Setting The Pace: Lessons Learned At The BMW Performance Driving School

cars lined up at BMW Performance Driving School West
Power and finesse take center stage at the BMW Performance Driving School. From the basics of vehicle control to qualifying at getting a race license and becoming a pro race driver. 

First and foremost, skill development is centered on the driver at the BMW Performance Driving School. Personal attention is devoted to learning and listening to the student about their current skill level, what they hope to achieve, and then tailoring the experience to match their unique needs. 

While attending a Car Control class, I interviewed Rob Stout, the head of BMW Performance Center West in Thermal, California, to learn more about what it takes to run a successful high-performance driving school. He signed on about seven years ago and admittedly was not a diehard BMW enthusiast. Of course, the enthusiasm for the brand has grown stronger over the years. 

What initially captured Rob’s level of interest—and something that spoke to his core beliefs—was the leading standard of professionalism that it took to run the school and the high degree of training that all the instructors and personnel involved with the high-performance driving school go through. 

This role is a full-time gig for Rob, which means he is not distracted by racing for a professional team or other seasonal automotive-related jobs. Several times a year, he travels to Germany for further training sessions on improving the school’s curriculum and aligning it with BMW’s brand philosophy. It is no surprise that a ladder and licensing system lays out a distinct path for the instructors and internal employees. Thus, the program retains the high bar set by executives in Munich.

While Porsche and Mercedes-Benz have similar programs, Rob thoroughly enjoys his pursuit and the fantastic colleagues here in the United States and the Bavarians in Europe. Altogether, he believes BMW is a great company to work for and doesn’t see himself moving to a competitor in the foreseeable future. 

Below are Rob’s responses edited for clarity and conciseness. 

blue BMW M240i on BMW Performance Driving School race track going fast
Image source: BMW Performance Center

For the hot-shoe students that are obviously driving beyond their skill level or have an ego that won’t fit into a helmet, how do you temper some of their excitement and expectations? 

We try to make it clear from the beginning that it is always easier to gradually work your way up rather than start out over the top and gradually rein in the enthusiasm—something pretty difficult to do. 

More often is the case that that driver will learn through observation their true driving ability. An overly aggressive driver will typically start the day not afraid to push the limits. But what happens in the afternoon sessions, other students will improve their foundation of skills and begin beating the over-confident student in timed races and other challenges. That’s when a reality check comes into play.

Those who wise up will tamper down the competitiveness a notch or two and focus on precision. 

Sometimes describing why watching a professional racing driver looks calm, boring, and easy compared to a YouTuber with their hands see-sawing the wheel all over the place and the engine revving crazily in the background. While that may look fun and entertaining, there’s a reason why that person is on YouTube and not a hired driver competing in a pro race series. 

The point is: Try to make it look easy. When done correctly, it should look calm, smooth, and methodical. 

Sometimes it is hard to rein those people in all the time. Occasionally, you must pull those individuals aside and explain to them that their approach isn’t working. But more times than not, if they continue, sooner or later, they figure it out after making mistakes [such as] letting two wheels drop off the track. Or get them inside the car with an instructor and demonstrate how it can be done at a faster rate of speed in a safer format — all with fewer inputs and theatrics.

Why is the car sliding everywhere but where I want it to go? Well, the harder you try, the more aggressive your inputs are, which causes the car to respond in kind. The bottom line: If you give it aggressive inputs; you’ll get an abrupt and aggressive response every time. 

Modern sports cars are powerful and heavy. Employing a methodical technique will get the vehicle moving in the speed and direction where we want it without any drama. 

BMW instructor leads the class at BMW Performance Driving School West
Christopher goes over some fundamentals before taking the class out to the track for practice

If a student in the class is having a tough time grasping a driving technique, what kind of adjustments do the instructors use to help them along?

A number of different methods are applied. One is to reword the point the instructors are trying to get across. Whether it is a visual issue they need to fix or something as simple as seating position. One way is repositioning cones on the course to capture someone’s visual attention or changing the seating position to take better advantage of the steering wheel. Whatever the case may be, good instructors will always have multiple ways of acknowledging an error by a driver and figuring out various approaches to fix the problem. 

Not just point out the errors being made but also from the student’s point of view safely realize the error is occurring, possibly fix it, and then move on and be better for it. 

After an intense day of training, you send a group home with a set of valuable driving skills. Without finding a closed course or an empty parking lot, how does a person practice those new skills to help them retain what they learned?

Absolutely! We tell people in our closings that whenever they go out, looking forward into a corner can be practiced the moment you turn out of a parking spot. Practicing steering techniques is something I’ve done and can do while sitting in a parking spot. 

From staring at my hands as I do proper hand-over-hand steering. Then getting to the point where I can do it faster, and I can shut my eyes doing it at that rate of speed. 

Steering techniques and vision are two things that should and always be practiced that we highly recommend.

Keeping in your lane, of course, there’s always a proper driving line that you can envision and follow in any turn you can take—to not only go through it safely but also find the path of least resistance.

Little things you can think about are:

  • Looking through the corner of an exit ramp
  • Seeing the moment in which you are done turning into the apex
  • Understanding that you can gradually increase the throttle when merging onto an interstate highway while gradually straightening the wheel at the same rate 

These are all basic techniques and fundamentals we can use anywhere, whether running at a high rate of speed or well within the limit of grip. 

Do you have any estimate of the number of students who come back for more classes after finishing up the car control or teen school programs, say, for example, the M driving school?

I don’t have a specific figure or percentage number. But it is very often that we see familiar faces within our courses, especially in the M Schools. We see a lot of people who come back for the one- and two-day M Schools. 

With PC West, specifically, we built a ladder system with our M Schools. Meaning, in our one-day school, you are primarily on BMW’s track on our side of the facility. In the two-day school, we introduce the South Palm Circuit—one of the three large national-size tracks we have here [on site]. 

For our mandatory two-day advanced school, we introduce the North Palm Circuit and the Desert Palm Circuit—the other two remaining tracks—and connect them together. 

Essentially, if you come through our line of M Schools that we offer, you will experience every track in every configuration we have to offer here. So, there is always an incentive for someone to come back and continue to learn more. 

And we see people that keep coming back for the two-day M Schools who feel that they haven’t reached an advanced level yet. But they enjoy what they do, run the same timed courses, continue to get better at it and see their improvement. 

And now we offer the GT4 experience where you get private coaching with the GT4 race cars. Yeah, we get a lot of return clients. We have many who have come back for ten-plus years for personal coaching and all of our advanced M Schools every time they get the opportunity. So, a lot of frequent fliers. 

Driving instructor, Raoul, demonstrates proper technique at BMW Performance Driving School
Driving instructor, Raoul, demonstrates proper technique at BMW Performance Driving School

Let’s say you were out and about and saw someone who could benefit from learning the skills taught here at PC West. How would you convince that person to sign up for one of the classes? Or get their teen who has recently gotten a driver’s license. 

We run into this [scenario] pretty frequently. If we see someone—especially adults who are now getting teens into their lives—we strongly urge them to sign up at any given time. Simply because the best insurance you can get for a 15 or 16-year-old is a one-day or two-day driving school course that you can get for under a thousand dollars. 

Headlights cost more than $1,000 in a lot of cars these days, so it doesn’t take much to surpass that. We also say kids are going to make mistakes. At some point in time, they’ll probably do something they shouldn’t be doing, as well. It’s good to bring them out to a school, let them feel what it’s like to experience a car once it begins to slide, or when they have to slam on the brakes to avoid a situation. So, very frequently, it’s not a hard sell to convince a parent to send their kid to a school like that. We highly encourage it. 

Often when I’m at the racetrack, I’m frequently asked questions such as: 

  • How do I get into this? 
  • How do I start driving? 
  • Is there a way to get to the level of a pro racer? 
  • What is the path to racing professionally? 

We do run into these questions a lot. Since BMW has a wide variety of programs that they offer, there’s something for just about everybody who comes in and benefits for a good rate. 

And now BMW offers a way to get private coaching in a GT4 car with a BMW Motorsport engineer and a special instructor going over video and data reviews [of your driving laps]. All done in a race-spec vehicle. 

Would you agree that students coming out of the classes is a pretty good confidence builder for them?

Yeah! Absolutely! I think everyone who walks out the door at the end of the day is more confident in their driving ability than when they walk in the morning. And a lot of the times, it’s an eye-opener for the person who does come in overly aggressive in the morning and then realizes that he or she doesn’t know as much about driving a car at a high rate of speed in the first place. Also, it becomes a reality check for that person to understand that there are a lot of skills to learn and work on if getting better is the goal. 

Not only do I think taking the classes builds confidence, but it also builds an understanding of what a car is capable of. And what is required to take advantage of the capabilities of that car.