Two Days in the Desert
Two Days in the Desert
If you are into performance BMW’s and/or driving education programs like our own High Performance Driving Education program, you have likely heard about the BMW Performance Centers. One is in Greer, SC, near the sprawling U.S. BMW factory in Spartanburg; the other is in Thermal, CA, near Palm Springs. These centers provide various levels of driving education, schools, and experiences and give you a chance to push various BMW M cars to the limit. My very generous wife bought me a two-day Advanced M School package which I attended this month: two glorious days in the California desert burning someone else’s fuel, tires, and brakes … a track rat’s dream. It occurred to me that others may be considering going to one of the various events offered by the Performance Center’s, so here’s my review.
First, you have to qualify for the Advanced M School, either based on previous Performance Center M School events or your own track driving history. Other Performance Center Events and Schools have fewer requirements. I had only done one short event at Performance Center East in conjunction with BMW CCA Oktoberfest in 2019, but my submitted track driving history got me in the door. Second, you have to get yourself there. I flew directly in to Palm Springs via Los Angeles, and it definitely makes the trip more enjoyable. I had never been to Palm Springs and was unaware of the Thermal Club, which the BMW Performance Center partners with to use their private tracks.
Thermal Club is basically a performance drivers dream. Like a golf club, people can buy home plots that line the tracks and park their cars in on-site garages. It is pretty spectacular. Evidently the minimum cost to get into the Thermal Club is north of $1M, when the requirement to build a house on property is factored in, with the average outlay being somewhere between $3-6M. So, save your pennies! While we didn’t get to use all three Thermal tracks linked, which is over 5 miles, we did get to use the Desert and North Palm tracks individually and linked, and they are great, modern, well-designed tracks. Of note about the Palm Springs area: it can be HOT and WINDY. I went in April and the first day we experienced both 90F temps and 30+ MPH winds! The cars still did great.
The Performance Center itself is a modern, high-quality facility with dozens of M and other BMW cars and SUVs, and a dedicated staff to maintain them. There is a huge concrete skid pad, a large cone-configurable blacktop (the “black lake”), and an autocross-style configurable set of paved straights and turns they call the “Supercross.” I don’t consider myself an autocross person, but the Supercross was definitely super-fun. They also serve you a chef-prepared lunch each day, and dinner the first evening, and the food was spectacularly good.
The schedule is well-paced and varied, with different exercises and track time in various cars interspersed with short breaks and some classroom time. The instructors are all top-notch, and Chris, Dave, and Rick were patient, helpful, and knowledgeable, and pushed us constantly to do better and push harder, although they are always clear you always get a vote and won’t be forced to do anything you don’t want to do. Almost all track instruction was lead-follow via radio and while I wished one of the sessions was with an instructor in-car, there were opportunities to also ride-along in instructor cars to get education on specific points. The instructors were very practiced at driving quickly while also giving feedback via radio.
One of the things I looked forward to was the ability to drive the high-end BMW M cars that are really above my budget, and I was not disappointed. We cycled between M2CS, M4CS, and M5CS models. The M4CS and M5CS models had carbon ceramic brakes, which I had never experienced before. Driving the M Cars on the track was a treat in itself, and getting varied experience in cars with different performance characteristics definitely made me a better driver and will hopefully contribute to more skill in my own, relatively meager, 135i track car.
Another positive aspect was the different skill-improving sessions that we participated in. I had never really spent a lot of time practicing power-oversteer (drifting) but the skid pad provided that seat time and I consider my ability to hold a drift for a little over a quarter of the skid pad a big personal win. We also spent time in a building-block approach on the track, by practicing specific challenging sections of the track separate from an entire lap, with instructors at key points giving immediate feedback on our performance via radio.
A special, off-schedule highlight experience for me was getting to sit in a genuine BMW M4 GT4 racecar …and the Performance Center provides a GT4 experience where you can actually drive the car! Gotta put that on my list.
Overall, if you are a track-rat or just want to experience M-cars near the limit, I recommend you sign up for a BMW Performance Center M School. It will help you be a better, safer driver on the street, and a safely faster driver on the track. Oh, and more importantly, it’s also a fantastically fun time!