Braking Bad, Spinouts at Mini Cooper Driving School

My brother-in-law and I recently took a Saturday drive in a borrowed Mini Cooper.

We beat the living heck out of it, making the tires scream until they were hot to the touch, and repeatedly spinning it out of control. He even went off the road once or twice, and we cackled maniacally the entire time.

Great fun -- and perfectly legal, as we were taking part in the Mini Performance Motoring School, a $995 program aimed at increasing basic driving skills and teaching the rudimentary concepts to driving on a race track.

The roads were on the infield of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a historical oval, and the out-of-control spins took place on a wide-open skid pad designed expressly for that purpose.

We still felt like we were getting away with something. Rarely do you get the chance to test the limits of a car you actually own. Glen Cherry, my brother-in-law, lives in Boston and until recently drove a Toyota Prius.

His wife said a sense of “melancholy” came over him while driving the hybrid, and suggested a more entertaining upgrade.

He promptly bought a Mini Clubman equipped with a six-speed manual. Glen is a perfectionist and wanted to learn to drive the car to its full potential. So we signed up for Mini’s course, knowing I’d be able to experience it through his eyes.

Driving School

I’m a proponent of driving schools: Everybody should take one even if they have no interest in performance motoring. Basic techniques will help you become a safer, more competent driver, especially on snowy roads or in emergency situations.

Companies from BMW to Skip Barber offer similar programs (Porsche’s, based in Birmingham, Alabama, is my favorite), but there’s a great benefit to learning on the same brand that you normally drive. Besides, the Mini Cooper is plenty fast and its front-wheel-drive architecture means it handles smartly and benignly.

Mini partnered with an Indianapolis-based company called Miles Ahead, which hires professional IndyCar drivers as instructors. The school uses John Cooper Works hardtops with 208 horsepower and upgraded brakes. (The Speedway itself has never before hosted a driving school in its 100-plus years of operation. How cool is that?)

Formula 1

The dozen or so students were almost evenly split among women and men, and most owned a Mini. The day was divided into a series of driving exercises, including heavy braking on a straightaway, car control on a skid pad and dozens of laps on the winding, infield Formula 1 course.

The school does not include any driving on the Raceway’s famous 2.5-mile oval. On the day we were there, that section was being used by a company called Indy Racing Experience, which gives $500 rides in a special two-seat, open-cockpit racecar, with speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. The magnificent roar of the IndyCars accompanied us throughout the day.

The Miles Ahead program was loose and rather ad hoc. While this gave it a friendly vibe, finer points were sometimes lost. Instructors used terms like “trail braking” without explaining what it meant. I’d have preferred a more defined curriculum and some one-on-one instruction.

On the upside, we found ourselves on the track within the first hour, testing the Minis’ acceleration and braking. After drag racing from a stop and then jamming on the brakes, Glen had a gleam in his eye.

Braking Bad

“I’ve never used my brakes like that,” he said. “I’m usually so careful with my car, I don’t just punch it. But this is what the Mini was built to do.”

The most important drill, repeated throughout the day, was a game of follow-the-leader on the winding road course. Four students shadowed an instructor’s driving lines, gradually increasing speeds with each lap.

After years driving on racetracks, I’m inured to the combination of awe and over stimulation that comes with trying to keep it all together the first time. “It’s a lot to remember,” Glen commented. He was flushed.

His speeds and finesse were soon increasing, and he was screaming into corners that he had been tiptoeing into only hours previously. Pushing hard has consequences, though: He careened off the track twice.

It didn’t faze him. “Something about the setting really enables you to let loose. There’s no sense of real danger, I don’t feel scared at all,” he explained.

Accident Prone

By 4 p.m., the students had started to weary. Few endeavors demand total concentration like performance driving. As fatigue sets in, reaction times start to slip, accidents are more likely to happen.

“Absolutely worth it,” declared Glen as he turned off his car for the final time. “Next time I’m driving in Boston on a snowy day, I’ll have a much better idea how the car will react if it starts sliding.”

The sound of a passing IndyCar ricocheted around us. Glen’s head turned to the sound. “Besides, it’s pretty phenomenal to drive as much as we did today in a legendary setting like this.”

I know that look, that grin. I’d wager a Mini that Glen will be back on a track soon.

Mini Performance Motoring School, $995, $250 for extra driver;

(Jason H. Harper writes about autos for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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