EnRoute x BMW

Learning How to Drift at the BMW Performance Driving School —

Buckle up

Even in winter, the sun leans down hard on the California desert. I reach up and adjust the visor to shield my eyes, then return my hands to the wheel, trying not to clench too hard. I push my shoulder blades into the seatback and tense my legs in anticipation. From a two–way radio comes my instructor’s green light: “Okay, Eva – go, go, go!”

I slam on the gas pedal and my BMW M2 lunges forward and down the track, hungry for pavement. The needle climbs the arc of the speedometer, but I can’t take my eyes off the sharp bend dead ahead. Getting through it requires keeping my speed until I am almost out of track, so I wait as long as I can bear, then brake hard – a quick stomp–and–release – before steering through the curve, tires screaming.

I never thought I’d be learning to careen around a racetrack, but I’ve come to BMW Performance Driving School in Thermal, California, near Palm Springs, for a full–day intensive in driving fast cars fast. Though I love the freedom of long road trips through big, empty landscapes, I am no speed demon. In my 20 years of driving, I have just two tickets to my name. And besides, with the age of AI–powered robot cars and radically high–tech transportation almost upon us, the idea of honing my driving skills seems nostalgic and quaint – there is no room to drift in the hyperloop.

An instructor at the BMW driving school in California
BMW Performance Driving School instructor Patrick McCarthy passes on wheel life lessons

Even so, classes here regularly sell out. While your average driver’s ed. is a lesson in cautiousness, M School (that “m” is for “motorsport”) has former pro race–car drivers teaching adrenaline–spiking exercises, like braking into a corner, steering through a 180–degree turn and chasing each other around the track. But more than the thrills, what I most want to gain is a greater sense of control, the confidence that I will know what to do when the traction slips away.

Lesson one: Gaining control means you have to lose it first. For my initial exercise, we learn to recover without spinning out on the polished concrete of the skid pad. Then it’s time to feel out the physics of drifting, the manoeuvre of movie–car–chase fame: holding the car in a controlled skid that lets you float around tight corners.

My instructor, riding shotgun, urges me to speed up, to stomp the gas, to force the sports car into a slide, but I resist. Gritting my teeth, I press the car into spin after spin, driving in dizzying, heart–pounding circles on the pad, and I find that I get used to that sickening, slipping feeling. I realize there is no need to panic: I know how to regain control by steering into the skid. By the end of the exercise, I’m laughing in exhilaration.

A BMW driving in the background, with red flowers in the foreground
Students drive hot laps in the BMW M2
Tire tracks left by cars at the BMW Driving School
Tire tracks left by cars at the BMW Driving School

On the track, practising my corner entries and braking, I find a moment – in between trying to think, look, steer, brake and keep my nerve – to appreciate the freedom that driving has brought me. From the liberation of getting my licence in high school to the solo cross–country road trip that took me to my now–home in Whitehorse, cars have always been connected to my greatest leaps forward in independence. I try to imagine a not–so–distant future where the robot cars have taken over, where the skills we’re practising are not just optional, but obsolete: the ultimate loss of control.

Maybe driving schools will become like cigar clubs, private enclaves of a lost era. But I hope not. Learning the art of driving is not just incredibly fun, it is empowering, too – pushing the limits of my vehicle, trusting myself and my machine, analyzing and ironing out each small flaw in my last lap. One instructor describes performance driving as a series of constant adjustments correcting tiny errors. “A hope and a prayer is not the proper way to go around a racetrack,” he says.

I keep that in mind as I roll up to the start line for my next timed lap. I’m aiming to shave off a few tenths of a second. My heart rate accelerates. My hands tighten on the wheel. My foot hovers over the gas pedal, ready to go.

Road cones at the BMW Driving School
Game of cones
A woman's arm and hand on the steering wheel at the BMW Driving School
The author takes a corner at high speed