Pop-pop-pop! The exhaust of the MINI John Cooper Works I’m driving reacts enthusiastically as I let off the gas and carefully point the car to the apex of the turn, then accelerate the little car towards the short straight between turns five and six on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s road course.
The impressive one-day MINI driving school is making me fully realize the potential of myself and the car, and while they may not be Formula 1 cars or motorcycles like the course was designed for, these MINIs certainly deserve to be on this track.
Ever wonder why the MINI Cooper is named so? It’s thanks to a man called John Cooper who, along with helping to develop the original car, revolutionized racing as we know it. These two facts come together beautifully at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, as the fabled race track hosts the awesome MINI Performance Driving School, which I’m here to experience first-hand.
For reference, Cooper helped revolutionize the modern rear-engine layout that practically all open-wheel race cars use. Four years after his design hit the track at Indy, a rear-engined car won the famed 500. Now, every winning open-wheel race car has that engine layout, all thanks to Mr. John Cooper.
Cooper also helped develop the Mini what it is now: fun, agile and plenty quick. Cooper even prepped special racing and rally models which were successful and fun to watch. In recognition of his efforts, the company offers hotter vehicles dubbed “John Cooper Works” editions. Cooper made the Mini what it is, and helped make auto-racing what it is. He’s a legend in the world of cars and racing, which is why MINI is making the Cooper connection again at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It all started with a teen driving school, which handed off the keys of MINI JCWs to lucky teenagers in order to teach them the importance of good driving habits. Following the success of that program, MINI is now offering its Performance Driving School. The program is only in its second month and I attended the second-ever session.
“The idea of the school isn’t to teach you how to race,” explains Stephane Gregoire, a racing veteran and co-founder of the MINI Performance school, “but to teach you the fundamentals in order to get you comfortable driving your car on a track, or auto-cross event.”
The day-long event covers braking, car control and introduces the concept of the racing line. These lessons are then put to use on the track and an auto-cross circuit. The team that teaches at the MINI performance school rotates, but all have an impressive resume of racing experience. Today, MINI Performance school co-owner, Gregoire (of IndyCar, Rolex Sports Car and Le Mans racing) is aided by lead instructor Kevin Krauss (an experienced performance driving teacher who taught at the AMG driving academy, Bondurant Driving school and Skip Barber Racing School) as well as ALMS racer Ryan Lewis and NASCAR and Porsche racer Dan Clarke.
Helping to teach the important lessons of car control and weight transfer is the brilliant MINI John Cooper Works Hardtop. A car weighing just about 2,600 lbs and packing 208 hp and Brembo brakes, the JCW is a splendid teaching tool that lets drivers feel in sync with the car and course.
After getting to know the instructors and the cars, it’s a bit disappointing to learn that the course doesn’t take part on the big 2.5 mile long oval, instead lessons will be taught on a part of the 13-turn road course that was developed for Formula One and motorcycle racing. In hindsight, it’s a good decision because the road course has far more relevant lessons for drivers to learn.
BREAKING-IN BRAKING HABITS
The first lesson of the day involves braking. Few drivers dive deep into their braking systems, and even fewer are comfortable with the unique sensation of anti-lock brakes. While ABS systems are a useful safety innovation, on the track it’s used purposefully, bringing down the speed of the car before turning into the apex of a turn. First we take turns heading down a straight portion of the track, then slamming on the brakes to reach a designated stop-box. The key is to brake as late as possible, and “scrub” off as much speed as quickly as possible without wasting time.
After several tests of the binders, I’m now acutely aware of how the car reacts under braking and I’m tasked with applying braking pressure while navigating a turn. Racers call this “trail braking” and it’s an important technique used to smoothly transition from a straight to a turn. I apply the brakes hard just before heading into the turn and the car squirms a bit. I release the brakes a tad, and turn in, stopping as instructed, just at the peak of the corner.
Repeating the exercise with more speed, and brake pressure, exposes the weight transfer which occurs when transitioning from acceleration to deceleration. Braking while turning puts the weight on the front wheels, and gives them more grip to make the turn. Braking too much, puts too much weight on the front wheels, and the car gets squirmy again, and not enough weight over the front wheels means the car just won’t turn at all. Learning the right balance is the key here.
DRIFTING A MINI?
The second element to learn is car control. Gregoire brings us to a skid pad with a unique looking MINI. It’s not a JCW or even a Cooper S, but it has some special attachments at the rear wheels which look like training wheels. These add-ons simulate the loss of traction at the rear of the car, and initiate oversteer, sometimes referred to as drifting.
The first task was to regain control of the car while its rear end was sailing away. It requires quick thinking, and a light touch around the steering wheel, counter-steering and pointing the vehicle in the right way. Years of owning rear-wheel drive vehicles in the snow give me a pretty solid understanding of how to straighten out a drifting car, but then Gregoire challenges me to maintain the drift around the skid-pad. This requires careful use of the throttle and steering wheel. It isn’t easy, but Gregoire is impressed by my control behind the wheel.
PUTTING IT ON THE LINE
The next step takes place on a closed section of the road course. Here, the instructors show braking zone, turn in points, apexes and exit points. I do my best to apply the lessons learned from the braking and car control portions of the day to this part of the track.
I use the braking zone to scrub off most of the speed going into the turn, yet keep the weight over the front wheels as I reach the turn-in point and pitch into the turn, getting on the gas quickly, yet smoothly. It doesn’t go so well the first few times around. Sometimes the car understeers, then other times it oversteers. Fortunately, thanks to the earlier lessons in the day, I’m able to diagnose why the car isn’t reacting the way I want it to. It takes a few more passes to get each turn just right.
After, we go back to the skid pad, where an autocross course is set up. Autocross is a great grass-roots option for enthusiasts, because it’s cheap and relatively safe. The instructors give us a few practice runs, emphasizing smooth driving habits and consistency, then say that laps will be timed later, recognizing those with the smallest difference in their fastest and slowest laps.
The course is tight and tricky, with a few reducing radius turns (meaning they get sharper the more you turn in). Turning into these too early isn’t ideal, and will mess up the whole flow of the course. There’s also a tight chicane. The first few practice runs I’m extremely wary about getting through this section, but as the laps racked up, I feel far more comfortable and confident about the spacing – maybe too comfortable. On my last practice lap, I barrel towards the chicane with speed, but can’t make the turn in, and take out a cone. I imagine my colleagues back at the office ribbing me. The instructors, however, are understanding, explaining that you have to learn the limits in a safe setting like this. I don’t walk away with the fastest time, but with my fastest and slowest lap being just 0.8 seconds apart I have claimed the title of a consistent driver.
SEE ALSO: Taking it to the Track
After the auto-cross circuit, we hit the track again, but with more of the course to play with. Now including a lengthy straight, braking is important as well as proper weight transfer of the car. Each driver takes a turn behind the instructor, leading us through the various turns and straights. Rather than focusing on staying tight behind the instructor, like at past driving schools, today I stick to the lessons learned, and find I can keep up with the instructor and maintain the right driving habits. Eventually things get pushed more and more out of my comfort zone, and further into the realm of pure speed. The instructors encourage me to push the envelope at every opportunity.
It’s this pacing that makes the MINI Performance School feel unlike any other. The youthful, energetic and relatable teachers all know how to scale up and down and can communicate with you personally to make you a better driver.
And the school certainly met its goal. Following the training, I’m eagerly looking forward to all chances to hit my local track and practice the skills learned. I’m also signing up for auto-cross events, and feel far more confident about my ability to put down a fast lap and not damage my car.
The MINI Performance Driving School costs a reasonable $995, which is especially good when you consider you don’t have to take your own car on the track, which spares your tires and brakes.
MINI owners are known to be enthusiastic about the brand, and following the training at Indy Motor Speedway, they can show off their enthusiasm on the track, just the way John Cooper intended.
Some of the photos here are credited to Bruce Nelson
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