No matter your skill behind the wheel, proper instruction is a shortcut to going faster.
Jan 24, 2024 at 12:00pm ET
I entered BMW’s Advanced M School just a little bit cocky. My personal and professional calendars have plenty of track days circled on them, and I’ve spent many hours in BMW’s latest M cars. I felt assured by talent and experience.
That assurance lasted about two laps.
You can actually hear the traction- and stability-control systems working away in a new M3. A clicking sound issues from the pedal box, some distant mechanical relay cycling as the car nibbles on individual brakes to compensate for my mistakes. The traction control light flickers in tandem with the clicking, on and off, like a message in Morse code.
Why was the M3 constantly reeling me in? “You’re probably over driving the car,” the driving instructor said sternly. Consider it a healthy check of ego.
BMW runs many driving programs out of its two “Performance Centers.” This first is located near its Spartanburg, South Carolina factory and the second at Thermal Club outside Palm Springs, California. At the Performance Center West, near Palm Springs, BMW offers an SCCA licensing course on top of its two-day Advanced M School. (You can attend the SCCA course within a year of completing either the Two-Day M School or Advanced M School).
I’m planning more racing this year and also wanted to refresh my track driving fundamentals, so BMW kindly let me join the program. The two-day school has a maximum of 18 students per program, split into groups of six. The day begins with an hour-long classroom session to cover basics. The instructors have a wide range of experience, and the comforting, dry sense of humor that comes with a life of racing and teaching.
“Real employment terrifies us to death,” one says.
Morning is split between driving exercises, including drifting around the skid pad in an M2, and lead-follow sessions on the Thermal Club’s Desert and North Palm circuits in an M3 and M4 Competition. Drifting the M2 in a big circle went surprisingly well for me, but on the road courses, problems emerged.
Exiting the endlessly long left-hand carousel on the North Palm track, I was too eager to romp on the power, which immediately triggered the DSC and traction control, robbing me of speed onto the following straight. BMW’s electronic systems are good at reining in your lead foot, and maximizing traction where you’d otherwise send the car sideways, but it’s far quicker to avoid the system’s intervention in the first place.
Then out on Thermal’s Desert circuit, I kept messing up the two slow hairpins, charging in with way too much speed, which forced the car to wide mid-corner. All the while, I sat watching the lead-follow instructors ahead pull car lengths down the road.
It was frustrating to say the least. A part of me tried to believe it was the car, not the driver. But unless your dad’s name is Jos, that’s never the case. An instructor told me what I knew to be true—I was trying too hard, being greedy with the right pedal. Remember, he said, these are high-horsepower rear-wheel drive cars. And in any case, it’s better to focus more on corner exit rather than entry or mid-corner speed.
It’s a bedrock idea of high-performance driving and one worth revisiting, no matter how skilled you are. One additional mph at corner exit can translate to a huge gain down a straight. It’s why the most important corners on a track are those leading to the longest straights. The better exits you have there, the more speed you carry down the length of the straight. Braking later, entering hotter, and rolling more speed through the mid-corner can bring gains, but they’re small compared to arriving at the end of the straight, say, 10 mph faster.
This became even more obvious during the afternoon’s exercises. Instructors had students do what they call “segment” training. Working on all the individual aspects of a corner complex, starting from simply getting braking points right, up through maximizing speed on the rest of the circuit. It’s really where the “Advanced” in the name comes into play. I couldn’t help but think of a Gran Turismo license test … and that I want to do this sort of thing for every part of every race track.
It’s a great opportunity to run the same exercise over and over again, and to break down a corner into minutiae. This type of learning is a rarity. If you mess up a corner during a track day or club race, you may not see that same corner again for another three minutes. By then, your concentration is far removed from the minute factors which led to the mistake, and your ideas about how to correct it washed away.
The exercise proved especially useful, since we spent time on the parts of the circuit I found trickiest, namely the two hairpins. The instructors also used cones to throw curveballs at us, forcing us to enter narrow, or turn in late. Great practice for racing, where there might be another car on the ideal line, or when you’re trying to make a pass.
The rest of the afternoon was dedicated to what instructors called the “Rat Race XL,” or as one sardonically put it, “the Milwaukee Mile in reverse.” Basically, just an oval course made up of cones, this allowed students to practice corner exit speeds with stability control either relaxed or all the way off while racing one another. I may have just taken it as an excuse to pull slides on corner exit, because when someone puts you in an M2 and turns all the driving aids off, it’s only right.
This was a full-on day, and I frequently found myself thirsty, breathing heavily, or just bamboozled by the onslaught of information. Driving away from Thermal that first night, there was so much to process.
Thankfully the next day affords the opportunity to start putting it all together. BMW combines the North Palm and Desert circuits for a longer, more-complicated lap. Much of the day is spent on the track following different instructors. It’s a great way to absorb the many quick ways around the track, trying different ways to cut lap times. Sometimes at Thermal, what seems like the correct line isn’t the fastest. In the carousel, you can hug the inside, putting left-side tires into the shockingly grippy paint on the racing surface, instead of taking a more-conventional line at the center of the track.
Christopher Hill, one of the full-timers at the BMW Performance Center West says that with an “Advanced” class, the idea is to present track driving concepts in many different ways. Some lessons reiterate what you’ve learned at any other driving school, but are shown in a novel way. Or instruction may break off into a one-on-one lesson to refine a rough edge in your skillset.
We also spent time at a course that combined an autocross, part of the skid pad, and the backward Milwaukee Mile for a timed competition. It’s another opportunity to try things out, see what happens when you turn traction and stability off and be a bit more ambitious at some points on the track, without major consequences.
By the end of the second day, I felt so much better about my driving. Running the same circuits over and over in the same (or similar) cars lets you pick out better reference points and trains you to keep your eyes looking far ahead. The repetition quieted my mind a lot. Where on day one, I spent a lot of time consciously thinking my way through the lap, on day two, I could just quiet my thoughts and get on with the business of driving.
Gallery: BMW Advanced M School
The SCCA licensing school is more of a niche offering, and it’s not necessarily about speed. It’s proving you’re a safe driver. “Do we want to be on a grid with you?” says instructor Byron Payne. There’s a bit more lead-follow as for this class, we’re on Thermal’s South Palm circuit, though the focus of the class is understanding how flagging works – with a test at the end of the day – passing drills run with and without cones, plus race start drills. Here, the instructors did a great job tailoring the exercise to each student. Mine chased me around the track exploiting my mistakes, showing me the real consequences for fluffing a corner. It was exhilarating.
While the criteria of the class focus on safety and procedure, we spent a lot of time talking about racecraft. Not just how to be safe, but how to be successful. How do you control a corner? Take best advantage of a rolling start? Study the rulebook to find an advantage others missed?
Racing school is interesting, cramming in a lot of information into a very short span of time. But after just three days, I left having fixed problems I didn’t even know I had, plus strategies on how to acknowledge and address them.
There’s a point in the study of any subject where you learn enough to know there is so much to learn. You glimpse the infinite. It’s overwhelming, but affirmative. You’re finally getting somewhere, and know how to go further, even if there is so much more to learn.