The perfect gift for dear old Dad on his birthday just might be a morning visit to the BMW Performance Center in Thermal, California
By George Christopher Thomas, Travel Writer
COACHELLA VALLEY, CA – If you are looking for the ideal gift for your old man, taking him to driving school at the BMW Performance Center will certainly hit the nail on the head. Recently my whole family took a trip to Palm Springs to celebrate my sister turning 40 years old. As part of the long weekend celebration, I took my dad out to the BMW Performance Center to learn how to drive a high-performance vehicle on a racetrack.
About 20 minutes south of Palm Springs is a little town called Thermal. There is an obvious reason they named it that, as it can get pretty hot out in the middle of the desert. At one point in time last year, it was 127 degrees Fahrenheit in Thermal, which made it for at least a moment the hottest place on planet Earth.
But there is another thing in Thermal that is hot and out of this world, and that is learning how to drive a super charged high-performance BMW. My dad and I woke up early with bottled water and trail mix in hand and hit the road. We slowly rolled into 86-050 Jasper Lane around 7:45 a.m. That would be the last slow thing in a car we did all morning.
After checking out their fleet of BMWs and MINIs we checked in for our experience. And hot diggity dog, it was an experience you could only imagine in your wildest dreams. Yet here we were, way out in Thermal, about to make it happen. If you have ever fantasized about attending race car driving school, you can absolutely make your dream come true out here in the desert.
We fueled up with cappuccinos and granola bars, checked out the fantastic gift shop, then met up with our driving instructor, Bryan Reynolds. A nice gentleman originally from Santa Barbara, we connected instantly as he explained that everything we ever learned about driving is wrong. The instructions he was about to give us – the way professional race car drivers operate a car and think their way around a track – would be completely counterintuitive, and contrary to the way we drive on the road in our regular lives.
Firstly, know that you are probably not sitting close enough to the pedals and steering wheel. The closer you sit, and the better fit you have in the driver’s seat, the more access you have to the ultimate driving machine and all that it can do for you. It’s the first step in getting around that racetrack quickly and safely.
According to Bryan, there are four things a man thinks he can do quite well: fistfight, barbecue, make a woman happy, and drive a race car. Chances are most men can’t do even one of those four things very well. So we consider what experts in those fields might have to say. You wouldn’t get into the ring with a UFC fighter just because you got a few good punches in during a fistfight in 7th grade after school. So, when you go to race car driving school, you listen to your instructor.
The second surprise after learning I was sitting too far away from the steering wheel is that braking hard is a tool for moving the weight of the car around the racetrack. Your conventional brain always tells you to slowly bring in the brakes as you come into a turn to better handle the car, especially on the streets. Well it is not the same on the racetrack. Aggressive braking, which is essentially slamming on your brakes, gets the car and all its weight more effectively under your control.
After all this existential thinking about the nature of driving race cars, it was time to hit the track. This is when the fun really starts to happen. When I say fun, I mean a level of happiness and joy that adult humans do not very often, if ever, experience. Was I really about to take a ridiculously expensive ultimate driving machine around a racetrack as fast as I could? Yes. Yes I was.
We did a slow introductory informational lap with Bryan out in front in a lead car just once, and then I was off to the races.
Over the following few hours, my dad and I had the time of our lives. We drove seven different BMW racing vehicles around the racetrack, each of us getting a turn in all seven cars. Each of us did five or six laps in each car. The level of fun was ludicrous. I couldn’t recommend it more.
You can share this experience with anyone. Bring your brother or sister, bring your junior high school best friend, your neighbor. This day of incredible fun, and the memories you create, will bring you closer and strengthen your bond. And it will make you indescribably happy. You might even cry because it is just that rad.
My dad, originally from a farm in Indiana, is fond of the phrase “I laughed, I cried, I nearly died!” And although the last part will certainly not be true because of the professional staff and safety precautions set forth, laughing and happy tears are commonplace at the BMW Center in Thermal.
After 30-or-so trips around the track in a series of vehicles, with my dad doing the same, we moved on to time trials. I didn’t realize beforehand that this was part of the experience, and our timed laps would be on a different track entirely.
Our wonderful instructor took us around this new track once. As with the previous turns around the track, when I drove my dad was right there in the passenger seat and vice-versa when he drove. Sometimes I found being the passenger was almost as fun as driving as I could just sit back and laugh without the intensity of being behind the wheel. This setup doubled the amount of time we spent in the race cars and made for a great bonding experience as well.
Dad and I each got to do seven or eight laps around for the time trials. At the end of the day, Dad was one second faster, and this was something he continued to mention during the rest of our vacation. In fact, he said naturally people from Indiana know how to drive race cars fast, because of the Indianapolis 500. I fetched him a cold glass of milk and gave him a golf clap.
Bryan from Santa Barbara finished us off with a “hot lap,” which was an unexpected and exciting way to end a wonderful morning. We hopped in his lead car, all three of us, and went to go set some records. That record was how quickly we could go through a set of tires.
They should call it a “continuous fishtail lap” as we were slipping and sliding all over the place. This was fully intended, and although it felt like there was no control to any of this chaos on the track, it was in fact perfectly orchestrated. We were skidding into turns at 80 m.p.h. while simultaneously turning the steering wheel in the opposite direction in anticipation of the next part of the racetrack.
It was insane, and we loved every second of it.
Learning how to drive a race car from professionals is truly a dream come true. My dad and I are still talking about it. We bought matching shirts from the gift store.
As strange as it sounds, we are both better drivers for having gone to race car driving school. It made me think differently, and given me a heightened awareness about the mechanics of my car hurtling down the highway at 70 m.p.h. I can tell you this, the next morning Dad was driving a golf cart with precision and a laser-like focus, with his hands securely and squarely at 9 and 3. (For more information, please visit www.bmwperformancecenter.com)
If you get a chance to request a specific instructor, I highly recommend Bryan Reynolds from Santa Barbara. He knows his stuff.