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Tom Eblen: At BMW driving school, team-building begins at 80mph

Grant Mills of Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing tested a BMW X5 SUV at the BMW Performance Driving School near Greenville, S.C., during the first day of Commerce Lexington's three-day trip to the city.
Grant Mills of Fortune Hi-Tech Marketing tested a BMW X5 SUV at the BMW Performance Driving School near Greenville, S.C., during the first day of Commerce Lexington's three-day trip to the city.

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Because Commerce Lexington's annual "leadership visit" is as much about creating trust and good working relationships back home as it is about getting ideas from the city being visited, organizers try to begin each trip with a team-building exercise.

That is why the first stop for the 193 Kentuckians on this year's trip to Greenville, S.C., was the BMW Performance Driving School.

"So what do I do now?" Eli Capilouto asked our instructor through the open car window.

The University of Kentucky's president-elect was sitting behind the wheel of a BMW M3 sedan with 414 horses under the hood, lawyer David Smith beside him and Keeneland Vice President Vince Gabbert with me in the back seat. We were about to see how fast Capilouto could drive a slalom course without killing us.

"At home, I drive a 12-year-old Buick," Capilouto deadpanned. "Is this anything like it?"

"Well, they both have four wheels," the instructor replied.

Capilouto said it was his second time around this track Wednesday. His first set of passengers gave him mixed reviews. "They said my driving was like my bowling — I knocked down a lot of pins," he said. "The cones were not my friends."

The three of us tried not to gasp as Capilouto roared down the straight-away and into the first turn. You could feel the trust building, though, as he successfully negotiated each fast turn.

"I have newfound respect for the university!" Gabbert said as we all changed seats so he could take a turn at the wheel. "I used to have a Camaro. I still miss it, as you might can tell."

Driving school was an exciting start to the three-day visit, during which Greenville officials will show off their successes in downtown revitalization and economic development. A big piece of that economic development has been BMW, which was attracted to Greenville nearly two decades ago and now employs 7,000 workers here who will build 240,000 vehicles this year.

In addition to the slalom course, BMW's customer driving school offered several other tests of skill, including an off-road course for putting a BMW X5 sport-utility vehicle through its paces, and a polished-concrete pad where two drivers would see how fast they could round corners in a BMW 135i sedan without spinning out on the wet pavement.

This team-building experience got rave reviews.

"You could feel the power; it was awesome!" said Vice Mayor Linda Gorton, who usually drives a Honda Accord.

"It was super fun, and we got to meet so many people," said Mary Allison Belshoff, executive director of the Susan G. Komen for the Cure's Lexington affiliate and my driving partner on the wet-pavement racetrack. "When you put people in unnatural environments, they get to know each other in interesting ways."

The rest of the trip's agenda includes no more high-speed joyriding. The group flies back to Blue Grass Airport late Friday afternoon. You might want to avoid Man o' War Boulevard about then, just in case.

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