Pushing my Driving Limits at the BMW Performance Center West

As car racing fan, and aficionado of classic racing cars, it’s a bit surprising that I do not own a fast car nor have I raced on a track or attended a driving school. I’ve been a passenger in a race car on a track, and I love watching racing drivers push their car to the limits on a track, but doing that myself?  Not yet.

When A Girls Guide to Cars invited me to their Drive2Learn conference in Palm Springs recently, I was excited  to attend and test drive the various vehicles made available to our group, but my eyes got big when I read that we’d be visiting the BMW Performance Driving Center in Thermal, CA.

BMW Performance Driving Center West in Thermal, CA for A Girl's Guide to Cars #Drive2Learn conference

BMW Performance Driving Center in Thermal, California. Photo courtesy of BMW Performance Driving Center

The half-day experience we had at the school is a mash-up of the different courses and classes BMW offers. While you will not be able to replicate our exact experience (and we didn’t do everything they offer), you can read what we did, and then determine what class might be the best fit for you.

BMW Performance Driving School track for #drive2learn a girl's guide to cars photo by Kiera Reilly

View of the shorter track from the second level of the BMW Performance Center. This track was marked with cones and split into three smaller sections during our class.

Having attended a class at the BMW Performance Driving Center, I cannot wait to return. Here’s why I loved my experience there, and why I recommend you make plans to attend a class there soon.

It’s Educational

After a buffet breakfast upstairs overlooking the track, our group gathered downstairs in a classroom where Adam, the lead instructor, introduced the other driving instructors. All of the instructors have racing experience and have been teaching at BMW for some time.

Adam led a shortened course on driving basics – how to adjust your seat and steering wheel, where to place your hands (surprise it’s not 10:00 and 2:00 as many of us were taught in driver’s ed, but 9:00 and 3:00), and where to look when you are driving (look where you want to go).

BMW Performance Driving School instruction for #drive2learn with A Girl's Guide to Cars photo by Kiera Reilly

Lead instructor Adam highlights the paddle shift levers on the steering wheel – you could use these if you wanted while driving, and I did!

Our short lesson complete, we were divided into groups and sent out to start driving.

It’s Experiential

The first rotation for my group was on the track with M4s, with two of us in each vehicle with the instructor in the lead vehicle. I paired up with Myra and drove first. Instructor Dave used a walkie talkie to communicate with us while we were driving. He led us in a caravan to the track and then explained that we would drive a lap following him, one car behind the other. As we drove in formation around the track, he noted braking points, apexes, straightaways where we could floor it, and curves where we needed to be looking out the side windows as we steered (use the side windows as you turn to see where you want the car to go). We were given the option to drive the car in automatic, or we could use the paddle shifts for manual mode. I tried that since I drive a manual transmission car.

With each successive lap, we went faster and faster. He coached us, and calmly led us around the track, encouraging us to go increase our speed with each lap. The car was quite simply a joy to drive. It was smooth and fast and stopped on a dime. At various points on the track Dave encouraged us to floor it, and I did. I know I hit over 100 mph, maybe even 115, and it was exhilarating.  I know the car could go faster, but for my first drive I was being a bit timid. We did about four laps of driving and then switched passenger and driver. As we completed additional laps, my confidence grew in knowing what was coming next, where to push the car to go faster, when to lift off and brake, and where to steer to use make most effective use of the racing line (how’s that for a race term I learned watching Formula 1?).

BMW Performance Driving School driving a BMW M4 on the track with Kiera Reilly for A Girl's Guide to Cars #Drive2Learn conference

Me and the M4 I drove around the track.

Caution though – riding along as a passenger caused some in our group to feel a bit of motion sickness. If that was an issue, the instructors encouraged those individuals to drive first, and then when we swapped driver and passenger, they could step out of the car instead of riding along and getting sick.

Here’s video of me at the end of the drive – thank you Myra for recording this!

It’s Informative

Our next stop was to a smaller track layout where we would drive several different BMW models. We were handed off to a different instructor who led us around the track in a caravan of different BMWs – an M2, M4, 5550i, X5, and X6. Once we learned the braking points and apexes on the short track, we drove two laps in each vehicle, switched passenger to driver for two laps, and then moved to the next car. In quick succession, we were able to experience the performance and handling of each different model. To experience the difference between an M2 and M4, between an X5 and and X6, was illuminating. Sure the M4 felt like it was powered with a huge awesome engine, but the M2 was smaller and felt nimbler, easier to zip around corners and perfect for short – but fun – trips around town. The 550i felt like a solid car – large and roomy, with solid handling. The SUVs were surprisingly quick with good pick-up and were easy to manipulate around the short track. If you are thinking about purchasing a BMW, this is the thing to do – drive each model in quick succession and see which vehicle suits your driving style best. The best part – you can go fast and feel like you are really driving and feel the performance of each vehicle  – not taking a slow loop around the block at a dealership.

Here’s a clip of us driving around the shortened track in the various cars by Peyton’s Momma.

It’s Competitive

We moved on to another small track for timed laps. Here we were paired again and drove in formation around this short track in 3 series BMWs. After noting the brake points and apexes, we were sent out to do timed practice laps. We had to drive the course as fast as we could and then stop within the stop box for our time to count. After two practice laps, we were sent on the track one by one to complete two timed laps. As we did our laps, it was quickly apparent who the two fastest drivers were in our group (and I was not one of them). Although I wasn’t the fastest, I concentrated on improving my time for each lap (which I did), taking the corners tighter, braking later, and trying to determine how to use the entire track to my advantage.

It’s Fun

BMW Performance Center West M3 and M4 on track #drive2learn #agirlsguidetocars

M3s and M4s lined up at the larger track for instruction laps and hot laps.

Our last stop was back at the big track for a hot lap with the instructors. As I sat in the back seat with two others from our group, David whipped around the track, braking, accelerating and drifting to give us the ride of our lives. It was so fun, I couldn’t stop laughing and squealing. What a thrill to experience the car being pushed to its limit while in the control of an experience driver.

Here’s what the hot lap looks like from outside the car (video clip courtesy of BMW Performance Center West):

Here’s the video I took while in the back seat during the hot lap – there’s a lot of laughing and squealing (also watch Jess Doll’s hair in the front seat as the car turns). It was a rush!

A BMW M3 speeds off on a hot lap.

Did I Say It’s Educational?

A word about the instructors

Yes, the BMW is the “ultimate driving machine,” but simply sitting behind the wheel of a BMW doesn’t necessarily provide the ultimate driving experience. The instructors were without fail engaging, calm, reassuring, and funny. I never felt pushed to do anything I was uncomfortable with, and they encouraged us to push the car, go faster, and enjoy it. It was seamless and fun, yet I walked away feeling like I learned how to drive better – whether I was in a BMW or not. If the thought of driving fast or doing laps on a track is scary, you can come here to learn in a no-pressure, non-intimidating environment and progress at your level. That is not always the case when you’re taking a class to learn something new, and the instructors here really impressed me.

Our half day of “class” done, we returned upstairs where Adam presented us with BMW Performance Driving School goodies – the best being  the BMW Performance Driving school hat – with a California bear on the side (distinguishing it from BMW’s other Performance Driving School in South Carolina). The winners of the timed lap were announced and congratulated (not surprisingly I was not one of them), and then it was over. It went by so quickly – probably because we were all having so much fun!

My takeaway

Kiera Reilly behind wheel of BMW m4 at BMW Performance Driving School #drive2learn conference with A Girl's Guide to Cars

I think I look good behind the wheel of the M4! What a thrill it was driving this at top speeds around the track.

There is something for everyone at the BMW Performance Driving Center. Whether you want to learn tips for better driving, how to extract the maximum performance out of a car, optimal racing lines on a track, what it feels like to ride a hot lap, or test various BMW models, there is a class for you.

There are many classes to select: Car Control, M School, BMW Performance Drive, M Track Drive, Mini Driving Experience, and a BMW Track Meet event. Pricing starts at $299 for a half-day M-track drive or BMW Performance Center drive and goes up to $3,999 for a two-day M school package.

Enter to Win a BMW Driver Experience!

Enter to win A Girls Guide to Cars Grand Prize Giveaway that includes a drive experience at BMW Performance Center West, a stay at the Miramonte Indian Wells Resort & Spa and more! Click this link to enter: a Rafflecopter giveaway

Contest rules: Entries must be completed by 11:59PM Pacific December 31st, 2018. No purchase necessary; contest open only to US residents 18 years old or older and subject to the laws of the state of California. Winner will be chosen by random drawing from qualified entires and verified by A Girls Guide to Cars; winner will be notified by email no later than January 7th, 2019. Prize will be delivered by USPS to a valid US address; prizes cannot be shipped to a P.O. box. Winners may be asked to provide identification to receive their prize. Prize valued at $1,200, not exchangeable for cash or other items. Prize is limited to one (1) night accommodations at Miramonte Resort, Indian Wells, CA with date of accommodation subject to approval by Miramonte management; one (1) breakfast for two at Miramonte Resort; one (1) half day driving instruction and hot lap package for one person at BMW Performance Center West, Thermal, CA. Travel and additional accommodations are the responsibility of the winner. Contest is administered by and prizes awarded by A Girls Guide to Cars, which assumes no liability for the administration of this contest. Miramonte Indian Wells Resort, BMW Performance Center, Visit Greater Palm Springs Area, and all other event partners assume no responsibility or liability for the administration of this contest. A total of 1 grand prize will be awarded.

Disclosure: I was a guest of A Girls’ Guide to Cars, BMW Performance Driving School, and Visit Greater Palm Springs for this trip in exchange for my honest opinion of my experience. All the opinions here are my own.

Pushing my driving limits at the BMW performance Driving School in Thermal, CA with A Girl's Guide to Cars #Drive2Learn Conference

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