It’s perhaps the most significant competition you have never heard of… BMW’s Search for the Ultimate Driver. Of the 30,000 drivers who signed up and participated in either a BMW M Car Control event or M Track Day event, only the fastest 17 received an all-expense paid trip to the BMW Performance Center in the small, desolate town of Thermal, California, to show what they’re made of.
Charles Siritho earned his spot in the competition with the quickest autocross time at the M Track day held at Circut of the Americas, in Texas.
Leading up to the Ultimate Driver Challenge in California, Siritho says he didn’t know what to expect besides driving a bunch of M cars on race tracks.
The experience began on a Thursday night with a cocktail reception. The meet and mingle style event was plagued with thick competitive testosterone filled atmosphere. Most in attendance adorned a business blazer with jeans, while Siritho was clad in a Bondurant Racing School jacket, everyone was sizing up the competition and subtly seeking information about the others driving experience.
The following day contained the competition. Matt Mullins, the chief driving instructor at the BMW Performance Center, addressed the students with the day’s layout, reiterating what many felt: The real prize was just being there, and each competitor had already won.
Mullins had the drivers run through several practice areas, like the skid pad, car control course, and do some laps on one of the larger tracks. While the drivers were learning, a film crew was on site to capture select moments to use for marketing purposes later.
“I was thrown onto the car control pad as the very first activity,” Siritho said. He added the BMW instructors explained the surface was extremely slick and had the contestants do donuts for as long as each driver could hold them. “Having 10 years of drifting experience truly helped me with this surface as I was able to counter steer fast while being able to place the M4 I was assigned to,” Siritho said.
After the donuts, the instructors had Siritho’s group go out for what he considers to be the most incredible part of the entire experience: a full 15 minutes on Thermal Club race track.
“Instructor Robb Stout threw all three of us into his M3 for a wild roller coaster ride around the track. Afterward, they unleashed us onto the track in our very own M4’s. This is where my skills shined I chased down Robb, and I could tell he was not holding anything back,” Siritho said.
Thermal’s race track features two long straights that allow the M cars to reach speeds up to 145 mph before drivers brake hard down to 2nd gear on the main straight and 3rd gear into a double apex left-hander coming off the second long straight.
“The track beautifully maintained,” Siritho said, adding “it’s fast and will test every bit of racing skill in your body.”
After lunch, the guests of the competing drivers were brought to the track to watch the afternoons competition. The events would determine the starting order for the final race event but had no impact on the final standings.
The Cloverleaf –
The cloverleaf was done on the Skid Pad area at the BMW Performance Center. It is a large area of polished concrete that becomes more polished and thus more slippery as drivers move towards the center of it. One of the instructors shared the polished pad is how they can drift all week without putting much wear and tear on the tires.
The polished concrete also mimics an icy road to some degree. If you are smooth and easy you can get around, but too fast and the car will break loose.
For this event, three groups of cones had been set up as well as a cone box to stop in. The challenge was to race across the skid pad, loop around one group of cones, go back across to the second group of cones, and then across to the third group of cones before crossing back over to stop in the box.
Most drivers seemed to find the exercise excruciating as it proved challenging to be quick while staying tight around the cones without spinning while fighting for traction.
Things really fell apart for Siritho during this experience. “I personally get confused when it comes to specific directions. On my first competition run, I blew half of the course as I forgot the “shape” of the cloverleaf,” he said.
“I got it down my second, third, and fourth run, but just could not gauge how fast you could truly go on this surface as you are literally driving on ice.”
Siritho noted the car would push, then oversteer, and repeat. “There was a sweet spot that you had to find between slip angle and a proper racing line to truly come up on top. Sadly, I did not find that grove.”
The Car Control Course –
Drivers were given a warm-up lap following an instructor before each was given three timed laps, each finished in a cone box.
Charles here, I clearly remember driving my first M2 over in Austin and was more than excited to get behind the wheel of one once again. The handling characteristics of this car can only be described as a near like go-kart experience. Seriously, even with the 340 wear Continental tires, this car felt like it was on rails all day. No way I could name another car in this category besides a Lotus or Honda S2000 that would handle like this.
Driving aggressive is something I’ve always pushed for since I started to drifting and I did just that in my Alpine White assigned BMW M2. Little did I know that I set the fastest lap of the day on my first run!
The Rat Pack –
The Rat Pack event took place on a massive flat track marked with cones to create an oval and featured head-to-head elimination. One competitor would start on the far side while the other lined up on the opposite side. The goal was relatively simple, run 2 or 3 laps to see who could get to the finish line first. The challenge? Do it with DSC off in sport plus mode.
Starting from a stop, most drivers were flat in 3rd gear before breaking and dropping to second for the corner. The corner was wide enough to stay in third, but that seemed to make some drivers enter too hot and without the nanny controls, not look so good. Drivers who seemed to focus on being smooth and patient advanced to the next round.
“I really thought my grip racing skills would come in handy on this one and boy was I wrong,” Siritho said. “I quickly learned that if you stayed in the middle of the track and early apex’d, you could truly cut a fast lap time.”
Siritho said once DSC/ Traction Control was off, he began to overcompensate. “I simply was not giving the car enough gas pedal going in the final round for first place. I ended up taking second and was happy that I could understand my mistake afterward.”
Those three events sorted everyone to determine the starting order for the final event. In reverse.
Siritho was almost the last to be called up which he thought was a great thing as he got to see the other contestants run the track.
The course utilized all the events the drivers had practiced all day and was spread over the whole area. From a dead stop, drivers raced down a long straight before zig-zagging through some cones – third gear. Then after a corner and back to speed, there was a tight chicane. The exit of the chicane dumped drivers onto the slippery center of the skid pad for a big ninety-degree corner that could be in second or third, depending on how gutsy a driver was willing to be.
Fighting for traction to escape the skidpad, it headed down a straight before one corner of the Rat Pack course. Then onto the last half of the car control course where drivers ran the M2s before stopping inside the box.
The drivers also did not get a practice run.
In the car, as Siritho pulled up the start line. He was only worried about the section of the course with the tight slalom just before entering the car control pad. “I hit a cone coming out of it which pretty much put me with a time that was not competitive,” Siritho said.
“Going for my second lap, I knew I had to lay it down. I knew I was already the fastest through the mini BMW track but was still little nervous about the slalom section,” Siritho said. He added that he made it past the slalom section without any issues and got out of the car control pad with decent speed.
“By the time I had gotten onto the main BMW track, I knew I had this in the bag,” Siritho said.
“For reasons beyond me, a hard right turn followed by a hard left turn just got away from me. Instead of turning in, or even braking, I went straight off the track and then back on to the course. It was over at that point.” Siritho added that he had heard from his instructor that even he thought Siritho would take it home during that lap.
What Siritho took away from his experience is that no amount of track time, stunt driving, or simulation experience can really prepare for the feeling of competition.
“You will get nervous, your palms will get sweaty, and you will get overly excited,” Siritho said, adding “the only thing that fixes that is constantly putting yourself out there in competitive environments such as this.”
After the few remaining drivers completed their laps, Mullins gathered everyone to announce the winner, as well as second and third place.
The experience concluded with an award dinner, this time the atmosphere more humble and relaxed.
All in all, Siritho enjoyed the experience highly recommends attending a BMW track day, or participating in the challenge if they have the opportunity.