Friday, January 23, 2009

MINI Cooper 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 Cooper dealerships. Generally held on weekdays or off-weekends, they offer a chance to take your MINI Cooper 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 Cooper track day was sponsored at Thunderhill Racetrack in northern California by MINI of Mountain View, other MINI Cooper dealers are starting to organize their own events around the country.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Serious MINI Coopers 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 Cooper. 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 Cooper.

What Can We Do Next?
In your everyday driving, by now you’ve discovered how much fun your MINI Cooper 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 Cooper, 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 a MINI Cooper
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 Cooper in front of you, and another in your rearview mirror. In other words, take a tour with a local MINI Cooper club or some MINI Cooper 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 Cooper 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 Coper owners with whom you can do some driving events.
If there aren’t yet enough MINI Coopers 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 Cooper 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.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Motoring On in a MINI Cooper S

Consider the upgrades we’ve suggested as means to improve the performance of your MINI Cooper, but whether or not you decide to make changes in the car right now, don’t wait to start working on your driving. Use a good driving position, practice smoothness in your starts, stops and turns, and try to find a good line around every corner. And take the next possible opportunity to take an advanced driving course so you can learn and practice the skills that will allow you to drive your MINI Cooper in the way it was intended.
After your driving school experience and with a few miles under your tires, you may find that you want to get even more out of your MINI Cooper. In the next section, we’ll discuss additional improvements that will prove their worth on the roadtrack or autocross course, and we’ll present some more advanced driving skills you’ll want to master to take advantage of those improvements.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

The Cornering Line in a MINI Cooper

In preparation for your MINI Cooper first driving class, and as something else to begin practicing, let’s talk about the safest and most efficient way to get around the corner. The choice of turn-in, apex, and exit points, and the pathway between them is what racers refer to as the “line” around the corner.
The optimal line around an individual corner is the one that allows you to wait as long as possible before braking, while still having enough time to bring the car down to a speed that will allow you to take the car around the corner without spinning out or sliding off the track. More important, the optimal line is the one that allows you to be going as rapidly as possible at the point when you exit the corner.
It’s an old saying around race tracks that all racing is simply a succession of drag races from corner to corner. Picking the correct line around the corner is not necessarily a matter of getting around each corner as fast as possible in your MINI Cooper. Instead, it is a matter of setting the MINI Cooper up so that you can win the drag race to the next corner.
Where you exit, and how fast you exit, depends entirely on where you start to make the turn. Selecting the turn-in point is critical to getting the corner right. After that, everything else is just follow-through.
We can start by thinking about the most basic corner, a 90-degree turn. This is a good place to start since most of our everyday driving is going to involve making right-angle turns on city streets, so there will be lots of opportunities to practice the technique.
And remember, you don’t have to be going fast in order to practice and get the moves down. In fact, for the first 100 or so times you turn the corner, you’ll have trouble remembering everything in the right order, even at normal street speeds. But practice the technique and when you do get on the track, you’ll be amazed at how soon you’ll feel comfortable on higher-speed corners, while your less-practiced friends are still looking confused as they lurch around the corner.
The first step in taking a corner is to move as wide as possible to the “outside” of the corner (the side opposite to the direction you’re turning). On the street or highway, this will usually be the center line or curb. (Of course, on deserted roads with no obstructions, where you can see all the way around the corner and up the road a good distance you might be able to go wider.) Once you’re on the track, you’ll be moving clear to the edge of the track before beginning your turn.
You’ll drive at the edge, while completing your heavy braking (and your downshifting, if the corner requires it), until you can see around the corner. While this isn’t necessarily the smoothest arc around the corner, it will be the most efficient line around the corner in terms of exit speed. It is also the safest, since you will be able to see any obstructions in your path.
At that point, you’ll begin to turn in (which, as we noted above, is called the turn-in point) and start to release your brakes. You will want to aim for the inside edge of the corner—remember, earlier we called that the “apex” of the corner—while looking for the point where you will be completing your turn and will once again be at the outside edge of your lane, or the road, the “exit point” or “track-out point.” Remember that you’re looking at where you want the car to go, not just where it is aimed at the moment.
As you reach the apex of the corner you should be off the brakes completely and already starting to ease onto the throttle. As soon as you begin straightening the wheel, you’ll roll onto the throttle and start to accelerate.
You can see from the diagram that the arc of your curve is tightest just past the turn-in point, and widest as you come out of the turn. This will allow you to get on the throttle as hard as conditions permit as early as possible and start that drag race to the next turn-in point.
The optimal line through a single corner is going to start and end at the far outside limits of the available track or lane. As you progress in racing, you’ll often be reminded to “use all the track.” What the instructor means is that if you didn’t start and end the curve at the far outside, while nearly touching the inside limit—curb, berm, or edge of the pavement—at the apex point, you will have made too tight a turn and sacrificed some of that precious speed you need.
Also notice that on this line, the apex—the point at which you touch the inside limit—is just a little way around the corner, rather than being at the actual geometric point of the corner. That “late apex” is usually the best line, since you have a good sight-line down the road when you start your turn, and that same long straight line along which to accelerate as you complete the turn.
You might think about what happens if you get a little tense and try to “hurry” the corner. You’ll start to turn in sooner than the person who’s following the line we’ve just described, but at best you won’t be able to get on the throttle until later in the turn than the other driver. At worst, you will find yourself, as racers say, “running out of road” before you’ve completed your turn, and risk running off the track.
Now all of that is a lot to practice all at once, which is why we recommend that you start now, rather than waiting until you get into the driving course. Incidentally, during the driving course, the instructor will most likely mark off the course with pylons or markers to show you the turn-in point, the apex, and the exit, which will make it a little easier. But daily driving is like rally driving; no one has put pylons out to show you the correct line, so get used to finding it on every corner on your own.
he entrance and exit ramps on limited-access highways make especially good practice areas, since you aren’t likely to encounter anyone going the other way, and the range of speed is as wide as you’ll encounter on most corners of most race tracks.
The best place to practice is on a corner you take every day. That way you can start at a fairly slow speed, and gradually speed up as you get used to the corner, changing the point where you start and end your braking, turn in for the corner, apex it, and come out at the exit point.
If you find that you are having difficulty getting around the corner, it means either that you’re going in too fast, or you’re turning too early. If that’s the case, trying slowing down a little, which will allow you to turn more tightly at the beginning, and turn in later, which will give you more room to finish the corner at the end.
As racing drivers learn new tracks, this is exactly what they are doing; searching for the optimal points and speeds to start and end each phase of each corner, then memorizing those points so they can repeat them lap after lap during an actual race.
When taking the corners, keep thinking about weight transfer as you brake, turn, and accelerate, feeling the car’s weight shift from back to front and corner to corner through the process. Downhill skiers and horseback riders often find that this process is very familiar, it’s just that there is a lot more of you to think about as the car increases and extends your mass.
As you round every corner on your way to work or wherever, make your braking, turning, and accelerating as smooth as possible and try to pick a good line around each one of those corners. If you do your practice diligently every chance you get, pretty soon you’ll start to feel at one with the car, anticipating the weight transfers and feeling yourself going with them, with no abrupt transitions and with as much speed as the situation allows. In short, you’ll really be motoring.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Heel and Toe Downshifting in a MINI Cooper

In normal driving, very few people downshift, since the MINI Cooper engine can pull pretty strongly from very low rpm and there are few times when the additional torque is really necessary. But if you want to practice for the day you start doing hot laps at the race track, you can start working on how to downshift, using the technique called “heel-and-toe” shifting to make those shifts as smooth as possible.
Essentially, what you are going to do is make it easier for the engine to cope with the changes in gears by giving the throttle a little blip while you’re downshifting. That way, before the shift is completed, the engine is already spinning close to the higher rpm required in the lower gear. Done properly, this little blip of the throttle will make your driving much smoother, and eventually much faster.
What makes this process a little complicated is that you are going to start downshifting at the same time that you are braking to get ready for the corner. At the same time that you’re putting on the brake with your right foot, you’re going to want to tap the gas pedal with your right foot. “But wait a minute,” you say. “I only have one right foot.”
Right you are. So what you will do is to push the brake in with the toe of your right foot, and by twisting your foot slightly, give the throttle a nudge with your right heel. If it’s more comfortable for you, you can push the brake with your heel and the throttle with your toe. That’s why the technique is called heel-and-toe. (Though to be honest, some people use one side of the foot on the brake and the other side of the foot on the gas. Whatever works for you.)
So here’s the sequence: As you get ready to turn a corner that is going to require that you exit in a lower gear than you entered, you will start to brake with your right foot and at the same time push in the clutch with your left. With the clutch in, you’ll slide the gear shift into the next lower gear and about the same time blip the throttle. With the engine still revving up from the throttle blip, you’ll let out the clutch. Brake, push clutch, shift/blip, release clutch.
Right now this may seem a little like patting your head while rubbing your stomach, but a little practice will make it all work. Incidentally, if anyone asks, you are not “double-clutching.” Double-clutching is actually a more complicated process that requires releasing the clutch slightly at the point that the throttle is blipped in order to get the gears spinning faster, then pushing it back in to shift the gear, before releasing the clutch. Thankfully, with modern engines and gear boxes, the technique is no longer required, except on some really, really old vintage cars.
Of course, if you remember the original cornering sequence we just discussed, we didn’t discuss shifting gears. That does add one additional step to the sequence. However, the downshifting should be completed during the early part of the braking process, while the car is still going in a straight line. By the time you start to make the turn, you want all your shifting done, so you can have both hands on the wheel through the corner.