Monticello Motor Club's BMW M2 Racing School Is the Ivy League of Driver Training
Between race-prepped BMW M2's and top instructors, MMC's school is an unmatched trial-by-fire for drivers making the leap to racing.
What could be better than a BMW M2? Try an M2 with its back seats ripped out, a roll cage and performance mods added in, and a crew of racing pros to instruct you in the ways of speed.
The M2 is one of our favorite attainable cars, and likely the best pure driver’s car in BMW’s current portfolio. It’s smaller, more engaging and attainable (at about $55,000 to start) than any other high-performance M model, including the M3, M4, M5, and M6. Now, you can test that theory for yourself: The can-do coupe is the star of the new BMW M2 Racing School at Monticello Motor Club (a.k.a. MMC) in New York.
Students also feel like stars after spending a few days in the BMW, because this race academy adds twists I’ve never experienced—not at manufacturer-sponsored schools, not at Bob Bondurant, not even at Skip Barber’s advanced programs that qualify students for precious SCCA racing licenses. (More on that in a sec.) This is a full immersion in door-to-door competition and racing strategy, and not the usual too-brief taste. If that sounds like crazy fun, it is.
I figure it’s going to be a great day when I walk into MMC’s trackside garage and see five M2s, ribboned in the red, blue, and purple livery that’s been a BMW Motorsports signature since the Seventies. In terms of speed, these 2017 M2s are largely stock, including their 3.0-liter, turbocharged inline sixes that churn up 365 horsepower and a maximum of 369 pound-feet of torque—the latter during brief periods of overboost. Blue-painted calipers are the telltale for M compound brakes, including big 15-inch front rotors and upgraded racing pads. Yet to give students a taste of real racing—including cars that live for all-day action—Monticello worked with both BMW engineers and New Jersey-based Heinlein Racing Development to tweak these Bimmers into what turns out to be a dream car for students and instructors alike: Fast and fun enough for any track-suited Walter Mitty, but also balanced, controllable, and not overly intimidating.
“A lot of the work was done for us, because right off the showroom floor, the M2 is such a great car,” says Alex Wolenski, Monticello’s gearhead chief operating officer.
New springs lower the Bimmers by roughly three inches. Rubber suspension bushings are largely replaced by spherical ball joints for more reactive, connected handling. Toyo Proxes racing tires are actually a touch narrower than stock, allowing students to explore and push past handling limits at manageable speeds. Adaptive shocks are stock, but BWW software engineers modified the algorithms for traction and stability control.
“It’s not the same electronic nannies as in the street car,” Wolenski says. “It’s letting you hang it out further, but still protecting you.”
A roll cage, radios, Racetech seats, HANS devices, and the slickest six-point harnesses I’ve ever used keep students safe and add to the the pro-racer fantasy. AiM dashboard data loggers collect reams of information to help students compare lap times against pro drivers and improve their skills, with onboard cameras providing both data overlays and handy video souvenirs of the experience—meaning students can leave GoPros at home and concentrate on driving. BMW’s seven-speed, dual-clutch automated gearbox also allows drivers to focus on tidy lines and hitting apexes rather than their rusty heel-and-toe technique. Purists might wring hands over the absence of a clutch, but at least they won’t reach for their wallets.
“With our spec Miata fleet, we’re rebuilding several gearboxes a month and a few engines every season because of mistakes,” Wolenski says. Aside from losing school cars to downtime, “If you miss a shift you’re responsible for the cost, just like if you put the car into the wall.”
The ultimate goal, he says, was “to provide that race-car experience for the novice, but excitement for the driver that does have experience.”
“It may sound a little pretentious, but this is like the Ivy League of race schools, with small class sizes, and we don’t hold back,” he says. “We want people to leave this school being ready to run their first race.”
On this day, race trainees – four of us in M2s, others piloting those Miatas—definitely aren’t newbies, judging by their smooth laps and the cars in their personal garages: Ferraris, Porsche GT3s and Turbos, even a McLaren 12C GT Sprint, the rare, track-day special that saw just 20 copies built.
Our lead instructor is Steven McAleer, a droll Scotsman from Glasgow and a multiple racing series champion, including a win at the 2015 IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge driving a Mazda MX-5 for former MLB pitcher CJ Wilson’s racing team. After a chalk talk, we hit the track for a lead-follow warm up, an instructor playing rabbit ahead.
Our M2s are an immediate hit, thrillingly fast and balanced, imbuing us with pure confidence. We’re going to need it. McAleer and his crew line us up two wide to practice laps, but with a twist—running side-by-side the whole way. This changes everything: Think synchronized swimming (or tandem drifting), only in a speeding car. The traditional racing line, your only goal and focus in solo lapping, is suddenly worthless; you can’t dive down to the apex from the outside of a turn, because another car occupies the inside lane, sometimes mere inches from your own. Conversely, you can’t just track out to the far curb from the inside lane, because your "opponent" is shadowing you on the outside. As in racing, you’ve got to find a new, improvised line and maximize speed while using your mirrors—but not so much that you lose focus—while leaving other cars, as McAleer says, “one lane of room, and just a few inches more.” Cutting a car off cold on corner entry (as opposed to fairly defending your own line) or forcing them off the track on exit would draw a certain black-flag penalty. Sure, the majority of overtaking on a track happens before a corner, but slower cars also get passed through curves, and you need to be aware of a faster car’s approach and intentions at all times. And of course, there are no lane markers, because this is racing.
For McAleer and other teachers, including MMC's Jason Lare and Chief Pro Instructor Jason Rabe, this school is all about racecraft: The strategies that help you set up passes, execute them, and defend against being passed. It’s the stuff that budding competitors desperately need to know, but almost never get to practice until they’re thrown to the wolves in their first real race. It’s the racecraft that most schools talk about only in theoretical terms, using Sharpies on whiteboards. One reason is obvious: All it takes is one over-his-head rookie to screw up, and perhaps take out multiple, expensive school cars. It’s just too risky to let students jostle in traffic and execute high-speed passes beyond the realm of simulators.
But that’s exactly what we do. For our next exercise, we work on outgunning (or out-braking) instructors on Monticello’s longest straightaway, passing just in time to brake for a blind, uphill switchback. On this kinked, downhill straight, I’ve touched 170 mph in monsters like the Ferrari 488 GTB and McLaren 675 LT, leaving slower cars in my wake. But that prior supercar experience doesn't matter when the cars in front of me are equally as quick, as they tend to be in racing; especially in spec series where cars are (theoretically) all the same. As McAleer notes, fast, consistent laps are second nature to professionals, who immediately “take a car to the limit, keep it there, and can’t go any faster. Now, what do you do when 10 other drivers are doing the exact same thing?”
Exit speed is one answer, the familiar “slow in, fast out” mantra that’s drummed into every karting kid and track newbie. When exiting a slow corner onto a long straightaway, a seemingly minuscule speed advantage gets dramatically multiplied. A driver who’s just one or two miles per hour faster at the beginning of a straight can end up several car lengths ahead by the end.
The second school day adds a fresh twist in the form of a chilly afternoon rain, just in time for the most exciting-yet-palm-perspiring exercise: Lining up to practice rolling race starts in a pack of cars. Doesn’t matter if you’re a club-racing rookie or Lewis Hamilton himself, this is the trickiest and most crash-prone part of any race. As instructors warn us, it’s where adrenaline, good intentions and bad judgment so often result in drivers taking themselves, or others, out of the running—with not only no podium or points, but a DNF (Did Not Finish), the worst possible outcome in a sport in which consistency over a long season is the key to championships.
McAleer drives the message home, more than once:
“You can’t win a race in the first turn, but you can definitely lose it,” he says.
When the track was bone-dry, we’d worked on taking precise bites out of track curbing to maximize our radii and run faster laps. Now the rain-soaked curbing is slick as ice, and instructors warn us to adjust our line and avoid the candy-striped hummocks at all costs.
“If you do touch the curbs, make sure we’re behind you, so we can get some good video” of cars flying off the track, McAleer says with a wink. Dire warnings aside, I’m feeling good about this exercise. I actually like driving in the wet, trying to tease out maximum speed in dicey conditions. Or is it just overconfidence?
For two days, the BMW and Miata schools have run in separate groups, the Mazdas giving way when our mega-powered M2s storm up to lap them during practice. Now our wily instructors bunch us together, BMWs up front, Miatas just behind, as they’d be in a race with cars of multiple classes and capabilities.
We grid up in tight formation, rolling toward the starter’s stand at the start/finish line. The green flag drops. I get a good jump in second gear, and manage to beat my fellow pupils to the tricky, downhill left-right called Montreal. I sneak a glance in my mirror, the cars bunched up like rush-hour traffic, and I’m relieved that I don’t have to tussle in such close quarters. As ever, it’s easy to see why racers are tempted to lead from the start—despite the risks—for the opportunity to drive away clear (at least for a short while) as the pack sorts itself out.
I’m still in the class’s front row after a few more starts, with two instructors leading us past the pits, so I drop back to let other students try their hand from a better position. The green flag waves, and we charge downhill again. This time, when the pack jams up, I’m in the thick of it, so I cheat a bit right to ensure enough room for us to go through two wide. Ah, but my caution proves a little too...well, cautious: A pair of tiny Miatas, seeing the opportunity to finally mix it up with the powerful Bimmers, dive into the crevice like little “Mad Max” Verstappens. Suddenly, we’re three wide through a tight double corner, and the wet curbs are off limits. It’s probably not the Miata drivers’ best move, in terms of McAleer’s advice to exercise early patience. But it works, and now I’m forced to duke it out with a pair of Miatas.
From that point, I vow, it’s no more Mr. Nice Guy.
For the next start, I charge deeper, brake later, stick the BMW’s nose into the corner, and howl flat-out toward the next turn, first among the students. I glue myself to the bumper of Monticello’s own High Plains Drifter, the rally-racing instructor Chris Duplessis, who’s pacing us in a Porsche Cayman. A few turns in, I actually pass McAleer’s M2 (I’m certain he lets me) and together we pull a lead on the group.
Back in the pits, the endorphins are flowing as we peel off our helmets and pry ourselves from the cars. We’re on a pure speed high, and my classmates give voice to exactly what I’ve been thinking.
“I was really surprised how they threw us into the thick of it,” says Mark Brubaker, of Short Hills, N.J, a former motorcycle racer who feels he’s getting a bit old for two-wheel hijinks. “They really had faith in us, and that in turn gives you confidence,” he says. Brubaker was taking the class with his wife Savanha, herself a former Caterpillar mechanic; the couple’s fun car is a Porsche 911 GT3.
Paul Marino agrees. The financial advisor and Boston resident has grown bored with driving his Ferrari 458 Italia on the street, and wants to move up to Ferrari Challenge racing. “I really felt like I learned what it was like to be in the chaos of a race, instead of just driving fast laps,” Marino says.
Of course, an Ivy League driving education comes with tuition to match: The three-day BMW M2 Racing School costs $8,900, with two days for $5,700 and a one-day intro for $3,500. It’s one of the few programs that’s open to non-members at Monticello’s private, 4.1-mile circuit, and graduates are eligible to apply for a sanctioned racing license.
Monticello itself has adjusted its philosophy since it opened back in 2008. Ari Straus, chief executive and managing partner, says that MMC has steadily encouraged members to switch from street machines to serious track cars that are more challenging but ultimately safer, faster, and more rewarding to drive.
“If we can get people out for just one session in a track car, they never go back,” Straus says.
Once that checkered flag waves in drivers’ heads, the next, natural step is a burning desire to race and compete. In that regard, executives are proud to have kick-started so many racing dreams in a relatively short time.
Over the past decade, Wolenski says, “There’s no track that’s been a better incubator of racers than MMC. 38 members have gone on to pro-race, and that number keeps increasing.”
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