Troy Warren for CNT #Cars
Car and Driver editors recently attended driving schools with BMW, Lexus, and Porsche and share the benefits of learning from the pros.
If you’re planning to take your car to the track or already regularly attend track days, a performance driving school can help you improve your skills by learning from professionals. Some automakers offer these programs—three Car and Driver editors just attended schools with BMW, Porsche, and Lexus—and there are other options, too. C/D staffers have also gone to schools such as the Bridgestone Winter Driving School, the Radford Racing School (previously Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving), and the Ron Fellows Performance Driving School.
These schools offer similar programs with anywhere from one- to multi-day schools covering things like car control, cornering techniques, and timed laps. Attending an automaker’s own program is especially beneficial if you own one of its vehicles, but you don’t have to be an owner to get a lot out of the experience. We’d suggest attending a two-day program for the most in-depth experience, but start where you can.
One-day schools are generally more affordable and meet a range of driving interests and needs. For instance, winter-driving safety and performance programs from Bridgestone start at only $309; the Skip Barber Racing Schoolhas a Roush Performance Intro to Racing four-hour course for $1195; and the Radford Racing School has a one-day performance driving class for $1899. Expect pricing in the $3000 to $4000 range for the two-day schools described below, with prices going higher as the level gets more advanced.
Our staffers share their recent experiences with three automakers to help you decide if attending a performance driving school is worth it. Spoiler: it is.
BMW Performance Center West
Approaching a corner doing 100-plus mph and looking out the driver’s window at the apex while simultaneously mashing the brake pedal is tough to get used to. At the BMW Performance Center’s two-day M school, instructors constantly reminded us that a driver’s vision is the most important aspect of track driving. This and other directions learned during classroom sessions are practiced on multiple sections of track, starting with lead-follows, using the Performance Center’s onsite autocross course and the Thermal Club raceway south of Palm Springs, California.
“Eyes up,” the instructors would routinely tell us over the radio. They were stationed at various points giving instructions and feedback. In this course, we learned behind the wheel of BMW M2, M3, and M5 Competition cars—all the latest models. The M2s were used for the autocross courses, where we practiced different corners and competed in timed laps against other students in the class. The M3s were used for similar exercises, but one of the benefits of BMW’s school in California is that we also had access to the Thermal Club’s South Palm Circuit. Learning how to countersteer and hold drifts on the wet skidpad was done in the 617-hp M5 Competition, and we practiced sections of the racetrack in them, too.
Nothing beats the thrill of driving on the track, with speeds on the South Palm Circuit’s straightaways approaching close to 140 mph in the M5, but my favorite part was the autocross course in the BMW M2, arguably M’s best car on sale today (unfortunately they were all automatics). And the added element of competition is always fun.
The BMW Performance Center offers several other programs including teen driver and car control schools, and I was also there for a third day for its M4 GT4 experience. It was like the two-day M school, where we warmed up with M2s and M3s on the autocross course and Thermal, but it also included lead-follow laps on the South Palm Circuit in the M4 GT4 race car. We were fire-suited up and everything. How often do you get that opportunity?
BMW has Performance Centers in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and Palm Springs, California, with the two-day M course priced at $3595 and the M4 GT4 experience priced from $4995 to $9995, depending on seat time. You can see more options and availability and book online here. – Connor Hoffman
Lexus Performance Driving School
Lexus ensures you’re properly prepared before sending you out onto the daunting WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca in the 471-hp LC500 coupe. The one-day Lexus Performance Driving School starts in the classroom, with driving theory classes discussing weight transfer, braking modulation, and throttle input. Legendary racer Scott Pruett—a five-time winner at the 24 Hours of Daytona—acts as the head instructor and is accompanied by an experienced team that guided us through each activity. With nearly 50 students on the day I attended, Lexus split the throng of drivers into groups, allowing for one-on-one learning opportunities and time for curious students to ask more in-depth questions.
After the classroom session, we put what we learned to the test around an autocross track—a labyrinth of cones set up across a large flat expanse—in a 2022 Lexus IS350 F Sport. The morning was spent setting practice laps to learn the track layout and the car’s limits. In the afternoon we returned to set official timed laps, taking time penalties for clipping cones (I admit I hit a couple in an attempt to shave a couple of extra tenths off my time). Our best lap counted towards a school-wide competition, with the quickest driver overall, and the group with the best average time, earning a small prize.
We also practiced getting sideways on the skidpad in a Lexus RC F with all of the nannies turned off. With an instructor coaching us via radio, we each got a few minutes to get to grips with, well, losing grip. Holding a drift was not an easy feat, and lessons learned on the skidpad were a boon when we graduated to the full-size track.
Our seat time in the gorgeous LC500 around Laguna Seca started with slow sighting laps and braking exercises to feel the full force of the car’s powerful pads. The rest of the day consisted of lead-follow laps behind an instructor, gradually increasing speed. By the final laps we were pushing the LC close to its limit around Laguna Seca’s undulating turns, using all the knowledge we had acquired from the day’s activities to build up our confidence behind the wheel.
The Lexus Performance Driving School was a blast for everyone in our group, from novices to the hotshoes who track their Lotus Elise on the regular. The one-day program costs $995, and the 2022 schedule includes events at Laguna Seca, Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta, and the Circuit of the Americas near Austin, Texas. More information about the Lexus Performance Driving School can be found here. – Caleb Miller
Porsche Experience Center Los Angeles
We’re lined up outside Porsche’s Los Angeles Experience Center (PECLA), shoulder to shoulder with a group of other journalists admiring the bright-red Porsche 911s parked just a few feet away. The morning sun glints off the cars as we pair up for the day. I’m with a colleague from fellow Hearst publication Road & Track, and we’re both eager to hone our driving skills.
First up is the low-friction circle, a wet pad intended to allow drivers to practice holding a drift. As our instructor is giving us tips on how to break the rear wheels loose, I boast that my years of winter driving in Michigan will come in handy here. They don’t. It’s much harder than it looks to get the 911 sideways without losing control entirely.
Next up is the 1.3-mile handling circuit. It’s challenging, but with the instructor leading the way and offering tips through a walkie-talkie, we’re up to speed and nailing apexes in no time. After returning from a particularly hot session, our instructor says to another, “These guys are fast,” which has us grinning from ear to ear. Speaking of fast, we switch into the Taycan Turbo S next and do breakneck full-throttle launches on the dynamics pad before moving to the acceleration straight for some high-speed antics.
After a gourmet lunch in the fancy onsite restaurant—complete with 911-shaped pats of butter—we are back behind the wheel. This time, we’re off-roading in Cayennes. “How many Cayenne owners take their cars off-road?” I ask one of the staff. “Probably exactly zero,” he replies. “But it’ll do it. You’ll see.”
We put the Cayennes through some easy simulated trails with some low rocks before coming up to more challenging obstacles such as offset moguls, a teeter-totter bridge, and scaling a steep cliff with little visibility. He’s right: the Cayenne will do these things, and unlike us, it didn’t break a sweat.
Our day at PECLA was as much fun as it was educational, even for a group of drivers who do this sort of thing for a living. Prices for these experiences start at $450 and go up to over $1000 depending on which model and which events you choose, but it’s money well spent. Porsche has Experience Centers in Los Angeles and Atlanta. The company also has a Track Experience facility in Birmingham, Alabama. More information about how to book a Porsche experience for yourself can be found here. – Drew Dorian