THE REAL DEAL
At the Circuit of the Americas, I was standing outside one of the V.I.P. suites on the front straightaway, watching a practice session for the GT4 America, as the rain rolled in. The BMW M4 GT4 of Stephen Cameron Racing set the fastest lap of the session, lapping the 3.4-mile track in just 2:19.360 on a damp track. The next session, the BimmerWorld Racing team would put down a 2:17.383 when it was dry. The speed, sound, and excitement are why we love motorsports, but like most automotive enthusiasts, I have always wondered what it would be like to drive these cars on the track, haven’t you?
As I watched the professional drivers make their laps in Austin, I had no idea that just a few weeks later, I would be invited to participate in the BMW M and M4 GT4 Experience at the BMW Performance Center in The Thermal Club (near Palm Springs.). While I have driven many, many cars on many tracks, this experience would put me behind the wheels of the same cars driven in professional racing series around the world. This wasn’t a track day or a streetcar driving school. This was the real deal, without an instructor in the right seat. Flying into Palm Springs, the BMW Performance Center West is in the heart of the Coachella Valley. For flying privately, the Jacqueline Cochran Regional Airport is next door. The Palm Springs area is the perfect home for the BMW Center, offering guests access to world-class hotels, dining, golf courses, and an average of 350 sunny days a year.
LET THE CLASS BEGIN
The BMW M4 and M4 GT4 Experience starts in the classroom. After introducing the instructors and a basic program outline, we began by learning the basics of seat and steering wheel positioning, tire dynamics, and all the basics we need to know on the track. The experience is limited to only 15 people per class, and each class is broken into smaller groups to maximize track time and personal interaction with the instructors. Our class was divided into two groups, Blue and Green, and each member was given a number that would correspond with their car on the track.
We would first go outside to learn more about the BMW M4 GT4 race car, with instructors answering questions and showing us how the racing steering wheel, pedal box, and shifter systems work. They also highlighted many of the special race-only features on the GT4 and how similar the GT4 race car is to the factory street BMW M4. The BMW M4 GT4 uses the same engine and transmission, including control electronics as the BMW M4 street car with only slight gearing changes. The M4 GT4 also uses an innovative tuning software, power sticks (USB drives), that give race teams the ability to make pre-approved software changes to meet the balance of performance for different racing series.
Next, we were shown to another room in the BMW building, where we picked out our race suits, gloves, Nomex socks, and racing shoes. All in red, white, and blue matching the famous BMW M livery on the GT4 cars. Once fitted for our safety, each group is directed to one of two tracks. The Blue Group to the two-mile-long South Palm track to drive the BMW M4 street car in a series of lead-follow laps. My Green group went to the handling course on the BMW campus to get some laps done in the BMW M2. Eventually, we went against the clock and our fellow classmates to see who could set the fastest time on the course in the M2.
YES, THAT TRACKS
The handling course starts with a few slow lead-follow laps where the instructor guides the group around the course to learn the optimal line. Then we are let loose behind the wheel of a BMW M2 to try and set our best time. While we did our laps, instructors coached us by radio, with tips on braking points and lines. Thanks to their instructions, I shaved seconds off my laps times and started consistently putting in some of the faster times for our group. We had to wait until the afternoon session to learn who set the official fastest time.
After some practice in the M2, we swapped courses with the other group to drive the BMW M4 on the South Palm track. These M4s are standard cars, just like you would buy from the dealer, on performance street tires. The point of this exercise is to familiarize yourself with the track layout and rotation procedure when on the track. The instructor has everyone set the car in M1 mode and had us follow behind his lead car about two-to-three car lengths apart. After a few slower warm-up laps, we start picking up speed and are quickly hitting triple digits on the straightaways. The M4 is good, so the M4 GT4 should be even better. After wrapping up on the track, we headed back to the BMW Center building for a lunch break.
Time on the track flies before lunch is served in the BMW café that overlooks the track and provides a great vantage point to watch the private jets land at the airport next door. It was the perfect time to meet your fellow classmates, from a father and son duo who took part in a two-day course to improve their racing skills to a young woman who had never been behind the wheel of a race car. This course is designed to accommodate any skill level.
Once lunch was over, our group headed back to the M2 course to set our official lap times while the Blue Group took on the M4 GT4. Unlike the first round on the handling course, our official time was now required, and we also must bring the car to a complete stop in the stop box. Stopping before or after the box netted a two-second penalty. My first lap time was just over 49 seconds, yet as the laps went on, I decreased it to around 46 seconds. The other group would also run through the same course, and our times would be compared at day’s end. Wrapping up at the M2 handling course, we suited up in our BMW racing suits, climbed aboard a few BMW X7s and headed back to South Palm, this time to pilot the M4 GT4 car.
ZERO TO HERO
After getting fitted with a HANS device and helmet, our instructors helped us into the car, ensuring our belts were perfectly tight and our pedals and steering wheel were in the correct position. Unlike the M4 street car, the seat is fixed in the M4 GT4. As the pedals and steering wheel move, I immediately noticed the seating position was several inches further back than a standard street car, which shifted my line of sight out the side windows dramatically. After a quick radio check, we fired up the cars and fell into line on the pit road behind the instructor.
We roll onto the track, and just like with the M4, we roll through a few slow laps to familiarize ourselves with this very different car. BMW designed the M4 GT4 for customer racing, so it’s one of the most user-friendly race cars to drive. It has simple controls, so by the second lap, it feels like I have been driving it for years. The electronic instrument cluster shows far more information than you would have time to look at on the technical South Palm track. The only thing you need to see is the shift light. So, as you make your way through the gears and hit triple digits on the straights, it is hard not to feel like a hero. The sound, sensation of speed, and the thrill of chasing down your classmates on the straightaway is hard to describe until you experience it yourself.
The M4 GT4 has an incredible amount of grip, thanks to the sticky tires and aero package. Having driven a number of race cars over the years, the M4 GT4 is by far one of the most composed and easy to navigate, plus the fact that it can do this while still having A/C keeping me cool and comfortable while racing in the California desert is amazing.
After our final lap, we pulled back into the pits, leaving the cars running to help cool them down. As we pulled off our helmets, everyone was smiling ear to ear and talking about how awesome the drive was. We piled back into the X7s toward the BMW Performance Center to change and to hear our final results from the M2 handling course. Back in the classroom, our instructors handed out our completion certificates, USB drives that contained our on-track video, and the top three times from the handling course. I brought in third place, beat out only by a few milliseconds by my friend, Manual. However, we were almost two seconds behind Dave, who obviously spent more time on the track than we did.
The BMW M4 GT4 Experience is by far one of the best one-day courses in which I have ever taken part. The fact they can take almost anyone and, by the end of the day, have them lapping a GT4 race car on a track is incredible. It comes down to their talented team of instructors that include men and women who are champion race car drivers, stunt drivers, professional drifters, and most importantly, automotive enthusiasts. For those who want more than just the single-day experience, the BMW Performance Center also offers two additional M4 GT4 packages with private coaching, ideal for those who want to make the jump into amateur racing.
For more information or to book your own experience visit BMWPerformanceCenter.com and visit Principle Automotive at PrincipleAuto.com for more information on any BMW.