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Lesson of the skid pad: Keep your eye on where you want to go

Speed can get the best of any driver, even in a car built for high-performance handling.


Washington Post Service

<!-- begin body-content --> GREER, S.C. - I came here to learn how to chase my tail.

If you are lucky, that is what you wind up doing when the back end of your car goes into a seemingly uncontrollable skid. You chase the car's tail end. If the tail swings right, you turn right on the steering wheel into the direction of the skid. If the car's tail swings left, you turn left on the steering wheel into the direction of the skid.

It sounds so simple, so easy. And you would think that after driving an average 38,000 miles a year, after driving all sorts of cars and trucks around the world and taking numerous driving courses from numerous experts -- you'd think I could do that.

Maybe I'm just a slow learner. If so, I had lots of company here a few weeks ago in the advanced car-control clinic at the BMW Performance Center Driving School, and at Michelin Tire Corp.'s Proving Grounds in nearby Laurens.

Under the tutelage of BMW driving instructors Bill Conger, Jim Davis, Paul Mazzacane and Matt Mullins, we were asked to go unreasonably fast on slippery skid pads until we lost control of our BMW M3 and M5 sports cars.

Those of you who are familiar with the advanced vehicle-control technology in M-Series cars may ask: ``How can you possibly lose control of a car equipped with traction and dynamic stability control, both of which are designed to keep the car going in the driver's intended direction under the most trying circumstances?''

The answer is simple: ``Very easily, especially if your instructors ask you to turn those systems off.''

In fact, although it takes a bit more effort, you can lose control of a car with all of those skid-resistance systems turned on. ''No one has yet invented anything that can overcome the laws of physics,'' Mazzacane said. ``Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. If you push a car aggressively, it will turn on you aggressively.''

Then he asked me to try to defy the laws of physics on those skid pads to get a visceral understanding of what he was saying.

It is amazing how fast your luck can turn when you are being stupid. At the biggest skid pad, the one at the Michelin Proving Grounds in Laurens, I hit the track in an M5 in third gear. ''Pick up some speed,'' Mazzacane said. ''Yessir,'' I said to myself. ''I like this.'' I went faster. ''Pick up more speed,'' Mazzacane suggested, and I willingly complied.

Suddenly, the front end of the M5 felt as if it were lifting, as if no longer there. I remembered one of the instructors saying something about ''understeer.'' That occurs when the front end of the car skids out of control. I thought I was supposed to be inducing ''oversteer,'' loss of control of the back end.

I panicked and did absolutely nothing. The car went haywire, spun all over the place. Mazzacane just looked at me.

''What did we tell you about understeer?'' he asked his errant student. ``What did we say was the easiest way to correct understeer?''

''Decelerate,'' I answered, feeling much the fool.

''How?'' Mazzacane asked.

''By braking,'' I said.

''No! No! No!'' Mazzacane said. ``You don't slam on the brakes in that situation. That's too much weight transfer, which means you just upset the car more. You were going too fast. You lost control of the front end. Correct by lifting your foot off the accelerator, or gently modulating the brakes, and steering back on course. Got that?''

Then he asked me to go too fast for conditions again. This time, I lost control of the back end -- oversteer -- and swung completely off the track. I actually made the same mistake with the same result many times.

''Your problem,'' said an exasperated Mazzacane, ''is that you are thinking too much. You are thinking more than you are looking where you are going. As soon as you lose control of the back end, you start looking everywhere except where you want to go, where you should be going. That could be tragic, because you always run into what you are looking at,'' he said.

Then he gave me a possibly lifesaving hint. At least I was able to correct oversteer skidding after he said it:

'You know what all of this `turn into the skid' stuff really means?'' Mazzacane asked. ``It simply means that you keep looking where you originally intended to go, no matter what happens, and you keep trying to steer into that direction, which means you're effectively countering the skid. Try that, and stop looking at the grass when you start skidding, because that's why you keep winding up in the grass. That grass could be a pole, and that wouldn't be too good, would it?''

I took Mazzacane's suggestion. It worked. But I had a hard time sleeping after that three-day course. I kept dreaming of skidding, sliding into endless fields of wet grass forever and ever . . . .


49,476 Posts
Discussion Starter #2 (Edited)
v...and one in Autoweek:

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</td></tr><tr><td class="Caption">(Photo by Joe Vianna)</td></tr></tbody> </table> BMW Advanced M School: Leave Your Cellphone at Home

Published Date: 2/28/05
BMW driving instructor Larry Parmele seems to enjoy sharing jokes and anecdotes nearly as much as he does driving, so the assembled crop of BMW Advanced M School students laughs when he says in-car cellphone use is prohibited. But Parmele is serious. “I’ve seen ’em out there on the phone, going through the slalom,” he says with a North Carolina accent. “‘Mama, you should see what I’m doin’!’”

The scenario is easy to picture, as attendants at BMW’s newest two-day high-performance driving course have plenty to get excited about. Limited to 15 participants and open to graduates of BMW’s M School (AW, Dec. 23, 2002) and other similar driving courses, the two-day Advanced School puts you behind the wheel of M3 coupes and M5 sedans at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. (Virginia International Raceway will also be used in 2005.)

While the 24-degree banked NASCAR oval may not seem like a logical place to flog two of the M division’s finest switchback slashers, the facility is well suited to the task. You reach speeds up to 140 mph on the 1.5-mile oval and push the cars hard through the technical 1.1-mile infield, where most corners feature adequate runoff room in the event of a mistake.

No matter your road-racing experience, there is no feeling comparable to the knot in your gut as the banking sucks your M3 (you drive M5s only during skidpad exercises) into Turn Three at more than 110 mph. This is the circuit-driving equivalent of surfing through a tube of ocean spray, only this wave is made from concrete, and the SAFER barrier that lines the wall does not allay your fears immediately. But the go-at-your-own-pace, lead-follow teaching method quickly instills students with confidence, without allowing them to get in over their heads.

A few slow-paced sessions lead to give-it-all-you-want runs, and the instructors’ use of two-way radio communication to provide real-time feedback is invaluable: Instead of having to wait until the end of the session to hear you missed an apex or carved an inappropriate arc (was that on lap three or six?), the pro in the car behind you informs you of your transgression so you may correct it the next time around. It is also uplifting to hear encouragement when you attack a bend correctly. This tutoring method, though hardly ultra-high-tech, helped maximize our track time and accelerated our improvement.

The program’s overall atmosphere is nearly as much fun as the driving. There is no trace of the boot-camp mentality under which some schools operate. Instructors offer students, even those who are clearly not the next Hans Stuck, smiles and respect. On the flip side, those drivers who demonstrate above-average skills receive additional advanced tips and pointers to help them reach their potential. The $4,650 price tag is steep, but the high amount of seat time—five hard-driving hours or more per day—justifies it. So enjoyable is the entire experience that several students were attending for the second time, something we would love to do. And next time, mama’s coming with.

BMW Advanced M School at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and Virginia International Raceway; $4,650 per person, meals with two nights lodging included. For more information on this and other BMW driving schools, call (888) 345-4269 or visit the Performance Center at
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