Groups craving high-octane thrills that challenge their core notions of driving safety and techniques will get more than they bargain for at the BMW Performance Center West outside of Palm Springs, California, where mashing on the accelerator and then stomping on the brakes while barreling into a hairpin turn is not only encouraged, but is standard operating procedure.
Welcome to the BMW Performance Driving School, which also operates on the East Coast in Spartanburg, South Carolina—and check your fears at the door.
I recently strapped myself into a number of finely tuned Beamers, as well as a Mini Cooper, to test my mettle and find out what the facility offers for corporate groups that want to push their limits under the tutelage of the experienced racers who instruct blossoming speed demons on the finer points of scaring the hell out of oneself.
With the thermometer teasing 120 F at the Thermal, California, test track, I showed up expecting a hair-raising ride and got more than I bargained for. I also learned to challenge my fears and assumptions—to trust my inner Dale Earnhart Jr.
Photo: Instructors at the BMW Performance Driving School were masked up as part of their pandemic precautions.
The morning started with a briefing from a BMW Driving Instructor, a former professional racer who detailed the day’s proceedings and described some of the finer points about the high-performance cars we’d be pushing to the limit.
Indeed, the tires squealed and smoked as I rounded the many corners on the first test track, which had small color-coded cones strategically placed to tell me when to mash the brakes to the floor—the advanced antilock system really does all of the work—and when to accelerate out of the curve. All the while, the instructor offers tips via radio through my headset.
“Braking brings stability,” was the key phrase of the day, as I fought every instinct not to slam the brake pedal to the floor.
The goal during the Performance Drive is to learn skills such as basic car control, proper vision, emergency and panic braking, last-minute lane changes, high-speed control and precision driving, all of which translates to improving the everyday driving skills of participants.
Photo: The BMW Performance Driving School offers more than five miles of tracks outside of Palm Springs, California.
The day then progressed to another course, and another former pro-racer instructor, ending with clocked sessions in the Timed Autocross format in which drivers try to beat their best time with each turn around the track while being challenged to stop in a “box” painted at the end of the course or suffer a time penalty.
The end of the half-day program found me on the main track, which snakes its way around the grounds of the adjacent Thermal Country Club, where wealthy performance auto aficionados actually own luxury villas overlooking the track, with garages for their prized possessions and mechanics.
I followed the instructor and another driver as we hit speeds in excess of 115 mph in the main straightaway. Again, the screeching and smoking of tires was a constant as I learned to trust my reflexes—and the car—to “drift” around the turns.
And “drift” was an apt description of what was to come, as the instructor finished the program by putting me in the passenger seat for a white-knuckle “Hot Lap” drift ride that was filmed on a GoPro for posterity. While no swear words were uttered, the playback can attest to the utter exultations of excitement that managed to squeeze through my vocal box.
Photo: A BMW aficionado? You'll find plenty to select from, and put to the test, at the BMW Performance Driving School.
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Group Programs at the BMW Performance Center
A “bucket list” type of experience for groups, the facility has hosted up to 1,500 people for programs that feature classes, an F&B component, networking and a post-driving-day cocktail reception.
Corporate groups and BMW-affinity clubs, of course, are core customers. A group size of 200 hovers around the average at the facility, and up to 120 can fit in the classroom.
The BMW Performance Center's sales team works with planners to make sure the needs of the group are met, including time constraints, goals, meeting room requirements, catering options and the specific driving programs desired. The facility can arrange for team-based competitive racing that pits colleagues against each other, and the clock, as well as an Off-Road Experience and the Skidpad, where the art of drifting is practiced with reckless, yet safe, abandon. Participants can experience BMW X Series vehicles on the Off-Road Track, venturing through water obstacles, off-road trails and other challenges.
Groups wanting to hold meetings can opt for having their sessions before or after the driving experience. An awards ceremony can be organized to recognize the over- and underachievers of the group, and, of course, a shop full of BMW paraphernalia and mementos is onsite.
Photo: The BMW Performance Center offers three meeting rooms for groups.
My itinerary, which can be used as an example, included the following:
- 8 a.m.: Arrival and sign-In
- 8:15 a.m.: Introduction; short classroom presentation
- 8:30 a.m.: Performance Drive (to learn driving skills and drive multiple BMW vehicles)
- 9 a.m.: Timed Autocross (a race-against-the-clock for the best time of the day)
- 9:30 a.m.: Hot Laps (a professional BMW Driving Instructor takes you for a thrill ride around the main track)
- 10 a.m.: Time for additional photos/videos/interviews, etc.
- 12 p.m.: Lunch
- 12:30 p.m.: Wrap-up
The BMW Experience During the Pandemic
While the BMW Performance Center offers a robust meeting offering in normal times—three onsite meeting rooms that come complete with advanced AV, free Wi-Fi and even an onsite chef—my experience during the COVID-19 pandemic provided a safe environment, even at speeds that topped 115 mph.
The day started with a temperature check and the requisite questionnaire, and everyone was appropriately masked. Even the broiling temperature of the Coachella Valley desert this day wasn't too uncomfortable with my mask on. The air-conditioning inside the cars was certainly a blessing, though!
The orientation class was held outside near the track, with socially distanced chairs and big-screen monitors in place for visual instruction. Hand-sanitizer stations were positioned throughout the facility.
A lunch served at the end was protocol-friendly, too; a fortifying choice of sandwiches and salads served in pre-packaged containers and accompanied by ice-cold water and sodas.
My day at the track certainly tested my skills and perceptions of driving, and was a welcome respite after being cooped up while sheltering in place during the pandemic. I’m convinced groups of all kinds wanting to offer an incentive, networking or teambuilding program will agree that pushing any number of Ultimate Driving Machines to their limit will result in the drivers racing past their own boundaries.
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BMW Performance Driving Center West