Last year my best friend, Mike Maez, a fellow automotive Photojournalist, asked me if I wanted to attend a BMW track day at the Circuits of the Americas. As an avid track-day enthusiast, you can bet your ass I replied with a huge ‘yes.’
M Track Days in 2017 was easily one of the best days of my life and has since become a tradition for my friends and I. The BMW track day encourages owners, enthusiast, and potential buyers to drive every late-model M car BMW has in their arsenal. Before you ask, yes, that included the all-new 2019 BMW M5.
What’s the damage to your posh wallet? The half-day option, which allows you to drive every M series car in about 5 hours with an exceptional dinner is just $250, while the full day comes in at only $750.
The Race Track
The BMW M Track Day that I attended was at Circuits of The Americas, my favorite race track in the United States. Located in the lone star state near the city of Austin, the track sports a full, red, white and blue outline that continually reminds drivers of what track they are on. In my opinion, there is nothing in the world that compares to Turn 1 with how it points straight up a hill and shoots you flat out back down like a roller coaster. With streetcar speeds over 150 mph, COAT’s back straightaway brings out goosebumps.
German engineer Hermann Tilke designed the track. It covers 3.427-miles with 20 graceful curves that accent her shape. COTA officially opened in October 2012 and retained a modern, contemporary, and beautiful feel. Its also rated as an FIA grade 1 race track, which means its fast as hell.
For most, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to drive this track, but if BMW continues this program, they’ll be seeing my friends and me for many more years to come and many other track-driving enthusiasts.
Bright and early, I was welcomed by a giant “Circuits of The America’s” sign and continuing into the facility, COTA is laced with BMW M branding with cars and ads sprawled in strategic positions. Once we made our way onto the track infield, I learned the check-in desk is in the same pit garage that the Formula 1, IMSA and Pirelli World Challenge teams use. Just stepping foot into that environment gets your blood flowing with adrenaline.
I arrived semi-early, and all that is required is a valid driver’s license, a great attitude, and your undivided attention during the track briefing. BMW provides complimentary snacks and plenty of refreshments to choose from.
As a treat, BMW brought their highly exclusive HP Race MotoGP bike to show off. We gazed in awe as the pilot, Nate Kern was able to pull wheelies from over 100+ MPH and continued to accelerate down the main straight. The sound was intoxicating. It’s as if they stuffed an F1 engine under a seat and told some crazy man to ride it.
As the morning session was ending, Chief Driving Instructor Matt Mullins from the BMW Performance Driving Center gathered his 70 guests, myself and friends included, to the right side of the garage. He provided the best crash course about high-performance driving, the basics of steering into a corner, racing line, the do’s and don’ts on a race track and about the M vehicles that we would be driving. Michelin tires gave a quick presentation on the OEM tires used on the M3 and M4, the ultra grippy Michelin Pilot Super Sports. Quickly after, Matt introduced all the instructors that would help lead our half day group to success.
Each group was split into six people and color designated by the wristband that you get at check-in. My group was “Red bands” which meant we were first out on the track. I walked over to the next paddock on our left where we received our head socks and open face helmets.
No more than 5 minutes later, we got to choose which color BMW M3 Competition Package we would be pilot. I love the Austin Yellow Metallic, so I sprinted towards the first one in front of me. The first group of drivers was asked to be of an advanced level; I promptly raised my hand as I was ready to go flat out on COTA and her turns. I was paired up with a random participant I did not personally know as there is a driver’s change through the experience.
Every car is equipped with a walkie-talkie so that the lead instructor can communicate with everyone in the group. All M’s are pre-programmed with BMW’s recommended electronic aids. From what I noticed, DTC was left on, throttle response set to sport, and traction control gave some leniency but not enough to roll smoke.
I felt my heart begin to race as I buckled in and laid my finger on the “press button” starter. The 3 liters twin-power turbocharged, 6-cylinder roared to life as it was finally time to pull out of pit lane.
Behind the Wheel of an M3
Moving the Drivelogic stick into “M,” I was ready to command the double-clutch 7-speed flappy paddle gearbox that I must mention is lightning fast. We snaked our way through pit lane and made our way to pit exit on the actual race track that has been driven by drivers such as Lewis Hamilton and Bill Auberlen. The second our instructor made the left-hander into turn 1, it was game time.
As I straightened the wheel of the M3, I smashed the pedal down, the turbos spooled, the RPMs rose, and my heart rate maxed. I begin to race down the hill, grab the paddles as we run through the gears. I was flat out through Turn 2; I set up for Turns 3, 4 and 5, a third gear, extremely fast S-turn. Get it wrong, and the DTC will have to save your ass every time, get it right and the car rewards you with speed as it throws you left and right and gets you ready to attack Turn 6.
Turn 6 will ask you to bleed off speed while turning in hard to the right, keeping mid-in and looking into Turn 7, I continue to slow the M3 as the turns begin to get sharper. Cut hard left into Turn 7 as it is essential to get yourself set up for Turn 8. I’ve always noticed that Turn 8 kicks any novices ass, the turn goes up to the right and becomes a decreasing radius which means it gets sharper the more you drive in. I keep the M3 in the middle of Turn 8 and start turning the wheel harder towards the apex of the turn.
By the time Turn 8 is over we need to have our steering entirely straight for a smooth transition into Turn 9. Getting the wheels straight for that split second helps the car come back to center as we’re going to force weight on to the right tires with the fast left turn. I turn in hard, grabbing the rumbles as my palms begin to sweat. With maximum speed, I take the Austin Yellow M3 all the way out to the next set of rumble strips. Going flat out, I move the wheel slightly to the left to finish out Turn 10 and get ready for hard braking into Turn 11.
This section of the track is where the rodeo starts as getting Turn 11 right can be bit tricky. Hard brake into Turn 11 staying as wide as possible, I late apex and shift down to 2nd gear. I make sure to touch my front driver wheel onto the rumbles and take the IMSA line while unwinding the wheel. I get back on the power as soon as possible as it is now time to see what this 444 horsepower M car can do. I reach 60-, 80-, 100-, 120-, 130- mph and finally up to 150 mph. I stay wide and lay my foot into the vast, gold, 6-piston brakes as I downshift from 6th all the way down to 2nd gear.
I look ahead into Turn 12 as I lift my foot from that hard braking, and I begin to start my left arch to get myself as deep into the rumbles as possible and back out to the right side rumbles. I bring the M3 back to the left-hand side of the track, and I look into the double apex of Turn 13 and 14. Turn 13 is the easiest corner to wash out if you’re not looking ahead, you won’t notice how tight it gets. Staying wide and going into the rumbles, I stay mid-corner to finish out Turn 14 and set up for my absolute favorite section of this track, Turns 15 to 20.
There are many different ways to get around Turn 15, and all ways are within milliseconds of each other. I found that I like to stay as wide as possible through Turn 15, my tires are not even near the inside of the rumbles and track out to Turn 16 at the last second, I late apex and cut into the rumbles. Taking the IMSA line, I unwind the wheel all the way out past the rumbles as I get ready to go past the famous Turns 17 and 18 where Circuits of The Americas has painted beautiful red, white and blue stars and stripes throughout the corner.
I proceeded under the pedestrian bridge and stay a few feet from the rumbles on my left and look deep into the inside of the corner. My foot firmly planted as I need to get our M3 up to 4th gear for Turn 18. This corner is my absolute favorite. The Michelin Pilot Super Sports tires were screaming and fighting to keep the Austin Yellow M3 planted as I continued to push the limits of the vehicle. Midway through Turn 18, I start to lift off the gas to maintain speed as I’ve reached the limit of the chassis and tires. With little time to get the car straight and settled, I’m ready to look into Turn 19. Deceivingly fast, getting Turn 19 just right makes you scream as you feel the rear of the car lift up and go down the hill. I make my way down the mini straight shifting up to 4th gear for a split second. Staying very wide and getting hard on the brakes as I look into the corner, I shift down to 2nd gear. Turning in, I make sure not to go too deep as I want to keep the car as straight as possible for the maximum amount of speed down the main straight.
I thought to myself, Congrats Charles, you didn’t die the first lap.
BMW allows each driver to complete three laps on the half-day session. On your third lap, your instructor leads you back into pit lane for a high-speed drivers change. You and your driving partner are back out on track in no time. Once your co-driver has finished their three laps, you come back in for a 15-minute cooldown.
Behind the Wheel of an M4
After your soul and body are transported back to earth from heaven, you are thrown into your choice of color BMW M4 Competition Package.
As most of us know, the main difference between the M3 and M4 are the number of doors. The M3 being the sexy sedan while the M4 is your gentlemen’s coupe. I am in love with the M3 as it is a rear wheel drive platform with four doors because I travel with lots of camera equipment at times and I’m always in need of rear doors with folding rear seats.
Getting into the M4 is nearly identical as it was the M3 with only one slight difference: Turns 3 through 5 quickly make you realize how much harder you can push the M4 chassis than you could the M3. The rear end felt slightly more planted, and I felt I could enter the corners with a touch of more speed.
I completed my laps and pulled back into the pits. At this point, I felt more excitement than I had ever felt before. Driving the BMW M3 and M4 at COTA left me speechless, and the Michelin Pilot Super Sports made me feel like a real race car driver. The track elevation change paired with the speed of the BMW’s is an experience I will cherish for a lifetime.
Autocross with an M2
The BMW crew members walked us over to a line of brand new BMW M2’s. The M2 is the M4’s little brother but don’t let that fool you. Thicker, wider and equipped with the same 3-liter twin-turbo 6-cylinder, the M2 can jump from 0-to-60 in a 4-seconds flat. The instructors lead the sizeable blue gang of M2’s up the IMSA parking pad.
For this event, I was paired up with my best friend, Chasen. The instructors take everyone through the autocross track one time for you to hopefully remember the short track. We were sixth inline giving us a slight advantage so we could watch the group navigate the track.
Average times were ranged from 17.5 to 17.1 seconds. Chasen was the first to drive. As the passenger, the first thing I noticed was the insane grip levels the M2 provided. Equipped with the same Michelin tires as the M3 and M4, the car felt like it was on rails as Chasen made his ways through the cones. He finished a clean lap of 16.995. His second lap slamming me back in my seat with a respectable time of 17.1 seconds.
After everyone’s second lap, they had us swap drivers which meant it was my turn. Because the speeds were so much lower, we weren’t wearing helmets, and I have always preached that I am ten times better without a helmet on, so it was my time to be that shining blissful, beautiful star.
I gripped the wheel and waited for the man to say go… I pushed the peddle to the floor and hit a small rev limiter before I got into 2nd gear. The course had a fast S-turn weaving left and right as I look at the decreasing radius left turn and back up a small hill making a sharp right before coming to a complete stop in the box.
We listen to radio chatter as the BMW workers say in a thunderous and proud voice that I had just run a 16.1.
With excitement, I lined up for my next run. As I’m lined up for my next run, someone had mentioned to the officials that I had hit a cone. The staff had to verify this and ruled that I did hit a cone which gave me a 2 second plenty. With that, my time sat as 18.1, nowhere near the competition.
I knew I had to lay it down on my second run, but if I went too hard, it was going to be a wash. I regained myself and shot out the gate like a bat out of hell. I smashed the brakes to come to a full stop inside the stop box and awaited my time. I managed a 16:427 which concluded our autocross experience, the staff ushered us back to the paddock to return the M2’s. We were escorted to a final experience of the day: drag racing.
Drag Racing with M’s
BMW had set up a drag race scenario for us. Estimated to be about a ⅛ mile they have added the challenge of having to stop the vehicle into a stop box. They had prepared the following M vehicles for us:
- 2018 BMW M4 hardtop convertible
- 2019 BMW M5
- 2018 BMW X40i
- 2018 BMW X6M
Lucky for us, someone left early, so Chasen and I got to drive every single car for an additional time frame.
We went straight to the M5 and X6M.
The only thing that came out of my mouth while driving both the M5 and X6M was “Holy Sh!t.” If you get the launch right on the M5, it rockets you to 60 mph in just 3 seconds. The X6M accomplishes 0-to-60 in just 4 seconds which is no slouch for something that almost weighs 3 tons.
With every race, I defeated my opponents, chosen at random. No awards for this one, just bragging rights. After alternating every vehicle twice, the BMW staff directed us back to the paddock to grab our helmets. It was time for the instructors to show off what the M3’s were made off. We jumped with our friend and Formula Drift License holder AJ “drifts” Seaman as he shredded off a set of Michelin.
The Ultimate Driver
To conclude the day, BMW hosted a tasteful dinner inside the top VIP suites above the paddocks. As I walked in my friend Mike kept saying “you won, you won!” With a much confused faced I asked “what!?” He replied, “you won the autocross!”
I missed the briefing that whoever wins the Autocross is flown out by BMW to their central performance driving facility located at Thermal Raceway in California, where they compete with all the other autocross winners from different M Track Days.
My time was not only the fastest of the day but the fastest out of everyone that had participated that week. I did it, I won the BMW Ultimate Drivers Contest, and they are flying me out to Thermal Raceway January 2019 to compete with the winners from other states.
I am more than excited that I will revisit Matt Mullins and his crew at Thermal Raceway in January 2019. Those entire 6 hours of my life will be forever burned into my mind as some of the most significant times I’ve had in a vehicle.