Wednesday, December 21, 2011

When Going Faster becomes a Passion: BMWCCA Club Racing

BMWCCA Club Racing

  The BMW Car Club of America runs an excellent club racing program that includes specific classes for the MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S. This program offers competitive wheel-to-wheel racing with cars grouped generally by their performance capabilities so it can be a great way to experience real track racing.
To make it as easy as possible to get your feet wet, BMWCCA runs organized race driving schools all over the country. All you need to participate in one of the schools is a driver’s helmet and a safe street MINI (or other BMW).

  In the Club Racing program, The BMWCCA has established Spec Classes for both MINI Cooper and MINI Cooper S models. These classes allow MINI owners to race against other MINIs in an active racing schedule at race tracks in all regions of North America.

  In the MINI Spec Classes, relatively few items must be, or in fact can be, changed from the car as it came from the showroom, so racing preparation can be done for much less than most owners spend to modify their cars for the street.

  Safety preparations are mandatory. The car must be equipped with a bolt-in roll cage, five-point safety harness, headlamp covers and window net. Though gauges can be added, nothing in the interior can be removed, including the rear seat and carpeting. As a result, there’s no reason why a car can’t be used for street transportation and racing.

  Drivers are also required to have full safety clothing to race, including a Snell-approved auto racing helmet, and fireproof racing suit, gloves, and shoes.

  Tires, wheels, shocks, springs, rear sway bar, and rear adjustable control arms must be changed to race-grade products, and the brands, types, and sources for these modification components are specified in the rules.

  The car can be mechanically upgraded to improve performance, but only with the addition or substitution of specific components. These allowed (but not required) modifications include drilled brake rotors, cold air intake, cat-back exhaust system, and power steering punp heat shield. Replacement of the stock front seats with racing seats is also permitted.

  Owners are permitted to overhaul the engine, but boring and machining can only be done within specified tolerances. To insure that racing advantage comes from driving skills, rather than from the size of the owner’s check book, no other changes can be made to the car. The supercharger pulley can not be changed, nor can the ECU be remapped, and exhaust headers can not be replaced.

  As a result of these strict limitations, it is quite possible to put a MINI on the track for BMW CCA Club Racing for less than $5,000 in modifications. For that you get all the fun, excitement, and Monday morning bragging rights of taking your car on the track for wheel-to-wheel competition. and you’ll still be able to drive it on a daily basis (with or without your competition numbers on the doors).


MINI Spec Classes for BMWCCA
Required and optional items and approximate costs

Required Safety Modifications
Bolt-in Rollcage $850
Driver’s Safety Harness $200
Headlight covers $50
Window net $60
Driver’s Safety Wear $800
Approximate cost of safety modifications $2000
Required Performance Modifications
Shocks and springs $875
Tires and wheels $1100
Rear control arms $500
Rear sway bar $250
Approximate cost of required performance modifications $2750
Total cost of required modifications $4750
Permitted Performance Modifications
Cold Air intake $200
Cat-back exhaust $700
Drilled Brake Rotors $450
Driver’s Race Seat $500
Hood pins $50
Power Steering pump heat shield $50
Approximate cost of permitted performance modifications $2000

  If you find that you enjoy racing and want to devote more resources to the hobby, BMWCCA stock, prepared, and modified classes allow you to upgrade the performance of your MINI and compete in faster and more challenging classes as your driving skills improve.

  If this sounds like it may be your cup of tea, the best way to find out is to enroll in one of the many excellent BMWCCA Club Racing drivers’ schools that are offered at tracks all over the United States and Canada. Completion of a BMWCCA racing school is the first prerequisite to racing with the BMW car club, so it’s where everyone starts.

  Once you’ve completed the school you can decide if you want to invest the money to upgrade your MINI to the club’s standards for MINI spec racing or stock classes. More information on the BMWCCA club racing programs is at

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When Going Faster Becomes a Passion: Club Racing - Almost the Real Thing

Club Racing—Almost the Real Thing

  When you’re ready to get really serious and want to find out what it’s like to cope with the added variable of other cars on the track at the same time you are, trying to hit the same apex that you want, you’ll be ready for wheel-to-wheel racing. MINIs are regularly raced in Sports Car Club of America, and BWM Car Club of America Club Racing. MINIs are even professionally raced in the Grand Am Cup Series.

  Each of these organizations has defined classes that allow you to race with a MINI that is close to its original showroom specifications, or modify your MINI to run in relatively more unlimited classes. The Spec Classes are a great place to start racing without finding a deep-pockets sponsor or breaking your own bank. In the words of the BMWCCA rules, spec racing places “the emphasis on driving skills while offering a finite capital expenditure’ by racing cars that are still street-legal.

Monday, October 3, 2011

When Going Faster Becomes a Passion: Organized Track Day Programs

Organized Track Day Programs

  Track days can be a fun and relatively safe way to enjoy your car’s speed and handling capabilities. Driving around a race track, at speeds sometimes in excess of legal road limits, is a pretty cool thing to do.

  However, if you continue to do it with no real goals in mind, and no help in meeting those goals, it’s as if you were out by yourself, simply whacking a ball around a golf course without worrying about whether it got into the holes, much less how many strokes you took each round. You’d never do that if you wanted to master the game of golf. You’d get a pro to give you lessons, critique your swing, and help you learn which club to use.

  So why would you think that you could become a better driver, much less a race driver, without any more help than following other people around a race course. You wouldn't  But there is help available, even after you’ve completed an advanced driving skills course.

  At least one organization, the National Auto Sports Association (NASA), offers an excellent program called the High Performance Driving Events (HPDE) at tracks in northern and southern California, Arizona, and Nevada. These programs offer opportunities for novice drivers to work with experienced racers to improve their driving skills on the track.

  The HPDE program divides drivers into four classes, ranging from first-timers through experienced track drivers, with the instructors deciding when you’re ready to move up to the next class.

  In the first level, you have an instructor riding with you, or you are following an instructor, during every session, with lots of off-track time for tips on finding the fast line, getting through corners, shifting and braking. Passing is very limited.

  At the second level, you drive without direct supervision, but are still given critiques on your technique, and passing is permitted in specified areas of the track. At the third level, speeds increase, the number of cars on the track increases, and passing is permitted in most areas.

  By the time you are judged to be capable of driving in the top level, your skills are at nearly at the point of racing. Passing is permitted everywhere on the track, but under the standard practices of any amateur racing group. The only difference between level 4 driving and actual racing is that you aren't trying to beat anyone over a specified number of laps, so there are no grouped starts, or sprints for the finish line.

  Progress from group 1 to group 4 typically occurs over a number of track events, so each driver can move ahead at their own pace as they acquire more experience and skill. NASA also sponsors the International Touring Car Series, and is currently working with BMWCCA on racing events with classes that includes the MINI Cooper S, so graduates of the HPDE activities can move up to wheel-to-wheel racing within NASA if they wish.

  For more information about NASA HPDE, check the NASA website: Also, check with race tracks in your region to find out if similar programs are offered at their tracks by other organizations.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Going Faster becomes a Passion

On-Track Time Trials

If you enjoy running your car on a set course against the clock and feel like three or four one-minute runs in a day isn’t enough, but don’t relish the thought of putting your shiny MINI at risk by racing against other cars, then the SCCA program of Solo I time trials may be just the thing for you. A similar time-trial program has recently been introduced by the National Auto Sports Association, called the NASA TT (for Time Trials) program.

These events are run on regular race courses throughout North America during the year. They’re like Solo II autocrosses in that you run by yourself against the time clock, and the class winners are determined by the best lap times achieved. However, they’re like track racing in that the course is actually a complete race track, which might be as long as two to three miles. In Solo I and NASA TT, a typical lap time will be in the range of two to three minutes but the cars reach considerably higher speeds during a circuit of the track than are possible on a Solo II parking lot course.

On the downside, time trials are more expensive and involve more risk to you and the car than Solo II, but the experience makes a good stepping-stone to full road racing. In most organizations, you’ll need all the safety equipment required in road racing.

Required safety equipment for SCCA Solo I typically includes a protective roll cage and five-point seat belts for both driver and passenger in the car, and some organizations will require a fuel cell in place of the gas tank. In addition, to race in Solo I you’ll need a flameproof racing suit as well as flameproof shoes and gloves, and an automobile racing helmet. NASA TT safety requirements are somewhat less stringent, but nevertheless emphasize safe car preparation.

Because of the costs of renting road-racing tracks, entry fees are substantially higher than for Solo II, though the cost per minute of racing isn’t that much different; you just get many more minutes at speed in these events. To that you need to add the cost of fuel, an oil change after every second weekend, and a new set of tires every five or so weekends.

But there’s little to replace the adrenaline rush of keeping focused at speeds well over legal highway limits while trying to hit the apex of each corner exactly right so that you can beat your competition by that elusive tenth of a second. It definitely takes track days to a completely new level.

For more information on SCCA Solo I activities, check the national SCCA website and your regional SCCA organization. For more information on NASA TT programs, check

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Going faster becomes a Passion

Chapter Seventeen

When Going Faster Becomes a Passion

  If you've taken the opportunity to take your MINI out on a road race course for club track days, or gone auto-crossing as a novice in order to learn more about your car’s capabilities and improve your own driving skills, you've probably discovered how much fun the MINI is to drive harder than you can safely do on the street.

  But now, perhaps you’re starting to wonder just how good you are compared to other drivers. If you’re on the autocross course, you’re starting to look at your lap times in comparison to other drivers, rather than just using them to see if you’re improving. If you've been out for track days, perhaps you’re starting to enjoy overtaking other cars, and beginning to wonder how you would fare in a real race.

  If so,you should consider moving up to the next level of MINI motoring. Maybe you’re ready to start competing, rather than just participating.

Class Competition in SCCA Autocross

  Running in the street stock class at SCCA regional events is certainly a great way to spend a weekend day and burn off a little rubber. But there’s much more to this sport than just seeing how fast you can get your street car around a set course in one of the local parking lots.

  Part of the fun of competition is to tailor your car to your own preferences, exploring the differences that modifications can make within the limits of the rules. If you’re getting to the point where you’re doing about as well as the other newbies in their street cars, then perhaps you’re ready to consider modifying your MINI to run in the street touring or even the street prepared and street modified classes.

  If you've already gone auto-crossing  you probably ran in the “stock” or “street” class, which only allowed changes to the air filter, front sway bar, shocks, the exhaust system back of the catalytic converter, and wheels and tires. That doesn't begin to scratch the surface of modifications available to you, and doesn't even allow most of those that we've discussed so far.

  If you’re prepared to move up into the recently-introduced SCCA “street touring” (STS for the Cooper and STX for the Cooper S) class, there are a number of other things that you can do to your car which not only will give you better handling and power on the track, but also improve the car’s performance on the street, without giving up much in terms of driving ease or riding comfort.

  For example, in street touring you’re still required to run street tires with a 140 or higher tread wear rating, but you can mount wheels up to 7.5 inches wide. You can also install the improved air intake discussed in the previous section of the book. In addition you can make all the changes to the chassis discussed in the last section, including replacing springs, shocks, sway bars, and camber plates (which we’ll discuss in this section). You can also install a high-performance header—which we’ll also discuss in this section—as long as it’s emission-legal (which means on the MINI that it must include a catalytic converter). Finally, you can even remove some of the interior appointments, including the radio and air-conditioning system, substitute race seats, and install a lighter battery.

  If you want to go further than that, the street-prepared class for Coopers and street-modified class for Cooper Ss allow almost unlimited modifications. However, be forewarned, these classes are terrific opportunities for pushing a highly-modified MINI close to its limits, but winning a trophy can be an expensive proposition. Many owners in this class spend several times the value of their original car on modifications and don’t expect to also be able to use them on the street.

  If you’re going to be spending money on your MINI mods, then it’s probably also the right time to get serious about improving your technique, which means taking a good autocross course. Many of the regional SCCA clubs offer auto-crossing courses, especially during the months between the official season. Check with your own SCCA club to see what may be available in your region.

  There is also at least one commercial company, the Evolution Performance Driving School ( that offers multiple-day classes at tracks all over North America during the year. They teach basic and advanced autocross techniques using specialized equipment and professional instructors and get great reviews from experienced autocrossers.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Serious Motoring in Autocross and Track Events

If you’ve gotten this far into this book, you’ve discovered how much fun it can be to drive your MINI fast and well on backroads tours, on autocross courses, or at track days. Either that, or you are interested enough in learning how to improve and drive the new MINI that you’re reading the book all the way through before you actually go out and play with your car.

Either way, in this section we will describe the various types of competitive activities that will allow you to really challenge yourself as a MINI driver.

In addition, we will suggest upgrades to your car to make it perform even better, especially in competitive events. We should warn you in advance, however. From this stage on, the further you go down the road to make your MINI better at one particular type of motorsport, the less comfortable it will be for street use. Not that you won’t be able to use it on the street—nothing in this chapter will prevent the car from being licensed for street use—it’s just that you will be giving up comfort for performance.

Finally, in this part of the book, we will build on what you’ve already learned about driving well, to offer some further tips on autocrossing, and tips on racing wheel-to-wheel with MINIs and other cars on the race track.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Back Road Techniques

Emergency Equipment for your MINI

Even if you’re never going to be more than a few miles from home, but especially if you’re venturing out on longer tours, you should equip your MINI with some basic emergency equipment. Put it in the glove compartment or in one of the rear stowage areas and leave it there. Check to make sure that everything is in place whenever you head out on the highway. Your emergency stash should include the following:

Never leave home without your cell phone and buy a charger for it that you can leave in the car all the time so you never have to worry about being low on power. Subscribing to an emergency road service such as available through most major auto insurance companies and having their telephone number in the car will take care of most emergencies.

A major credit card and a telephone credit card are also absolute necessities so that you can pay for a tow or emergency repairs, and make a phone call in rural areas where you can’t get cell phone service. In addition, tuck some money in five dollar bills and some quarters for the phone in an envelope in the glove compartment. Cash money may be all that’s accepted if you need to have your chains installed or convince a tow truck driver to help you out.

A flashlight is essential for many applications. One of those emergency lights that can plug into your car’s power source, plus a handheld flashlight that can be used to check a map, wave at oncoming traffic, or shine into the engine compartment are both good pieces of equipment to have. To protect yourself if you break down in high-traffic situations, you should also have some highway flares or tripod reflectors that can be placed behind the car to warn oncoming drivers of your presence. Any major hardware store or auto supply store will stock a neat kit with these kinds of supplies for your car.

A tire repair kit in a pressurized can, and a 12-volt tire inflator should also be part of your emergency kit. These kits are easy to find in catalogs, hardware, or auto supply stores. Incidentally, if you do get a flat tire on any heavily-traveled highway or road, don’t attempt to repair the flat on the shoulder. Instead, drive to the next exit and get completely out of traffic before attempting a repair.

You should have a small notebook, a pen or pencil, and an accident check list tucked in your glove compartment. In case of an accident, you’ll need to get the name, address, driver’s license number, tag number, and insurance contact information for any other drivers involved with you in an accident, as well as the names, addresses, and phone numbers of witnesses. Keeping a small disposable camera in the glove compartment also is a good idea so you can shoot pictures of the accident scene and the cars involved for use if any legal or insurance claims later arise.

You should also carry a good plastic flashlight and spare batteries to use in dark corners or under the car, as well as for after-dark emergencies. An emergency light that plugs into the power socket is nice, but might not work if your battery goes flat.

Even in high summer, a blanket is a useful piece of emergency equipment, and in winter weather it is critical. You can lay on it to check under the car, wrap up in it to keep yourself warm, or rig a shelter to keep off the sun.

If you’re going to be driving outside of urban areas, and especially if you’re driving in very hot or very cold conditions, a gallon of water that can be used for drinking or put in the radiator is worth having in the car. A day’s worth of calories for every passenger in the form of high-protein energy bars is worth tucking in. Even if you’re not stranded, hunger or thirst can ruin an otherwise nice trip.

Even if you are a complete klutz at auto repairs, having a set of basic tools and some emergency repair supplies. tucked in a plastic or canvas tool kit, can be a good idea. At the very least, combination pliers, a lineman’s wire-cutting pliers, a flat-head and a cross-head screwdriver, a medium-size combination wrench, a coil of repair wire, a roll of duct tape, and a roll of electrical tape can be very useful. With these few tools, you—or a helpful good Samaritan with some mechanical ability—can make a variety of stopgap repairs that will at least get you off the highway and to the next point where you can get cellphone service to call for emergency assistance.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Back Road Techniques

Bad Weather Conditions

When you’re a long way from home and the weather turns bad, you may not have much choice except to deal with it. Rain, fog, snow, or ice can happen at the most unexpected times and places, and you should be mentally ready for the possibility.

Just as on the track under wet conditions, as soon as it starts to rain even a little bit, you need to slow down. Especially during the first rain of the season, oil and rubber that has sunk into the pavement will float back up to the surface very soon after the rain begins. Oily, wet pavement can be every bit as slippery as icy pavement and caution must be your first rule.

The same rules apply for highway driving in the wet as on the track. Make your changes in speed and direction as smooth as possible. Try to stay off the most heavily traveled section of pavement. Staying in the slow lane will allow less sensible drivers to get past you, as well as giving you a better chance of avoiding trouble if the problem arises.

If the rain gets very heavy, your best bet is to tuck under an underpass or preferably get off the highway completely to wait for it to let up. Visibility can go to zero almost instantly and the wet pavement can make it difficult to stop if someone in front of you skids sideways or stops without warning.

Fog is also a hazard that is underrated by many drivers. The moisture can make the pavement slippery, and visibility can be erratic. Because fog can gather in low-lying areas, you can easily drive into a space where visibility is only a few feet or less. Be aware of this, and if you see a thick area ahead, slow down to a crawl before trying to get through.

Fog lights are helpful, but are not a cure-all. They do focus the light beams on the pavement immediately ahead, rather than reflecting it off the fog, but do not give penetrate the fog any more than regular beams. In any case, make sure you’ve turned off your high beams. If you have high-intensity rear fog lamps, turn them on so the cars behind you can see you better.

In snow and ice conditions, caution is critical. Not only is it easier to lose control of the car, but if you slide off the road in cold weather, even survival can become a challenge. One of the most dangerous times to be driving is when the temperature hovers right around zero. Melted snow or rain on the pavement can easily turn to ice, especially on bridges and overpasses. Keep your speed down, and be very sensitive to any feeling of loss of control.

Again, make changes in speed and direction cautiously and smoothly. If there is snow on the road, you are generally better off driving with at least one front wheel in the snow because the grip will be better there than on the portion of the pavement cleared by the wheels of other vehicles. If you do need to put on chains, of course they go on your front wheels, since these are both your power and your steering wheels.

Above all, don’t be in too much of a hurry to complete your journey if the weather turns unexpectedly bad. Be willing to get off the highway and hold up in a restaurant or motel until things get better.

Just be aware that you don’t want to get off the highway unless you are sure you’ll be able to find your way to a safe and secure place to stop. In bad weather, the back roads are likely to be less well patrolled than the main highways and the worst place to be is in an uninhabited and unpatrolled area.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Back Road Techniques

Passing on the Backroads

Because we are so blessed in this country with freeways and limited-access highways, the old techniques of passing have largely been forgotten. They’re rarely taught in driving courses, except to emphasize not to cross a double-yellow line, and there aren’t many opportunities to practice the technique.

However, the more time you spend exploring the two-lane byways, the more often you’ll find yourself in a situation where you really do want to pass that slow-moving vehicle up ahead. To make a pass safely on a two-lane road just requires keeping a few guidelines in mind, then cultivating your ability to gauge the “closing speed” of your vehicle and the one coming at you from the other direction.

Obviously, there can never be any passing across a double-yellow line, or when there is a solid yellow line in your lane. To emphasize this, in most states there will also be a roadside sign stating “No Passing Zone” wherever visibility ahead is too limited to permit safe passing, and “End No Passing Zone” when there is sufficient visibility ahead to permit safe passing.

The first point to keep in mind in passing safely is that you need enough room to accelerate to a speed faster than the car immediately ahead of you, then you need to get far enough ahead of them to be able to safely return to your lane without forcing the car you just passed to slow up abruptly. You could work out the math, but a typical pass will require a minimum of half a mile, so you must be able to see at least that far down the road to make sure traffic is clear and there is enough space to complete your pass.

It is possible to pass even when you can see a vehicle coming toward you from the other direction, but the best strategy is to wait until they’ve passed you, at least until you are confident of your ability to determine the passing distance required, and to estimate how long it will take for the distance between you to close.

Here a second tip applies. When getting ready to pass, you don’t want to be right on the bumper of the car ahead. Instead, you want to have enough room so that you reach your maximum passing speed before you leave your lane to pass. That way, you will spend as little time as possible in the opposite lane before returning safely to your own lane. To do that, you should be at least two to three car lengths behind the car in front of you when you begin your pass.

If there is a vehicle coming from the other direction, and you can see far enough up the road to make sure that there will be space to pass after the oncoming vehicle passes you, then you should prepare to make your pass before the oncoming vehicle gets to your point. To maximize the amount of time you have to complete your pass, you should begin to accelerate as the oncoming vehicle approaches. If you’ve timed things properly, you will be at your maximum speed and ready to move into the opposite lane just as the oncoming vehicle passes you.

When passing, it is worth keeping in mind that it is illegal in all states to exceed the posted speed limit on any road or highway under any circumstances. In other words, if the speed limit is 65 mph, and you come up behind a farm truck going 45 mph, you’re permitted to go up to 65 in order to pass it, which isn’t a difficult pass. On the other hand, on that same road, if you find yourself behind a cautious driver doing 60, if space permits, you are allowed to accelerate to 65 to pass him. However, you can be ticketed if you have to accelerate to 75 mph in order to pass him.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Back Road Driving Techniques

Chapter Sixteen

Touring the Back Roads

Even if there aren’t any opportunities for track days or autocrossing in your local area, or you just don’t feel comfortable putting your new MINI through that kind of ordeal, touring can be a great way to enjoy time with friends, see the scenery and sights in your region, and have some fun with your MINI.

But even on pleasant grand tours, there are some advanced driving tips that can make your time on the road safer and more fun.

When The Route’s Brand-new

One major difference between driving on a track or autocross course, and driving on a tour on public roads is that you can’t learn the course in the same way. Even if you’ve driven a section of road frequently, you still can’t memorize the turn-in points and apexes of each corner the way you might on the track. So your mind-set must be different for touring. When you can’t be sure what the rest of the corner will look like, the major goal is to keep your car under control, rather than attempting to push its limits.

In particular, on roads that are new to you, you need to be aware that the curvature of the corner may change as you come around it. What was a reasonable speed when you entered the corner may be too fast for the radius of the curve on the other side.

Similarly, you may find that the easy corner is followed, right around the bend or just over the next rise, by a much tighter corner that you aren’t ready for. Generally, that means staying well within the limits established by the road and geography, rather than those determined by the car.

Old hands at road rallying suggest a trick to deal with blind crests that can help a little bit. If you’re coming up a rise or hill, and can’t see where the road goes after the crest, look at the telephone poles or tree line. Generally they’ll give you a clue to whether the road curves over the crest, and in which direction, or continues to go straight.

Nonetheless, whenever traffic permits, the twists and turns of a good backroads route can still allow you to enjoy the handling and power of your MINI. Generally, it can be more challenging to drive a two-lane back road near the 45 mph speed limit, than it is to drive a divided highway at 70 mph.

Be Ready for the Unexpected

Unlike the race track, out on the road, you don’t have a person with a yellow flag standing right at the apex to warn you if there’s an obstruction right around the bend. Instead, you’ve got to keep your speed limited to the level where you can use your reflexes and brakes to bring the car to a safe stop, or steer around the obstacle, without violating the laws of physics.

To be safe, you simply need to be aware of those times when you can’t see around the corner, and so need to slow down to the speed noted on the caution sign and be alert to what’s on the road as you do round that blind corner.

Don’t forget that you can drive around many obstacles rather than trying to stop to avoid hitting them. Often the safest course is to make a quick, slight direction change, rather than trying to stop.

As you drive, try to be conscious of what the sides of the road look like, as well as the road itself. If you do encounter that recreational vehicle stalled in the middle of the road, you need to know whether your only option is to slam on your brakes, or if you can safely go off on to the shoulder to avoid hitting the RV.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

You Can Learn a Lot by Watching

In between your runs, you also need to use your time effectively. After your first run, you may have some idea of which corners are toughest, or where you seemed to be slowing down too much. Watch the other competitors to see what line they’re taking through that portion, and watch where everyone seems to be having the greatest difficulty. As you watch, try to visualize in your mind what the course looks like from the driver’s windshield so you’ll have an idea of where to go when you’re on the course.

Many autocross events will require competitors to act as corner marshals on the course, with their primary task to replace cones that are knocked over and to help the starter make sure the corner is clear. These are excellent opportunities to get up-close-and personal as other drivers run the course. Check out the techniques of the fast drivers and see how they are taking specific corners. Their experience may help you take seconds off your own time.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

High-Speed Straights and Sweepers

Autocross courses are great places to find the limits of your car. In particular, most courses will include at least one high-speed sweeper. On these corners, you’ll want to get your car right at the edge of adhesion. You’ll be able to tell where that is by the squeal that the tires make as they struggle to hold on. You’ll often hear the saying, “A squealing tire is a happy tire,” but you won’t know what that means until you turn your car into that long curve then push down on the throttle until the car is right at its limits, using the throttle as much as the steering wheel to keep the car on course.

Gear selection and shifting is one of the few driving techniques that you probably won’t get to practice much when you’re autocrossing. Because most courses are so short and tight, you’ll probably find that you start in first, shift up into second as quickly as possible, and then stay in second gear for the entire course.
Occasionally an event may be able to set a course that does include one or perhaps two very long straight sections, where an upshift into third is needed towards the end to keep on the power band or avoid exceeding the rev limits. Even on these courses, you’ll need to downshift again almost immediately to be ready to power through the next corner, so you won’t lose much if you just run the car up to the top of the rev range without shifting.

Starts and Finishes

Nearly all autocross courses are timed electronically, with a beam of light and electric eye at the start and at the finish. As you make your start and cross the finish, your car breaks the beam of light, starting and stopping the timer.
For safety purposes, the SCCA has had a long-standing rule that there must be a right-angle turn before the start line, and another right-angle turn before the finish line. The cones that mark the turn before the start line, and after the finish line count just as much any other cone on the course, so you have to be careful in your start and finish. These rules help assure that cars don’t enter the course or leave the course at unsafe rates of speed.
The most obvious tip is that you want to be going as fast as possible when you cross the starting line, so that you begin the course with as much momentum as possible. Similarly at the finish, you don’t want to slow down until you’ve crossed the line and are off the course.
But you don’t want to be faster off the mark than the course permits. On many courses, the person setting the course will set up the first obstacle in such a way that the real hotshoes will find themselves in trouble as soon as they’re across the starting line.
When you walk the course, and as you sit at the start line waiting for your signal to begin, have a plan of attack on how you should negotiate the corner into the start line, based upon the direction you need to be going for the next two or three corners.
Similarly, there may be a complicated set of turns going into the finish that can trip up the unwary, causing them to be off the throttle just when they need a fast finish. Keep these possibilities in mind as you walk the course, and plan your strategies accordingly.
Gearing isn’t quite as complicated. With the MINI, your best bet on most courses is to start off in first, and then shift up into second as soon as you can. For the rest of the course, you can then just stay in second, confident that you’re well up in the rev range where you’ve got good torque for maneuvering. Few courses offer enough space to build up sufficient speed to justify a shift up into third or to require a downshift into first, and in most cases, the time you might gain by being in a better rev band will be lost by the time it takes to make the shift.

Setting Up the Car

During your first season, you don’t need to make many changes to the car. Most of your improvements in time will come through improvements in your own driving skill. In fact, the SCCA stock class places significant limits on what you can do to the car. In these classes you can make only a few changes to the engine. You can substitute a more efficient air filter, and replace the exhaust system behind the catalytic converter, but that’s about it on the power side.
On the suspension, you can substitute adjustable shocks and a front sway bar to reduce the car’s tendency to understeer. However, with the MINI’s excellent stock handling capabilities, it may take a season of practice before you would notice the difference in your time by these modifications.
What you can do within the limitations of the stock class is to replace the wheels and tires, so long as you stay within the stock sizes. Here you can make a great deal of difference in your lap times. As we’ve discussed above, by replace the stock wheels with a lighter-weight set you give the engine less mass to move. By mounting some good-performing tires to replace the run-flat tires that came with the car, you can get much better traction, and reduce the unsprung weight to boot.
If you get serious about autocrossing, you might consider buying tires that are designed specifically for racing, with a softer compound. However, these tires won’t last long at all if they’re also used on the street, so you would have to mount them on a separate set of wheels and put them on the car after you arrive at the event. Making this investment can certainly wait until you’ve worn out your first set of street tires and have gained the skill to take advantage of the improved tires.
But even if you decide to use the original run-flats for your first few events, experienced MINI autocrossers suggest that you can accomplish a lot by adjusting your tire pressures. You’ll probably want to increase the pressure on the tires so that they are less likely to roll. Inflate the fronts with about four pounds less pressure than the rear and you’ll do a lot to reduce the MINI’s basic understeering tendencies.
Another tip to find the right pressures is to make a mark with chalk or white shoe polish on the tire at the point where the tread joins the sidewall. If the mark is worn off after a run, then the tire is rolling over too far and you should increase the pressure that you’re running. Experiment with different pressures over the course of several sessions until you find a level that works best for you.
Be sure to check that the lug nuts are tight while you’re adjusting tire pressure and before going out on the track before every run. To be absolutely sure that they’re tight, you’ll need a “torque wrench” which measures the pound-feet of pressure required to twist the lug nut. You don’t need the best quality, since you won’t be using it every day, but a good one can be purchased for about $50. Tighten the lug nuts individually to 80 pound-feet and you’ll be sure that you won’t be singing, “You picked a fine time to leave me, loose wheel.”

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

Finding the Fast Line

Walking the course ahead of time can make a big difference. Since most autocross events only allow the drivers two or at most three runs, there really isn’t enough time to develop a strategy for the course and figure out the best line while driving it. Instead, serious competitors will arrive early enough so they can walk the course and scope it out.

When you do walk the course, try to ignore the rest of the crowd. Don’t just walk around to see where it goes; instead look at each corner, or sequence of corners and pause long enough to figure out how to go through that portion most quickly.

As you walk the course, divide it into cornering sequences and straightaways. You want to be in a position to get on the throttle quickly going into a straightaway, so that may sometimes mean planning your line through several corners in such a way that you can come out of the last corner at the right point and pointed in the right direction to burn up the straight.

The best strategy to deal with a sequence of turns leading up to a straight is to work backwards. Start with the straight, looking at where the car will be straightened out and pointed in the proper direction, then figure out how to take the previous corner so that the car winds up at the right point, facing in the right direction. Then evaluate the next previous corner and so on until you’ve figured out where you need to enter the sequence and how you should take it.

Autocross courses are typically made up of standard right and left turns, plus some ingenious obstacles that will be incorporated into every course. These include slaloms, chicanes, 360-degree turns, and sweeping turns. For each of these, we can offer some tips to take them as fast as possible

Slalom Segments

Slaloms are an important part of every autocross course. This segment of the course will consist of a straight line of cones, typically placed at equal distances from one another. The task is to go from right to left to right again, weaving through the line while maintaining as high a speed as possible.

To run a slalom sequence quickly, you definitely need to be looking two to three cones ahead, rather than simply concentrating on turning around the next cone. Drivers who focus on the cones one at a time typically start fast, then find themselves going wider and wider with each turn until they finally reach a point where they have gone too wide and can’t get turned without going off course or hitting a cone.

Instead, you should choose your turning point outside the line of cones, so that you just brush past each cone on the way to the point where you turn to line up to pass the next cone. If anything, you should start the sequence more slowly than you think will be necessary. That way you can gradually gain speed as you go through, rather than having to slide around and scrub off speed in order to stay on course.


Most courses you encounter are likely to have at least one section where the cones extend across your direct line of travel, on an otherwise straight section, forcing you to make a set of three tight turns, for example first right, then left, then right, to stay on course. These obstacles, a favorite of the fiends who lay out autocross courses, are called “chicanes.” (A good term, since the word is the root of the word chicanery, meaning trickery or deception.)

Often the chicane is enclosed in a box of cones to make the problem a little more difficult. A few tips will help you negotiate this obstacle as quickly as possible. First, remember that the main trick to autocrossing well is to turn series of straight lines into smooth curves. Don’t think of the chicane as a set of separate turns, but rather as a sort of slalom, where you want to take as straight a line as possible through the box.

Second, plan ahead to figure out where you want the car to be pointed when you exit the chicane. Then work your line back to determine how you want to enter the chicane.

Third, as you go through the chicane, don’t be tricked into dropping your sight line. Instead, look across and out towards the next turn as you enter the chicane. This will help you find the quickest way through.

Finally, don’t be timid, and don’t be tricked into making your turns sharper than they need to be. Be aggressive at the entrance and make your turns early. On most chicanes, you will be able to get on a straight line and back on the accelerator well before you’re actually through the obstacle, turning what could be three turns into only two turns.

Hairpins and 360 Turns

Another typical element of many autocross courses is the tight hairpin around a cone. Sometimes, the course may even require a 360 turn. This turn will be marked a single pylon sitting in the center of the path of travel with some large open space around it. Your challenge is to go around the pylon, executing a 180- or 360-degree turn and then continuing on the course.

This type of obstacle is tailor-made for the MINI’s front-drive capabilities and easily-reached handbrake. The trick to this is to use the handbrake or your left foot to release the grip of the rear tires on the pavement, then use the powered front wheels to pull you around in a controlled skid.

To manage this, you’ll drive close to the pylon, and when you’re even with it, turn the steering wheel to put the car in a sharp turn around the pylon. Holding the wheel turned with your left hand, you’ll give a quick pull on the handbrake, holding the button down and then immediately release the brake. You can also accomplish the same effect by using your left foot to stamp on the brake pedal and immediately release it, while keeping your right foot on the gas.

Either way, the quick braking should break the rear end loose so you can bring the car around with the nose almost touching the pylon. Once you’re about three-quarters of the way through the turn, you get hard on the accelerator to pull you back into a straight line and on down the course, and allow the steering wheel to unwind.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

Chapter Fifteen
Basic Autocross Techniques

Competitive autocrossing is a great alternative or supplement to track days. In autocross events, yours is the only car on the course while you’re running, so you don’t need to worry about anyone else getting in your way, or worse. Speeds are typically slower than on the track, so if something should go wrong, you are more likely to be able to deal with it than you might on the track.

Under the worse of circumstances much less damage is likely to be done should the car get out of control on the autocross course. Typically only a few cones will get knocked around, and your pride might suffer a blow, but that’s about it.

Autocross events generally cost much less to enter than full-blown track days. While you’ll get less seat time, when you’re in the car you’ll be learning as much about driving and car control as you would on the track, generally in a much more concentrated manner.

Principles of Autocrossing

Autocross techniques are pretty much the same as track driving techniques. They’re just done on tighter courses and in lower gears, but the same principles apply.

Look Ahead, Think Ahead

The first rule for all types of driving is to look ahead of where you are and look in the direction you want to go. In autocross, this means that as you make your turn, you should already be looking at the next turn, or often the turns after that.

By the time your car is coming around a pylon, there is little you can do to make any difference, so your eyes should be on the next turn, and your mind should be planning the turns beyond that.

Look for the Straightest Lines

The second principle of autocrossing is to find the line that allows you to go as straight as possible. The straighter the line, the faster you’ll go. In autocrossing as in track racing, you need to look for every opportunity to point the car in a straight line so you can get hard on the throttle. Typically in autocross, this means looking for the straightest line through the corners, rather than turning every time the course turns.

Don’t be deceived by the cones. They define the edges of the course, but have little to do with finding the fast line. This is not a game of connect the dots; instead it is a game of turning square corners into smooth curves.

Be Smooth

When you watch other drivers going through the autocross, they can often be divided into two camps. There’s the noisy, almost out-of-control driver whose car seems to be skidding and squealing around each corner, with abrupt changes in direction. Then there’s the smooth driver who seems to be fluid all the way through, with the car rolling easily from one turn to the next.

If you were sitting inside the car, you’d see the first driver’s hands moving rapidly on the wheel, so fast they almost seem a blur. The second driver’s hands wouldn’t seem to move much at all. His hands would generally on opposite sides of the wheel and not leave the wheel nearly as often.

Which one do you think will come in with the faster lap time? If you guessed the smooth driver, you’d be right. The really fast drivers know where they need to go, plan ahead, rarely get caught off-guard, and very rarely look as if they’re out of control.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

When You Get in Trouble

Sooner or later on the track, everyone has that moment when they believe they have just exceeded their ability to drive the car, or the car has just been pushed beyond its limits.

Running Out of Road

On a fast corner, you find that you’re going faster than you expected, and it looks as if you’re going to run off the outside of the track before you complete the corner. Or in the middle of a turn you find that your front or rear end is sliding and you’re not sure you can get the car under control. What do you do now?

By now, we think you know the answer. In your MINI, you are going to keep your foot on the throttle and use both your steering and your power to pull you through the corner. But what happens if you forget, or do find yourself in a spin. To answer this question, a little rhyme is often quoted in driver instruction: In a spin, both feet in.”

Once the car has gone into a spin, and you realize you’re just along for the ride, you need to do exactly the opposite. Now is the time to get your right foot off the gas and push the brake pedal in as hard as possible in order to lock up the wheels. At the same time, your left foot should push in the clutch so that the engine won’t die.

Locking up the wheels will generally keep the car spinning in a reasonably small area. Having the clutch in means that no power will get to the wheels that could cause the car to go shooting off in a different direction as soon as it regains traction.

In addition, the engine will still be running when you finally come to a stop. That will allow you to immediately shift into a lower gear and get the car to a point where you’re safe or where you can get back on track and into the flow of traffic.

Dropping a Wheel Off the Edge

It’s more likely that you might turn in a little too early, get too close to the edge at the exit, and have one or both of your outside wheels go off the track. Dropping one or two wheels off the track can be fairly benign, or the prelude to disaster.

If you do take a corner too fast, and can’t turn the car enough to stay completely on the track, you may find yourself with one or both wheels on one side of the car dropping off the track. Usually you’ll have a pretty good idea that this is going to happen before it actually does, so you can prepare yourself for it.

Just as soon as a wheel goes off the track, the car is going to get pretty squirrelly (No, that’s not a technical term.). The wheels in the dirt are going to have very different traction than the wheels that are still on the track.

At that point, the worst thing you can do is try to wrench the car back on the track. If you do try to do that, just as soon as the off wheels grab the pavement again, the car will start to spin with a vengeance, generally sliding across the track and off again on the opposite side. That is, if you don’t encounter other cars as you slide across the track.

Instead, when you realize you’re about to drop wheels off, you’re better off continuing in a straight line until you either drive completely off the track, or slow down to the point where you can consider driving back on to the track.

If you can get the car back under control, before you drive back onto the track be sure you look behind you to make sure that there aren’t any other cars coming up on you. Only after you’re absolutely sure you can get back on the track without getting in anyone else’s way should you actually turn back on the track.

Completely Off the Track

What about going off the track completely? In the event you do slide or drive off the track, the first thing to do is to come to a full stop to make sure that the car is still running all right and you haven’t broken something or sprung a leak.

Before doing anything else, wave your hand out the window to let the corner workers know you’re all right. If they don’t see any movement, they’re probably going to assume the worst and call out the ambulance.

Once you’re sure that everything on the car is still connected to everything else, and you’ve had time to catch your breath, then you can consider getting back on track. Before you do that, however, be very sure that you are entering at a point where oncoming traffic can see you, and be very sure that there isn’t any oncoming traffic.

Then, and only then, should you move back on to the track. Remember that you’re going to be moving slowly at first and allow for that when gauging how much space will be needed. Remember, there’s no rush. This isn’t Sebring and your racing contract doesn’t hang in the balance if you lose a few minutes.

Once you do get back on the track, most track day organizations will expect you to come back into pit lane immediately and check in with the chief steward. At the least, the official will want to check to make sure that there’s nothing hanging off or stuck to your car. They also may want to have a few words with you about why the car wound up off the track to make sure that you can be counted on not to be a hazard to yourself or others when you go back out again.

If you’ve gone off and you think something may be wrong with the car, you’ll need to wait for the crash truck to come and get you into the pits where you can figure out what’s wrong. If the car is in a safe place, well off the track, the best thing to do is wait in the car until the truck comes. Keep your helmet on and your seat belts fastened. That way you’ll be as safe as possible while you’re sitting there, and ready to have the car towed in when the truck arrives.

Even if the car isn’t in a safe position, you are still likely to be safer if you are in it, belted securely and with your helmet on. You wouldn’t want to be half in and half out of the car and then get hit by another car. Wave an arm and flip up the faceplate of your helmet so they’ll know you’re all right and don’t require immediate medical attention.

Stay in the car until the corner workers tell you to get out. Most likely, they will push it out of harm’s way, or keep the flags waving until the safety crew can get to you and move the car. Either way, they’ll need to have you at the wheel to steer the car.

Only in the event of a fire should you make the decision on your own to get out of the car before the corner workers or safety crew tell you to do so. In that case, don’t waste any time; just get out as quickly as you can and then move away from the car and over the wall off the track.

Once the truck comes, you need to have your helmet on and your seat belts fastened before they can tow you in. Then follow their instructions as they hook your car up to the truck and tow you back to the pits. No, it isn’t fun, and it will be embarrassing, but getting yourself and the car the car back to the pits safely with no further damage is better than turning a small annoyance into a major disaster.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Track Day Driving Techniques

Track Day Safety
Track days can be an excellent way to improve your driving skills and become more familiar with your MINI under reasonably safe circumstances. However, there are some good rules to keep in mind whenever you are out on the track with other drivers.

Obvious point number one: be aware of other drivers. One characteristic of nearly all track days is that the capabilities and experience of the drivers, and their desire to drive fast, will vary significantly. Unfortunately, abilities and need for speed also often vary in inverse relationship to each other.

You always need to be very aware of the drivers around you. Those in front may create situations to which you will have to react, and those behind you can startle you in unexpected places. Try to concentrate on everything immediately around you, but focus only on what is going on at the moment. This is no time to be thinking about where you’re going for dinner after the event.

Obvious point number two: follow the rules. The supervisors of each track day will have specific rules for you to follow that will be determined by the nature of the group you are driving with and the characteristics of the specific track.

For example, areas of the track where you can pass, and where you can not pass, are likely to be specified. Procedures for passing, such as that the overtaking car is always to go to the driver’s right or driver’s left of the car being passed, are also likely to be specified. These rules are not suggestions or simple courtesies. They are mandatory, and if the supervisors are doing their job, breaking them will bring a strong warning, followed on a second occurrence by immediate expulsion from the event.

Watch your mirrors. Even more than in everyday traffic, you need to check your mirrors frequently to be aware of cars behind you, especially those that are overtaking you. Try to develop a habit of checking your mirrors at least once and preferably twice on each straight portion of the track.

Check your mirrors first just as soon as you complete the corner to see if there may be a car behind you that will want to take advantage of the straight portion to go past you. Check again just before you commit yourself to the next corner to make sure that no one is going to try to get around you just at the point when you are coming across the track to apex the corner.

Allow others to pass safely. During your first few track days, when you’re feeling a little tentative about your car and your driving ability, and getting to know the track, it will seem as if everyone in the world is going faster than you are and is crowding your bumpers.

Typically, you’ll find that you’re being crowded on the corners, since you’re likely to be slowest in those areas. Don’t let that worry you, but be ready to let the faster cars go around you as soon as you’re in an area where passing is permitted.

As soon as you’re in a safe passing area, point in the direction you expect the driver to go as he passes you. The point lets the driver behind know that you know he or she is there and that they can pass you without causing you to do anything unexpected.

Don’t try to move over, or move off the line that you would otherwise be traveling. The driver overtaking you needs to know that you aren’t going to turn abruptly in one direction or the other as they’re trying to pass. It is up to them to make the pass safely.

It doesn’t hurt to slow down just a bit to allow the car behind to get completely around you before the next corner. Typically at a MINI track day, the cars will be fairly evenly matched, but driving abilities will vary.

As a result, you might be able to hold your own on the straight, or even outdrag the overtaking driver, but that proves nothing. If they can stay on your bumpers through the corners, then they’re probably driving better than you and should have the right to practice their cornering without having to slow up for you.

Remember that there may be more than one car behind you waiting to pass. They will often assume that if you’re letting one car pass, that you will be letting anyone behind them around as well.

Just don’t be disconcerted by being passed. If you’re courteous and predictable in your driving style, no one will mind that you’re driving more slowly than they are.

If you’re the overtaking driver, make your passes safely. As you gain a little experience, you may find that you are overtaking other drivers. In this case, it is your responsibility to make the pass safely. There are no ifs, ands, or buts about this. The safe pass is solely the responsibility of the overtaking driver.

After you’ve gotten near the car ahead, wait for the next safe passing zone and look for their signal to pass. If you are not sure the driver ahead knows you’re there, or not sure there is enough room to make a clean pass in the safe passing area, then wait until you can make the pass safely.

Be careful to completely pass the car ahead before you change direction. If you don’t think you can pass them before the turn-in point for the next corner, then wait until the next passing zone to make your pass.

If you find that you simply can’t get around a driver safely on the straights, even though you know you’re faster on the corners, then the best thing to do is to back off. Track days aren’t races, and there are no prizes for proving you’re faster than someone else. You might even pull into pit lane and then go back out on the track to give the slow car as much room as possible. Pausing for even thirty seconds is usually enough to get enough track space for yourself so you can go back to practicing at the speed that suits you.

Obvious point number three: If the program in which you’re participating offers to provide a coach or instructor to ride with you on your hot laps, take them up on it. This is no time for a macho “I’d rather do it myself” attitude. Once you’re out on the track, you’re going to discover that there is about twice as much going on as your mind can process and your memory store.

Having an instructor or coach in the car will make sure that if something starts to happen that is beyond your power to control, there will be an experienced driver in the car to holler or grab the wheel to help you avoid the problem. More likely, having a quiet voice next to you saying, “brake now” or “turn-in here” can help you stay focused.

Best of all, the instructor/coach can store up all the little data that you might miss or forget in the sensory overload on the track, and help you put it all in perspective once you get off the track. Having someone who can say, for example, “You’re coasting into the corners by pausing between brake and throttle,” can make everything suddenly make sense.