BMW Mecca in the Middle of the Desert

Writing and Photography by Travis S. Check out more of his work on Instagram: @steven_tyler_pjs

Where do you go to satisfy your BMW fan-boy itch when Munich and the European Delivery experience are simply out of the question?

If you’re in the United States, you visit one of two BMW Performance Centers. One, next to the Spartanburg, North Carolina production facilities where the X models are produced. Or, you become a desert rat and find yourself a couple hours east of Los Angeles, in Thermal, California. Home of BMW’s newest performance center - BMW Performance Center West at Thermal.

The BMW Performance Center West shares space with The Thermal Club - a golf club-like resort designed for motorsport enthusiasts. Instead of golf links you get pristine, private pavement to track cars that only you and your fellow members could seemingly afford. Membership isn’t for the faint of heart, not only requiring private track dues but developing a home that overlooks the race tracks.

The Thermal Club features two circuits, North Palms and South Palms, which can be linked together to form one The Palms Circuit. An additional track is currently in development. 

The BMW Performance Center offers mere plebs, like me, the joy of experiencing a resort-like petrolhead experience. BMW Performance Driving Schools offer several programs, including one and two day M-Schools designed for owners of M-cars to learn how to drive their cars to their and the car’s limits in a safe, instructor-led manner that will elevate your driving and appreciation of what modern BMWs are capable of. You may also purchase a two-hour Performance Center Experience for a reasonable cost. My recommendation would be to visit Groupon for special offers. BMW also offers a Performance Center New Car Delivery Experience where you may pick up your new BMW at the performance center and undergo the same on-track education.

Spending a half-day at Thermal is a fantastic experience. There’s something about the blemish free pavement, clean facilities, and desert that create an ambiance that is tranquil, refreshing, and invigorating. 

Having just visited after a year since my last visit, the Performance Center recently opened their new facility. A two story building featuring classrooms, BMW Performance Center and M-School store, restrooms, balcony view, and catered food. Our experience began with lunch followed by a driver’s meeting before breaking off into groups for five activities. The activities featured a wide variety of BMW offerings and challenged driver skill.

The activities included autocrossing the new B58-powered M240i, drag racing X5M, X6M, and M5s (pick the X6M, I promise you won’t be disappointed), a ‘rat race’ using the BMW 340i on a polished, wet skid pad to see who can go in circles the fastest, hot laps in the F80 M3 with instructors, and lead-follow exercises in the F80 M3. The latter being the primary reason many attend the event.

The South Palms Circuit is a fast course that features a layout that is inviting for new drivers yet can be challenging even to advanced drivers. The course includes several decreasing radius turns that encourage a late turn-in for a late apex.

Coming from a ‘modern classic’ BMW, the pace at which modern BMWs perform is staggering. Every F80 M3 at the Performance Center feature carbon ceramic brakes. If you’ve never experienced the stopping power of the $8,000 option then I'd highly recommend it! 

Though I must confess, the M240i with the new B58 engine stole my heart. While I anxiously await the S55-powered M2 CS variant, I’m curious to see what BMW will do now that the B58 approaches standard N55-powered M2 performance. Will we see an S58 M2? Will we see a B58-powered M240i Racing? Or, maybe even an S58 M2 CSL that borrows from the gutted and caged interior of the M235i Racing? It’s all speculation but it’s the kind of bench racing I enjoy.

While there, Michelin had just concluded their two weeklong launch of the Pilot Sport 4S tire. While Michelin was packing up, straggling cars were just being loaded into transporters include a BMW M4 GTS in Frozen Dark Grey Metallic, Ferrari 458 Italia GT3, Porsche 911 cup cars, and other exotics. My eyes were drawn to the M4 GTS and Ferrari 458 GT3.

Visiting Thermal is becoming a yearly pilgrimage that I highly recommend to any BMW enthusiast. If you aren’t in the southern California rest assured. It’s a fantastic vacation destination. Palm Springs, Joshua Tree National Park, Pioneertown (an old west-style town that has been widely used in Hollywood films such as old Gene Autry movies), the Anza Borrego Desert, and a day trip to LA are all great places to visit and experience while you’re here. Wintertime in the desert makes for a great holiday or new year vacation.