As autumn’s chill settles over much of the country, the warm sun still shines brightly at BMW’s Performance Center West (PCW) driving school in Thermal, Calif. About 45 minutes outside of Palm Springs and a short drive from the polo grounds that host the Coachella Music Festival, PCW is open again after a pandemic-induced hiatus, ready to train and thrill enthusiasts with its range of advanced driver programs.
No strangers to the PCW; we were there when its doors opened in 2015 and later put more than a few BMW models to the test on its twists and turns. A counterpart to the BMW Performance Center near the company’s factory in Spartanburg, S.C., the California-based facility sits on 32 acres at the Thermal Club, a private community whose members can store their cars on-site and drive more than five miles of track on three separate circuits. On this visit, we’re here to experience the one-day M School ($1,500), an intensive course that consists of classroom training, driving exercises and a little friendly competition—all led by professional driving instructors.
Due to coronavirus restrictions, PCW looks a little different since our last experience. In accordance with health regulations, all employees and guests must wear masks, temperature checks are done upon arrival and check-in is completed via iPad and QR code. Our program begins with a thorough classroom session that covers fundamentals such as ideal seating position, car control principles and best driving practices. For social distancing purposes, all instruction currently takes place under a tent outside the center’s two-story, air-conditioned building. Although Thermal can, as its name suggests, feel brutal when the mercury reaches triple digits, it’s delightful in late fall and winter and a welcome escape from hunkering down in colder climes.
Our class rotates through stints in three current M cars: The 617 hp M5 Competition with its 4.4-liter turbocharged V-8; the 425 hp M4 powered by BMW’s venerated 3.0-liter turbocharged inline-six; and the 405 hp M2 Competition Coupe—a racier and more powerful version of the original BMW M2. A total of six exercises throughout the day are designed to not only to be fun, but to make each participant better behind the wheel. With our class of 14 students divided into three subgroups, we alternate between an autocross-like handling course, a skid pad (where we learn to drift by blipping the throttle and counter-steering) and laps of high-speed track driving. Instructors—most of whom are successful racers in their own right—use a lead-follow format, offering plenty of feedback and suggestions via two-way radios.
For those craving more track time, there’s a two-day M course as well as an advanced M school for graduates of the introductory classes. More basic one- and two-day training sessions teach participants to react safely in emergencies with exercises that include braking and accident avoidance drills. There’s also a variety of shorter experiences and a teen school for students—ages 15 through 17—who hold a valid driver’s permit. And new to the PCW is an off-road course, where challenging terrain is tackled in BMW X5 and X7 SUVs.
Because of its remote location, the training center is better suited for a weekend getaway than a one-day road trip. The nearest commercial airport is Palm Springs International, but the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport for general aviation sits practically next door to the Thermal Club and is one of only a few airports in the world that sits below sea level. While visitors might typically be inclined stay at one of the handful of resorts in nearby La Quinta or Indian Wells, Palm Desert offers a broader range of options at a time when many hotel amenities and services are still limited.
A recent expansion in this desert oasis includes the new Hotel Paseo in the heart of Palm Desert’s shopping and dining district. Guests can walk next door to Gucci and Louis Vuitton, or be dropped anywhere else in a three-mile radius by the hotel’s Mercedes-Benz house car. Even in the midst of restrictions due to COVID-19, hotel staff ensured our stay was safe and seamless.
If it weren’t for the pandemic, the BMW training facility would also be available for corporate and group events. Hopefully, that will be the case again in the near future. The newest addition to the roster, coming soon, is a one-day class with the M4 GT4 race car, which includes instruction, gear, lunch, insurance and a recording of the session from on-board VBOX data and video equipment. Dates and pricing for the PCW’s programs vary, but the end results are the same—increased knowledge, sharpened driving skills and a professional-grade boost in confidence on the track.