MINI Takes The States Tour, Day 5: Lapping The Indianapolis Motor Speedway

MINI Takes The States Tour, Day 5: Lapping The Indianapolis Motor Speedway

Day 5 of the MINI Takes The States Tour saw me back in the Clubman for one final jaunt, with a relatively uneventful drive from Columbus to Indianapolis. A back road detour had us on a road worthy of a car commercial, freshly paved in black asphalt, winding through various Ohio cornfields and small towns. But the best was yet to come, as I was about to get my chance to lap the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Although it was officially a slow speed “parade lap”, I found a way around that and was able to experience the joys of going flat out around an oval – or a reasonable facsimile of it.

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We arrived in Indianapolis ahead of schedule, only to find a number of MINIs queued up ahead of us for the parade lap on Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s famed oval, home of the Brickyard 400 and Indy 500 races. I decided to check out the museum’s collection of historic race cars while we waited for the rest of the group to arrive, and for the busloads of tourists to depart from the circuit.

In the interest of full disclosure, I have little interest in oval track racing, as road courses have always had an inexplicable draw to me – that’s not to say that I don’t respect IRL or NASCAR (which gets an especially bad rap from “sports car” snobs, who fail to understand just how much technology or driving skill is needed to drive one), I just find myself watching a Grand-Am or Rolex Series race rather than an oval track when given the choice.

Indianapolis Motor Speedway Hall Of Fame Museum

Fortunately, the Indy museum has a number of very interesting cars, ranging from street legal machines to famous European marques to open wheel racers from Formula 1 and Indy racing.

The Maserati Birdcage is named for its chassis, which is constructed of hundreds of steel tubes welded together. The Birdcage is peculiar in that some of them feature Formula 1 engines, some of them are mid-engined, some of them have it positioned upfront, while others were constructed from all sorts of random parts due to Maserati’s tight financial situation – these Birdcages could have anywhere from 4 to 12 cylinders.

The Mercedes-Benz W196 is one of the most beautiful cars of all time. Finally able to shed the Nazi legacy of the pre-WWII Silver Arrows cars, the W196 was piloted by Formula 1 legends Stirling Moss and Juan Manuel Fangio and won back to back drivers championships in 1954 and 1955. This particular car has the “streamlined” body work.

Raise your hand if you had a Hot Wheels version of this car. I know I did.

Is there a more iconic combination than Lotus and Ford? This Indy car looks like it’s from the 1960’s. The British Racing Green and Yellow paint scheme will always be associated with these two marques.

Michael Schumacher’s Formula 1 car from his 1991 rookie season. Teamed with Ricardo Patrese, Schumi drove this Benneton/Ford Cosworth V8. Schumacher’s time at Benneton introduced him to Ross Brawn and Rory Byrne, the team manager and engineer respectively, who helped him achieve a record 7 World Championships at Ferrari. Schumacher’s boss at Benneton was Flavio Briatore, best known for sweating profusely on race day, impregnating supermodels and helping Fernando Alonso achieve two world titles at Renault.

The Lap

At 4:30, we all piled into our cars to do one lap of the Indy circuit. While most journalists prefer to lap the buffet while wearing their Piloti driving shoes and racing-lifestyle branded gear, I jump at the chance to do any sort of performance driving, even if I have to share the track with hundreds of MINI owners mostly looking to have a good time and document the experience rather than go fast.

My desire to go fast also had to be balanced by my need to not injure any fellow participants. I was completely prepared to behave as we hit the track. And then I saw my opportunity.

As the MINIs struggled to stay together, a gap invariably opened up between the lead group of cars and the later rows. I heard the characteristic bark of a John Cooper Works car being downshifted, and knew that this was my chance. As most of the “tourists” were on the outside of the track close to the wall, I stuck to the inside and punched it all the way through second, third and fourth gear. It’s impossible to verbalize just how gratifying it is to just bury the sole of your shoe to the floor, the car hurtling forward with a mechanical symphony of engine and blow-off valve sounds accompanying Motley Crue’s “Kickstart My Heart”, and knowing that no matter what happens, the law and your insurance company will not punish you for your actions. Unfortunately, it all came to an end to soon, as I quickly caught up to the rest of the “parade group” and my thrill ride was over. As Chuck Palahniuk said in “Fight Club”

One must “… work hard for it, but a minute of perfection was worth the effort.  A moment was the most you could ever expect from perfection.

Here’s hoping for another one soon.

(N.B. Please excuse my dorky attire. It was well over 100 degrees at the Speedway, so I was decked out in my finest trackside outfit;shorts, a t-shirt, Puma sneakers and my trusty Gulf Oil hat.)

Final Thoughts

The MINI Takes The States Tour was eye-opening for a number of reasons; the incredibly close-knit owners community, the lengths MINI USA goes to interact with the people who buy their products, and the overall enthusiasm for the brand. But in the end, the product stands alone, and there’s a reason why people from all walks of life have a genuine enthusiasm for the MINI lineup; they are damn good cars.

Car enthusiasts today are stuck at an uncomfortable crossroads; the environmental lobby controls much of the discourse in spheres outside of our little automotive bubble, and the car is an easy scapegoat for all the problems of our planet. At the same time, enthusiasts, who generally to have an individualist streak that’s more pronounced than the rest population, tend to react viscerally to the prospect of having their passion legislated into oblivion. A common stance to take is one where outrageously inefficient and expensive cars that no common person could hope to afford are lionized by enthusiasts and many auto pundits in a sort of hyper-masculine posturing, while denigrating fuel efficient vehicles.

It’s true that supercars are awesome and eco-friendly vehicles don’t quite get most people’s hearts racing, but the need for a halfway point is more necessary than ever, and the MINI fills that void. I never saw less than 30 mpg on the highway in both of my turbocharged Cooper S models, while the non-turbo models can get around 37 mpg in the same kind of driving. The fact that these cars can put up excellent mileage numbers while providing the kind of driving experience that would shame many second-rate rear-drive sports cars makes the MINI lineup a very relevant vehicle for today’s enthusiast. It’s true that the MINI is priced a bit higher than some people would like to pay for a small car, but one would be hard pressed to find the feeling of solidity during interstate and spirited back road driving in another compact or subcompact car. As someone who finds most new cars to be the same product in slightly differing wrappers, the MINI lineup, from the lowliest Cooper to the most tantalizing JCW, proves that “premium” and “compact” are not mutually exclusive. Now if only there was a way to get a Cooper diesel over here, and do it all while getting 60 mpg.