Rock ’n’ Roll, California sun and high-performance driving in BMWs go hand-in-hand at the BMW Performance Center West during the Desert Trip Festival.
- Mike D’Ambrosio
- Chad Huff
Participants at the BMW Performance Driving School at the Thermal Club in California are used to hearing sweet sounds – usually out of a BMW straight-six engine. But the weekend of October 7th provided an opportunity for new sounds to fill the air, as the Desert Festival descended upon the town, with artists like The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney and Neil Young playing to adoring crowds over the course of two weekends.
To celebrate the event, the BMW Performance Center offered the two-day xMAR Fly and Drive event in Thermal, California. Visitors were treated to a showcasing of rock ’n’ roll-themed artwork, live music, food and, of course, plenty of driving.
Arriving early Saturday morning, enthused participants received exclusive BMW swag before the driving day began with some basic instruction from Derek Leonard, a senior instructor at the BMW Performance Driving School. The two key takeaways? Keep the shiny side up and have as much fun as possible. Everyone was then dispersed among five different activates: an instructor hot lap, BMW i8 test drive, drag-racing, skid-pad rat-racing, and road course time trial. The event was set up so that a person could do any event as often as they wanted for the two-and-a-half hours of track time allotted.
Drifting, power-sliding and traveling at speeds of over 120 mph down the back straight, the three of us were left with an experience of a lifetime.
First up was the rat race. Two drivers set up in identical BMW 340i sedans at opposite ends of a 300-foot circular polished concrete skid pad. All of the 340i’s advanced traction control systems were turned off; driver skills were all that mattered. Once the instructor said “go”, the gas pedal was floored, and I quickly discovered that this was an exercise not in ultimate speed, but complete car control. I was paired with someone who had never driven a BMW before, and it was a joy to see him experience the car for the first time. Shouts of “This is so much fun!” filled the cabin as he guided the 3 Series around the skid pad, and his enthusiasm was infectious; it wasn’t long before I was cheering him on.
The next station involved drag-racing in M5 sedans, X6 M SAV®s and M4 Coupes. Since this entire event was about experiencing the amazing balance each BMW has, the winner here not only had to launch the car without wheelspin, but come to a complete stop at the end of the line within a box not much larger than the car itself. This lead to interesting results; the winner was not the one who got the best jump off the line, but the one who was able to brake the latest while keeping the car from skidding past the box. Hint: You need to brake a lot sooner than you think.
Moving on, I paid a visit to Derek for an instructor hot lap around the South Palm circuit of Thermal. Here, three participants were driven in an M3 with all BMW driving aids off, which allowed the car to reach its full potential (something that can be safely achieved only on a racetrack). I climbed in the back seat and off we went. Drifting, power-sliding and traveling at speeds of over 120 mph down the back straight, the three of us were left with an experience of a lifetime, and we all had huge grins as we climbed out for the next event.
The i8 is unlike any other vehicle BMW makes, with its scissor-lift doors, low-slung cockpit, and advanced hybrid technology. Climbing in for a test drive, I was greeted by my copilot, a BMW instructor. Pulling onto the very same track that hosted the hot lap, the car’s overall balance and sporty feel was amazing to experience. With its wealth of future-thinking technologies, this is truly BMW’s halo car, and it shines on the track.
I saved my favorite event for last – time trials in an M3. Here, I first got in as a passenger for an orientation lap. Another participant drove the course as I observed the proper driving line. The experience is similar to a hot lap, though not nearly as fast. Then, it was my turn. With traction control left in M mode, I was able to use the throttle and brakes to control the back end of the M3. Balance is something this car has in spades, especially on a road course. The competition was tough, with many BMW fans and practiced drivers putting down excellent times.
After two hours of adrenaline-pumping driving in the California sun it was time for a break, and I headed over to the Visitor’s Center to take in some of the live music and artwork on display. One of the key artists shown was Spencer “MAR” Guilburt – an avid BMW fan since birth and BMW owner himself. “I was brought home from the hospital in one, and my dad’s always had them,” he informed me as we looked over his artwork. Guilburt’s “Fire Flower” style has been featured in a wide variety of venues – from department store windows to parking lots. Based in Los Angeles, his busy schedule has him producing art any chance he gets, and if a client wants a piece delivered at 2 a.m., so be it – he makes sure he never disappoints.
Chatting with participants over a snack from LuLu Bistro, I found that some had come from as far as Oregon to sample the latest M Vehicles, while others were local, simply looking for something exciting in between Festival concerts. Almost all were BMW fans, and many brought their own, making the parking lot look like an impromptu car show. For many, it was the ultimate weekend, listening to their favorite bands while driving their favorite cars.