversary celebrations that would take place in Monterrey. I hope I am back home in time for this.
We also passed an area where there were a large number of cars parked, some with European tags or markings on them. These were apparently cars awaiting pick up by their owners. I forgot to mention to you, you can go pick up your new BMW from the BMW Performance Center. ANY BMW! Whether it be the diminutive i3, a raging ///M hormone loaded M4 or M6 or any other M car or the sleek i8. Whatever model it is, you can pick it up here. DO IT! And tell them I sent ya!
We finally made our way back to the apron to park the car. I think I was running a healthy heart rate by now. Matt generously continued to spare his time and give me more of a tour of the place. I got to check out the M1, then a classic BMW 2002 - another that was being restored for the celebrations. As we wound up the tour, Matt said we were kind of like brothers in arms now - who was I to argue. As it is in life, all good things must come to an end...... right? Wrong! As Matt and I exchanged pleasantries, he mentioned that I should visit the BMW CCA Museum which was a stone's throw away behind the BMW Performance School track. Oh My, my day was SO not over. I will tell you of that visit another time.
I would truly like to thank Matt for his generosity with his time, his hospitality and the sheer enthusiasm he shares with people around him. There are genuine people out there and he certainly tops the list. My thanks too to ALL the staff and team members at the BMW Performance School, please remember the face of that guy that was walking around with a child like grin on his face because you will be seeing him again! That's a promise. You guys re-established my faith in the brand, there is still that element of a car manufacture that not only cares about it's customers and their driving experience, but that you as an Organization also enjoy playing with the wonderful toys you build. You have invested $80M odd into proving this to be true.
If you have ever thought about going to the driving school, stop thinking and start doing - make it happen! You will NOT regret it. No, I was not paid to endorse the school. Yes - I had an insane amount of fun here and I am thus recommending it.
Matt - You sir are a Rock Star and I am sure Jay Leno and Laurence Fishburne totally agree! ROCK ON!