Going out on a race track for your first time can be a little bit intimidating. You're worried about the proper driving line and where the apex is, not to mention you don't want to break anything on your own project car. A million things are running through your head, which is why it helps to have someone experienced show you the ropes. Also, doesn't hurt to be learning in a car that you don't have to worry about maintaining or fixing afterward.
There are plenty of racing schools scattered around the nation you can check out, but very few are set in attractive locales; an equally small amount of tracks offer anything more than a Mustang for seat time. While we'd prefer to hop into a GT-R, STI or 370Z for a day, we're afraid there just isn't an affordable school out there with new Japanese sports cars readily trackable. However, if you don't mind high performance Euros (and we definitely don't!) the new BMW Performance Center West in Thermal, Calif. is the answer to our prayers.
As the name suggests, Thermal is a hot place. About 30 minutes from nearby Palm Springs (2.5 hours from LA or Orange County), triple-digit temps are the norm from May to September; however, it's also its offseason, so we found time to make it out there, and trust us when we say the experience was nothing short of amazing.
Upon arriving, we were impressed with how massive the facility is. This ain't no rinky-dink parking lot autocross, but there's 5.1 miles of expansive track layouts, and four different tracks in all. As far as how stacked they are, there are 30 pro instructors on the roster and 130 BMWs in the stable, regularly maintained and all a blast to drive. No base models here; we're talking vehicles like brand new M3s and M4s with more than 400hp for you to play with. There's also a MINI program available, but of course we were there for the big boy toys.
BMW Performance Center West tells us more than 10,000 people went through their program in '17, and it's no mystery why. After a quick classroom session, we were powersliding around on a 330 ft. wet skid pad in a pair of new M3s. After what felt like 100 revolutions on the skid pad, we headed to a 1.1-mile course that features plenty of different corners, some manmade elevation changes, a long enough straight where you'll be kissing 120mph, and hairpins tight enough to get the carbon ceramic brakes smoking hot. We managed to convince our instructor to allow a 40-minute hot session-not the usual schedule of events but an example of the flexibility the facility offers.
Programs can be catered to whatever you want. BMW Performance Center West tells us they can accommodate anywhere from one to a couple hundred people. Advanced M schools dive in deeper into things like how to master weight transfer with full traction control off, while beginner classes teach more about safety and basic fundamentals. Private coaching is also available. During our visit, there was a 60-year-old lady who dailies a Prius from Palm Springs getting one-on-one coaching. Needless to say, she was powersliding as good as we were, and just goes to show that BMW Performance Center West is open to all ages and skill levels.
Besides the thrill of being out on the track all day learning, its two-story facility/office is becoming quite the venue for corporate meetings and private parties. Imagine having to go to BMW Performance Center West for a conference, while the rest of the afternoon is spent on the track. Or how about organizing your buddy's bachelor party there next year before the Coachella Music Festival only a few miles away... Anything is possible, there's a lot you can learn from just a day out there, and we're excited there's something like this in SoCal's own backyard.
Special thanks to Adam Seaman, Ronjini Joshua and the rest of the BMW Performance Center West staff for having us!
SS Staff Reviews
"'M Stands for More. More horsepower. More Performance' is exactly what you will get out of at BMW Performance Center West. My highlight of the facility is the full course lapping with a lead/follow. It's nice to follow a driver instructor to actually set the proper line, braking zones, and when to get on the gas. As my pace increased, our lead instructor Adam would increase his pace as well and at the same able to critique you're driving on how to improve on your next lap, a perfect example of 'monkey see, monkey do'. It's definitely a satisfying experience knowing the characteristics of the BMW M3 we were able to drive and surprisingly how well it performances both on and off track, straight from the factory, and pushing it to its limits till it actually overheated and low tire pressure!" - Ceso
"With being an M3 owner, the BMW Performance Center West provided me the ultimate experience of taking an M3 onto the skid pad and the track with an instructor that is well-versed with the car itself. With our lead instructor Adam, I got valuable guidance and seat time on the skid pad that provided me a greater understanding and ability of how to balance the steering and throttle inputs to initiate and maintain a drift; not to mention the experience of a spinout and how to navigate and learn from it. The highlight of the day was the facility's full course lead-follow session on the track. With following the instructor to establish the proper line, braking and acceleration zones, it really sped up the learning curve and allowed me to better focus on putting it all together into a seamless run. Ultimately, being able to take and M3, like my own, on the track to increase my familiarity with its' capabilities and push my limits was definitely a priceless experience." - Willie