Want to drive fast cars? Head to the BMW Performance Driving School
At the BMW Performance Center in Thermal, California, anyone can get behind the wheel of a high-performance BMW and drive faster than ever imagined, all under the watchful eyes and guidance of a professional race car driver.
If you feel a need for speed and a desire to get in touch with your inner Tom Cruise, Danica Patrick, or Daniel Craig without killing yourself or anyone else in the process, look no further than the BMW Performance Driving School in Thermal, California.
Located in the Southern California desert south of Palm Springs, the BMW Performance Center West sits at the entrance to The Thermal Club – a very ritzy and quite exclusive 30-plus-acres of racetracks, training facilities, and motorsports club. If you are a race car enthusiast, have a few million dollars to spare on a home, own very fast and expensive cars, and want private access to multiple racetracks to play on, this is the club for you.
At a club house, “you’re watching race cars blasting around your whether you’re having a bite or playing putt-putt,” our instructor, Rob Stout, told us. Stout ain’t no high school driving training instructor; he’s an IMSA-ranked professional race car driver and driving consultant with 218 starts and 35 wins. These days, he spends part-time working with us regular folks as an instructor at BMW Performance Driving School. Meaning everyday peeps like us can, as the school says, “drive on the edge of physics.” Pay for one of its classes or experiences, and you too can have limited access to this very private world of fast, expensive cars since BMW is, essentially, a paying club member – although its tracks and “playground” are just outside the members-only area.
We were both invited to take part in its “Performance Drive” package, one of several types of classes or experiences the school offers. When the invitation came to do this, Therese’s eye’s widened and her stomach did a little flip: Oh, uh, no, uh-uh, Michael can do it, I’ll take photos. Michael, who has flown hang gliders and ultralight planes just for the story, could hardly wait to get behind the wheel. Oh, and there was no way he was letting Therese just sit and take photos. “You never sit on the sidelines,” he reminded her, “and you’d regret it this time if you did!”
Essentially, we’d be embarking on a two-hour sampler behind the wheels of the best of BMW performance cars – you know, 5,000 pounds or so of plaything — starting with a BMW X7 off-road vehicle. Next up, we would head to the track to rotate through four separate car models (a BMW Z4, a BMW M40i, a BMW M4 Competition and a BMW X3), learning with instruction how to navigate and maintain maximum speed through very tight corners and short straightaways. Each vehicle is equipped with a one-way radio so Stout would be able to talk to us, coach us, and guide us throughout our driving experience. But yes, we’d be alone in the car where you could make some really dumb mistakes with a very powerful machine.
“We run this place like an amusement park with different stations,” Stout explained.
Finally, we’d buckle into a BMW M5 driven by Stout where his goal would be to drive through the course going as fast as he possibly could while we held on for dear life. Smoking tires was a given. Screaming was likely not optional.
After a short introduction to explain the morning, our surroundings, and a bit about the school, we each loaded into a BMW X7 to begin the adventure.
Off road at the BMW Performance Driving School: in the heads of Michael and Therese
Michael – “Nestled into the cockpit of my luxury BMW X7 I pushed the engine start button and the machine growled to life. There were buttons to adjust everything electronically – perfect seat height and position and the steering wheel distance from me as well as its angle height. An iDrive control wheel next to the crystal glass (yes, you read that right) shifting knob allowed me to select various screens to help with my upcoming navigation through the off-road course – Stout helped me find the right one that would even show a front camera view of the course when my window view was obscured because the hill climbing angle was too steep. A haptic button next to the shifter allowed me to lift the X7 for more a few more inches of ground clearance … pretty nifty!
“I followed Therese, who was following Rob, through a dirt course that included various steep angled berms and moguls and a water crossing. Through one section, even as I maneuvered the vehicle through moguls that forced one wheel or another to lose ground contact, the X7’s computer automatically shifted power and control to the wheels still in firm touch with the earth.
“On the hill climb, the X7 powered up the slippery surface with ease reaching the top where a sharp left turn and steep descent awaited. Enter the camera. Even though I could not see a thing other than sky through the window, I could see where I needed to go with the front camera and steered easily into the turn. At that point, I took my foot off the gas and brake and the X7’s computer took over, using the engine to control the vehicle’s descent with minimal sliding. At this point, I began to wonder if the X7’s computer would pull a Hal and just take over driving from me, fed up with the human behind the wheel.
“As I headed back to the track and to park the X7, I was certainly impressed (by both the performance and the price tag of six figures … more than I would ever spend for off-road driving). More than anything though, I really was getting antsy to hit the track and feel some speed!”
Therese – “I was pointed toward the X7 I’d be driving and could immediately feel my heart starting to race. “I’m not a car person, I’m not a car person” was what kept rattling around in my head. In my everyday driving, I set cruise controls, go the speed limit, and have always driven a rather non-performance version of a Honda. Yea, not your sleek, racy, kinda performance vehicle. Even though the X7 seemed kinda ‘normal,’ the inside was far from that: Buttons, screens, and advanced controls and toggles that already made me want to throw up my hands and beg off.
“Rob gave us an intro into adjusting the cockpit area, how to shift, start, stop, and use the screen. It already seemed like too much for my non-car brain. Too much tech!! ‘OMG, I’m already frightened,’ I thought to myself, as the door shut, enclosing me in this little cocoon with Rob’s mellifluous tones wafting out of the walkie-talked nestled in the door compartment.
“‘It’ll be fun,’ he said, ‘it’ll be slow moving.’
“We headed out down the road toward the off-road course, first taking a little tour into the club area – yup, we were going slowly, and my heart was starting to drop out of my throat.
“Then we swung into the little off-road area with humps, bumps, steep hills, gravel pits, and water obstacles. We are told to let the car do what it does best even when a wheel loses contact (EEEEK!) and to enjoy watching the screen that shows the car’s pitch, yaw and roll (do I really want my car to yaw??).
“Off we go, over a little mogul, then onto some off-set berms. That wasn’t not so bad, I thought. Then Rob stepped out of his car to introduce the big mama on this baby course – a very steep uphill, with a sharp U-turn at the top that drops you into a descent where you can’t see what’s ahead of you it’s so steep. He instructed us to switch on the dashboard cam to see what’s ahead and take your foot off the brake on the descent to let the car do it’s thing! Which it does. Wow. Can we do that again?
“Even this non-car-person was pretty impressed – although not impressed enough to spend six figures on an SUV. My Honda was just fine, thanks, even without a pitch and yaw.”
Onto the track learning to drive fast
Michael – “I jumped into a silver BMW X3 and Therese leapt into a red BMW M4 Competition for our first laps. Rob drove us slowly around the track in single file, explaining exactly what we should be looking for – green cones for a starting line, red cones to signify where we should start hitting the brakes hard, blue cones to indicate where we should begin initiating our turns, and yellow cones that we should skim very close to in order to properly handle a curve and keep our speed up.
“Rob began to pick up speed for our second lap, encouraging us to stay close to him as he continued talking, guiding, instructing … attack the brake pedal, accelerate, tap the brake pedal, accelerate. I quickly learned that braking should be done before a turn is initiated because, as Rob explained, if you are braking and turning at the same time, you will overload the front tires. Made sense.
“One more lap and then Rob pulled over and had us wait at the green cones for his start command. Therese was sent off and she zipped down the straightaway. I nosed up to the starting line (almost leaving too early and getting a quick admonishment over the radio from Rob) before I too got the green light and punched the accelerator. Red cones arrived quickly, and I stomped on the brakes, started my turn and headed toward the yellow cone where my eyes were already focused. It felt fast, but not fast enough. I hit the accelerator hard, tapped the brake at the blue cone, turned quickly toward the next yellow cone and punched the accelerator again. I was chasing my wife, and it felt so fun!! I had to remind myself to not ride her bumper as I caught up to her, so I slowed and drifted back far enough so I could punch the accelerator hard again and feel the speed.
“After a couple laps, we were called into pit row, and we changed cars. Nose to the green line and then off again. Each lap, I gained a bit more confidence, punched the accelerator a bit harder, stomped on the brakes more aggressively.
“My favorite car to drive was the Z4, perhaps because it was my last ride. At one point, Therese pulled over to ask Rob a question and waved me by. The track was mine and open. No chasing, no other car in front. I punched the accelerator really hard and was pressed back into the seat. At the cones I hit the brakes really aggressively, and then began to turn toward the yellow cone. It felt too fast at first, but then I realized I could have gone faster … this car really performed. I was having the time of my life … and then it was time for pit row.”
Therese – “Off we headed to this little lineup of cute BMWs. I presumed that a performance vehicle probably doesn’t like to be called ‘cute’ and that no member of The Thermal Club would ever call it that. Of course, now we were supposed to rotate through the cars – a few laps in each one for each of us – to experience acceleration, braking and turning in a ‘performance machine.’ Rob talked us through what the different color cones meant. Honestly, it was getting a little swimmy in my head.
“Hands 9 and 3, we were told, for best control, not the 10 and 2 you are taught in school, and do not coast into a cone, but brake hard when you are at it, turn your head to look to the next yellow cone, i.e. your destination, then accelerate and go. Do not brake and accelerate at the same time. Do not tap the brakes but HIT them when you need to slow before a turn, then stomp on the gas again. Really so much was contrary to what we learned for everyday driving.
“I had the cutest of the cute – the red M4 – to start out. But cute only gets you so far. It’s like a cute mountain lion, sleek in the sun, but don’t get in its way when it bolts into action. Rob had us follow him around the snaking course: first slowly (I can do this), then faster (uh-oh), then faster (YIKES), after which he veered off, and we were going to be on our own. We putt-putted up to the green start line. I was first and go the GO from Rob. I hit the accelerator and felt soooooo fast – ha, ha, I know I was slower than molasses, but what the heck.
“I managed the braking and turns, skimmed the yellow cones to best align the next turns, but struggled with the admonishment to not just let off the brake and slightly coast toward the next acceleration point. Michael was following me, but a couple of times when I looked up, he was not noodging me, so I wasn’t too slow after all, I guess.
“We were called into ‘the pit’ and switched cars. What threw off this self-proclaimed ‘non-car-person’ were all those electronic controls, toggle switches, and push buttons. Once I even got the car into the wrong gear and had to kinda cruise the back half into the pit and ask what to do before I was flagged back onto the course, this time behind Michael.
“By our third of four cars, Rob was cajoling me to go faster. And I responded (I know, I know, my definition of fast was a joke, but it felt fast to me). I found myself wondering as I maneuvered this purring performance beast around the turns how many people totally mess up, end up in the sand, crash into another car, or hit a wall…. Don’t think about that, Therese!
“I think I was just a teeny bit glad when this fast part was all over. Which was my favorite? The BMW M40i. It just felt better in my hands. And I will admit now that this was feeling kinda fun.”
A hot lap at the BMW Performance Driving School
Michael – “I securely fastened my seatbelt of the BMW M5 Rob was going to drive (and double checked its security, to be honest). I was in the front seat so I could, hopefully, video the hot lap we were about to take on. Rob told me the only way I was going to pull that off was to put my iPhone in my left hand and hold on securely to the door with my right. I was pretty sure he was grinning behind his mask. I was grinning, too, ready for the thrill ride I knew was about to commence. I pressed record and held up the phone to capture the moment. Therese asked how fast we were going to go. ‘As fast as I can,’ replied Stout quickly. Therese asked how fast that would be, and Stout replied, as he hit the gas, ‘I have no idea, but it will be pretty fast.’ And just like that, the hard acceleration began.
“I barely remember the 60 seconds that passed … thank goodness for video. I do remember screaming and laughing … a lot! Stout narrated the entire time, explaining what he was doing as he slid, tires squealing, rubber burning into turn after turn, accelerating hard out of them, always in control, but pushing the edge like the pro he is.”
(To really understand the thrill of the ride, watch the video below.)
Therese – “Before I bundled myself into the backseat with the excuse that I was going to give Michael the front seat so he could do a video, I had one question for Rob: ‘Can we scream?’ His dead-pan answer: ‘It’s encouraged.’
“I had my camera up thinking I’d be able to snap a few photos while Michael video’d. Rob explained the slightly different course he would drive, explained to Michael how to hold on (that was a subtle warning, I think), then he hit the gas pedal. I was thrown back in my seat but just as quickly we hit the first turn and I was thrown to the side. All I could do was scream and laugh, then laugh and scream … and hang on for dear life. Snapping photos? HA HA HA.
“Michael’s video, below, indicates the entire ride was 60 seconds, but it felt a lot longer! When Rob slowed and pulled off the course, we all piled out. Then Rob circled the car, looked at the left rear tire, and said in his matter-of-fact way: ‘Shredded that tire.'”
And then it was all over. Two hours has never passed by so fast … figuratively and literally. Would we do it again? Michael would in a heartbeat! Maybe next time the M Track Drive – really fast! Therese? A full day course that improves your driving with skidding and maneuvering sounded pretty OK, after all.
“You WILL walk out of here a better driver than you were before,” Stout said. Still, “we have a ton o’ fun here.”
No matter how much fun was had though, we never lost sight of the fact that this is the ultimate BMW sales tool and test-driving experience — one you pay to participate in for the privilege of driving like you can’t (or shouldn’t) on the open road. Do expect a sales inquiry from your local BMW dealer when it is all over. It only took a week for two to slide into each of our inboxes. In the end, they don’t just want to teach you to drive better; they want you to be doing your future driving in a BMW.
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