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Teenagers: Nailing Performance Driving

By Frank A. Aukofer, May 30th, 2015

Take teenagers, put them in powerful cars they have never driven, send them out on a twisting professional race track they have not seen, and tell them to make sure to "floor it" on the straightaway.

It sounds like a gamer fantasy or disaster prescription. But that's exactly what happened with 14 teens at intensive driving instruction at the sprawling BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg, S.C., where the German manufacturer's U.S. factory is located.

Offered at, each teen session is designed for drivers under 21 years old with licenses or learners' permits, and can accept up to about 24 registrants on a first-come, first-served basis.

For purposes of this article, a special Teen Driving School was designed as an abbreviated version of the full weekend course in Spartanburg and was offered to 14 teens who were relatives of automotive journalists.

They included two of my grandchildren, Aliya Aukofer of Lawrenceville, Ga., and Cole Hawryluk, of Centreville, Va. Both are 15 years old with learner's permits and, like the other dozen teens in the program, limited driving experience. In fact, Cole arrived having spent only one parking lot outing with his father; Aliya had driven a number of times with her dad, who accompanied her to the BMW Performance Center in Spartanburg.

It started with sleepy kids in a classroom session conducted by Derek A. Leonard, 44, a Spartanburg native with a degree in microbiology who became a race driver and motivational speaker before joining BMW's Performance Driving School, now as its lead instructor.

Nearly messianic, he roused the teens by telling them that almost everything they had learned about driving so far was bunk, especially adjusting their outside mirrors so they could see a bit of the side of the car. That guarantees blind spots, he said, which can be eliminated by properly adjusting the side mirrors out farther.

He also emphasized proper seating positions, keeping the hands on the steering wheel at the 9 and 3 o'clock positions, and minimizing distractions.

"Many kids are taught terribly by their parents," Leonard said. "In my experience, almost everybody does it wrong."

But the most important principle of all, which the teens would hear over and over in repetitive driving drills, was "Keep your eyes up and look where you want to go," because all of the inputs that go into driving follow the eyes.

Then the teens marched outside and settled, two by two, into new BMW 335i M Sport sedans, with eight-speed automatic transmissions and turbocharged engines with 300 horsepower.

They drove sedately in line to a slalom course, where they watched a brief demonstration and were told to drive it themselves. On his first try, my grandson Cole did a successful run when he noticed that he had not latched his seatbelt. He clicked it in place as he made a sharp turn at the end -- actually not a good idea; he should have stopped to make the adjustment.

Most of the adults were surprised to note that instructors did not ride with the teens, with one exception. On the skid pad, the instructors were inside the car to induce skids with the hand brake. Other than that, the instructors critiqued the kids' driving from outside, using two-way radios. Trained instructors trusted themselves and the kids, and they responded.

"You don't have to work as hard as you think you do," Aliya commented after her first skid pad run. She had done only one 180-degree spin in her first session; others lost it in full 360s. "It's a lot easier to do than it looks," Cole said. Grandpa tried it and did a bunch of 360s.

Over the two days, the teens learned accident avoidance with rapid lane changes as water curtains shot up unexpectedly in their paths; high-speed braking on a curve from as high as 70 mph; and dealing with distractions, including questions barked at them over the radios.

Because all the cars were equipped with anti-lock brakes, the instructors told the teens to slam on the brakes with as much force as they could muster. One told Aliya that if she broke off the brake pedal, he'd get her another car. Fat chance. Aliya is 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighs 115 pounds. But she aced the high-speed stops anyway.

The teens finished the end of each day by driving repeats of the so-called point run, a challenge course that included high speeds, a rapid lane change, U-turn, slalom, and a stop box -- a short area outlined by cones. They were assigned points for mistakes such as knocking over cones. A perfect score was zero. Cole got zeroes both days.

At the end of the second day, the students drove to the road racing course and rotated through four BMW models they had not driven: Z4 sports car, M235i coupe, 550i V8 sedan, and X6 sports activity vehicle. Some drove very carefully; others very fast. Nobody got out of shape.

Leonard sent the teens home with a certificate of their achievement, exclusive BMW Performance Driving School ball caps and T-shirts, and a parting shot that sounded like he was lecturing a group of Avengers superheroes.

"You now know what 95 percent of the drivers out there don't know," he said. With a twinkle, he added, "Use your power for good."

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