Growing up as a kid, I always had a solid drive to learn new things, which helped me be very adaptable in various aspects of my life and allowed me to participate in a multitude of roles during the first few years of my time in the working world. That would later extend to my press career, where I learned to hone my driving skills. But something always seemed to be missing, like the critical piece in a Lego set needed to complete whatever model one is working on completing. To help fill that proverbial void, I traveled to BMW’s Performance Center West in Thermal, California, earlier this summer to see what the school had to offer as well as experience what it’s like to be a student in their demanding but extensive curriculum.
Allowing Students To Learn At Their Own Pace
Performance Center West (PCW) is located 45 minutes from Palm Springs and is also a short hop from the polo grounds that annually play host to the Coachella Music Festival. It’ll also feel like you entered another world with numerous palm tree farms dotting the surrounding landscape. After you find an Uber or Lyft driver that’s willing to make the journey out to PCW (a surprisingly formidable challenge during our visit due to a COVID-19 fueled driver shortage), you will arrive at a state of the art facility that makes you feel like you’re in a giant automotive playground with the grounds dotted with numerous BMW M models which serve as a rolling classroom. The facility is also part of the 32-acre Thermal Club, a private club where members can store their vehicles and even race on three separate circuits.
Our visit was part of the one-day M School program ($1,500), which consisted of classroom instruction, driving exercises, as well as splashes of spirited competition, which are all supervised by professional driving instructors. The bulk of students that visit PCW come from either California itself or select parts of the western United States, so having a student come from the opposite part of the country was a potent conversation starter (we even answered a few questions about snow from curious folks.)
When we arrived, loosened COVID-19 restrictions in California allowed us to have the classroom portions done in the main PCW building (versus tents), and here, at this stage of the process, the instructors drive home the importance of crucial driving skills. That includes using your eyes to spot hazards early to avoid trouble, learning proper apex lines, and some common sense safety items for your day out on the track. The instructors also make notes of particular learning styles and will do their best to appeal to traditional learners or visual learners like myself later in the program.
BMW M2 And M4 Form Key First Blocks Of Learning At Performance Center West
The mercury in Thermal was close to the triple digits when it came time for our track experience. Still, PCW adopts a rotating selection of segments with students separated into small sub-groups that tackle each one individually. The bulk of our time was spent in the BMW M2 Competition, a spicier version of the standard M2 sedan. The pint-sized track terror comes with beefier performance upgrades, including a tweaked turbocharged inline-six that produces 405 hp. Our first session started on the autocross track in the fore-mentioned M2, with students being tasked with learning proper braking techniques and learning to read the apexes properly.
Throughout the outdoor portion of the class, students receive verbal instruction from the instructors via two-way radios, allowing them to communicate with students in real-time, address any mistakes, and offer feedback in real-time. Out of the four sections, this one was arguably the hardest of the bunch to master at first due to the long time it took to center your eyes with the track. Eventually, we got the hang of things and managed to make a good deal of progress before switching off to our second station.
This second station involved us switching from the M2 to the bigger M4. The idea here was to use what we learned in the previous station to help us navigate our M4s around the same autocross course we were on earlier. Here in this station was where everything clicked for us, and we made up some of our lost pride in the first station by acclimating quickly to the curves and apexes that dotted the course. The primary catalyst of this is that each station allows students to naturally progress and learn from prior experience to apply this real-world knowledge to driving situations as they appear.
High-Speed Track Driving And Skid Pad Run Cover Advanced Essentials
After these introductory classes, we were sent off to the main Thermal Raceway, where we had the opportunity to do some high-speed track driving. Once again, our time was spent with the M4, but this time three students at a time went out, with the instructor serving as the lead pace car. This exercise was meant to help you learn how to read and accurately predict when to brake at high speeds and understand safe passing behavior with each student having the chance to drive directly behind the lead car, which allowed them to observe and follow the instructor’s lead. That’s useful for folks lucky enough to be the second car in the pack.
After our time at the main racecourse concluded, we were sent off to our final station, which took place on the skidpad at Performance Center West. The pad’s consistently wet surface, as well as the slight grade in certain sections, would require speed to be put on the back burner, with precision driving and slow speeds being essential. However, the slippery surface was also meant to teach us how to drift (which was also encouraged by our instructor.) Initially, we thought we would have a geographical advantage due to extensive experience driving in the snowy locales of Metro Detroit, but the skidpad proved to be the ultimate equalizer, and we were forced to abruptly alter our driving style for the rat race, which rewarded the slowest drivers versus those that chose to pitch those fundamentals out the window for the sake of drifting fun.
As mentioned, each of the stations helped cement a vital piece of the curriculum, and it all came together at the end of the day when the instructors invited all the students to show their stuff in a time attack challenge on the autocross course. For this particular exercise, we reunited with the M2 and were eager to show our progress. The twists and turns of the course were easier this time around, and we felt some of the core essentials from each lesson playing their own collective role in making our time navigating the cones a memorable experience. Eventually, the day came to an end, but not before the instructors gave us one more surprise, a diploma that signified that we successfully completed the course. As a bonus, the fore-mentioned shortage of ride-share drivers in the area even helped us get a free ride back to the hotel from one of our instructors. We had the chance to provide rare real-time feedback on our experience in the program (as well as a glimpse of the handling capabilities of the BMW M3 that we were riding in.)
Hotel Paseo Delivers A Stellar Guest Experience, Even During A Pandemic
When we were not sharpening our skills out on the track, we spent our downtime at the Hotel Paseo, located right in the heart of El Paseo, California. The city is often known as the “Rodeo Drive of the Desert,” A brief look around town reveals numerous restaurants, shops, and clubs to explore. While our experience in the hotel itself was limited due to COVID-19 restrictions at the time, the restrictions also encouraged us to explore our surroundings and take in some of the scenery that El Paseo had to offer. That included a stop to Sammy’s Food & Wine to see if some of their artisan pizzas were worthy of the hype that we had heard during our time in the city. The “Apple Pie” pizza we tried out certainly had a good splash of flavor, though the burger meat in the dish was a bit too dry.
Eventually, the dwindling sunlight encouraged us to come back to the hotel and take a look around. Our non-room-related highlight was the small courtyard in the center of the building. This space has a strong art theme and even comes with a fully restored 1950’s Airstream trailer. This trailer is one of the hotel’s specialty suites for guests to enjoy, and it’s a very interesting alternative to a traditional hotel room. However, the trailer was unoccupied during our stay, and eccentric travelers looking to book a stay in the trailer will have to call the hotel in advance to learn about rates for that particular form of accommodation.
As for our room, it was one of the standard room offerings in the hotel, with the clean lines and room design being complemented by a large king-size bed as well as a fancy walk-in shower. The space was very welcoming and proved to be a very comfortable place to spend time and relax after a long day at the track and exploring some of the city’s dining options. We highly recommend checking out Hotel Paseo if you’re looking for a unique luxury hotel experience. Still, we advise calling in to see what lodging options are available and what might be restricted as California’s COVID-19 regulations change and evolve.
Overall, BMW Performance Center West did a good job teaching the core basics of performance driving and whether you’re a seasoned driver looking for some extra instruction or a newcomer learning the ropes for the first time. BMW Performance Center West will have a program that can cater to every possible need.
Special thank you to Pharris Media and BMW for allowing us to check out PCW and helping us navigate through the scheduling process.
Carl Malek has been an automotive journalist for over 10 years. First starting out as a freelance photographer before making the transition to writing during college, his work has appeared on numerous automotive forums as well as websites such as Autoshopper.com.
Carl is also a big fan of British vehicles with the bulk of his devotion going to the Morgan Motor Company as well as offerings from Lotus, MG, and Caterham. When he is not writing about automobiles, Carl enjoys spending time with his family and friends in the Metro Detroit area, as well as spending time with his adorable pets.