The BMW Performance Center in Thermal, California (Palm Springs) is one of my favorite places to visit. It's an interesting experience that sits in a great middle ground between a "racing school" and an "exotic driving experience". While those two ends of the spectrum tend to dominate this space, on both of my visits to the Performance Center I've found that their staff and facilities scales well to what the client wants and needs to learn. What I like about this approach is that your takeaways will be far more valuable than simply a a big smile on your face. These are skills that will ultimately make you a better driver and a better man.
Don't worry though, you will learn important skills that translate directly to shaving seconds off your track time. You will also, most certainly have a great time. The instructors here are incredibly knowledgeable and comfortable with working with all sorts of skill levels. In fact, last year when they first invited me to visit it was my first time at a driving school. This year I feel like I'm somewhat of a veteran having had the chance to do a couple different training experiences in the past year. While the excitement of some experiences begins to fade when compared to their peers - the BMW Performance Center only got better.
The BMW Performance Center offers a variety of different programs ranging from a Car Control School to help drivers better anticipate and recover from dangerous situations on the road, the Teen School designed to help teen drivers with control, and multiple levels of the M School which is what we enjoyed a modified version of. They also offer a MINI Motoring School and the MINI Tricks and Stunts School where you start with handling and capabilities and then progress to reverse donuts, j-turns, and reverse turns like you see stunt drivers do.
While most people look at this as a solo activity, the folks at the BMW Performance School can also offer custom group events including a bachelor party where you can drive and then have a catered German lunch or dinner complete with sausages and beer.
Here's some of the skills that I learned on this visit to the BMW Performance Center ...
Proper Seat and Wheel Configuration - And Why!
Most of the time when we drive our cars around time, seating position is about comfort instead of maximum performance. When you are measuring performance in inches and thousands of a second, everything you can do to maximize your talent is critical. Frankly though, this is true even for driving around town too. For instance, most of us were taught to hold the wheel at "10 and 2". That is a BAD position both for safety as well as performance. Not only is that not an ideal position for control of the wheel but if you have your hands high on the wheel like that it can actually be dangerous in a crash.
When we were kids, cars didn't have air bags. Today if you have your hands high on the wheel like that, there's a risk that an exploding air bag can thrust your hands into your face. Instead, drivers should keep their hands at 9 and 3.
This also places your hands in a good position to control the paddle shifters and good control over the wheel in general.
For your seat position, it is important to make sure that you maintain an aggressive posture that allows for full leg and arm extension without locking them. While comfort is important, you want to make sure that your knees and elbows have plenty of flex. For instance, when braking - you want to make sure to be able to mash that pedal with full power rather than having it at the very end of your leg extension.
Braking Is More Important Than Just Slowing Down
Speaking of braking, most people who have never attended a driving school think that braking is important just to slow the car down. However, it is far more important than that. With a few exceptions, all performance vehicles steer with the front wheels and most are rear wheel drive. This means that there is a tendency for the front of the car to rise up during acceleration and that results in the front wheels not having maximum contact with the road. By tapping the brakes, not only will you reduce speed so that the vehicle maintains control but you will also re-orient the front wheels down on the pavement. This allows you to steer better and allows the car to carry itself through the curves with maximum control.
Plan Each Turn Ahead of Time and Shift Before or After a Turn
There's a tendency to "react" to curves in the track but those are seconds lost in a competition. Instead, you should always know exactly where you want to put your nose before you get to the turn. This is even more true when it comes to shifting. I have a tendency to shift gears in the turn, matching the velocity of the vehicle. Instead, I need to spend more time practicing and planning ahead to shift before and or after the turns. Not only is shifting during a turn not the most efficient, but it can distract you from controlling the vehicle and changing the engine settings also changes the performance dynamics of the vehicle. Doing so while turning means that turn won't be as clean as you might have wanted. Instead, try shifting while driving straight - before or after the turn.
You Don't Need To Turn The AC Off For Extra Power
Years ago I was told that the AC actually saps engine performance and speed so you could go faster if the air conditioner wasn't blasting cold air at you. On my most recent visit to the BMW Performance Center I was DETERMINED to get every edge I could. So, I turned the AC off and between adrenaline and the increasing heat in the car (Palm Springs can be upwards of a 100 degrees in the summer and 80+ even in the winter!) began to sweat profusely. Only afterwards did I learn that while what I was told was "true" ... it only became an issue at the top end of the performance spectrum.
With the cars we were driving in autocross, the AC unit was a non factor. Indeed, driver comfort was important for performance and so my trick to get an edge turned into a detriment. Oops!
Listen To Your Instructors and Pay Attention
While a day spent driving performance cars such as BMW M3, M4, and M5 automobiles around a track is a FUN experience - this is school. Ideally, you are here to learn something. Even if you aren't your instructors are here to keep you safe and maximize your fun.
There are big things like cornering techniques but then there are "little things" like being told where the parking break is on the different vehicles that you can easily miss if not paying attention. The instructors here are extremely good and very professional. They are excellent at reading the crowd and understanding who's serious and who's not. You don't want to be told to sit out a lap because you aren't paying attention.
Every Second Matters!
It sounds like something your dad might say but he's right. Every second matters here and that means that every single thing you do behind the wheel is important. If the instructor tells you to get closer to the cone, brake at a certain point on the track, or shift - DO IT. I managed to score Second Place in our group but the difference between 2nd and 3rd was 0.002 seconds. The difference between placing in the top three and not at all was less than a second too.
Ultimately the BMW Performance Center is an amazing place to go for a day ... but it is also a place that you can visit multiple times and grow your driving skills over time. When I went there last year it was my first experience at a performance driving school and I learned some ... this year I was able to build on that experience as well as skills gained at other experiences and I felt more confident in my skills.
What I think many people don't understand is that this isn't just a "driving experience". Some of my friends have no interest in "racing". They are comfortable just driving back and forth to work and rocking out to their music while stuck in traffic. However, for me personally - skills I have learned over the past year have directly improved my performance in normal driving too. Basics like understanding where the car is in space, the feel of tires as they begin to loose control around a corner, and how to maximize my sitting position make me a better as well as safer driver today than I was before.
That's the power of learning how to drive at a place like the BMW Performance Center. I can't wait to go back again soon!