30 Years of HPDE

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Thirty Years of Going in Circles

By Dan Tackett

1989. The Soviets were still in one Union, there were still two Germanys, and the E30 M3 was still a new car. The fastest sedan sold in the US was a BMW M5, with an exotic race-bred twin cam engine that produced 256 horsepower. And back then Bluetooth sounded like the nickname of some pirate.

Our San Diego Chapter was a mere fraction of its current size, but we had big ambitions. A few of us had explored the capability of our BMWs and ourselves in well-structured driving schools hosted by the much larger neighbors in the BMW ACA Los Angeles Region and the BMW CCA Golden Gate Chapter. We marveled at the organizing that it took to rent a “real” racetrack and coordinate a safe learning experience with instructors, classroom time, staying on schedule, and hosting a social dinner event. Could our Chapter do that someday?

Enter Jay Jones, a motoring journalist who would guide our Chapter as President in 1992-93 from his home in Orange County. While a Board member in 1989, Jay had the vision to create a High Performance Driver Education event (HPDE), but we needed a venue. The closest racetracks, Willow Springs and the former Riverside Raceway, were already being used for schools hosted by LA. The only option nearby was a dusty World War II-era airport near El Centro, morphed back then into an active SCCA circuit called Shangri-La. There was a short, semi-permanent layout on inactive runways and taxiways with a rough concrete surface that tortured tires.

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As our Chapter’s first foray into high performance driving beyond a parking lot, Jay developed a multi-tiered event that included a car control clinic (with several specific driving exercises on Saturday and driving on the course on Sunday), an advanced driving school (with Instructors on the 2.1 mile, 7-turn layout), and an optional Time Trial on Sunday afternoon. The December 1989 event had an entry fee of just $75. Jay recruited several sponsors to provide financial support and raffle prizes, and our dealership sponsor, Cunningham BMW in El Cajon, provided some race-experienced instructors and brought a then-new M5 and M6. More Instructors volunteered from the LA BMW Club and SCCA, and a resort venue was secured for a Saturday night banquet.

As we arrived on Friday to set up the driving exercises with orange cones, we couldn’t help but notice a lumbering C-130 cargo plane repeatedly using the active runway. Jay ventured over to make sure our event didn’t conflict with their plans, only to discover that the British Royal Air Force was using the desert for paratrooper training. Before long, a deal was struck: if we let them ride in our vehicles, they would let us ride in theirs. And thus our event took off into the third dimension…

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Our driving activities went well on Saturday, including giving the Brits some rides in Cunningham’s M cars. We parked several cars on a taxiway to spell out “B” “M” “W” for a flyover photo by private pilot Tom Newport. Sunday morning began with the C-130 making a surprise LOW flyover above our pits as we were preparing for our day. Coffee was definitely spilled! After our driving activities were over, we decided to stage an intentional flyover, parking several cars on the inactive runway to capture the C-130 overhead. The first pass was impressive, and we got a good photo. Beginning to disperse, we noticed they were coming around for a second pass. The C-130 got lower and lower…and lower! Some people flattened to the ground thinking the pilot had misjudged. He later reported that his radar altimeter showed it just 12 feet off the deck! Finally, promise kept, several of us boarded the cargo hold and took a short flight above the desert. This was such an improbable experience that it was documented in Roundel magazine (June 1990) and really made a name for the San Diego Chapter.

After an aircraft-free repeat of the Holtville event in March 1991, Dan Covill, who served over several years as Fahren Affairs editor and President, proposed that we step up to a “real” racetrack with the radical idea of hosting an event at the Las Vegas International Speedway. The distance and scope were very ambitious, but Dan did a lot of homework and we agreed that LVIS was alive. His painstaking planning led to success as we promoted the event throughout the Region, recruited a lot of Instructors, and had our first smooth-running event there in February 1992. In 1995, Rich Gehring took over, managing the annual event—one of the countless roles he served for our Chapter.

Broadening our driving activities beyond the Las Vegas school in 1995, we also decided to conduct an event at another unorthodox facility, the Emergency Vehicle Operations Center (EVOC) in San Bernardino, used by the Sheriff’s Department. On a hot August weekend, we created a multi-event program that included testing reaction times in the Sheriff’s emergency lane change simulator in our cars, plus practicing car control on a 70,000 sq. ft. wet skidpad… in retired Sheriff Crown Victorias! You haven’t lived until you’ve drifted a cop car. Meanwhile, classroom sessions took place in an air conditioned building (a popular spot in the heat) and participants also got to drive repeated laps on the facility’s 1-mile banked tri-oval. Sunday was a repeat, minus the skidpad exercise, but we added a timed autocross competition in their simulated street grid layout where officers practice pursuits. To cap off a very busy 1995, we even hosted a BMW CCA Club Race (in their very first year) at the Las Vegas International Speedway that November. All three of these driving events repeated in 1996; a couple of very busy years!

After mentoring the fledgling Sin City Chapter in Las Vegas to keep the LVIS event going, we moved on to our next track home at the (then) new Buttonwillow Raceway Park in 1998, with Rich Gehring managing this major transition. The Golden Gate Chapter hosted a trial event there in September 1997, but we began putting on a springtime school at Buttonwillow that was often the first one of each year. Our Chapter hosted an Instructor Training program on the Friday before the HPDE every other year to mint more skilled mentors. Several Chapters within the Pacific Region offered financial support to defray the extra track costs and sent prospective Instructors, whose increasing ranks would improve the HPDE events throughout our Region. 


Our annual event at Buttonwillow continued through 2010, often including a Club Race and Instructor training. One of the benefits of Buttonwillow is a choice of layouts and direction, so to keep it fresh we changed the direction every other year. In 2007, Andre Pantic took over as Chairman of our HPDE events, building on the strong foundation that Rich Gehring established over the previous 11 years. In 2011, under Andre’s leadership, our Chapter moved on to yet another newly-built racetrack, the Chuckwalla Valley Raceway, less than an hour east of Palm Springs. This track was closer to San Diego and avoided the dreaded drive through LA. It is a great learning track, with a variety of corners and a nicely-banked turn, and can be run in either direction. We continued to offer run groups for all skill levels and hosted Club Racing events. Anne Littrell volunteered to be our HPDE Chairman in 2015 to continue producing well-run events at Chuckwalla. The remote location challenged us with its long drive to and from the track, expensive lodging costs, and the difficulty of attracting participants from outside Southern California. After a lot of discussion, Anne and our Board decided to work toward getting a coveted slot on Buttonwillow’s busy calendar again. And in 2016 we succeeded in scoring a Fall date on their crowded schedule, meaning that we hosted an HPDE at Chuckwalla in March and one at Buttonwillow in October that year.

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After the 2017 event at Buttonwillow placed a burden on our treasury once again, our Chapter was at a crossroads: The leadership team was tired, and we hadn’t found a way to make HPDE events both affordable to members and a break-even for our Chapter. During a critical Board meeting, we actively discussed whether our Chapter even wanted to continue hosting HPDE events. We needed new leadership and a new formula if they were to survive. Seth Hanson stepped up to volunteer as our new HPDE Chairman, asserting that track schools were one of the main reasons he joined the Club and he didn’t want to see them end. With creative input from Matthew Kogan and Tim Brecht, a new formula was conceived that re-sorted the driving groups, reduced our lodging costs, and added a Time Trial group like we’d had way back in 1989. This new format was introduced for our 2018 event at Buttonwillow, and it sparked much more participation and financial viability. The new Team had cracked the code, and our HPDE program was given new life. Further refinements in 2019 reduced entry cost and increased participation to the point that the total number of people on site—drivers, instructors, staff, corner workers–was 190! It was an appropriate celebration of our 30th Anniversary HPDE event!


Thirty years after hosting our first driving school, we have used 5 different facilities, improved the skills of thousands of drivers, trained multitudes of Instructors, benefited from the hard work of six different Chairpersons and lots of staff workers, and our events are as strong as ever. Though Dan Covill and Rich Gehring are no longer with us, their proud legacy lives on every time the green flag drops for the first track session of each HPDE.

As our program has continued to evolve, so have the BMWs that we drive. Remember the world’s fastest sedan when we began, the 256 hp M5? Today, the base 4-cylinder G20 330i comes within just one horsepower…so we need to keep learning!

-Dan Tackett

Aquarian Autocross - February 9, 2019

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By Mark Meyer

While there were some sprinkles here and there, this month’s autocross was the fastest one in quite a while. For those of you who read Satakal’s email “manifesto” i.e. plea for help setting up cones, you could tell that Satakal seemed to have a little more invested in this course than usual. Why? Because he took Andrew’s previous course, made some modifications and made it into his own design. How about a course that just begs for third gear? Check! A slalom that was pretty much a slalom in name only? Check! Big long sweepers? Check! A course map that looked just a bit inappropriate if you held it up the right way? Check! (Ask Kim to explain). There was no argument from any of the drivers this month. This was a freaking fun and fast course. Thanks, Satakal.

No doubt, this month’s course was fast. But who made the most of it? As usual, Julien Brandt drew lots of attention with his super cool orange Catfish before the track went hot. But this month, his flashy car was flashy fast and took first place in his class. Congrats Julien!

Lastly a few thoughts from us mere mortals. Having an instructor ride with me during my first set of practice laps is still really valuable. In some ways, the instructor feedback is even more valuable now compared to when I first started because I understand it in a very different way. This month, Sean Thomson was cool enough to ride along with me and share his experience. By the end of the day, my times weren’t as fast as Julien’s but they were certainly faster thanks to Sean’s coaching. I also learned what RE-71R’s feel like when they are heat cycled out (even with a fair bit of tread). They certainly didn’t help my times.

Time to switch to some new rubber before 330 Autocross coming up at the end of March. See you there…

BMW Performance Center Visit - January 27, 2019


Thermal Management - M Car Fun at the BMW Performance Center

By Dan Tackett

Thermal Management M Car fun at the BMW Performance Center

Our Chapter is fortunate to have one of BMW’s premier facilities, the BMW Performance Center, located just 3 hours away. So we have organized a special program there every year since 2015, featuring a program tailored and priced just for BMW CCA members. On January 26th, over 100 members ventured into the desert to Thermal, CA, location of the Thermal Club and BMW’s Performance Center facility. To provide the maximum driving time to all members, our goal was to be very efficient. We all registered and paid online beginning last September, most participants filled out another online registration and waiver for BMW in advance, and we pre-sorted drivers into 5 equal-sized groups with a sequence of activities to follow. That got us into our buffet lunch early and led right to the driver’s meeting.


The buffet lunch offered a tasty variety of salads and fruits and gourmet sandwiches, giving us a great start to our event. Our Instructor lead for the day was Brian Randall, who was very entertaining as he reviewed driving technique and briefed us on safety measures. “I named my dog Apex to make sure he would never be hit by a car.” Brian also drove us around the Hot Lap course, 3 passengers at a time, showing us how well an M3 can be drifted with careful management of extreme throttle and steering inputs. For many, riding sideways on a track was a highlight of the day. The Performance Center managed the inevitable tire destruction by having 3 more M3s parked in reserve. As Brian wasted one pair of tires, he’d just hop into the next M3!


Another driving station was the Drag Race, including a U-turn at the end and a drag race back to stop precisely inside a tight box. As last year, the AWD straight-line specials included the X5M, X6M and M550i. Those heavy SUVs are uncanny in their ability to accelerate, corner and stop so quickly. You can’t break the laws of physics, but these X5s and X6s surely bend them. With full throttle and full braking runs all day long, the cars never got hot and the brakes never faded on a nearly 80 degree day. Good thermal management indeed. A surprise treat was that BMW included two of their exclusive M760i’s, with 600 hp twin turbo V12s! Never before has a sub 4-second 0-60 been so stately. Where else would you get to drag race two V12 sedans side by side?


To learn how to manage momentum on a slick surface, our experience included a “Rat Race.” Using their polished concrete skidpad and a tight oval layout, two drivers would start on opposite sides, then chase each other round and round while trying to close the distance. This rewarded deft throttle and steering skills to control a drift that was just sideways enough to keep the car moving forward without being at an angle that cost momentum. “When you’re going sideways, you’re not going forward.” Last year, we used 340i sedans with traction control off, which required miniscule throttle and steering inputs to win. This year was different. BMW gave us new M5s to drive, with 600 hp and all wheel drive. Having AWD was controversial when the M5 was introduced, but in this application, it was brilliant! Instead of tip-toeing around to avoid a spin in the 340i, the AWD Sport setting enabled heroic slides with lots of power that could be easily recovered with the pull of the front tires. The M5s allowed sideways AND forward to coexist, and boy was that fun! BMW generated a lot of AWD converts that day, which is good since the next-generation M3 will have the same system.


Those with a competitive streak reveled in the timed autocross event. Nimble M2s and a challenging, tight course combined to bring out the Beast Mode in all of us. Each driver got to be a passenger first, learning the layout of the turns, why “Patience Corner” earned its name, and when to apply full ABS to stop within a tight box at the end. We were required to leave DSC engaged, so there was no option for the throttle steering that many of us have used at Chapter autocrosses to point our cars tighter. Each driver had two timed runs, and when the red mist cleared, the clock told us that our third place finisher was Serhan Emre, second went to Greg Uhler, and our champion in the Autocross was Joey Cipponeri. Congratulations guys!

The main draw for many at the Performance Center experience was a chance to drive on one of their 3 race tracks. Only members of the Thermal Club, credentialed journalists at manufacturers’ press events (the new 911 was being introduced while we were there), or Performance Center participants are allowed to drive at this facility. We were able to learn the most challenging layout, the Desert Palm Circuit, in a lead-follow format. Three groups of Instructors would lead 3 drivers each around on the correct “line” while in constant radio contact. It was a great way to learn how to manage straight-line braking, precise turn-in, accurately hitting the apex, progressive throttle application, and unwinding to the exit in each turn. The layout had everything from a second-gear hairpin to a 115 mph straight, and the M4 Competition coupes never missed a beat all day. To provide the maximum driving time, 2 reserve M4s were parked in the paddock to save us time when refueling was needed. When the day in Thermal was over, we had managed our driving time, the BMWs managed continuous hard use without strain, and all of us managed to have a big smile on our faces.

If you missed it, we have already reserved January 25th, 2020 for our next Performance Center experience.

-Dan Tackett

Autocross: My Take - Dec 15, 2018


By Mark Meyer

The 2018 autocross season wrapped up with Ultimate Autocross at Qualcomm on December 15. In addition to the usual autocross format, the instructors competed against each other in the super-fast electric Smart car with William Wong pulling off the victory.

It was a little more than a year ago that I attended my first autocross weekend starting with the Car Control clinic. I was a bit apprehensive about the experience as I knew almost nothing about autocross. The instructors & volunteers were knowledgable, fun, and welcoming. They made my first experience a great one.

Fast forward 14 months and I’ve since attended 5 more BMW autocross days, one HPDE at Thermal with the SD BMW CCA and 10 track days, including a weekend at Laguna Seca. While I’ve clearly caught the racing bug, there is little doubt that my first experience set the tone for what I expect will be many years of being a racing enthusiast. As I drove onto the lot on Dec 15, I was struck at how comfortable I had become and how cool it was to see the folks I’ve gotten to know a bit better since I started. Even though I’ve learned a lot since last year, I still found there was plenty of instruction to be had and a lot more learning that I need to do. I also found that the BMW club still did a great job at welcoming and teaching those who were new to the game.

If you’ve ever considered trying out one of the autocross days, take it from someone who was a little nervous about giving it a go. That first weekend experience is the reason my annoying little Miata is always at autocross. Maybe every month now Rob?

Holiday Tour - Dec 2, 2018

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The last Tour of the year was held on December 2 and what a beautiful day it turned out to be, both in weather and in the company we shared on the road.

Drivers and passengers started gathering in the middle of the Rancho San Diego Village Parking Lot at the end of the 94 and Campo Road at around 8:30am. When I arrived to set up the sign-in table, there was only a bright blue F10 M5 Sharknado and a beautiful red 1962 Triumph TR3B with the top down. By the time the driver’s briefing began at 9:15am, there were about 70 people. This was definitely shaping up to be a good day.

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After a chat about the event to come and road safety, respectful driving, we headed east on 94/Campo through Indian Springs and Lyons Valley Rd which had its share of ascending and descending hills and some 2nd gear turns. We eventually passed under the 8 on the 79 and onto Old Highway 80. This led us to a left onto an old favorite: Sunrise Highway. As expected for any roads in higher altitudes around Mt. Laguna in December, a white dusting had occurred sometime earlier and evidence of this was not only along the side of the road, but also some slush directly in the road not in direct sunlight. I even heard my BMW chime warning of the icy conditions outside. Does the top in that Triumph go up?

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Our group’s mixture of aftermarket and M Performance exhausts rumbled through the strip on Main Street Julian, turning more than a few heads. Fortunately, we weren’t stopping for lunch along Main Street as parking a hoard of auto enthusiasts would have been quite a challenge. We were still ten minutes away from our destination and those ten minutes were spent on a windy Wynola Rd before ending at Jeremy's on the Hill which served an excellent farm-to-table menu: thanks to Theresa and her excellent staff for accommodating our large group and began seating us even before they officially opened that morning.

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Thank you to everyone who joined us on this amazing Holiday Tour. It was great to see everyone have such a great time as well as practicing safe and controlled driving through the 74 miles of wonderful county roads. I look forward to another great turnout on our first Tour of 2019: Sunday, March 3. Hope to see you there!