No matter how cool or how skilled or how composed you think you are behind the wheel, I’m here to tell you that Byron from Vegas has you beat by a continental mile! You’re probably wondering just who this “Byron” is, and I’ll tell you! He’s one of the many highly skilled precision drivers at the BMW Performance Driving School, and they all love to go fast and make it look easy! The adrenaline hasn’t worn off yet, and so I’m getting ahead of myself – let me start at the beginning. I spent 2 days at the Thermal Race Club engrossing myself in the world of the BMW Performance Driving School as part of a deep dive in an effort to become a better, more well-rounded driver now that I’m housing a G80 M3 CS in the garage! (See it here also @m_chi3f)

From Seattle to Los Angeles: The Journey Begins

Mind you, this article is no substitute – I won’t be breaking down every single nuance related to the programs and courses on tap nor all the components that they teach you – because if I did, we’d be here for a while! Instead, I’ll highlight some key learnings and takeaways that really stood out for me in the hopes that the next time you’re thinking about upgrading your BMW, you actually take a moment and decide to instead upgrade your skills and abilities as a driver to extract more out of what you already have sitting in your garage. In any case, grab a seat and strap in!

Arrival in La Quinta: Prepping for the BMW Experience

My adventure starts by boarding a plane, one that will take me from my hometown of Seattle to sunny Los Angeles. We land, and I make my way to pick up the loaner car that will act as my primary mode of transportation while on this adventure – specifically, a 2024 BMW M4 Competition in the striking color of Individual Frozen Purple Metallic! If you’re wondering how many people asked me about the color while on this trip, the answer is three!

Now, with keys in hand and a tank full of gas, I make my way East on a two-hour drive to reach Riverside County, specifically La Quinta which, if you didn’t know, is one of nine cities that are part of the Coachella Valley. Yes, THAT Coachella! After checking into my hotel and doing a gear check, I turn in for the night because tomorrow promises to be a day full of M Powered goodness!

First Impressions at the BMW Performance Driving School

The next morning, I grab my gear and make my way to the Thermal Race Club. Google says it’s about a 25-minute drive from my hotel to the venue, which is just about enough time for me to get in the right state of mind for what is all about to go down. Cruising in the M4 Comp is a breeze. Everything in Comfort Mode except for the engine mapping, which is always in Sport+ mode with the valves open. We may be civilized when not on the track, but we still want to hear that exhaust note after all!

Another look out of the window and I take a moment to appreciate the view – Palm Springs in May is nice, the sun is out, and the closer I get to the track, the more palm trees I see. Refocusing on the task at hand thanks to the Google nav lady, it seems like I’ve arrived at my destination. I backed the M4 Comp right in front of the BMW Performance Driving School building and put it in park at exactly 8:30 AM. I step outside, grab my gear, and just as I approach the building entrance, I’m greeted by Matt Misko – the Operations Manager and general boss of all that the Southern California sun touches here at the BMW Performance Driving Center West.

Classroom Insights: Learning the Theory

Matt and I were in contact prior to my arrival, so he was expecting me, but this is the first time we actually met face to face. My primary purpose and reason for heading out to Thermal was to experience the inaugural launch of the brand new G82 M4 GT4 race car – I would be part of the very first class and be one of the first drivers to get behind the wheel of what is, for all intents and purposes, the crown jewel in the M School program offered here at the Performance Driving Center.

Although I’ve been driving since I was old enough to reach the pedals, I was still nervous, and I said as much to Matt – but he assured me that the professional instructors at the school would work with our class to educate, inform, prep, and coach us all on both classroom theory as well as through practical application via on-track experience.

Which is exactly what you want to hear, because as I said at the start of this story, it doesn’t matter how much you THINK you know, the moment you go from a high-performance sports vehicle and step foot inside an ACTUAL race car, it’s a whole new world. This is because a race car is purpose-built to accelerate, turn, and brake in race conditions, and that requires a mental reset followed by a fresh remapping of how you handle delivering input via the steering wheel and pedals.

More on this later, for now it’s time to settle into the classroom.

Since I wanted to learn more about how the school operates and because I wanted to get first-hand experience without being bound to a schedule, I decided to show up one day early before my GT4 experience was scheduled to take place. So with that, I thanked Matt for his warm welcome and I quietly slipped into the classroom that had just kicked off.

These specific course participants (I’m told) are actually part of the 2 Day Advanced M School program, which, as the name would suggest, is a more advanced course that can only be attended if you’ve already completed the prerequisite 1 Day M School. That’s a course where drivers learn the fundamentals like car control (via drifting) as well as understanding what the race line is, pushing themselves on the high-speed track testing out multiple M cars, and essentially getting comfortable with the mental, physical, and emotional rigors that come with sustained track driving and healthy race etiquette.

Autocross Adventures: Testing the Limits in the M2

For me, as an observer of this class, that means I get to hang out with all of the professional drivers and ride shotgun in their lead instructor vehicles as they work on leveling up everything these attendees have learned prior and take them to the next level via full course laps. It’s a good thing I had a light breakfast.

With classroom time over, the drivers hit the tarmac and get into the first session of the day – autocross! It’s now in the high 80s as everyone steps outside, and they get briefed on next steps. Instructors give the all-clear, and everyone walks to their M2 of choice, sticking with their previously allocated group color.

I should clarify, everyone gets sorted into a colored group (green/blue/etc.) and there are multiple groups. This allows for smaller class sizes so the feedback and training that each instructor provides is more targeted and therefore relevant to each driver within their respective group. This is a great setup because that means instead of having two instructors monitor and engage with 12 drivers, you have one instructor for every 3-4 drivers. That’s how you know they’re taking this seriously, and it’s exactly what you want when your goal is to improve on your weak points and elevate your overall skill.

The drivers, now settled in their respective G87 M2 autocross cars, line up to do an orientation lap. The lead instructor heads the front of the “train” and, using in-car radios, proceeds to drive the race line while calling out braking zones, apex cones, and general advice for how to handle the course. They do a couple of slow laps and then line back up at the start line.

Once everyone gives the all-clear, a staggered launch approach takes place, and the session is on! If it’s not clear by now, you’re in the car alone, taking feedback via radio, doing your best to follow the race line and hit your marks. Braking. Turn-in. So on and so forth. This is how you get better. By practicing behind the wheel, in a safe and controlled environment, with professional drivers giving you feedback and guiding you along the way!

Now, with most drivers getting into a groove, the instructors are observing and calling out each driver, whether it’s because they’ve missed the apex or braked too late (or too early), and then they share input on how to attempt to do it better for the next time they come around. The course is technical, as all autocross courses tend to be, with the primary takeaways being “look where you want to go, start braking at the brake cone and not sooner, sacrifice turn-in speed for a faster exit, and don’t turn in too early or you’ll miss the apex.”

The cars get called in periodically into pit lane so both they and the drivers can cool down a bit. Hydration is key. The sun is high now and the temp is creeping into the 90s. Drivers talk amongst themselves in the shade and share tips, frustrations, and learnings they’ve gained with each passing lap.

It’s clear that although it’s hot outside and that the constant braking, acceleration, turning, listening, adjusting, correcting, and learning has taken a toll on both their minds and their bodies – even so, these drivers are smiling! They are sweating, but they are savoring every second of every moment that they’re on the track!

Byron’s Guidance: Leading the Pack

Byron, the pro driver I mentioned at the very start of this story, drops by to hang out with the group. He listens in on the drivers chatting. He’s patient. He’s kind. He’s experienced – and when a driver mentions their personal frustrations with some of the corners and how they’re not able to fully maximize their lap times, Byron is happy to help provide feedback and possible strategies rooted in direct observation. Of course, the 25+ years of racing experience he’s got on board comes in handy too!

That, plus the fact that he once did a full year stint as an F1 shakedown driver. Yeah, you read that correctly.

This is the part where I would normally say “enough said” but I want to emphasize that every single instructor at the BMW Performance Driving School is a certified, bona fide, full-fledged badass race car driver. These guys are the real deal! But don’t worry, we’ve got more examples coming up – but first, lunch!

Lunchtime Reflections: Recharging for the Afternoon

After several sessions of autocross (with breaks in between), it’s time to pull back into pit lane and freshen up a bit inside the facility as lunch is about to be served! We make our way upstairs where the on-site chefs prepared a great-looking spread of beef and veggie kebabs, grilled chicken, hummus, pita, assorted salads and breads, and of course homemade baklava.

I may have overdone it with the baklava but you know what, my adrenaline has been pumping since 9:00 am, and I’m sure I burned through enough calories while trying to brace myself to warrant a 3rd piece!

Suiting Up: Ready for the M4 GT4 Experience

With lunch over, it’s time for us to hit the high-speed course and upgrade to the G82 M4 Competition! Just like before, smaller groups are formed, and pro drivers lead the way over to the main paddock. The high-speed lead-follow session is about to kick off, and we’ll be driving the North Palm Circuit, which will include the Desert Circuit portion, forcing drivers to maximize and leverage everything they’ve learned so far as they work to apply the theory and practice into one smooth lap. And then do it again, and again, and again.

Interestingly enough, if the instructor feels like the group is skilled enough, they’ll even allow each driver to take a stab at leading the pack, so there’s no lead car in front of them to show them the correct race line, brake zone, and turn-in point! A true test! All of this happening while the instructor watches your progress from behind you! Again, this is at the discretion of the instructor and is not an everyday occurrence. But lucky for me, the group I was partnered with showed some great skill, and Byron, after a few orientation laps followed by a few full bore stints, decided to open up the gates and invite the first driver to lead the pack.

Once we neared the last corner before the main straightaway, Byron gets on the radio and says “alright, let’s slow it down. Once we’re on the straight, I’ll pull to the left of the track and [REDACTED] you go ahead and pass me on the right and lead the pack!” And so it was. The student was now leading the professor, and I can only imagine the feeling that the driver is experiencing! They fly by full throttle, and Byron follows suit and tucks in behind them. We hit turn 1, and they ended up carrying too much speed, causing them to miss the right-hand apex, meaning they’re not set up properly for the long 180-degree left-hander.

Not a big deal. In fact, most of us would be nervous and make the same mistake if we were out on our first solo lap, knowing a professional race car driver with over 25 years of experience was right behind us!

But Byron, again, with his relaxed and calm demeanor, gets on the radio and says, “all good, try to get on the brakes harder next time, and don’t look in your mirror, I’ll never try to pass you, just focus on hitting your marks like we practiced.” Once we exit the long left, Byron gets back on the radio “now keep left and look for that corner, lift, and get on it as soon as you’re straight.” And so it was.

Lap after lap, Byron allowed each driver to lead the pack as he provided feedback and guidance from behind. Meanwhile, I was still riding shotgun and bracing for dear life, holding on to my camera and phone, trying to make sure that beef kebab doesn’t make a guest appearance all over the dash – or worse, I could lose my beloved baklava!

Race Car Orientation: Getting to Know the GT4

We took periodic breaks in the pit lane to give both the drivers and the cars a little breather. In the shade, protected from the Palm Springs sun via these giant umbrella-like coverings, each instructor was able to provide more nuanced and specific feedback to each driver within their group. After a few more stints, we slowly brought things back to normal speeds and did a couple of cool-down laps before making our way back to the main BMW Performance Driving School building.

Once there, the cars were parked single file under the shade as the drivers stepped out of their BMW M4 chariots, each one having put in their fair share of work out there on the track. We walked inside the building, grabbed some fresh cold drinks, a few snacks, and relaxed for a bit. It was 4:00 pm, and the external temp gauge hit 104 Fahrenheit at one point. It’s late May, so I can’t even imagine what it’s like to drive full throttle in the heat of a full proper California summer!

The Thrill of the Track: High-Speed Laps in the M4 GT4

Photos by Chris Chin / C Squared Photography for The S3 Agency/BMW Performance Center © 2024 | Instagram: @CSquaredPhotography

Naturally, the day was coming to an end, and we were all fairly spent given our high-speed hijinks, but one thing was ever-present, and that was the energy and the smiles that everyone I spoke with carried with them throughout the day! Even though everyone had given their all, and it was hot outside, and everyone pushed past most of their limits as drivers, learning just how deep they could push, just how hard they could brake, and just how fast they could go – they were all on cloud nine because they were better drivers now than they were 48 hours earlier. No egos. No competition. Just good people wanting to become better drivers, taught by professionals that are experts in their field and are well-versed in providing constructive feedback in a manner that helps build confidence and fosters growth.

Then it dawned on me – tomorrow, I’d be the one in the hot seat. No longer an observer, I’d be expected to hit my marks, even more so, I’d take it a step further and step into the cockpit of the M4 GT4! So naturally, before I packed my gear and made my way back to my hotel, I bought a fresh shirt from the on-site gift shop – after all, I want to look my best for my GT4 introduction!

Learning from the Pros: Insights from David and Dusty

The next morning, I woke up at 6:00 am to prep. As I’m sitting there sipping my coffee looking at some beautiful palm trees as the sun rises, I try to visualize and go over everything I learned from observing yesterday’s class. I wasn’t going to do the same exact course, but a lot of the teachings were transferable, plus I had been a passenger alongside Byron for enough laps to know the circuit well enough to at least not make some elementary mistakes. Right? Right. This is called foreshadowing.

Anyways, I’m now en route to the track! As I’m cruising along, I try to keep calm and focus on what I learned yesterday, but it’s nearly impossible. I’m simply too excited and nervous and, of course, all hyped up about getting to drive a full bore race car! Not just any race car, but a full factory purpose-built BMW M4 GT4 that’s prepped, primed, and readied by professionals that literally do this for a living. People like Dusty Renteria – if that name sounds familiar, you probably know Dusty from his days as the Motorsports Director at Dinan Engineering. Yes, THAT Dinan. Or perhaps more recently you may know Dusty having spotted him during an IMSA Sprint Cup Championship, SRO, or DTM race weekend where he’s always on hand as the BMW M Motorsport Race Support Engineer.

His literal job is to ensure that the M4 GT4 is working at peak performance, so there’s no one that knows the car better both inside and out. I hope it’s evident, I was very impressed to hear that he’s on site and would be prepping the cars!

Finally – I reach the track site, park my M4, and make my way into the building – Matt welcomes me, smiles, hands me a tablet to fill out some waivers and says, “don’t worry, you’ll do fine!”

I fill out my waivers and then make my way to class – that’s where I meet my fellow colleagues for the day! These are other drivers attending the course, all having either previous race car track experience or having already graduated the other programs at the BMW Performance Driving School, and having done that, now want to experience the ultimate premiere offering – the GT4. One particular racer in attendance happens to be Marco Robelo. You see, Marco is the Motorsports Manager at Continental Tire for the whole of the Americas, and he’s particularly excited for our stint on the track today. After chatting with him for a bit, I found out that’s because Continental Tire has been partnering with the BMW Performance Driving School as their official tire partner for over a decade.

More so, I find out that today, for the first time ever, non-factory drivers (that’s me) will get to experience the GT4 + Continental Tire combo on the G8X platform as its inaugural launch – so no pressure at all!

Full of enthusiasm and excitement, Marco continues, “when BMW PDS (Performance Driving School) started with their GT4 Program, they contacted us to develop a tire specifically for their needs, so we got to work in order to design and engineer a tire for their exacting needs. That’s how the Continental BMW M4 GT4 slick tire was born. It was designed and engineered by our racing department and manufactured by our racing plant here in the USA.

One of our main goals was to ensure that the tire would allow for consistent lap times whether you were a novice GT4 driver or a professional race car driver. The GT4 slick tire is designed to accommodate and inspire confidence in drivers of all driving levels.” Without a doubt, Marco and his team have a lot riding on this event. Pun not intended, but very fitting! Still, the atmosphere is the opposite of tense – it’s actually exhilarating and everyone in the room is buzzing, ready to get seated and rolling with the course.

We sit down, and at the head of the classroom we’ve got Dave McMillan and David Thilenius – they’ll both be guiding us throughout the day, instructing, advising, and coordinating the different stints. Dave’s repertoire started in the early 80s having raced off-road race trucks in Mexico in the famous Baja 1000. He then went on to engage in road racing, specifically formula cars spanning almost every track in the USA and even some in Asia.

Now “settled down” he’s been an instructor at the BMW Performance Driving School West for almost a decade. Easy-going, relaxed, Dave is awesome. David also has quite an impressive resume – having started his racing journey in open-wheeled racers, he later progressed into endurance sports car racing, where he won an IMSA Championship in 2010. Aside from being a top-tier instructor, for the last 8 years or so, he’s almost exclusively raced on the Nurburgring.

In fact, a week from today, he’ll be on a flight to Germany to compete in the 24 Hours of the Nurburgring in the SP10 GT4 Class. Of course, by the time you read this, the race would have already taken place. SPOILERS – he took 3rd place. Let that sink in! The caliber of talent teaching us how to be better drivers is literally off the proverbial charts!

To bring things back on track, we kick things off with brief introductions starting with our aforementioned instructors, then we go around the class, sharing our name, where we’re from, what we do for a living, and maybe share a quick bit of driving experience we may have. After that, Dave leads the classroom through a lot of the same foundational principles that were shared with the Advanced M School class I sat through the previous day (so I’ll skip through that) and after the presentation deck was wrapped up, we were split into 2 groups – 4 drivers into the green group, and 4 drivers into the blue group.

You may, at this point, assume that the max number of participants for any one class is 8, but you’d be wrong. I asked Matt earlier, and he informed me that “we usually cap it at 12 with a max of roughly 15 drivers, but this is mostly dependent on how many GT4 cars we have primed and ready to go.” I’m going to assume that for the inaugural class the participant numbers were kept smaller for a more focused and concentrated experience. This allows for more flex in the schedule, and with the amount of gear I had with me, I wasn’t going to complain!

Two Groups On The Track

Having been split into 2 separate groups, it was now time for half of us to pick out our brand new BMW Motorsport race suits, gloves, helmets, and balaclavas. The other half of the class would go out to start their day in the G87 M2 autocross cars (similar to the Advanced M School experience I already detailed previously). Now because I knew I needed to actually leave the school a bit earlier to catch my flight in LA (there’s that foreshadowing again), I had asked if I could be in the group that would get to drive the GT4 in the first stint. This meant doing the M2 experience AFTER we got our race gear and post GT4 orientation. Speaking of orientation, Dave went out with the M2 group while David, after helping us with our race gear, invited us outside to give us a proper walkthrough of the M4 GT4.

We stepped outside, the California sun already cooking the asphalt. I look ahead, and under the pit lane shade sat the Bavarian beast. Built in Garching, the M4 GT4 is truly a sight to behold. In an instant, you understand that this is a purpose-built race machine that’s been designed to go really fast from day 1. We all sort of stare at it, walk around it, and admire it. David starts to talk through some of the aero elements on the car. He then shows us how to get in and out of the car without looking like amateurs, and once inside the car, he gives us a proper lesson in how to operate all of the steering-wheel buttons. And there are a lot of buttons, believe me! We then were taught how to run through the start-up sequence to fire up the car and also how to cycle through and read the digital instrument cluster.

Pause here. There were literal gasps when the engine roared to life – we all just basically turned into little kids smiling, wide-eyed, and giddy with excitement!

Back to David – he’s now trying to drill into our heads the importance of really getting on the brakes and mashing them hard in order to fully utilize them. He points his finger at the digital instrument cluster “you see that percentage there sitting at zero – that’s the brake force you’re applying to the pedal, and because we’re just sitting here it’s reading nothing – now I want each one of you to get inside the car, adjust your driving position like we taught you in class, and then try to hit 80% brake pedal pressure.”

Easy enough – I get in and instantly realize this is going to be a bit trickier than expected. It starts with the fact that this is a full bore race seat, and it does NOT move. What does move, however, is the pedal box itself. Meaning you pull on a left-side mounted handle that’s attached to a tension cable, which releases the pedal box causing it to slide towards you. The pedals come to you, not the other way around like in a standard car where you’d adjust your seat to better reach the pedals. This is so that the driver is situated in the ideal spot within the car itself for weight distribution, but also for better positioning within the full roll-cage setup as a safety precaution.

You’re also very low, much lower than what you’d expect while sitting inside of a car. This again is to lower the overall center of gravity of everything inside of the car, including you! Not to worry though, they do have seat pads for those of us that are “race car driver” sized to assist with elevation – that would also include yours truly! In addition to the pedal box being adjustable, the steering wheel, also made of full forged carbon, has a carbon stalk that, when activated, will allow for adjustments to be made.

Now properly seated, David waits patiently for me to hit the brake pedal – and I’m thinking “what’s the big deal, it’s a brake pedal, I got this.” I hit it with my right foot, and I kid you not, it felt like I just hit a concrete wall. The digital instrument cluster read “17%” and it was at that moment that I realized we are not in Kansas anymore! This was not a game. This was not a normal M4. This was unlike anything I’ve ever stepped foot inside, and therefore I needed to fall back on the classroom training that they provided us with.

David chuckles lightly and goes “you want to try that again?” you bet I do, but before I get a chance, he adds, “driving a race car is a full-body activity, that’s why seating position is so important – you use your back and lower body to push yourself against the seat and transfer that leveraged force through your leg onto the brake pedal.” I heed his advice, and on my second attempt, I hit 67% brake force. On my third try, I managed 81% for a brief moment, and David is happy. He smiles, turns to the group and says, “you won’t be expected to sustain 80% braking force, even us race drivers in an active session won’t do it, but there will be moments where you may need to peak there – just remember the force you needed to exert to do it and trust that the car can take it.”

GT4 orientation over, we go back inside to grab a drink and wait for the M2 group to come in so we can regroup. The idea is once they get back, we’ll be going out to take on the autocross track. This gave me a bit more time to chat with Marco from Continental Tire. I asked him how this whole journey started, he quickly responded, “we always wanted to be the smart choice in tires, and given that we’ve always been close to the BMW community, we worked hard to ensure we are the top choice for BMW owners when it comes to their tire purchases.”

Continental – Official Tire Of The BMW Performance Center

Just as well, given that Continental Tire became the official tire of the BMW Car Club of America (or BMW CCA for short), because if we’re honest, BMW vehicles tend to bring out the “spirited drivers” in all of us, so having the right tire for the right environment plays an even more important role, especially if you tend to go through tires more frequently than your neighbors. The same neighbors who shoot you dirty looks when you sit there enjoying your coffee amidst the sound of your cold start burble!

Things move fast now, it’s our time to hit the autocross portion of the day. We step back outside, we get a car number assigned to us, we hop in to adjust our seats, and proceed to get some laps under our belts. I won’t go into further detail as I mentioned this portion earlier in this article, but the engaging and well-placed live feedback we got from the instructors who were watching from the sidelines was spot on with each driver focusing on their specific areas of improvement – turning in too early, braking too soon, or in my case, not turning my head enough to look where I want to go!

Now almost noon, we wrap up our session and head back in for a well-earned lunch! The on-site chefs once again prepared a veritable feast for us to enjoy, I’ll spare you the details, but I will call out the highlight – which was the dessert – a handspun soft serve ice cream machine complete with all the must-have toppings and sauces! It’s fitting, honestly. You spend a whole day on track feeling like a kid behind the wheel, having fun and learning, and then for lunchtime, you get to feel like you’re 7 again thanks to the unfettered access you have of this “dispenser of joy” in the form of an ice cream machine – only this time, unlike when you were 7, you’re in charge of the toppings, and no one can stop you from building your delicious masterpiece!

Finally Ready For The Track

Having fueled ourselves up and having the G82 M4 cars primed and ready, we pick up the pace and head towards the South Palm Course for the high-speed lead-follow session. This is where my previous foreshadowing comes into play! Unlike what I had experienced yesterday riding shotgun as an observing passenger with Byron thinking to myself, “this will act as a great primer for my GT4 drive tomorrow,” my recon plans quickly evaporated – the Bryon ride-along was on the North Palm Circuit and included the Desert portion – this was the South Palm Course and also the track we’d be taking the GT4 cars out on!

This meant I had to pay extra close attention to learn my marks, where to turn in most efficiently and also adjust my braking distance because this is basically the primer before the main event kicks off! But that was alright, as per usual we did a few orientation laps with our instructor Dave, who did a great job leading the charge and calling out the key pointers we needed to memorize. And then we were off, hitting the South course at full speed!

Given that things will only get faster from here onwards, I will take a moment to just say that Thermal is one epic race complex and venue! Well maintained, interesting corners, solid designs spanning all 3 courses, and fun straightaways that really allow you to open up that throttle!

We run a few stints, pull into pit lane a couple of times to go over pointers and give the cars some time to cool down, then hit the course again! Dave sees all, and he knows all, and even when I was the last car in the M4 train with Dave leading the pack, he would notice my missed apex, my early braking, or if I got on the gas too aggressively while rocketing out of the corner onto the straightaway – it’s almost scary how good he is – it’s almost scary how good ALL of the instructors are honestly!

It’s as if this is their job, and they do it for a living! Kudos once again to all the instructors, they deserve their keep and so much more.

Anyway, back to the present, our group is fairly confident with the South Palm Course, and we’re a bit toasty, so we head back to base to hydrate, cool off, and ultimately gear up in the race suit and helmet as the main event was about to kick off!

Back inside the classroom, we relax for a moment, grab some drinks, laugh at some of the stupid mistakes we all managed to do at some point or another, and reflect on what we had just learned. Not too much downtime was had, though, as (24 Hours of Nurburgring) David walks in and informs us that “it’s time to suit up and go racing.”

Now, let me pause right here and just take a moment to emphasize the absolute lunacy and epicness that is being inside a BMW of North America-run facility, on a racetrack, inside of a classroom, and having a full-blown professional race car driver like David Thilenius act as a coach and teacher as you put on a full BMW Motorsport race suit ensemble. If you’re into BMW and motorsports, and I suspect you are at the very least a bit curious given that you’re here reading this – this whole experience felt almost spiritual in nature – like “this is what I had always dreamed of doing, and now it’s finally happening” type of moment!

Back to reality, I grab my gear, head into one of the changing rooms and suit up all the while I’m trying to keep my adrenaline response in check. We all step outside, helmets in hand, as each one of us tries to contain the excitement brewing inside! We walk outside together, and for a brief moment, I feel like our group is reenacting that walking scene from “The Right Stuff,” but instead of spacesuits, we’re wearing race suits, and instead of dreaming of getting into a space-faring rocket, we were about to get into a land-based rocket of our own. David snaps me back to reality when he says, “put your helmets in the trunk of that green M3 and hop in, I’ll take us to the South Palm Circuit where the GT4 cars are waiting for you.”

The adrenaline suppression tactic is starting to fail me; there’s absolutely no way that I can think of anything else except for how cool this entire day has been so far, and how it’s about to get even better! David pulls into the covered pit lane where we all soak in the fleet of BMW G82 M4 GT4 race cars that are lined up looking more menacing and even more exciting than ever! The livery, the aero, the stance, it all just works so well! Things are now moving faster than ever while also somehow in slow motion – that’s probably the adrenaline I mentioned earlier.

I take a breath and finally meet the BMW M Motorsport Race Support Engineer I talked about – Dusty Renteria – who turns out not only does he have an impressive resume but is also a super nice and friendly guy! I ask Dusty how much time I have at my disposal to set up some of my capture gear, but he lets me know the on-board telemetry and data capture devices are already up and running and that there’s no need – he’ll provide me with a USB stick with all the footage! Still, I scramble and slap a few cameras both inside and out because when you do what I do, there’s no such thing as “too much footage.”

Finally, the main event – it’s time to step inside the car and prep for the session. I put on my helmet, and Dusty helps attach my HANS device. I open the driver door, and it feels like it weighs about as much as a small bag of popcorn – ultra light. I remember David’s “how to get inside of a race car and not look goofy” process and try to do as I was taught. I’m fairly certain I failed, but you know what? I’m inside, and that’s all that matters!

Dusty is right beside me, I pulled the pedal cable to adjust the pedal box, he checks the bend in my knees as I give a test brake push to confirm. I then work on putting on my race gloves while Dusty attaches the multi-point race harness to keep me firmly planted in place. The pit lane is buzzing with activity, everyone is doing something, track personnel are present on the sidelines, and this is the closest I have ever felt to being a race car driver – and then Dusty brings in the Fanatec forged carbon steering wheel, leans in, gives me a nod, and locks it in place with a satisfying metallic click. He then gives me a thumbs up and says, “fire it up,” and in that exact moment, another childhood dream became a reality!

I look down and go through the start-up sequence that David taught us earlier, and the Bavarian beast that was built in Garching ignites into a frenzy of noise and petrol-powered life! This is happening!

The plan is for Marco and I to hit the track, but before we pull out of the pit lane, David stops by to speak with each driver. His experience and delivery inspire confidence and also somehow bring you back down into focus mode. “I’ll lead in the M3, we’ll do a few orientation laps so you can get a feel of the GT4 and how it reacts, then we’ll pick it up and start to hit it in earnest. Just remember that you’re in a race car, and I’m in an M3 Comp, so you’ll be able to out-brake and out-turn me, so be mindful of the distances as we pick things up.”

Living the Race Car Dream

OK, now I feel like even MORE of a race car driver, and I haven’t even moved an inch! The GT4 is so loud, and I’m so tucked into the car with my harness, helmet, and balaclava that the most natural response that I can come up with is a head nod and a thumbs up. He taps me on the helmet and says, “you’re gonna have a blast,” then closes the door and gets inside his green M3. Dusty gives the all-clear, David starts to roll out of the pit lane, and we follow suit – and just like that, we went from FEELING like we were BMW race car drivers to actually BEING BMW race car drivers!

Orientation Laps and Getting Comfortable

True to his word, David took Marco and me on a couple of orientation laps, and although he was in the M3 Competition, he drove the race line that would make the most sense for the GT4. Remember that these parameters and marks shift depending on what you’re driving and its respective capabilities, not to mention whether you’re attacking or defending a position – not that we’d be all out racing against each other, but the principle stands.

Once my brain stopped screaming “omg omg omg omg omg” and the initial wave of euphoria subsided, the first thing I noticed was the engine noise within the GT4 cabin – even with a balaclava on and a helmet, it was loud, but in the best way possible! If this noise doesn’t make you feel alive, then you’re in the wrong place!

Unleashing the Power

The next thing that stood out was the steering and throttle response with “telepathic” and “instant” being the verbs that best describe both actions!

Finally, with the orientation laps done, David kicks it up a notch on the main straight, signaling it was time to pick up the pace, and for the first time ever, I went wide open throttle in the GT4! This brings me to the third point that stood out – I’m fairly certain you’ve seen a movie at some point in time where one character yells at another to “punch it,” and then insanity ensues with them jumping to lightspeed. Naturally, everyone’s eyes get real big with wonder and amazement.

A New Dimension of Driving

Well, that’s exactly what happened to me when I mashed that gas pedal and went WOT – I experienced the realignment of my driving foundation, and my senses needed recalibration. Also, I somehow entered a new dimension – this was a space where braking, turning, and accelerating behaved by different rules, still rooted in the truths we know about how physics can affect a car’s behavior, but simultaneously tethered to another level, a higher level. A level you’ve never experienced before, and you suddenly realize that there’s so much more to learn and explore.

It’s as if I was experiencing this new world for the first time through fresh eyes because I was. That’s a lot of words just to say “this car is out of this world!”

Now, starting to really pick up momentum, it became a matter of gaining confidence in the braking zones and really exploring how deep into a corner you can push before overcooking it. David is now visibly pushing the limits of the M3 in front of us, driving on a knife’s edge, just barely keeping the car within the physical limits of what it can do – there’s no doubt that he’s the better driver, but the GT4 is so capable and is generating such vast amounts of grip that both Marco and I could afford to make multiple mistakes and still remain closely tucked behind David.

Building Confidence and Pushing Limits

Photos by Chris Chin / C Squared Photography for The S3 Agency/BMW Performance Center © 2024 | Instagram: @CSquaredPhotography

We were able to close the gap without even trying by out-accelerating on the straights or out-braking him as we approached a corner. Again, I say, this was such a mind trip, it exceeded my expectations, and made me feel like there was so much more I needed to learn!

Speaking of exceeding expectations, the Continental racing slick tires performed like a dream, almost as if they were created with this exact car in mind (because they were), and it made me feel practically invincible. I never hit the limit of grip, but that was also partially due to the fact that David literally couldn’t push further or faster because of the temperatures that were rising, so we kept the pace, dropping back a bit and then pushing to feel the edge of what was possible. I don’t feel like I got even close, which only means one thing – I need to do this more often!

Back on the straightaway, Marco and I trade spots so we each get to experience who follows in David’s literal tracks and who plays the role of the caboose. The whole experience legitimately feels like a “born in M Town” teaser clip, and I have to tell myself that “this is actually happening” on multiple occasions – not that this was necessary given that the sound of the roaring Motorsport engine, the immediacy of the accelerator, the urgency of the brakes, and the gravity-defying grip of the tires didn’t already do a good enough job of reminding me that this is, in fact, real life!

So lap after lap, I soaked it all in, and I did my best to live in the moment, savoring every corner, enjoying every second – oh God, I got distracted and was tailing David too close! He lets me know I need to give him some more space via hand signals – back to enjoying the drive of my life and the realization that a world-class racing driver is asking me to put some space between us!

Again, he’s in another league, and there’s no question of who the better driver is, but it’s also a testament to just how insanely capable, powerful, and awe-inspiring the GT4 is as a performance race car!

Eventually, all good things must come to an end, our track time runs out, and we need to pull into pit lane – as both Marco and I follow David closely, a realization hits me – in all my years of existence, having driven so many miles in so many different cars through so many different driving conditions and setups – driving the GT4 at this venue, with this crew, on this day, was the most exhilarating, most informative, most epic act of sheer driving joy that I’ve ever experienced behind the wheel of any vehicle, ever!

I say this with zero reservation and without a shred of doubt in my heart – I want to do this again, and I will do this again! Nothing I’ve driven or experienced so far can compare to today, and given the sheer growth potential present, and the talent on staff that are happy to teach and foster folks on their journey, attending more of these courses is an easy choice to make and one I’d recommend you try out for yourself. Trust me, you won’t regret it!

It’s close to departure time for me as I need to make my way back to LAX to drop off the car – Dusty helps me detach myself from the harness as I step outside of the car. I feel like I gained enough XP to level up 10 spots! Dusty hands Marco and me our respective USB sticks with the on-board telemetry and video captures. We shake hands, and I thank him kindly for both the incredible patience he’s shown me and the amazing experience he and the crew were able to deliver. I thank David as well for his incredible performance and, of course, for all the pointers (and patience) all throughout the day.

Wrapping Up: Final Thoughts and Farewells

For me, though, it’s sadly time to depart. I hop in a car and get chauffeured back to home base, where I start to collect all my gear and also change back into normal, non-racing clothes. I will, unfortunately, miss the Time Attack competition that normally wraps up the day during these events, and with it my chances of sitting atop the podium clenching my 1st place trophy, but I know in my heart of hearts that nothing would come close to the thrill of what I had already experienced. And so, I say my farewell to the BMW Performance Driving Center West crew. I thank Matt for the opportunity and for the hospitality, I grab a cold water for the road, and make my way West to Los Angeles to catch my flight before the sun sets.

Reflecting on the Experience: The Drive Back to LA

On the drive back to LA, I had about 3 hours’ worth of time to run through all that had transpired. All I could think about was just how much I had learned in the past 2 days. I had grown as a driver, and I had an absolute blast while doing it with no worry or concern about anything! I was treated with respect, I was fed, I was educated, I was looked after, and all I had to do was to select the course I wanted to attend, and then show up! That’s a testament to the physical facilities, the first-class instructors, and the coordination and planning required to get a program like this up and running in the first place – so kudos to Matt and his team for running such a world-class setup.

On top of that, the fact that every single car is inspected, serviced, and fueled on-site by professionals means they’re always ready to go, and there’s no worry about abusing the cars or damaging them – they’re always fresh and in top shape ready to go. So a special shoutout goes to all the logistics, pit, and maintenance crew teams for running such a tight ship. Without the cars, everything would be theoretical, and theory is fundamental, but practical hands-on driving is the main reason we show up at your doorstep in the first place!

Last but not least, a big thanks goes out to Marco and the entire Continental Tire crew – a lot of additional photography and drone footage was made available to us because of these fine folks who, in the spirit of collaboration and automotive camaraderie, were willing to share some of their captured footage with us. Thank you!

I hope you enjoyed this piece – I had an absolute blast experiencing it all firsthand. If it’s not clear by now, I thoroughly recommend you check out the BMW Performance Driving Center website to see what classes speak to you and your driving style or specific areas of improvement that you’d like to tackle. You can also book your BMW M4 GT4 experience directly here!

I look forward to hearing your thoughts in the comments. Please feel free to also share your stories of past BMW Performance Driving Center classes that you may have already done! Thanks for hanging out with us, be safe, and I’ll catch you in the next one!

[Photos: Chris Chin / C Squared Photography for The S3 Agency/BMW Performance Center © 2024 | Instagram: @CSquaredPhotography / Continental Tire / James Bachici @m_chi3f]