There’s no arguing that BMW Performance Center Driving Schools are the premier performance driving schools in the country, offering a wide range of behind-the-wheel and in-the-classroom courses to make better drivers out of mere mortals with a driver’s license and $2,500-10,000 in fun money.
But now the BMW Performance Center West near Palm Springs in Thermal, California has topped itself by adding the pinnacle of authentic racetrack driving to its course curriculum: the BMW M and M4 GT4 Experience, plus M4 GT4 Private Coaching with Data and Video Session (including 125 or 250 miles of lapping!) and the Race Licensing School to hit the gas on your racing dreams.
Simply put, BMW’s M cars are at the top of the BMW high-performance line (not counting the super-luxe daily-drive Alpina). You know those BMW ads calling their cars “The Ultimate Driving Machine?” They’re talking about the sporty M vehicles, the cherry-on-the-top being the BMW M4 GT4 customer race car which retails for $210,000.
The Performance Center’s M curriculum allows deep-pocketed enthusiasts to experience the customer racing BMW M4 GT4 first-hand and receive one-on-one race driving instruction and, if they choose, begin their journey towards becoming a professional race driver through the SCCA-certified licensing school.
M courses are taught with a combo of indoor instruction followed by tons of driving time on 5.1 miles of FIA-certified race tracks plus three exclusive tracks at The Thermal Club where supercar manufacturers test and wealthy members race. We quickly discovered that our BMW professional driving instructors didn’t just teach: they win races and set world records. So when they insisted we use the footrest as a body-position tool, not an ottoman, we listened. When they told us that half of driving well is attacking the brake, we stomped on the brakes at 75 mph to let the ABS do its thing to stop on a dime. And unforgettably, instructor Bryan Randall introduced us to the German driving concept of “milking the cow,” a translated phrase for the 10 and 2 hand-hold frowned upon for its short turning radius. “Grip with your fingertips, not your palm,” Bryan said. “It’s more athletic.”
No wonder the Center has to replace its fleet of 100 cars annually and replaces the tires on every car, every day. Encouraging students to stomp, “scare the paint off the apex turns,” and go faster, faster, FASTER, burns through 2,500 Continental tires each year.
So here’s the lowdown on the different types of M experiences:
M School is a one-day or two-day course behind the wheel of a high-performance BMW M vehicle to learn how to accelerate, corner and brake faster than you ever have before. Then you have a blast learning to maintain control of a 400-horsepower stallion in low traction conditions on a wet skidpad. The lessons end with a white-knuckle hot lap in the passenger seat while an instructor shows you how it’s really supposed to be done.
Personal tip: take the two-day course to enjoy the whole experience, including transfers, meals, and a relaxing two-night stay at the swanky new Hotel Paseo in Rancho Mirage, the Beverly Hills of Greater Palm Springs. The property is equally in love with cars and features the owner’s big, red 1950s Cadillac in the lobby and a beautiful vintage Airstream parked near the pool.
Advanced M School is a two-day course held on Thermal Club tracks for elite graduates of the Two-Day Control School, where students conquer emergency double lane changes, interstate braking at 70 mph, and Tokyo drifting on the skidpad. Just when you think you can do it all as a speed-demon racer, the final thrill is riding shotgun on a dizzying hot lap with a pro BMW instructor.
M Track Drive at Thermal focuses on BMW’s most powerful vehicles, putting you behind the wheel of an M car for six exhilarating laps on an FIA Certified racetrack. Follow an instructor’s car for a warm-up lap with live radio coaching to learn the proper line for achieving the best time. Then, try to keep their car in your sights as speeds and g-forces increase, see how close you can push your M car to its considerable limits.
All the above deserve a place on your bucket list, especially the BMW M and M4 GT4 Experience, introduced in 2021. It’s the closest thing to a true racetrack experience in a genuine built-for-racing MG GT4 customer race car, which was introduced for the 2018 racing season and quickly became a proven winner in a dozen races in one season alone.
The BMW M4 GT4 is pure muscle, powered by the same 3.0-liter S55 inline 6-cylinder engine found in the BMW M4 streetcar. It delivers more than 430 hp and has a 7-speed dual-clutch transmission with motorsport software that transfers power to the 18-inch wheels via a mechanical limited-slip differential with cooling. The chassis is reinforced with a DMSB-certified BMW M Motorsport welded safety roll cage (compliant with FIA regulations) which I privately drooled over for its sheer authenticity. The roof, hood, doors, front splitter, and rear wing are all made from carbon-fiber-reinforced polymers. Glass windscreen and windows? Nope. Plexi for crash safety. Three-stage adjustable motorsport anti-roll bars keep things steady, while specially valved motorsport Ohlins shock absorbers use springs in three different rates for front and rear. Six-piston fixed front and four-piston fixed rear AP brakes are controlled by a cockpit adjustable AP racing pedal box and manually adjustable brake bias.
The BMW M and M4 GT4 Experience is a $2,795 full-day program driving various BMW M cars and that sexy beast, the M4 GT4 – the same customer racecar offered by BMW Motorsport. Students start with a classroom session that reviews proper driving techniques. After an overview of the car, they are outfitted with a racing suit and helmet. Then it’s time to experience the driving machine on a world-class Thermal Club racetrack. Students run guided laps behind a BMW instructor to experience the M4 GT4 at speeds up to 140 mph. After a pitstop to reconfigure the seat so I could finally sit tall enough to see the inside apexes, I hit a personal best on the exhilarating twists and turns.
All in all, it’s a million-dollar dream come true for a four-figure price tag. It’s a thrill none of my previous track experiences could match because (1) it genuinely made me a better driver, and (2) you will never feel more badass than when you’re decked out in a pro racing haz-mat jumpsuit and helmet, crawling into the roll-cage cockpit of a real race car. Full disclosure: crawling out - badass first - wasn’t quite so majestic.