What it’s really like at BMW M School

I had so much fun shooting at the BMW Performance Center, I decided to take a Two-day M School Class. If you’re looking for photo shoot stuff, it’s here.

If you’re a regular reader of this blog, you know that it’s about making art with cars. That last part is key: you have to have a passion for the subject matter. My love for cars dates back to my teens, but my love for BMW started with ownership of my E92 M3 10 years ago.

One of the things I loved doing with that car was track it at HPDE (High-Performance Driving Events) events all over the North East, and the M3 was always a gem. Well-balanced, powerful and reliably able to take a track-day beating. But…HPDE days are expensive, and they do wear your own car down. That’s where the BMW Performance Center comes into play.

BMW E92 M3 Pocono Garage
My M3 in the garage at Pocono. Years later, I would shoot Sue’s M2 in the exact same spot.
BMW E92 M3 at Pocono
Me out on the Pocono track with my instructor Steve.

There are two locations in Palm Springs, California, and Spartanburg, South Carolina, which is the one I both shot and drove at. What follows is how the weekend went.

Day 1 – The Basics

When you choose M School, you have the option of one- or two-day. The curriculum on the first day is the same no matter what you choose, but it really pays to stay for both days because the second involves doing full laps around the track, and that really reinforces what you’re learning.

The School always has the latest M vehicles available, which of this writing was the F87 M2 Competition, the F82 M4 Competition, and the F90 M5 Competition. Fans of the brand will know the cars, but suffice to say you’re never disappointed, regardless of the car you are in. You do get to drive all 3 an equal amount of time over the two days. Standing in for my mighty M3, and my favorite, was the M4. But I’ll get to that later.

The day begins in the classroom around 8:30 AM, where a chalk-talk session with the lead instructor, who reviews the basics of high-performance driving. It’s a good refresher for those that are used to these events, and a good introduction for those that are not. Looking up and out, as far as you can, is really emphasized.

After about an hour in the classroom, the rest of the morning is spent rotating in groups of 5 through 3 different exercises on the track, as follows:

  • Wet skid pad training (M5)
  • Autocross (M2)
  • High-speed track (M4)

Each exercise highlights both the strengths of the cars and a particular skill you need to learn, such as controlling a drift, proper brake points, where to look, how smooth you are and how to control the cars at higher speeds.

Please make no mistake, this is a high-performance event. You will sweat, and you will grab the steering wheel so hard that you’ll leave impressions. The instructors speak to you over walkie-talkie as you drive through each exercise, coaching you along. They are always patient and kind, never pushing you to go faster than you feel comfortable.

After an hour or so for lunch (which they provide), you head back out for another rotation of 3 exercises:

  • Rat race on wet tarmac (M5)
  • Timed autocross (M2)
  • High-speed track (M4)

What they are really doing here is continuing to reinforce good habits overall. Regardless of the car or event you’re doing, the same techniques are practiced. The autocross is the same layout from the morning, so you’re now familiar with it as you drive competitively against other drivers.

The Rat Race is also a competition as you drive the M5 in an oval, an equal distance from another M5 – you chase each other until one catches the other. It’s all on wet surfaces without any traction control, so patience is key.

The higher-speed track events in the M4 were always my favorite, because the car is the best balanced of the 3, and the one I was most familiar with. This event is most similar to HPDE days, so if you’ve done one before, you’ll feel right at home.

Maintaining focus is also emphasized, and I was surprised at how hard that was to do over time – and it gets more difficult on day two with longer sessions.

After a short classroom session (catered!), it’s back to the hotel for some much needed Zzz.

BMW M2 autocross
The autocross section with a BMW M2. Don’t be fooled by the short length – these cars don’t need much room to accelerate quickly.
BMW M5 drifting
You start the day drifting, learning under- and oversteer, in an M5. It’s much harder than it looks, until you grasp the concept. Then, it’s just fun.

Day 2 – More like HPDE

This was definitely the the day that makes it all worth it. You come back again at 8:30 AM, but the classroom session is much shorter; just a refresher and a review of the track you’re about to drive. The morning has 3 groups:

  • High-speed track (M4)
  • Faster autocross (M2)
  • Figure 8 (M5)

The first 2 exercises are related – the afternoon session sees them combining them into one big track, but here they separate them to break the sections down much easier. You’ll see higher speeds on both here, but especially the track event – the M4 got past 100 approaching what they call the “Man Turn” – a high-speed slightly banked turn that you must learn to carry your speed through.

The Autocross has you in the M2 through a mini corkscrew hill, which you cannot see the bottom of, so everyone approaches it with caution at first. Eventually, you learn where the brake points are and it becomes one of the most fun sections.

The Figure 8 is exactly as it sounds – drive your car in a figure 8 on a wet surface – try not to drift. But we all did.

I should pause here and tell you that before each event, you do a “lead-follow” lap with an instructor. They drive the proper line in their car, and you follow in your own as they break down each turn. This is something HPDE does not do, but it was really helpful and made the days much less intimidating.

autocross-bmw-track
This is a small section of the autocross track, and the cones point you in the direction you go. This particular section is a “compromise corner”.

After lunch, they give you the best for last – full lapping. The rotation is as follows:

  • High-speed track (M4)
  • High-speed track (M5)
  • Figure 8 (M2)

Yes, they combine the autocross and high-speed track into one long technical setup, and you experience it with a round in the M4, then move on to the M5. It’s amazing to see the difference between the cars, and everyone was comfortable at this point, so speeds really picked up.

This is a LONG session – you’re out on the track for about an hour between the cars, so maintaining focus is key. You will be tired and dehydrated (they give you as much water as you can stand, and it’s safe to bring it in the cars during driving). When it all comes together, you find yourself gaining confidence at the (very high) limit of these M cars. It really is so much fun and worth every penny.

BMW M5 hot lap
End the day with a “Hot Lap” – where one of the pro instructors takes you for for a full-speed lap on the track. This is…exhilarating.

Versus HPDE

There is the inevitable comparison between the 2, so I thought I’d give you a few advantages that the school has over HPDE

  • Pro instructors that are comfortable. I’ve never had a bad HPDE instructor, but they are out there and they can severely hamper your efforts. The BMW guys are literal pros that have been doing this for years, sometimes decades.
  • It’s much safer here. At HPDE, you are on the track with other people at the same time who may (or may not) know what the hell they are doing. There are crashes, bumps, red flags, track fodder and other dangers. BMW provides you with a closed course and a smile.
  • Let me break down a typical HPDE event for my E92. After each day, typically four 20 minutes sessions, the car would need fresh oil, brake fluid, fuel (lots of fuel), and most likely brakes and tires (I could get 2 events out at most). Add in paying for the track, and insurance, and that averages out to over a $1,000 bucks for the day. BMW gives you new cars with fresh tires and brakes, unlimited fuel, no liability insurance, and says go have fun.

About the only disadvantage is that, in HPDE, you are learning on YOUR specific car. But new BMWs are so fast and capable that afterword, handling your own car should feel much easier.

Would I go again? Yes. Should you? Yes. Skip the first round of mods and spend the weekend down here. You’ll feel so much more comfortable both at the limit and during your morning commute.

For more info, visit bmwperformancecenter.com. Have fun!

Feel free to email me at mike@machineswithsouls.com with any questions.

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