Just behind my head, a race-bred twin-turbocharged V-8 wailed against its redline. A millisecond later, a seven-speed, dual-clutch transaxle banged off a 2–3 shift, further propelling me and my co-pilot to triple-digit speeds along the Thermal Club’s tight, technical, 3.1-mile course. I was behind the wheel of a McLaren 570S on my final 20-minute track session of the day and the 560-horsepower supercar was finally starting to get a little bit loose as the hot desert asphalt took its toll on the tires.
I was at the Thermal Club near Palm Springs, California, to sample Pure McLaren, the British sports car company’s track driving program that trains owners to be more familiar with their cars and shows potential owners what McLarens can really do on a road course. It also serves to prep drivers for the Pure McLaren GT Series, the all-McLaren racing league.
It all starts with the most affordable experiences, aimed at potential McLaren customers, that offer half-day programs including three 20-minute track sessions with either a 570, 720, or 600LT. The next level of involvement is a full-day Performance Academy that combines classroom lessons and on-track instruction.
McLaren chose the Thermal Club as one of its hosts in North America after staging successful Pure McLaren operations in Europe and the Middle East. The town of Thermal is in California’s Coachella Valley, midway between Palm Springs, an oasis of mid-century architecture and poolside leisure, and the Salton Sea, a monument to man’s arrogance. True to its name, it’s hot. It’s a great place for a race track, because, unlike country-club-dwellers who build a home next to a pre-existing race track and complain about noise, the date palm farmers don’t seem to mind having a road course as their neighbor.
I began my Pure McLaren experience at Thermal in a group safety briefing with all of Pure McLaren’s participants. We broke off into groups and I went with three other novice racers and our instructors to a shuttle to take us to our first activity.
One of the drivers in my group was a young McLaren owner who recently purchased a 720 after owning two 570s. I’ve owned fewer pairs of dress pants than this man has owned mid-engine supercars, yet there we both were. Another driver in my novice group was new to McLaren ownership and drove down from the San Francisco Bay Area in his Porsche 911 GT3. Andy Thomas, McLaren’s vice president of marketing in North America, noted that converting Porsche owners is not unusual. “Most of the people that buy McLarens come from Porsche,” he said. “You get a real sense of being in a club when you’re with Porsche. A big part of our success is that we bring people in. Pure McLaren is part of that ownership.”
Once we arrived at our first exercise—a small slalom, figure-eight skidpad, and braking course—we began chatting about previous track driving experience. The owners I was in orbit with had no qualms admitting they had no racing experience in their own McLarens. It seemed that everyone had left their egos at home and was willing to learn.
I mentioned that I’d previously driven on Laguna Seca in a Miata and managed a few laps at Willow Springs in several very fun cars, but I also let slip that the last mid-engine car I’d driven was my brother’s Fiero. So much for acting like I fit in.
I’ve had enough racing instruction to know that I’m a better student than race car driver. Although I’ve been lucky enough to have the opportunity to drive on some excellent tracks, those experiences are few and very far in between. Racing, be it on a drag strip or on a road course, is a discipline that requires practice to maintain. I was out of practice.
The skidpad was particularly punishing on the ego, as the 570’s high limits made it tough to break loose and maintain a drift. Also, I’m awful at drifting. Still feeling thoroughly out of my league, despite my instructor’s positive words and bolstering, we headed on to the road course.
Thermal’s track, often split into two separate courses, can be combined to form a 3.1-mile course. That’s what we were using. The flat, desert landscape can make navigating the course tricky at first… and even not at first. Without major landmarks or elevation changes it takes a while to familiarize yourself, and it’s easy to forget exactly which corner you’re entering.
Luckily I had an instructor with me that was not only familiar with the track, but intimately familiar with McLarens. Paul Holton drives a McLaren 570S GT4 in the Pirelli World Challenge’s GTS SprintX class and the Pure McLaren GT Series, and he provided fantastic advice and encouragement. Pure McLaren’s driver training approach keeps drivers paired with the same instructor for the duration of their program, whether that’s a half-day or two days. “We do our best to keep you with the same coach. We want you to build a relationship with the coach,” Thomas told me, explaining that the program often pairs drivers with instructors as they progress through their training and licensing.
By my second session my confidence was high and I was getting faster and faster, even passing fellow 570S drivers and a couple of the intermediate drivers in 720s. I wasn’t exactly ready for wheel-to-wheel racing in a mid-engine supercar, but I’d been pushing myself and the car all afternoon. The small fleet of McLarens on hand had borne multiple drivers cycling in and out, taxing the cars’ cooling systems as their V-8s slurped down fuel and proving to me what McLaren drivers have known since the 12C debuted in 2011: these cars are for real.
It was almost time to wrap up for the day, but the car still has a few fast laps left in it. Just 100 yards ahead was a black McLaren Senna, roaring with its bigger, angrier, more turbochargy engine. I was gaining on it. The active wing on the Senna adjusted to provide more downforce as the driver lifted off the throttle. It slowed noticeably, even though the brake lights never illuminated. The turn signal flashed as a hand emerged from the passenger side window, reached over the car’s roof, and pointed to the left.
I just got a point-by from a hypercar!
OK, fine, if you want to be technical about it, the 800-hp Senna had just begun a cool-down lap. And yes, it had passed me just a few turns before while the driver was probably scarfing down a sandwich, but I’m gonna count it. It’s not every day that you can throttle past a car as brutally capable as a McLaren Senna.
It’s exactly this sensation of wonder and thrill that Pure McLaren wants to instill. Andy Thomas explained that Pure McLaren’s driver instruction isn’t just useful for driving on the track: “Some of those habits can carry over to your road driving. If you really like it, we’ve got a way for you to get your racing license and go racing with us if you follow the whole program.”
If you’re interested in participating in a future Pure McLaren experience, the events will be expanding across the U.S. We don’t have specifics yet, but Thomas hinted, “We’re not ready to announce, but we’ll be adding two very historic, very well-known tracks to the schedule that will including COTA and Indianapolis.”
For McLaren owners, Pure McLaren is an easy way to get expert first-hand instruction at some of the best tracks in the nation, all from behind the wheel of your beloved supercar. Of course, for prospective buyers, it’s a tantalizing first taste at a whole new addiction. Either way, the program is McLaren’s way of opening its doors and inviting people to be a part of the mid-engine family. I don’t think they’d let me show up in my brother’s Fiero, but that’s probably for the best.