When Going Faster Becomes a Passion in your MINI Cooper
If you’ve taken the opportunity to take your MINI out on a road race course for club track days, or gone autocrossing as a novice in order to learn more about your car’s capabilities and improve your own driving skills, you’ve probably discovered how much fun the MINI is to drive harder than you can safely do on the street.
But now, perhaps you’re starting to wonder just how good you are compared to other drivers. If you’re on the autocross course, you’re starting to look at your lap times in comparison to other drivers, rather than just using them to see if you’re improving. If you’ve been out for track days, perhaps you’re starting to enjoy overtaking other cars, and beginning to wonder how you would fare in a real race.
If so,you should consider moving up to the next level of MINI motoring. Maybe you’re ready to start competing, rather than just participating.
Class Competition in SCCA Autocross
Running in the street stock class at SCCA regional events is certainly a great way to spend a weekend day and burn off a little rubber. But there’s much more to this sport than just seeing how fast you can get your street car around a set course in one of the local parking lots.
Part of the fun of competition is to tailor your car to your own preferences, exploring the differences that modifications can make within the limits of the rules. If you’re getting to the point where you’re doing about as well as the other newbies in their street cars, then perhaps you’re ready to consider modifying your MINI to run in the street touring or even the street prepared and street modified classes.
If you’ve already gone autocrossing, you probably ran in the “stock” or “street” class, which only allowed changes to the air filter, front sway bar, shocks, the exhaust system back of the catalytic converter, and wheels and tires. That doesn’t begin to scratch the surface of modifications available to you, and doesn’t even allow most of those that we’ve discussed so far.
If you’re prepared to move up into the recently-introduced SCCA “street touring” (STS for the Cooper and STX for the Cooper S) class, there are a number of other things that you can do to your car which not only will give you better handling and power on the track, but also improve the car’s performance on the street, without giving up much in terms of driving ease or riding comfort.
For example, in streeet touring you’re still required to run street tires with a 140 or higher tread wear rating, but you can mount wheels up to 7.5 inches wide. You can also install the improved air intake discussed in the previous section of the book. In addition you can make all the changes to the chassis discussed in the last section, including replacing springs, shocks, sway bars, and camber plates (which we’ll discuss in this section). You can also install a high-performance header—which we’ll also discuss in this section—as long as it’s emission-legal (which means on the MINI that it must include a catalytic converter). Finally, you can even remove some of the interior appointments, including the radio and air-conditioning system, substitute race seats, and install a lighter battery.
If you want to go further than that, the street-prepared class for Coopers and street-modified class for Cooper Ss allow almost unlimited modifications. However, be forewarned, these classes are terrific opportunities for pushing a highly-modified MINI close to its limits, but winning a trophy can be an expensive proposition. Many owners in this class spend several times the value of their original car on modifications and don’t expect to also be able to use them on the street.
If you’re going to be spending money on your MINI mods, then it’s probably also the right time to get serious about improving your technique, which means taking a good autocross course. Many of the regional SCCA clubs offer autocrossing courses, especially during the months between the official season. Check with your own SCCA club to see what may be available in your region.
There is also at least one commercial company, the Evolution Performance Driving School (www.autocross.com/evolution/) that offers multiple-day classes at tracks all over North America during the year. They teach basic and advanced autocross techniques using specialized equipment and professional instructors and get great reviews from experienced autocrossers.
On-Track Time Trials
If you enjoy running your car on a set course against the clock and feel like three or four one-minute runs in a day isn’t enough, but don’t relish the thought of putting your shiny MINI at risk by racing against other cars, then the SCCA program of Solo I time trials may be just the thing for you. A similar time-trial program has recently been introduced by the National Auto Sports Association, called the NASA TT (for Time Trials) program.
These events are run on regular race courses throughout North America during the year. They’re like Solo II autocrosses in that you run by yourself against the time clock, and the class winners are determined by the best lap times achieved. However, they’re like track racing in that the course is actually a complete race track, which might be as long as two to three miles. In Solo I and NASA TT, a typical lap time will be in the range of two to three minutes but the cars reach considerably higher speeds during a circuit of the track than are possible on a Solo II parking lot course.
On the downside, time trials are more expensive and involve more risk to you and the car than Solo II, but the experience makes a good stepping-stone to full road racing. In most organizations, you’ll need all the safety equipment required in road racing.
Required safety equipment for SCCA Solo I typically includes a protective roll cage and five-point seat belts for both driver and passenger in the car, and some organizations will require a fuel cell in place of the gas tank. In addition, to race in Solo I you’ll need a flameproof racing suit as well as flameproof shoes and gloves, and an automobile racing helmet. NASA TT safety requirements are somewhat less stringent, but nevertheless emphasize safe car preparation.
Because of the costs of renting road-racing tracks, entry fees are substantially higher than for Solo II, though the cost per minute of racing isn’t that much different; you just get many more minutes at speed in these events. To that you need to add the cost of fuel, an oil change after every second weekend, and a new set of tires every five or so weekends.
But there’s little to replace the adrenaline rush of keeping focused at speeds well over legal highway limits while trying to hit the apex of each corner exactly right so that you can beat your competition by that elusive tenth of a second. It definitely takes track days to a completely new level.
For more information on SCCA Solo I activities, check the national SCCA website www.scca.com and your regional SCCA organization. For more information on NASA TT programs, check www.NASA-TT.com.
Organized Track Day Programs
Track days can be a fun and relatively safe way to enjoy your car’s speed and handling capabilities. Driving around a race track, at speeds sometimes in excess of legal road limits, is a pretty cool thing to do.
However, if you continue to do it with no real goals in mind, and no help in meeting those goals, it’s as if you were out by yourself, simply whacking a ball around a golf course without worrying about whether it got into the holes, much less how many strokes you took each round. You’d never do that if you wanted to master the game of golf. You’d get a pro to give you lessons, critique your swing, and help you learn which club to use.
So why would you think that you could become a better driver, much less a race driver, without any more help than following other people around a race course. You wouldn’t. But there is help available, even after you’ve completed an advanced driving skills course.
At least one organization, the National Auto Sports Association (NASA), offers an excellent program called the High Performance Driving Events (HPDE) at tracks in northern and southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. These programs offer opportunities for novice drivers to work with experienced racers to improve their driving skills on the track.
The HPDE program divides drivers into four classes, ranging from first-timers through experienced track drivers, with the instructors deciding when you’re ready to move up to the next class.
In the first level, you have an instructor riding with you, or you are following an instructor, during every session, with lots of off-track time for tips on finding the fast line, getting through corners, shifting and braking. Passing is very limited.
At the second level, you drive without direct supervision, but are still given critiques on your technique, and passing is permitted in specified areas of the track. At the third level, speeds increase, the number of cars on the track increases, and passing is permitted in most areas.
By the time you are judged to be capable of driving in the top level, your skills are at nearly at the point of racing. Passing is permitted everywhere on the track, but under the standard practices of any amateur racing group. The only difference between level 4 driving and actual racing is that you aren’t trying to beat anyone over a specified number of laps, so there are no grouped starts, or sprints for the finish line.
Progress from group 1 to group 4 typically occurs over a number of track events, so each driver can move ahead at their own pace as they acquire more experience and skill. NASA also sponsors the International Touring Car Series, and is currently working with BMWCCA on racing events with classes that includes the MINI Cooper S, so graduates of the HPDE activities can move up to wheel-to-wheel racing within NASA if they wish.
For more information about NASA HPDE, check the NASA website: www.NASAProRacing.com. Also, check with race tracks in your region to find out if similar programs are offered at their tracks by other organizations.
Club Racing—Almost the Real Thing
When you’re ready to get really serious and want to find out what it’s like to cope with the added variable of other cars on the track at the same time you are, trying to hit the same apex that you want, you’ll be ready for wheel-to-wheel racing. MINIs are regularly raced in Sports Car Club of America, and BWM Car Club of America Club Racing. MINIs are even professionally raced in the Grand Am Cup Series.
Each of these organizations has defined classes that allow you to race with a MINI that is close to its original showroom specifications, or modify your MINI to run in relatively more unlimited classes. The Spec Classes are a great place to start racing without finding a deep-pockets sponsor or breaking your own bank. In the words of the BMWCCA rules, spec racing places “the emphasis on driving skills while offering a finite capital expenditure’ by racing cars that are still street-legal.
BMWCCA Club Racing
The BMW Car Club of America runs an excellent club racing program that includes specific classes for the MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S. This program offers competitive wheel-to-wheel racing with cars grouped generally by their performance capabilities so it can be a great way to experience real track racing.
To make it as easy as possible to get your feet wet, BMWCCA runs organized race driving schools all over the country. All you need to participate in one of the schools is a driver’s helmet and a safe street MINI (or other BMW).
In the Club Racing program, The BMWCCA has established Spec Classes for both MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S models. These classes allow MINI owners to race against other MINIs in an active racing schedule at race tracks in all regions of North America.
In the MINI Spec Classes, relatively few items must be, or in fact can be, changed from the car as it came from the showroom, so racing preparation can be done for much less than most owners spend to modify their cars for the street.
Safety preparations are mandatory. The car must be equipped with a bolt-in roll cage, five-point safety harness, headlamp covers and window net. Though gauges can be added, nothing in the interior can be removed, including the rear seat and carpeting. As a result, there’s no reason why a car can’t be used for street transportation and racing.
Drivers are also required to have full safety clothing to race, including a Snell-approved auto racing helmet, and fireproof racing suit, gloves, and shoes.
Tires, wheels, shocks, springs, rear sway bar, and rear adjustable control arms must be changed to race-grade products, and the brands, types, and sources for these modification components are specified in the rules.
The car can be mechanically upgraded to improve performance, but only with the addition or substitution of specific components. These allowed (but not required) modifications include drilled brake rotors, cold air intake, cat-back exhaust system, and power steering punp heat shield. Replacement of the stock front seats with racing seats is also permitted.
Owners are permitted to overhaul the engine, but boring and machining can only be done within specified tolerances. To insure that racing advantage comes from driving skills, rather than from the size of the owner’s check book, no other changes can be made to the car. The supercharger pulley can not be changed, nor can the ECU be remapped, and exhaust headers can not be replaced.
As a result of these strict limitations, it is quite possible to put a MINI on the track for BMW CCA Club Racing for less than $5,000 in modifications. For that you get all the fun, excitement, and Monday morning bragging rights of taking your car on the track for wheel-to-wheel competition. and you’ll still be able to drive it on a daily basis (with or without your competition numbers on the doors).
MINI Spec Classes for BMWCCA
Required and optional items and approximate costs
Required Safety Modifications
Bolt-in Rollcage $850
Driver’s Safety Harness $200
Headlight covers $50
Window net $60
Driver’s Safety Wear $800
Approximate cost of safety modifications $2000
Required Performance Modifications
Shocks and springs $875
Tires and wheels $1100
Rear control arms $500
Rear sway bar $250
Approximate cost of required performance modifications $2750
Total cost of required modifications $4750
Permitted Performance Modifications
Cold Air intake $200
Cat-back exhaust $700
Drilled Brake Rotors $450
Driver’s Race Seat $500
Hood pins $50
Power Steering pump heat shield $50
Approximate cost of permitted performance modifications $2000
If you find that you enjoy racing and want to devote more resources to the hobby, BMWCCA stock, prepared, and modified classes allow you to upgrade the performance of your MINI and compete in faster and more challenging classes as your driving skills improve.
If this sounds like it may be your cup of tea, the best way to find out is to enroll in one of the many excellent BMWCCA Club Racing drivers’ schools that are offered at tracks all over the United States and Canada. Completion of a BMWCCA racing school is the first prerequisite to racing with the BMW car club, so it’s where everyone starts.
Once you’ve completed the school you can decide if you want to invest the money to upgrade your MINI to the club’s standards for MINI spec racing or stock classes. More information on the BMWCCA club racing programs is at www.bwmccaclubracing.com.
Sports Car Club of America Club Racing
The Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) is the largest and oldest racing organization in the country with an amateur club racing program. It offers competition at major tracks in all parts of the United States in the same way as the BMWCCA does, but with cars of all manufacturers eligible to participate.
In the same manner as in BMWCCA club racing, cars are classed by their level of preparation and performance capability, so it is possible to compete at SCCA events in a car that is very close to showroom stock condition. SCCA racing classes and preparation rules are very similar to SCCA autocross classes. These classes, and preparation rules, are documented in the SCCA’s General Competition Rules, known as the GCRs
Though many SCCA club racing competitors compete in purpose-built cars at a near-professional financial level, the entry-level Stock Class is designed to allow new racers to participate without making much more than safety changes to their car. It is certainly possible for you to compete in wheel-to-wheel races through the SCCA on a budget that doesn’t require bottomless pockets or a wealthy sponsor.
Just as with the BMWCCA program, you have to go through a training and qualification program before you can venture out on the track for wheel-to-wheel competition. SCCA requires proof of good physical condition with a medical exam, and satisfactory completion of two school sessions in order to earn a provisional novice license that allows you to take part in your first race.
You’ll be classified as a novice until you have safely and satisfactorily completed two races. Complete those requirements and you earn your regional racing driver’s license that qualifies you to continue racing in regional SCCA races.
One difference between the SCCA program and the BMWCCA program is that you must have a race-prepared car to participate in an SCCA driving school. That means installing a roll cage, safety harness, and basic safety gear in your car, as well as buying full driver’s safety gear before you can begin racing.
Consequently, you’ll certainly want to find other means to decide whether wheel-to-wheel racing is for you before making this investment. You can do this by taking part in a BMWCCA driving school or one of the commercial race driving schools , or you may be able to arrange to rent a race car to take the SCCA school, before making the investment to turn your street MINI into a race-capable car.
More information on the SCCA programs is available at www.SCCA.com/club/.