If you’ve never been handed the keys to a high-performance, German-engineered coupe and then told to drive it to its limit on a closed course, let me fill you in on the experience.
Space and time narrow to a very small window. At this particular moment, I was in a BMW M4 Competition approaching the starting line of an all-out, 300-foot sprint followed by a requirement to stomp on the brake as hard as humanly possible, smoothly glide into a sharp turn, then mash the gas again. You’re afforded a split second to consider if you can safely brake in time or blow through the cones (you’re fine most of the time). Your reflexes have to recover in an instant to make up the ground you lost in the turn and beat your top speed from the prior run.
The BMW Performance Center in Thermal, CA, an hour east of Palm Springs, the home of a high-performance driving school open to all, bills itself as an opportunity to “drive on the edge of physics.” As someone who considers his “edge” the occasional rural highway speeding, I can confirm you can reach this edge rather quickly, along with the edges of your own endurance.
An Automotive Oasis in the Desert
Although it’s technically a separate property, the BMW Performance Center is a very close neighbor of the uber-exclusive and mega-expensive Thermal Club, a members-only racetrack. As a corporate partner of the club, BMW guests get access to one of the three tracks there — a sweet perk given that Thermal Club memberships start at $1 million plus the purchase of track-adjacent land and required construction of a home to house a car collection the owner would drive on said tracks. (My instructor assured our small group that investments at the Thermal Club easily top $4-5 million when it’s all said and done.)
On this particular day, I found myself out at the Performance Center on a trip celebrating BMW’s new eyewear releases. We were all slated to take part in a one-day version of the center’s M School offering, which puts you behind the wheel of three current-model M Competition Series vehicles over the course of a day.
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With this program, you get an hour of pre-drive classroom instruction and six sessions behind the wheel for 5-15 minutes per drive. From the second your class begins, it’s clear you’re getting nothing short of a wealth of experience. On our driving day, we had a mix of retired professional racers, current pros and a former BMW vehicle engineer. Many have been with the Performance Center since it opened eight years ago, and some split their time at the East Coast center in Spartanburg, South Carolina.
The instructors will match your level of eagerness. They work with drivers who can barely make it to the supermarket as well as those who drive just a few levels below pro. These are serious car people who will push you and your will to drive as far as you want to take it.
Out on the Course
We split into groups, each taking turns on one of three short exercises: a skid pad (in the M5), a braking/turning test (in the M4) and a tight turning race course (in the M2).
My group began at the skid pad, where you’re encouraged to grind through Continental performance tires on a polished concrete surface as you’re taught to drift like they do in the movies. A skid pad is, as-advertised, a dedicated swath of concrete with a slick surface so you can skid and/or drift a vehicle in a near-perfect circle. You’re theoretically supposed to have a perfect balance of mid-level acceleration, turning and braking to ease into and out of turns to get the rear wheels to continuously move the car in that circular shape around the perimeter of the pad. It requires a gentle, yet firm touch on the pedals and constant reminders to always look in the direction you’re wanting to turn (in this case, always to the left). Our instructor made it look ridiculously easy. For anyone else, it’s not.
You can almost pretend you’re getting tips from the paddock as the instructor badgers you with information through a hand radio as you try to replicate his moves. I very quickly learned that your capacity to analyze lessons on the fly along with your reflex skills largely dictate how well you’ll do. I kept spinning out in full circles, barely making one actual loop in my time on the pad.
We went back to the staging area to swap our M5s for M4s and head to a small course, purpose-built for fast acceleration and hard, pad-destroying braking. This is where we were told to mash the gas as hard as possible, brake, mash again out of the turn, then brake almost to a full stop.
Our instructor was easily topping 85 mph in the span of a few seconds before dramatically stopping just slow enough to ease into a turn and be efficient coming out of it, only to top 80 mph once again. I was not as fortunate, barely eclipsing 73 mph multiple times. (Even if I had a hundred tries, I don’t think my reflexes are fast enough to get the cornering down.)
We wrapped up the morning on the largest course within the Performance Center’s own confines, specifically focused on turning and handling with the assistance of the M2s. In this order, we were aiming to put all of our newfound knowledge together into credible laps, meeting specific cone points for the most efficient turning momentum. We were also inching towards lunch, and I noticed fatigue start to take over.
Exhaustion Kicks In
If this sounds like your kind of adrenaline-fueled vacation, know it is also mentally and physically draining work. Not only are you trying to do your best in each exercise, but you also have the instructor giving you split-second changes to improve your driving, while having to be acutely aware of everything going on in the car and around you. Can’t do all that at once? “You’re leaving seconds on the table,” I was told multiple times. That’s their way of saying you’re slow.
It takes an intense amount of focus to perform anywhere remotely near what the instructors ask of you. This makes you appreciate what pro race drivers, even way below F1, that burgeoning American interest, must endure just to be competitive. I sat out two of the afternoon activities just to work up the energy to do three full laps on the Thermal Club’s North Palm Circuit.
For just about everyone, track time is the highlight of the day. You take everything you learned up until that point and let it rip on a real, pro-style racetrack for around 10 minutes. The intensity is ramped up to 10 as you have to maintain focus while surveying everything and keeping up with the instructor’s lead car (there’s good reason they don’t allow unseasoned drivers to run the course alone). At the end of the day, you can hop in with one of the instructors for a lap on their terms – putting whichever M Series you’re in to something closer to the limit under the guidance of a seasoned professional. Those who participated were uniformly blown away by the experience.
The Price of Admission
It’s not cheap to drive at this level. Our one-day course, which utilized only the M Series vehicles, starts at $1,750 (but, hey, lunch is included). There’s also a two-day option from $4,000. The Performance Center has a range of other offerings, from a one-hour course ($300) all of the way to bespoke racing programs where you can earn certain racing licenses (granted you have the stamina to make it). You don’t need to be a BMW owner to revel in a day here, but if you are, the center has programs to make the most of your ride. The sibling Performance Center in South Carolina has similar offerings.
The funny thing is, you almost forget to take in that you’re driving finely-tuned, high-spec M Series models because you’re so focused on the tasks at hand in each driving activity. The instructors require that you run the cars in Track Mode to get to their full potential, but most everyday visitors won’t even get close to that. These cars are more than capable, but they do get thrashed around — at one point, we had to swap out my M4 for another as the brake pad sensor came on, and my replacement car’s driver’s seat was coming apart at the seams from the abuse.
I gained a lot of respect for the intense focus and physical fitness required to participate in racing. I was spent after just one day, but certainly interested in coming back for more. (There’s an off-road course with a tantalizing array of M-spec X5s and X7s that looked quite enticing.) It’s a breathtaking experience that will take you as far as you’re willing to let it.
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