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Things get hot at the BMW Performance Center in California

I head out to Thermal, California for a shoot at the BMW Performance Center West. Expect lots of sun, lots of cars, and lots of BMWs.

BMW M3 and BMW M5

Shot over five days in December at the BMW Performance Center West, in Thermal, California.

I love the BMW Performance Center. Filled with the latest models and staffed with the best pro instructors, it’s Disney Land for an automotive photographer. While I’ve been to the east coast location for multiple shoots (and even picking up my G80 there), I had yet to bring my talents to the west coast. Let’s fix that, and check out some images from the BMW Performance Center West.

Heating things up

A place called Thermal does what you might expect it to – heat up. But it does cool off in the winter (getting as low as 40 at night!). Don’t worry, it’s still a beautiful sunny and 80 every single day, even in December. The school is located at the ultra exclusive Thermal Club, and they have access to three unique race tracks that provide a different experience to the school in South Carolina.

BMW M340i
Drifting is always fun. The skid pad is so slippery that water usually isn’t needed. Here, we use it for dramatic effect.
BMW M5 drifting
The large tracks at Thermal allow for plenty of M5 action.

Exploring the Thermal Club

Built for people with not just one, but multiple private jets, the club allows you to build a house right over the track itself. Each house is unique, but all have garages to hold very special cars. When ready, simply call the club and tell them you’d like them to prep your car for a day of track time.

I’m pretty jaded about “special” cars by now. A Lamborghini barely moves the needle of excitement for me. And yes, Porsche 911 GT3s dominated the landscape. But there are also things like F40s driving around ON the actual track (Enzos too!). It’s a pretty amazing place. No offense to those with F40s stuffed in their garage, but out here, people use them for their intended purpose. You won’t hear that V-8 at full song at the local Cars and Coffee event.

You knew I’d find the lone E90 on site. This car was part of a collection that had M3s from every generation in it.
Ferrari F40
The Thermal Club is a fantasy land. This car was one of the more common Ferrari’s in the owner’s collection…

BMW World

BMW shares access to the Thermal Club’s tracks, along with having one dedicated to themselves. It’s smaller and more technical than the actual race tracks on the other side of the compound. Think “autocross”, and it’s perfect for taking the nimble M2 and even the M4 around to learn handing at the limit.

The BMW track is more autocross, and a lot of fun.
BMW M340i
A wet circular polished concrete skid pad is also part of the BMW area.

Special place, special cars

I was given access to the M4 GT4 garage reviewed here. We were also allowed to take some cars off-site (you can take road tours in an M5 around canyon roads, an amazing experience!). The M5 is comfy, even in Competition trim, but still taught, and if you sleep on that 617-hp V-8, you’ll be in trouble. Also fun to note that this M5 was outfitted with most of the M Performance Collection, so carbon fiber accessories and stunning multi-spoke wheels.

Amazing M Performance wheels add an OEM+ look.
Back road barn storming.
A night out on the town.
I love the X5 M. It goes anywhere, really fast.

Comparing the BMW Performance Center locations

Though they offer mostly the same classes, the BMW Performance Center West provides Advanced M School due to its larger tracks. The M4 GT4 is also exclusive to the west.

South Carolina has some unique features, like a mini corkscrew on the track, and beautiful seasonal weather (Thermal gets pretty hot in August). But unless you want an event that is specific to a school, you won’t feel cheated going to either. Same cars and instruction. Same fun.

While you cannot take delivery of your BMW at Thermal yet, you can do a New Owner’s Track Drive if you’ve recently purchased one (it’s free!), so I highly encourage you to stop by if you’re new to the BMW family.

The School has an off-road course for the X5 to tackle.

The most important upgrade you can make

At the risk of sounding like a a grouchy old man, stop with the loud exhausts and pew pew blow-off valves. The first mod you should make is to yourself.

Even if you’re an HPDE veteran, the instructors at the school have valuable lessons to teach, and they can tell when it’s time to level up specific drivers. This is not a UDE event.

There’s a class for everyone – you can bet I’ll be taking my daughter for Teen School when it’s time.

BMW M340i
Teen School hands the keys to these babies over for two days. I learned on my mom’s Altima, sooo…

Taking rollers at 70 mph

If I could, I’d have an X5 as a dedicated camera car. It feels purpose built for me. It’s still a BMW, so despite its size it can still keep up with anything on the track without swaying all over the place.

It can also go anywhere off-road without hesitation. The cargo area is large enough for me to lay down in and shoot out the back, while large side windows allow me to get angles from the side. And that clam shell hatch…key for safety.

I prefer the sun to be behind the cars – they cast a shadow on me, as oppose to the other way around,

All my rollers here are shot with a Nikon Z7, using the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, and a B+W CPL. It’s incredibly dusty on this track, so expect to clean off your camera a lot here. Using a zoom lens is key for me, as it helps control the distance variable. The instructors are great at following along and placing the car where I need, but sometimes I need to zoom in or out for better framing.

Emile really was that close. Closer, actually.
Then we do another lap to readjust, with Emile starting further away to complete the drift in frame

California Dreaming

I’d like to tell you that making these images is hard work, and it is. Hours are long, I’m hanging out of cars most of the day, and it’s a hectic schedule. But when I have a moment to step back and take it in, I can’t help but smile. I hope to be back again, because those mountains make for some beautiful backdrops!

This is a special place.
Thermal Club

BMW Performance Center West Mega Gallery

Halycon Photo
Halycon Photo capturing video.
BMW M5 BMW 3 Series BMW M5 BMW M5 BMW M5

Special thanks to RITTA for bringing me out to shoot. Also thanks to the crew at the BMW Performance Center West for providing a great atmosphere and awesome drivers! Everything shot here uses pro drivers and pro film crews on closed roads, so please don’t try this at home.

Commissions may be received for product links on this site, so help out if you can. I only write about products I use and believe in.

I use Nikon camera bodies and lenses, a Westcott Ice Light 2, Manfrotto tripod, B + W filters and an iMac Pro to make the art you see here.

Email me at with any questions.

Follow along on Instagram @machineswithsouls

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