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.