Whether it’s handling a water-slicked closed-course road in a BMW or taking an actual racecar for a spin around a famed NASCAR oval, driving schools make for better drivers. But, before getting behind the wheel, finding the right school is key. Fortunately, high-end driving schools are more popular than ever.
For those who feel the need for speed, there are two options: driving schools that put students inside luxury autos, and racing programs that offer a genuine NASCAR or Formula One experience. In both categories, programs offer different time frames, skill sets and, of course, vehicles. But all of these offerings have at least one thing in common — the serious skills come before the serious thrills.
“We start where Driver's Ed leaves off,” says Jim Clark, chief driving and Motorrad instructor of the $12 million BMW Performance Driving School, run out of the company’s North American headquarters in Greenville, South Carolina. “While some of the techniques we teach can be used to get around a track quickly, all of them can — and should — be utilized to drive more safely on the street. It’s all the stuff that gets talked about, but never practiced — a chance for people to learn by doing in [a] safe, controlled environment.”
BMW’s versatile two-mile driving course can be configured in several different ways, one more challenging than the next. There are plenty of hair-raising curves, of course, but drivers might also encounter walls of water and a skid pad. The “Other Roads Course” features steep inclines and deep-water crossings, and several obstacles made specifically for four-wheel wandering. There are one- and two-day standard schools plus the three-day Advanced M Schools, which take place at Virginia International Raceway for advanced lessons (and challenges). Parents take note: There are also one- or two-day Teen Schools.
The BMW Performance Driving School isn’t just for BMW owners; it’s open to anyone who wants to improve their driving skills. “There's little promotional propaganda,” says Clark of their offerings. “Anyone who drives should have this kind of training. Besides that fact, it’s just plain fun.”
Audi addicts should pay a visit to the Audi Sportscar Experience at Sonoma’s Infineon Raceway. Like most high-end auto programs, this one focuses on fundamentals such as steering, car control, braking and accident avoidance. The most popular full-day program uses an Audi RS 4 ($1,295), but there’s also a full-day R8 offering ($1,895 or $3,495 for two days) and two-day programs using the RS 4, the R8, and S8 ($2,495). The S8 “Luxury Experience” can include five-star accommodations, dining at world-famous restaurants, and a reception at a private vineyard (prices vary). Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa is the best place to stay.
For four-wheeler fanatics, the Hummer Driving Academy is an off-road mecca.
The school is located in the hills of northern Indiana (near South Bend). Separate programs are offered throughout the year and utilize current model H1, H2, and H3 Hummers. The H1 academy ($5,250) lasts four and a half days, the H2 version ($3,575) lasts three, and the H3 experience ($2,250) is just two days. After classroom and controlled setting driving, students move on to 320 acres of obstacles, including mud runs, side slopes, steep inclines, rock crawls, sand pits and more. (There’s even a session on GPS usage.)
On the racing side of the track, programs range from no-frills ride-along introductions to multi-day programs with plenty of time behind the wheel of a racecar.
For racing fans who grew up watching Richard Petty tear up the tracks, there’s the Richard Petty Driving Experience, offered at two dozen tracks in the U.S. The program began in Australia in 1987 when NASCAR Australian champ Barry Graham founded a school for teaching racing fundamentals. Graham’s long-time friend, Richard Petty then brought the concept to the U.S. in 1990. These days, more than 100,000 drivers sign up each year.
“I guess you can say it took us 15 years to become an overnight sensation,” says Richard Petty himself, a seven-time NASCAR champ. The programs start with standard three-lap ride-alongs, and grow in complexity (and price) to more comprehensive experiences. The “Racing Experience” normally includes 80 laps across eight sessions, and costs $3,000 per person. (Programs vary according to which track is hosting the program.)
There are many other racing-oriented schools that enhance track and road driving skills. For instance, the Bridgestone Racing Academy in Canada features Formula cars, one-on-one coaching, and open lapping. Based on European rallies, Team O’Neil Rally School offers a six-and-a-half-mile road course and specific learning areas that teach real-world maneuvers.
From road-ready vehicles to racecars, this variety of choices means there’s a driving school for everyone. Whether it’s learning to handle that BMW on a country road or racing like Petty at Bristol, school’s in session.