Serious MINIs for Touring, Track and Autocross

 

If you’re working your way through this book one step at a time, by now you have gotten a few weeks or months experience with your MINI. We also hope you have taken the opportunity to participate in a basic one-day driving school where you got more comfortable with the car’s handling and performance, and learned some safe-driving techniques. If not, we hope you’ve at least used that anti-lock braking system, tried a few quick lane changes, and squealed the tires a little on a back road or empty parking lot.

Perhaps you’ve also upgraded the basic engine performance and bought those aftermarket wheels and tires that give the car a distinctive appearance and improve its handling. But there is still more to be done and more to experience. In this chapter we’ll discuss several ways that you can get a little more excitement out of your motoring experience. We’ll offer some ideas for further performance upgrades to suit the driving you’re starting to do. Finally, we’ll give you some tips on high-performance driving to take advantage of the capabilities of your MINI.


What Can We Do Next?

In your everyday driving, by now you’ve discovered how much fun your MINI can provide, especially when you can let it out a little bit and experienced its estimable performance and handling capabilities. But if you really want to have some fun with that great MINI, we encourage you to try some of the various kinds of organized events that are available to you. You can head out on the highway for club tours, participate in organized track days, or try your mettle against the clock in autocross events.

Backroads Touring

In every part of the country, there are interesting roads that allow you to get off the interstate and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature and geography. When you do that, you begin to experience the automobile not just as a way to get from one place to another, but rather as a source of enjoyment in itself. And you discover how much fun driving can be, even within the prescribed speed limits of public roads.

You can explore other times by visiting historical sights, you can expand your senses by getting closer to scenic wonders, or you might just pack a picnic lunch and find a place off the beaten path where you can relax for a few hours away from the noise and confusion of the city. Or you can just spend a day or two becoming one with the spirited handling and performance of your car on some curving backroads through hills and valleys, with no other purpose in mind but to enjoy the drive.

While you can do any of these on your own, simply by getting out your map and guidebook and doing some internet exploring to find places to visit and stay, the trips will be much more fun if there is a MINI in front of you, and another in your rearview mirror. In other words, take a tour with a local MINI club or some MINI friends.

In some parts of the country, competitive time-speed-distance rallies are still sponsored by local sports car clubs. These TSD rallies have a competitive element that often appeals to car enthusiasts, but under controlled legal circumstances. Essentially, a TSD rally measures your ability to drive a route that has been laid out by the “rallymaster” with your results determined by how close you can match the exact speeds driven by the rallymaster over the route.

Directions are spelled out in a shorthand that is defined in the rally’s general instructions—“R at 1st op,” for example means turn right at the first opportunity after executing the previous instruction—and exact speeds are specified for each leg of the rally, always at levels that can be achieved without exceeding speed limits. By driving each leg at the specified speed—say, 36 mph—and carefully following the instructions, you try to arrive at each checkpoint at an exact time. Points are deducted for each second you arrive early or late to the check point.

These TSD rallies challenge the ability of the driver and navigator to carefully follow the instructions and maintain the specified speeds, which requires a significant amount of driving discipline. The rewards are the opportunities to drive through interesting countryside, and share experiences with other individuals who are trying to meet the same challenges.

The best way to get involved in activities like these is through a local MINI club, if one already exists in your area. If one doesn’t exist, your local dealer may be willing to help you organize one, or at least introduce you to some other new MINI owners with whom you can do some driving events.

If there aren’t yet enough MINIs in your area to have your own single-marque club, you might instead see if there is a local British car club or more general sports car club in your region. Regardless, it shouldn’t take long to find a group of like-minded enthusiasts who enjoy driving their cars and organize events for just that purpose.

All that is required to enjoy one of these events is a willing interest to participate and a safe, reliable car that is fun to drive. You supply the first and your MINI will happily fill the bill for the second. Nevertheless, the better your car’s performance and handling, the more pleasure you’re likely to get out of the experience.

 

Club Track Days

Perhaps leafy byways aren’t your cup of tea, or you just want to really feel what it’s like to run your car to its rev limits in fourth gear without watching in the rear view mirror for flashing lights on a black-and-white. In that case, you might want to consider taking the car out on an automobile race tracks near you for a track day.

These events are held at nearly every race track in the country, sponsored by local automobile clubs, commercial groups or, occasionally, local MINI dealerships. Generally held on weekdays or off-weekends, they offer a chance to take your MINI out on a real track for some serious practice.

Track days are somewhere between formal driving schools and actual auto racing events. On the one hand, instruction is available, but optional and you have the opportunity to take things at your own speed. On the other hand, nobody is going to be waving a green flag except to tell you that the track is open, or a checker flag except to tell you that your session is over.

At these events, competitive racing is discouraged and aggressive driving can even be reason to ask a driver to leave. In fact, passing is generally only allowed on specific portions of the track and then only so that slower drivers won’t be hounded by faster drivers on their bumpers. But you do have the opportunity to really wind the car well beyond public road speed limits, and take it through the corner fast with no fear that  anyone is going to be coming the other way.

At most track days, drivers are divided into individual groups by level of skill and experience. For example, one group will consist of drivers who have never been on a track before, one group will be for drivers who have some experience but don’t want to drive at very high speeds, and one group for drivers who have significant experience and want to practice racing and car control techniques. During the day, these three groups will alternate, typically with each on the track for 20 minutes of every hour, with the remaining time spent checking their cars or sharing information and experiences in a classroom setting.

At many of these events, very experienced drivers will be available as coaches, especially for the novice group, to ride along and offer advice on how the driver can improve his or her driving technique. Typically, novices will spend the first few sessions learning the safe “line” around the track and will be accompanied by an instructor until they are comfortable with the track, their car, and their driving ability and are ready to solo.

Though these events are certainly fun and exciting, they have a very practical side. Track days are the best possible opportunity for individual drivers to gain more experience with their cars and develop their own driving and car control capability in a safe and legal setting.

There will be a participation fee, since the club or organization has to pay for the use of the track, as well as for the cost of staffing the track with corner workers and having a safety truck with trained safety personnel and ambulance staffed with paramedics on hand, and for the insurance required by the track. Typically these fees range from $150 for a subsidized event up to $500 for a full club day with catered lunch and professional instructors.

The few other requirements, intended primarily for the safety of all participants, are quite simple. Cars must pass a basic technical inspection, focusing on the condition of the tires, the reliability of the suspension, and the capabilities of the car’s steering and brakes.

Cars must be equipped with standard seat belts, which must be used, and the participant typically must wear a helmet that meets current auto or motorcycle safe standards. Organizers also require that all loose objects be removed from the car to prevent injury. That’s all. Aside from the helmet, the car simply has to be as safe and well-maintained as you would want it to be for highway driving.

Finding these track days isn’t too difficult. The race track websites will have schedules of all their events, with links to the organizations that are renting the track for specific events. Local sports car clubs, such as the Lotus, BMW, and Porsche clubs, sponsor track days in many parts of the country and are happy to have other enthusiasts share the costs of the event. And since the first MINI track day was sponsored at Thunderhill Racetrack in northern California by MINI of Mountain View, other MINI dealers are starting to organize their own events around the country.

Casual Autocrossing

Autocrossing has been a popular competitive sports car activity since the earliest days of sports car driving in the United States. Offering a competitive atmosphere and the opportunity to challenge your own driving ability and the car’s capabilities, these events provide adrenalin-boosting excitement and the chance to improve your driving skills under very safe conditions.

An autocross is a race against the clock over a course laid out in a large open, paved area, such as a stadium parking lot, or occasionally on an auto racing track. The course is marked out by plastic traffic cones, and typically will include one or two longer straightaways, often ending in abrupt turns, tight and loose curves, and at least one section that requires the driver to weave in and out of a straight line of cones. Because the cones are plastic, if the driver strays off course, no damage will be done to anything except the driver’s score and ego.

Typically at an autocross, all participants will have the opportunity first to walk through the course to figure out how best to navigate the turns and curves in the most rapid means possible. Then, running one at a time, each participant will have two or three opportunities to drive the course. Times are generally taken to a tenth or hundredth of a second by automatic timing devices. A typical run will last from 30 seconds to two minutes, depending on the length and complexity of the course that has been laid out. Time will be added to the recorded time for each cone that is displaced during the run.

Even though the courses are quite short, limited by the confines of the size of the parking lot where the course is laid out, and top speeds don’t often exceed 40 miles per hour, autocrossing is an excellent way to learn to drive better. Since the basic skills or driving consist of controlling a car while accelerating, braking, and turning, and an autocross consists of nothing except accelerating, braking, and turning, every second on the course helps improve driving skills.

There is a hard-core group of competitors participating in these autocross competitions, but the majority of participants simply want to enjoy the fun of revving engines and squealing tires. For these hobbyists the opportunity to learn to drive better, have some fun with other car nuts, and enjoy a pleasant day outside is sufficient reason to participate. Since the organizations that sponsor these events thrive on attendence, every effort is made to make the first-time novice feel welcome, get adapted to the procedures, and learn how to drive their car better in this exciting activity.

The costs of autocross participation generally are quite low, often less than $25 for a full day’s events. Safety requirements are similar to track day events, with each car passing a tech inspection before running, focusing on wheels, tires, steering, suspension, and brakes. For most events a safety helmet rated for automobile or motorcycle use is required.

A number of local sports car clubs sponsor autocross events, but the major organizer of these events is the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA). The SCCA is divided into individual regions and districts, so it’s likely that there is a local SCCA organization near you that organizes autocross events.

 Check the national SCCA website (www.scca.com) to find a local club near you, then look at their web site for information on activities and schedules. Find out when the next autocross is taking place in your area, and drive out to see what it’s all about. An excellent website for the novice and experienced autocrosser, You’ll probably find at least one new MINI, and probably more, already actively involved in SCCA autocrossing, and the owner will be happy to tell you why he or she likes autocrossing and how to get involved yourself.

An autocross school is another way to sample the fun of autocrossing while improving your driving skills. Many of the regional SCCA clubs have organized autocross schools, and at least one commercial group—Evolution Performance Driving School—offers an excellent one-day school in conjunction with local clubs (www.autocross.com/evolution). As with the road-racing courses, we strongly recommend these schools whether you just want to learn a little more driving you MINI, or are thinking about becoming a serious autocrosser.

The nice thing about organized autocrossing is that cars are classed by their level of preparation, so you don’t have to worry about competing directly against extensively-modified cars with your totally showroom-level MINI. In fact, SCCA currently offers four classes for street-legal cars, in addition to three classes for race-prepared cars. The “Stock” class is for cars that are equipped exactly as they came from the dealer (with a few exceptions such as allowing any tires and wheels of the same size as original equipment). For owners who wish to upgrade the performance of their MINIS, the “street-touring,” “street-prepared,” and “street-modified” classes permit nearly all the modifications discussed in the first three sections of this book at increasing levels of modification. You can check the SCCA regulations for exact information, and if you get serious about autocrossing, more experienced participants will be happy to explain the differences among the classes.

If you want to learn more about autocrossing, there is a variety of good information on autocrossing on the web for both novices and experienced drivers. A good place to start is www.autocross.com which includes both excellent information and great links to other websites on related topics..

Just Do It

Regardless of which of these activities you choose, and you might choose to do all of them since many clubs have events in all three categories, you can count on the fact that you’ll have fun, and you’ll learn more about driving your car safely and fast under a variety of conditions.

You might also discover that other MINIs are faster than yours and handle better. While much of that can be attributed to the owner’s experience, some has to do with modifications that improve the car’s performance. We’ll discuss those in the next chapter.

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