We Ride Along with Pro Racer Rhys Millen for a Drift-Filled Lap in the BMW M4
What it’s like to sit shotgun while the drift master does his thing.
I'm staring straight ahead, my eyes tracking the curves and contours of the road ahead, when suddenly it disappears. Usually, not a good sign. But before I can process this unfortunate development, my brain recognizes that we're still moving in the correct direction—our BMW M4 is only pointing at the wall. So I turn my head to look out the passenger window, admiring the unobstructed view of the long straight as pro racer Rhys Millen slides us out of the turn.
There aren't too many people in the world who can decelerate from 140 mph into a precision drift around a blind corner, and there are even fewer who are controlled enough to put you at ease while doing so. But that's exactly why I ended up at the Thermal Club outside Palm Springs, California this week—because Rhys Millen is one of the best all-around drivers out there, and Pennzoil wanted to prove that the drama in its latest performance car film wasn't just Hollywood magic.
Pennzoil has been teaming up with its various automaker friends to produce these short movies (it's fair to call them ads, but also, they're great fun) showcasing various hi-po cars being wrung out by Millen. Last year it was the Dodge Demon drifting around downtown Pittsburgh; this year, it's Escaping the Ring featuring a 460-horsepower BMW M4 CS, the legendary Nurburgring, and lots and lots of ruined rear tires.
The M4 CS is the track-focused alter ego of the "regular" M4, with a power boost, a carbon fiber addiction, and a serious anger problem. The twin-turbo straight-six engine's bite is as strong as its bark; at least, when Millen lets it grip. It goes like stink and stops on a dime, and he makes full use of its capabilities in the film. Unfortunately the limited-edition coupe hasn't made it stateside yet, so we'll have to make do with a standard model on loan from the BMW Performance Center, which also makes its home at the Thermal Club.
Millen is disarmingly nice and easygoing in person, a stark contrast to his hard-charging demeanor behind the wheel. He calls the car "incredibly balanced," and though he's not thrilled with the tires on hand for the demo laps at the members-only racetrack, he resolves that we'll still have fun as we ease out onto the track. Seconds later, he's casually explaining that we've just hit 140 mph, and we're about to get hard on the brakes.
The first lap is mostly straightforward—it's on the second go-around that Millen sends the M4 into a frenzy, sliding sideways at every conceivable opportunity and pushing the limits of the chassis and the tires. Like in my death-defying ride with rally expert Chris Duplessis in a Polaris RZR, I should be at least mildly concerned for my safety, but it's hard to care about such trivial things when you're having this much fun. Millen narrates most of the lap like a New Zealand airline pilot, casually explaining everything a second or two before launching into the next move.
Sitting shotgun as a professional drifter does his thing is almost a consciousness-altering experience. Even if you're used to performance driving and racing lines and looking ahead for apexes, the way someone like Millen attacks the track is a unique blend of both technical and artistic skill. The fastest line is irrelevant, and reckoning with all the different angles in play unlocks a new understanding of the course. And of course, the feeling of pointing one direction and traveling in another—on purpose, that's key—never gets old.
Carnival ride over, I crawl out of the cabin and plop down on the pit wall to reckon with a few new truths in my life. One: Rhys Millen is a superhuman. Two: The BMW M4 is still very much an Ultimate Driving Machine. And three: Sometimes the movie magic is actually real.
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