Related Stories

Instructors, speed, and Gs at the BMW Performance Center West

Shooting at the BMW Performance Center in California is just like shooting at Top Gun – I have instructors, speed, and Gs. Actually, who am I kidding...


I made a friend! Sort of. See, I reached out to Erik Hildebrandt (check his amazing work!) – he’s an aviation photographer, and a big inspiration. I’d look through his naval aviation books when I was younger, capturing my imagination and teaching me about light and machines. Fast forward to now; I reached out just to say thanks, letting him know that he’s a spark and sending an image from a recent visit to the BMW Performance Center West. Wouldn’t you know it – he responded, with an image of his latest work…

Erik Hildebrandt’s latest work involves altitude, and attitude.

We’re the same! Actually, not at all – I feel like a kid asking his parents to put the artwork on the fridge.

I know…an M3 can’t pull 7 Gs, and I’ve certainly never been vertical in one while shooting another car. No way I could ever hop into the back of an F/A-18 and do that. Shooting at the BMW Performance Center West in California is about as close as I’ll get.

Same same, but different.

But really, it’s just like shooting at Top Gun! Right?!

Working with instructors is like working with Top Gun pilots

Rob Stout
Chief Driving Instructor Rob Stout drifts an M8.

I can drive. You probably can too. But the men (and women) that work here are built different. I can put a penny on a corner and ask them to drift over it again and again. And they will.

That puts the pressure on me and my camera. I can ask them to do it again, but too many attempts will encourage a furled brow. There’s also choreographed maneuvers that look a bit like formation flying. Mistakes are expensive. They never happen.

BMW M cars

I also need an instructor to drive the camera car, and it’s not as easy as you might think. Hold a certain speed, don’t move, and have your head on a 360-degree swivel to watch what’s going on ahead and behind. Brake too sharply, and an M8 is going to redecorate the back of this X5. Speaking of…

The BMW Performance Center West has Fat Albert

The view from the back.

You know, Fat Albert, the C-130 Hercules that accompanies the Blue Angels and their cargo to all the air shows.

In my case, it’s a BMW X5 M60, and I love it. Not the six-cylinder, which doesn’t have enough juice or grip to stay in front of a drifting M car. It’s the School’s official support vehicle, so there are a ton available on site.

A Fat Albert pass.

That clam shell trunk hatch is key for safety too – I can’t imagine doing rollers in anything else. Without it, I’d need a G suit and harness.

Still, plenty of bumps and bruises after a few days of hanging the lens a few inches off the ground at 50 miles an hour. I still lift weights consistently at 40, and events like this are a good reason why. Learning how to brace myself is key to avoid injury.

Squadron colors

BMW M cars

When Erik shoots, you’ll often see his subject is the brightly colored CAG bird. It’s the squadron commander’s jet, and it’s usually all done up with colorful markings and bold letters. If you didn’t think a Super Hornet could look any more aggresive, check out one with a shark’s mouth on the nose.

BMW M cars

The BMW Performance Center West has their own CAG birds in a liveried M2 and M3. Naturally, I work with them as much as possible, but don’t underestimate the wow factor of lining up three cars in BMW M solid tri-colors.


I get to go off-road too, with X5s and X7s. Marina Bay Blue, please.

The School has just about any color you can think of, so part of this is to “shop” for what I like before I even step foot in the desert.

Sweat-er Weather

BMW M340i

Top Gun – shot in California. Beautiful weather, perfect sunsets, and scenic mountain ranges. Ironically, the BMW Performance Center West isn’t set up too far from Miramar, near San Diego, where most of the film was shot. That means I’m working with those same mountains in the background, capturing those same sunsets.

BMW M cars

And it must be sunset (or sunrise) – in the summer the temperature can rise beyond 110 degrees. In the shade. And there is no shade on that tarmac. Add in the hot exhaust and running engines that results in working around cars all day, and it’s a sweaty endeavor.

BMW M carsBMW M cars

This time, I visit in late October, when the heat is at least bearable.

I bet Erik gets A/C in the rear of that Hornet…

Rock n’ Roll


By the time the week is over, I have memory cards stacked up that are full of mistakes, blurry cars, incorrect framing, and missed opportunities.

But I also have this…


Guess I get lucky sometimes.

Oh, and I fly too – 30,000 feet, 550 miles an hour.

On a Boeing 737. Fast asleep. All the way back to New Jersey.

No barrel rolls here. Just drifting dreams for now.

Don’t worry Erik, no need to check your six.

Please support Erik and check out some of his amazing books.

Thanks to RITTA for bringing me along.

BMW M carsBMW M340i BMW M340i BMW M340i

Want MWS to review your car?

If you live in the tri-state area and would like to be featured, contact me!

Each review comes with a free professional photo shoot.

Support Machines With Souls

Nikon camera bodies and lenses, a Westcott Ice Light 2, Manfrotto tripod, B + W filters and an iMac Pro are used to make the art on Machines With Souls.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *