"I see this guy’s running 30 events and he’s never put it off the track. He knows he can drive pretty quick so he must have car control, but the fine art of really being able to sense what the car is doing, what cause and effect are, how to correct when necessary, and being able to drive the car at or very near the limit with comfort – that’s car control."
BMW Performance Driving Center Instructor Mike Renner
by Ziva & Michael Allen
Imagine this. You are interested in racing cars from a very early age. You eat, sleep and dream driving. At one point in your career you are enjoying club racing and working towards a Formula Renault ride in Europe. And then, as luck would have it, BMW opens its Performance Driving Center right in your back yard. Mike Renner, who is a BMW certified instructor and has been since BMW first opened its school in the fall of 1999, talks to us about his racing career, instructing career and the BMW Performance Driving Center. As Renner says, “it’s kind of amazing the way things worked out for me. Greer, located in South Carolina, was the only BMW facility in all of North America and, incredibly, they opened the facility literally 15 to 20 minutes from my own backyard. BMW certainly had always been one of my preferred brands. At that point I’d been driving the brands personally for about 10 years and I was enamored with the German engineering and maybe more importantly for a guy who likes to drive a car that responds to what it’s asked to do, this is the brand. So sometimes life takes odd twists and things just happen and I think about that all the time. A lot of guys who end up professionally teaching and who are involved in racing and/or instructing high performance driving have to do quite a bit of travelling and I do travel a fair amount for BMW, but I have a base of operations here in my hometown that allows me to drive at our track. I’m very fortunate. People remind me of that all the time. I do enjoy doing what I do. It’s not Formula 1 but it’s been very consistent and I get paid to drive cars and meet people all over the world so it’s a great deal.”
Mike Renner, born in Greenville, South Carolina, grew up in the heart of NASCAR country. As a child he would oftentimes go to the Greenville Speedway and get to watch old timers such as Ralph Earnhardt and David Pearson drive the circle tracks so popular in the south. However, while Renner was in his high school years, for a reason he can’t himself explain, he parted with the southern yen for circle tracks and became enamored with Grand Prix racing, Jackie Stewart and the races he’d watch on the Wide World of Sports. “Road Atlanta was my big first race,” says Renner. “I had a buddy at that time who was also into watching the races with me and we’d say to each other, ‘boy it would be great to do that someday.’ But you know, we were in high school and of course couldn’t afford anything like that. And then a couple of years into it, my buddy came into a little bit of money, nothing huge. But we had been talking about racing and that we both wanted to go racing and he said, “I want you to go with me and we’ll get a license and we’ll share a car.’ So we started racing. But eventually his wife became pregnant and during her pregnancy, we were at a race and he rolled the car over. Well she was beside herself and they decided he would stop racing. Me? Thirty plus years later and I’m still at it.”
During Renner’s racing years, he found himself quite consumed by racing but because he didn’t grow up with money to burn, he knew he’d have to find resources in order to race. Renner’s father did not discourage his racing aspirations and so he continued to set his sights on a professional racing career. Says Renner, “at one point I actually came very close to racing in a Formula Renault series. At that time, I thought I had somebody who was going to help me get to Europe but that never panned out. I of course always wondered what would have happened had I made it there but the deal did fall through and I didn’t go.” So Renner stayed back and found himself dealing with the cars and races here in the states. “Nothing on a big scale,” says Renner, “because I didn’t have the money. So my father said, ‘well son I guess it’ll be okay but you probably have to figure out something else to do.’” Renner went on to find himself involved in various business interests while continuing to race on the side. And it was during this time that Renner began instructing. Renner instructed for car clubs such as the BMW Car Club of America (BMWCCA) and the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) where he coached drivers who were training to get their racing licenses. He continued to do a fair amount of racing and driving and, “when you do a lot of that, you automatically think that you know how to do it,” says Renner. “But it didn’t really become a profession for me. I did some contract stuff here and there but when BMW moved to town, I met some people who were putting things together and they felt that I had quite a bit of racing experience with some coaching experience and they offered for me to come drive with them and see how it goes.” Renner did take BMW up on their offer and, as he says with a chuckle, “I didn’t kill anybody, it became quite a profession, and I get to be paid to drive and to teach.”
Following is our Q and A with Renner, wherein we picked his brain on coaching and asked him to tell us about the Performance Driving Center.
Q. Mike, tell us about the BMW Performance Driving Center and the programs it offers.
A. We offer everything from teen schools for new drivers up to coaching very advanced drivers. Quite often we find that the parents drop their teen off and say to us, “please teach them how to be good drivers. And we’ll say, ‘well have you ever done it yourself?’ Oftentimes the parents end up signing up for a course to hone their own skills. So we also offer one and two day programs for adults where we focus on car control. We also do a lot of corporate programs where a company like IBM will bring in 40 to 50 customers for the day. They’ll have lunch with us and drive. These are very popular programs.
Importantly, we do a lot of internal training for BMW. There are a lot of certification levels that a BMW employee might have to accomplish in order to be certified, depending on the particular position with BMW. Some people don’t have to have any certifications. For example, if you’re an engineer in Spartanburg and you have to drive prototypes, then you have to have a high rating in order to do that and if you can’t pass your skills off at a certain level, it can set your career back. This does not mean that you’re necessarily going to get fired but you’re not going to be available for certain positions in the future. So it’s our job to tell these guys they didn’t pass, which is never pleasant. We also offer motorcycle training at our Greer facility, although I’m personally not involved in the two wheel program. In Spartanburg we also offer the delivery program where you can order and then pick up any BMW model that’s sold in the U.S.
And we’ve just recently opened a second location on the grounds of Thermal in Palm Springs, California. We have a permanent facility building that’s under construction and we have access to the north, the south, and the full courses. We have our own exclusive handling tracks as well, much like we have in Greer.
Q. Please describe for us the skill levels that the BMW employees need in order to be passed off by you?
A. That depends on the level. There are nine or 10 different certifications and they get more intense with each level. Also, it depends on the employee’s particular job. If the person only occasionally needs to road test the cars, they would need a basic one or maybe a basic two certification. So they would need to learn car control, controlling the skid, understanding dynamics, understanding what causes loss of grip in the front or the rear tires, how to correct it, emergency braking, emergency lane change maneuvers, and things like that. Now if you’re an engineer and you’re driving high speed where some of the guys are going to Talladega where they might run an X6M around the track at 180/185 miles an hour or out on a test track where they’re going at a pretty rapid pace, then they may be three levels up from basic one. Then they have to be able to show proficiency in handling or controlling the cars at the limit. Sometimes that’s done at the test track and sometimes it’s also done at the race tracks. As the demands for the job go up, it gets tougher and tougher to get that certification.
Q. Please tell us what the Greer track is like.
A. We have an upper track that was there when we opened in 1999 and the upper perimeter and it’s between seven and eight tenths of a mile with a number of layouts and handling courses cut through the center of the outer loop. And then about six years ago we added onto it with more tracks. We also have a corkscrew that leads down into the lower track. That also has a couple of connecting roads through the center. It allows for us to do multiple programs on a given day by splitting the upper and lower track. The upper track is split into four different sections. On one end we have a concrete skid pad that’s polished and irrigated. It’s very slick and we use that for skid control. We do teach beyond control as we also teach drifting, which is not just a hooligan thing. It is fun but there’s also a real purpose for including it in the training. It teaches proper use of vision, which is an extension of skid control. Throttle and steering relationship, balance of the car, being able to feel the car and sense it are all benefits of learning skid control on the skid pad. We have an upper skid pad which is an oval, can be irrigated, and is also used for car control. We use that area sometimes for an exercise called the Swedish guitar where you turn off the stability control off. , Two gates are in between two circles and you rotate the car around each circle and you flick the car through the gate. It’s like the body of a guitar. This exercise is used for more advanced drivers.
Sometimes we hold two day M schools for ladies only. On the second day we’ll connect the upper and lower track and run down the corkscrew and pretty much run the complete course. The outer loop is approximately 1.3 miles but again there’s a number of connecting roads. We have handling courses in three different areas we can utilize, which is really ideal for us because we may have a corporate group on one section of the track in the morning while a car control skid class utilizes the other tracks. As an example, a corporate group can be doing something called performance driving where you have four or five different models of BMWs on a handling course while half the group is doing skid pad and half the group is working on the handling course with a slalom. It works pretty well and is very proficient and in this way we can teach what we want to teach and also be able to manage a number of driving events at one time.
Q. Please tell us the difference between the M schools and the one and two-day car control schools.
A. The one and two day car control skills classes are really where you learn safety for driving on the road with a little bit of enthusiast driver training thrown in. You’re sharing the car. The car control skills class is where we teach things like emergency lane change maneuvers, emergency braking, and recovery out of a skid. It’s a one or two-day class. We have people who share cars in the car controls skills class but we don’t have people complain about not getting to drive much as w e keep everybody very busy.
But there is a difference in the M school. In the M school, you don’t share a car and you learn how to stay safe and controlling the car. In other words, in the M school we’re teaching how to manage the car and control it to go fast safely. So instead of teaching emergency braking, we’re teaching corner entry. We like to refer to it as breaking and entering. This program is geared more toward the person who wants to take his car and go do a track day eventually. So we have one and two-day M schools and then beyond that we have the advanced M school. And those take place at race tracks like VIR and Road Atlanta. We’ve also been to Homestead and out to California. And of course now we have the tracks at Thermal, at which we may be doing a testing school. Typically we have a spring day at Road Atlanta and at VIR as well as dates in the fall. So this program would be for someone who is moving along through the process and find themselves ready for higher speeds, which can be attained at VIR on the back. So if they’re at that level and the instructor feels good about it and the student feels comfortable, then we’ll see speeds at 150 miles an hour. We will take three truckloads of M cars - the M3, the M4 and the M5 - and we drive those to the tracks.
If you want to be at this level, then the biggest thing quite honestly, which I tell people all the time, is to emphasize car control. I’ve seen people who have been doing track days for two or three years. They’re maybe doing five, six or eight events a year and, sure he’s not a bad driver, but the way to get to the next level and I can’t emphasize this enough, is to develop car control. And by car control I mean this: I see this guy’s running 30 events and he’s never put it off the track. He knows he can drive pretty quick so he must have car control, but the fine art of really being able to sense what the car is doing, what cause and effect are, how to correct when necessary, and being able to drive the car at or very near the limit with comfort – that’s car control.
I go to BMWCC events from time to time and represent BMW at Road Atlanta in March for their event and I usually go down at least once or twice every year for the last or five years. I’ll do 370 track miles in two days in one of our M3s and I so often see people not conquering the basic stuff, such as looking where you want to go. Keep your eyes up. Apex, track out. Smooth throttle application. All that’s stuff pretty basic. But to get to the next level, you really have to have car control and I don’t see a lot of people putting enough emphasis on this. Maybe partly because it’s a little harder to seek it out to be able to develop it.
I’ve had people at lots of club events tell me you can learn a lot on a wet track. Well that is true but for a lot of people, if you’re not careful you’ll learn how much it cost to pay for your crashed car. In my opinion, you will certainly increase your car control capability by driving on the track. But that’s not the place to really really learn the finer skill of controlling a car and really sensing what’s going on with it. I’ve had people through the years ask me at events, ‘will you drive my car, it’s understeering horribly?’ So I’ll drive the car and you know…it really isn’t. It’s understeering horribly because the driver is breaking too late. Putting too much angle to the tire and you can make a car push like a pig or be loose as a goose, depending on how you’re manipulating the control. There’s a lot of drivers who start adjusting the car but they don’t really have the sense and the feel for what the car is doing. They’re just shooting in the dark. They’ll think, ‘well it doesn’t seem to be turning now so I guess maybe I need to change the sway bars or something.’ And it’s not the car at all. It’s the way the car is being driven. So I can’t emphasize enough - develop skill. For example, the skid pad training is good if it’s dry. But it’s very good if it’s wet. You then will develop a feel for the car, load transfer, use of throttle along with the steering angle and hopefully you start to develop what you’re doing with your vision. And developing vision control is one of the hardest things. I drive with guys who’ve done a lot of track days and they go into the corner and they’re still looking in the wrong place. They’re looking where the car is pointed instead of where they want to go. So of course you have a scenario where a guy gets a brand new M5 and the thing’s got more power than he could ever manage and the first thing he wants to do is see if he can increase it by another 100 horsepower. Meanwhile he is nowhere near the limit as far as driver capability but the first thing he thinks about is, ‘how can I make this thing faster?’ A trained driver can take that stock car and run rings around this guy without any modifications. I talk to guys who have been doing club racing but have never done any skid pad work and so they never really worked out the fine art of being able to handle the car.
Q. Do you find there is one particular concept or skill that, across the board, seems to be hard for students to grasp, such as where to focus, or do you think it’s across the board and generally different for everyone?
A. It’s something that everybody preaches and it’s probably universal. Yes, where to focus is probably one of the biggest and more common challenges. People tend to look too low. There are times when you shouldn’t be looking out the windshield. If you’re going to make a big turn to the left, whether it be on a track or even out on the roads, your eyes should be in the driver’s window or across the passenger’s window but the typical driver out on the street looks maybe 20 feet off the hood of the car straight out the windshield and typically that’s the way a lot of people will end up driving on the track as well. It’s very hard to change. On skid pad training, the car goes into a slide. The car starts to point to the outside of the skid pad and the very first place the driver looks is toward the outside – where the car is going to end up and in a problem. The car is going to end up where they’re looking and this habit is very hard to break because it’s so ingrained. People always stare where the car is going.
Q. Can you share with us any one or two success stories you have? Maybe an occasion you remember where you were training someone who was having difficulty mastering a skill and they had that ah-ha moment?
A. Actually I’m going to go way back. Years ago I was on a track and I was there with a friend to observe his approach and they were a little short on instructors so they asked me if I would work with this lady and she was driving a 5 series car and she didn’t have any track driving experience. Now I wouldn’t say that she was horrible starting out but all the basics were wrong. She was looking low, offline. We had a lot of work to do. Starting out she was a little intimidated but by the second afternoon she was having the best time and that’s infectious. I too was having a great time. I would teach her, reinforce it, and she would take it in. I find that a lot of guys off the bat tend to come with a bit of a chip and give off that they already know what they’re doing, where sometimes the ladies are a little bit more open and will permit themselves to take in the new information and think about it. So I always think of that weekend. For me, I’ve always enjoyed driving. I enjoy the cars too and so it’s a lot of fun when I see that people are truly enjoying themselves and progressing. I know that sounds like a stereotypical thing for an instructor to say but it is true.
Q. Tell us about your instructing approach with a more experienced driver, someone at the solo level for instance. What would you work on and what is your approach?
A. Well I think that I focus on the student’s past experience in conjunction with their personality. Everybody is different. When working with a person who is maybe a little tentative, you’ve got to read him more. Maybe be more encouraging while instilling the need to be careful. You don’t want to coach somebody into a mistake. When working with a student who’s been doing a lot of track days, who might be somewhat on the aggressive side, you might try getting him to back down a little bit and focus more on technique. I would say obviously some of the information that you’re giving relative to past driving experience is a little different but I find one of the biggest elements is simply trying to read the personality and adjusting your coaching style to that personality.
Q. Give us your take on the dual clutch transmission.
A. I know there’s a lot of people who do track days and they won’t start a car unless there’s a clutch pedal. But you could talk to a lot of our drivers and they’ll say, ‘we love ‘em.’ To me it doesn’t detract from the driving experience. It is not just about the fact that it’s faster. Dual clutch is pretty cool. There are some cases where a lot of people will be judgmental about something but yet they’ve never really given it a true opportunity. An example of that is a very good friend of mine who was in a position where he could afford a number of cars. He’s had some pretty cool cars, including of course BMWs. His attitude was always, ‘I will never drive without a stick. There’s no way I will buy anything else.’ And so I had him over at the Performance Center one day and I said, ‘look, just drive this M3.’ So he starts driving. It’s got a dual clutch transmission. It took three, maybe five minutes, and at first he wasn’t really sure about the paddles. But he drove it for about half an hour and then two weeks later, sure enough, he bought himself an M car with a dual clutch transmission!
Having said that, there’s certainly nothing wrong with a car with a stick shift or somebody who enjoys driving it. My very first car I had was a stick shift and I’ve personally had very few dual clutch or automatic cars. They’d all been stick. With all the racing and the Hewland gear box cars I’ve driven, I’ve done a lot of heel and two downshifting and I can still enjoy that. A lot of people say there’s nothing quite like a perfectly performed downshift. I’m glad that stick is still offered but I don’t get upset by what the manufacturers do and always remember, it’s market driven. There’s always going to be a few guys who want a turquoise M3 with a stick shift and red leather interior. But honestly, how many of these are they going to sell? If there was a big demand for them, then they’d be selling a lot of them. And now the new GT3 is dual clutch and Ferrari doesn’t even make a stick shift anymore.
Q. What is the very first car you ever raced?
A. The first car I raced – and you take me way back – believe it or not they were actually competitive even though they were showroom stock speed – but the first car I ever raced was a Volkswagen Rabbit. You look back on those times and you realize how much you didn’t really know. But you learned about throttle on a front wheel drive when you jumped off the gas. As a matter of fact I was trying to get my license at an SCCA licensing school at that time and the group had left pit lane and I was having some issues with my belt. So they kind of pulled away and they were gone a bit. There’s a place on the track where you go over a blind crest and I’m late getting out of the pit lane. So they had gone over the blind crest and I didn’t know the instructor was going to stop all of the cars on the other side of the blind crest. They were on the side of the road talking about the track and I come across this blind crest and see all the cars stopped and just as I got to the crest, I popped the throttle and of course the rear went all to the front, the car spins, and I’m in a cloud of smoke just at the same time the instructor gets out of the car. And that was the way I made by very first appearance in racing.
Q. What advice would you recommend to a new driver just starting out?
A. This may sound self-serving because I’m in the business but I would say the very first thing a new driver should do is to invest in the driver first and foremost. Nothing against the clubs as there are really good club instructors out there and those programs can be really good on the track. But I would maybe want to start with a good base of knowledge, training and education prior to getting to that point. Seek out a professional school. This way, you can work a little more on things I talked about earlier. I don’t mean to belabor it but the whole car control thing is paramount to being a really good driver. It’s also a good investment in that it can save you a lot of money by saving unnecessary wear and tear on the car. You’ll also become more proficient. You’ll go faster. You’ll enjoy it more. Train the driver is my recommendation as opposed to putting modifications on your car. If you sell the car, the mods go with it. If you train the driver, it’s always with you. It’s true that every car has its own characteristics but the reality is the basics of car control and the principles of dynamics and what’s occurring with cause and effect essentially are the same. So that would be my advice.
We really appreciate the time Mike Renner took with us to answer our questions and we’ve learned a lot about driving technique and the BMW Performance Center. To learn more, click here:
Watch hot laps at VIR by Mike and 2 of his colleagues: