Visualizing my driving line at the first sharp turn of BMW’s test track felt like staring down the barrel of a gun—in the best possible way.
My palms were sweaty, and I had to consciously remind myself to take some deep breaths to relax my pounding heart. You can’t drive tense! But knowing that all eyes would be on me as I attempted to compete for the accolade of being the fastest driver after the one-day BMW M Driver School had me shook. I’ve never been good under the pressure of competition, and knowing that both the instructors and my fellow students would be expecting me, the auto writer, to put in a good lap was a lot.
Our instructor read off the speed of the driver in front of me. My turn would be coming soon. I tried to get in one more deep breath, and then—
“Elizabeth! Go, go, go!”
I slammed the accelerator to the floor. I’d breathe again after I finished my lap.
Baby’s First Track Day
Despite the fact that I’ve been writing about cars for almost four years, I’ve only had about ten minutes of track time, and the prospect was a little daunting. But I jumped at the offer as soon as it came up. BMW was offering me me a shot at the one-day M Driver’s School at the BMW Performance Center West in Thermal, California.
In essence, a performance track day is just what it sounds like. You learn the ins and outs of car control, generally with higher-powered cars and at faster speeds. For BMW, that meant taking the BMW M2 Competition, the M4, and the M5 Competition out onto a variety of different tracks—an autocross course, which is a path laid out with cones in a wide swath of tarmac, like a big parking lot; a skid pad, which is a slick circle of concrete; and a race track, which is a few miles of sweeping curves that would give you a chance to put together everything you learned.
Each track is designed for specific goals. On the autocross course, we learned about hard braking and the racing line, which is the fastest path around the track that requires you to learn about the apex of each turn and how to best attack it. The skid pad was designed to teach you how to take control of a car that’s sliding out from under you. And the race track, again, was the place where you got to follow an instructor, putting together everything you learned in the day at high speeds (I neared 140mph!).
And it’s something that I highly recommend for every woman who drives on a regular basis. You might be wondering when you’d ever need to know the racing line in highway conditions, but performance driving is driving to the extreme. It’s going to teach you how to control your car when you need to brake really hard in an emergency, stay out of the ditch after slipping on an icy road, how to handle a vehicle with a lot of power, and how to have fun.
Seriously. If nothing else, take on a track day at a performance driving school for the empowerment you’ll feel stepping out of the car. Even if you’re riddled with anxiety about traveling at high speeds like me, you’re going to feel so confident that you’ve conquered a fear, pushed your boundaries, and come out on the other side a more competent driver.
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While I can’t speak for every track day, the one I experienced at the BWM Performance Center West was exceptional. The one-day M School clocks in at around $1,550, but it’s well worth the price. After a brief introduction where we met our instructors, introduced ourselves, and learned the basics of performance driving in theory, our group of 14 drivers that was split up into three subgroups. That meant we all had the chance to rotate through three different exercises during each half of the day.
That small subgroup size was great, because it meant you had one to three instructors giving you feedback on each exercise. Each car was equipped with a walkie-talkie, and the instructors remained outside the car to watch your maneuvers, then provide feedback on what you did well and what you could improve. I think it’s worth noting that everyone in your group will also hear your feedback, since you’ll all be on the same walkie-talkie channel, but don’t feel intimidated; you’re not going to be the only person there with no track day experience!
And I think it’s also important to note that you definitely need a good attitude heading into the day. All of the instructors I worked with were kind and informative in their critiques, but they are still that: critiques. One of the folks in my group had basically been roped into the track day by a family member, and you could tell they were having a hard time taking criticism with grace—and that’s okay! Every bit of feedback you receive is practical, appropriate, and can be immediately applied to your driving, but it can still be tough if you weren’t gung-ho in the first place!
The track day is a busy one, too; it starts at 8am and runs until 4pm, with only a few between-exercise breaks and a 45-minute lunch break. You don’t have much time to relax or regroup before you’re heading on to the next exercise. So, make sure you’re ready when you arrive!
You can check out my Twitter thread for a play-by-play of the action:
— Elizabeth Blackstock (@eliz_blackstock) April 6, 2021
What I Learned About Driving
The first exercise I took on was a cornering exercise where you took the same 90-degree corner over and over, hoping to perfect your driving line and thus increase your speed. That meant you had to accelerate off the starting line at full speed, slam on the brakes, turn into the corner, and jump back on the accelerator as you passed a speed trap. And man, it was tough! If you’ve never activated your anti-lock brake system before, you’re going to be in for a wild treat in this exercise! It was super intense and requires you to defy your natural instincts to take a corner with ease or make a smooth, costing transition between acceleration and braking. There’s no time for dilly-dallying in performance driving!
After that, we moved onto an autocross course laid out with cones. It was a series of really tight turns with a lot of alternation between ultra-acceleration and slamming on the brakes—and it’s tough! I had a really hard time getting the hang of it! It requires your full concentration to remember when to accelerate, where to brake, when to stop braking or accelerating, where to turn, and what line to follow. If you’re not accustomed to driving from a purely performance standpoint, you’re likely going to have a tough time here, too—which doesn’t mean you won’t have fun! You’re just going to get out of the car sweaty and exhausted with plenty of the day left to go!
We also took on this same course immediately after lunch for timed laps, and man, I have never been that stressed! After lunch, laps were timed so that they could be compared against our own subgroup and the whole group at large, so that time, there was the added pressure of the stopwatch. This is time to activate your full zen mode, because a tense body is not ideal!
We also had two opportunities to try out the skid pad, which is a slick patch of concrete designed to help you understand car control. If you increase the speed even a little bit, you’ll lose control of the car on the skid pad—which is the whole point! The goal is to learn how to catch yourself before you go spinning, using the concepts of oversteer and understeer. I had a very hard time with this exercise because losing control of your car is a terrifying experience, even on a well-regulated track! Steering into the spin and keeping my eyes on the place on the road in front of me where I wanted my car to go both felt like foreign concepts that took a long time to break.
And, finally, there was my favorite exercise: lead-follow on the big race track! Basically, in this exercise, an instructor gets behind the wheel of a car and leads you through a long, proper race track, teaching you how to take the turns at a low speed before then going at a high-speed pace. While the turns were still challenging, they weren’t as tight as they were on the autocross course, which gave me more confidence in handling them. We also got into a nice rhythm in circling the track over and over, rather than having to stop after each lap like on the timed portion of the autocross course. It was the time I felt most comfortable behind the wheel—but it was one of my last exercises, so that likely came from having a chance to learn all the tools I needed to put together a longer run!
I learned a ton. I figured out why I slid into the ditch during a road trip in Iceland after losing control on loose gravel (thank you, skid pad!). I learned how to get more aggressive in my driving, to always be on the brakes or the accelerator and to never coast when I’m trying to optimize speed. I learned that performance cars are designed to take what you throw at ’em, so you can go ahead and brake hard and late, get a little sideways, and test the limits of your tires. I also learned that I still have a lot of learning to do—which is okay! No one is an expert on their first go.
Who Knew Fast Driving Could Be So Introspective?
Yes, you’ll learn a ton about driving during a performance driving track day—but you’re also going to learn a lot about yourself. Sounds silly, but it’s true!
I learned that I’m definitely a more high-strung person who likes to have everything under her control. Which I did mostly know about myself already—but I live a pretty tame lifestyle. I don’t get myself into many adrenaline-pumping situations (probably because I know I don’t handle them all that well!); I can’t even play Mario Kart or ride a roller coaster for fear of getting too stressed out! So performance driving exacerbated all those really difficult parts of my personality in a way that was definitely uncomfortable but also… really exhilarating.
Like, I love watching motorsport. I love the secondhand thrill it brings me. I’ve received hot laps around race tracks by professional drivers in all manner of car, from a McLaren 600LT to a two-seater open-wheel Indy car. And that’s always been exciting, but it’s so much harder for me to try to be in control, since it’s a situation really far out of my comfort zone. I’ve always maintained that I’m not a racer; I am most definitely a writer. So swapping roles for the day? It was tough!
Now, I don’t want it to sound like I was shaking in my boots the whole time! I had so much fun. Stepping out of the car after an exercise knowing I made tangible improvements and also conquered a tough situation was incredibly rewarding. And if you’ve ever been in an adrenaline-boosting situation that you’ve simultaneously dreaded and looked forward to, you know how giddy you can feel after you do the damn thing. I was simultaneously relieved that it was over and eager to schedule another track day so I could see how much improvement I could make the next time around.
Honestly, I think a performance driving school is a must for every woman. Period. I don’t think I’m alone in my automotive anxiety, especially among my fellow ladies, and even a single track day is a thrilling way to bolster your confidence in yourself on and off the track. You’re going to learn so much driving technique that you’ll never stop feeling in command of any machine you drive—and that does wonders for the ego. Seriously. Even if the bulk of your driving is carting the kids to and from school, you’ll come out of a track day confident that you’ll be ready for anything thrown your way, from bad weather to an unexpected accident. And you’re going to love yourself for it.
Oh, and my lap time?
I ended up placing solidly mid-pack with a best time of 49.2 seconds. The fastest driver completed his lap in just over 44 seconds! That’s a lifetime of difference in racing time—but it’s seriously impressive for a first timer!
Full Disclosure: I was a guest of BMW for the M Driver’s School. They provided flight and accommodation. All opinions are my own.