What do you call a school with 139 cars that uses 6000 tires per year? It is the BMW Performance Center located in Thermal, CA. Not far from the Palm Springs airport, it is a world class facility of driving instruction with world class cars. Unique to every other manufacturer in the United States, there is a second school located on the opposite coast in Greer, South Carolina. There are also MINI driving experiences offered including stunts, and a Rider Academy School for on and off-road motorcycle instruction. BMW is clearly committed to driving and riding excellence.
Having been very fortunate to attend classes at both facilities, the South Carolina location is closer to the BMW Spartanburg assembly plant and museum. During my session there, the second day was snowed out, a somewhat uncommon occurrence. On the other hand, Thermal shares time with an FIA certified private track and is close to the fine dining and shopping of Palm Springs. Granted, it can get quite hot there. This most recent trip was for the one-day M School that is $1,550 on the website. A bargain for the quality and experience. The one-day course gives an attendee plenty of track time and instruction that makes anyone a better driver when applied, not to mention a faster one.
Starting shortly after 8am, the first segment is an entertaining “chalk talk” that covers vehicle control topics that center around weight and weight transfer. The discussion included braking, steering and accelerating; all enabled by the tires via driver inputs. Brian, the one giving the presentation had a lot of stories which made the entire class session fun and interesting.
One good tip is to have the elbows at a 90-degree angle when holding the steering wheel. Check out how many YouTube and Instagram driving videos have them nearly straight out. Another is when the brake pedal is fully depressed, the knee should be at a 45-degree angle. A great quote given was, “A steering wheel is a suggestion box.” Meaning the weight on the tires and the inputs by the driver are suggestions and the tires respond accordingly if they are not overloaded. Or another way of putting is if the tires are not too distracted.
Being that the lowest horsepower model of the Competition optioned submodel of an M2, M3 and M5 is 420hp, you know you’re in for a long, fast and fun day. Divided into groups of 5, we were then told which driving segment we were going to do in a numerically assigned car. Other than demonstration purposes, it is one student per car. Instructions are provided by a two-way radio tucked in the driver’s door pocket with the volume all the way up. Each event has the instructor leading by example and taking the students in rides to point out the proper line and technique.
The first driving segment was in the M2 and it was on a shorter, technical track to demonstrate handling. It certainly provided excellent grip and is very nimble. The next event was in the exquisitely appointed M5 with 617hp. With the instructor driving in a lead car, we took the most powerful car at the center to the slowest location at the facility, the smooth concrete skidpad.
With a press of the M2 button and a confirming click of the iDrive dial, the M5 is then in rear-wheel-drive mode only, and Dynamic Stability Control is turned off. Using second gear only, doing oval laps was like driving on ice. A lot of tail-out antics with opposite lock steering never exceeding 30mph. Feathering the controls, it was all about finesse and even watching other students do the laps was fun.
We then returned to the building for water and a bathroom break (should be brake in this case) before getting in the 503hp M3 for instructor led lead-follow laps on one of the bigger tracks near the homes of Thermal Raceway members, the South Palm Circuit. Unfortunately, the direction of leaving 2+ car lengths distance makes one feel like they need to catch up. But when threshold braking from 135mph into a left hand turn, you just need to concentrate on the next turn ahead of you. This is the fastest part of the school and keeping your vision up and hitting braking and turning points become blatantly important. And oh my gosh this is fun. The lingering thought of the controversial styling of the M3/M4 front fascia completely leaves your mind.
The last session before a gourmet lunch is an M3 brake and turn exercise. This was a full-throttle run to the braking zone, applying the brakes, turning, hitting the apex and getting on the throttle for a timed run. This showed us how minute changes and mistakes affected the times of our runs in a very short distance.
It was then time for a group lunch. The catered meal was excellent with chicken and lamb, plenty of vegetables and a choice of non-alcoholic beverages. It should be mentioned bottled waters were plentiful during all the breaks and we were encouraged to drink often to stay hydrated and alert.
The first afternoon session had our group taking the M3s on the FIA approved South Palm Circuit for lead-follow laps. A technical track with two triple-digit sections, we reached 135mph before braking hard for a fast left-hander. We each had multiple laps directly behind the instructor while trying to not fall too far behind. This segment is where I wanted more practice and instructor time to hit each corner properly. A great reason to attend again.
Next was the rat race on the skidpad in the M5s again. This had two students start on opposite sides of the skidpad in rear-wheel-drive mode, and see who could catch up to the other in about 4 laps. This was all about finesse and patience trying to harness spinning rear tires and 617hp. I was undefeated for the second time, the previous session was in 2019.
Our last driving event was a timed lap on the short course in the M2 with a standing start and required braking in a zone marked by cones. Strong acceleration, quick left-right transitions, high lateral loads, memorizing the technique in each turn, this was a hoot. My last time was my best, which shows that there was definite room for improvement, especially with tires having less grip as temperatures rise.
Last we all went to the big course again for a few hot laps as passengers with the instructors. By this time the tires did not want to cooperate as much as earlier in the day, but the driving by the instructors was brilliant.
Finally, we all convened in the classroom again for a big thank you from the instructors, a debriefing and awards for the M2 timed course and the rat race. We were given certificates of completion and a goody bag as an appreciation. Having attended many driving schools, and being very fortunate to do the BMW schools three times and on both coasts, I highly recommend it.
The cars are very fast, capable, bulletproof in reliability, handle extremely well and don’t feel too exotic in terms of comfort, learning curve and unfamiliarity. The instructors are friendly, funny, and full of information in car control and even racing techniques. With other courses offered including a competition license upon completion, I strongly recommend driving instruction at the BMW Performance Center. I’m going to do whatever I can to go again.