I've owned my 2006 Mini Cooper S (Supercharged, 6-speed manual, sport suspension, open diff) for right at 5 weeks. So far it's been positively fantastic, with absolutely zero issues. It's gotten a consistent 24.5 average mpg with my 100 mile daily commute and hasn't even had a hesitant start-up in the morning, even when it's dozens of degrees below freezing. Sure, the tight suspension and rigid chassis, along with the hatchback body style, means that the highway portions of my commute aren't the most comfortable or the quietest in the world, but all of that falls to the wayside whenever I get into the twisty bits in the mountains or find a nice roundabout in town. The Mini, as one would expect, loves corners and curves. Its appetite for mischief is voracious and it is constantly egging you on to go just a little faster, turn just a little quicker, make that supercharger whine just a little louder.
After 5 weeks of this, I took the only logical step:
I took it autocrossing.
I will say this: I've never been autocrossing. I've always wanted to go, but I've never had a car that I felt comfortable autocrossing, nor have I really had enough friends who actually do it to talk me into it. Both of those things have changed since last season. I've gotten involved with an awesome group of fellow gearheads who are heavily involved in the southern Carolina region SCCA Solo chapter. In fact, my buddy who helped me buy the Mini and install the new stereo headunit (I wanted Bluetooth, AUX, and USB and happened to come upon a fitting headunit for cheap) is the new Regional Director, so about 2 weeks ago when he tried to talk me into going to the Novice School event yesterday, I had a lot of objections of the usual type, such as worrying about breaking the car or ruining my tires or the long drive from Greenville, SC to Darlington Raceway, yet he overcame each and gave me even more reasons why I should still go.
I made him a compromise. I signed up for the Novice School, but not the points race the next day. I did this primarily for 3 reasons: First, my fiancee and I are saving up to move into a new house at the end of the month, so I wanted to conserve money. Second, I only have my daily driven all-season tires that I need for commuting, so I didn't want to wear them unnecessarily, especially when they'd keep me from being competitive anyway. And third, the gaming group my lady and I are in had our biweekly Dungeons and Dragons game scheduled for that Saturday night. For those three reasons, I could only commit to the Novice School instead of the entire weekend.
So come 3am Saturday morning, my alarm goes off and I begin getting ready for the nearly 3-hour drive. Shower, breakfast, pack up my gear, check the tires and fluids of the Mini, and head out at 4am. It's cold. 22 degrees may not sound like a lot of some Opponauts, but in South Carolina, we're not used to it. Especially when it's usually in the 50's or 60's by lunch time. Worst yet? I left my driving gloves in the car overnight, so they're cold too. Still, they're better than nothing when it comes to touching the metal shift knob, so I don them after setting my GPS and I head out.
2 and a half very boring hours of highway driving later, I finally come through Darlington. I'd left the house with 3 quarters of a tank and I'm just above an eighth of a tank, so I pull in for gas, meaning to get it back up to a half tank so I don't have a bunch of extra fuel weight. Idiotically, I just throw in 20 because I'm on autopilot and when I get in the car, it's nearly topped off. Oops…
Arriving at the track, I have to take a side road, aptly titled "Racetrack Road", around to the back side where a giant parking lot and a small gaggle of Miatas and FR-S's await. A couple of the Miatas are driven by friends of mine and we exchange hellos before we move our cars over to the area where everyone will be gridding. At this point, other cars show up and everyone begins to file in, revealing a definite preponderance of Miatas, FR-S', and Mustangs. However, there was also plenty of variety to be seen as well.
The trailer shows up soon after and we all begin setting up the cones and equipment as more cars begin to arrive. Eventually everyone falls into a routine of setting up their parking spaces and removing everything loose or extra from the cars. Everybody registers, gets their car through Tech Inspection and then gathers around to explain how the day is going to progress, how work assignments are doled out, and who will be driving in which groups with which instructor.
"Oh, you're driving a Miata? So am I!" <- Every conversation at registration.
Once all that is completed, we follow one of the instructors around the course as he explains the layout, what all the cones mean, philosophies of how to attack the course and of autocrossing in general. After this there follows a short question and answer session.
"So we...DON'T hit the cones...right?"
Once all that is done, everyone goes back to finishing prepping their cars and we get underway. Since I was in the last group to drive, I worked for the first group as a cone-fixer and helped call out points deductions over the radio, alongside my buddy Harlan, whose parents drive an R53 Cooper S very similar to mine. Even just working was a lot of fun, as I got to watch the cars go through the course and see how they handled different sections- some better than others, obviously.
This automatic Camry got more sideways than every FR-S combined. Every. Single. Run. My hero!
Once our group was done working, we had some free time to peruse other cars and talk to other drivers, spectate a bit, and discuss the course. After the 2nd group was done driving, we took a break for lunch and about 20 of us all went to the Burger King down the road, as it was nice and convenient.
Harlan, myself, and his mom all carpool in the Mini, in order to keep it nice and simple. Pulling in, I was just amused as could be at all the other cars in the parking lot with masking-tape numbers and letter festooned all over their doors and fenders. I feel bad for the workers there, though, as they suddenly got swamped by what must have seemed like an invasion of Miatas, FR-S', and FWD hatchbacks.
After lunch, we went back and it was my group's turn. I was incredibly nervous. I was especially afraid of getting lost or missing entire sections, but surprisingly the walk-through earlier on did the trick and I retained the course layout quite well, as was shown when the instructor hopped in and asked me to recount the course to see if I remembered it. I passed with aplomb and we set off and got in rotation for the first run. I was nervous as hell, but the instructor was calm and easy to understand, walking me through the course as I went and before I knew it, I was through the finish gates and hadn't gotten lost. My time for my first run? 49.491. Not bad for a first time, but with plenty of room for improvement.
Obviously the first few runs were slow, as I was still getting used to the course and driving the Mini near the limit. I hit cones on my 2nd and 3rd runs, but my fourth run went flawlessly and I made a clean pass at 46.556. I'd shaved off nearly 3 full seconds over my first run! Whoo! In fact, Jeff, my instructor, outright clapped at the end of that run, as can be seen below.
Sadly, that was my last run for the first set of runs before we rotated back for the second half of the session and once the car was parked and cooling, I had to meet up with Harlan and run back to our on-track station to work Group 1's second set of runs. After we finished running our station- and screaming 'Doriftoooooooo!' every time a muscle car or FR-S kicked the tail out- we went back to our cars, which were parked side-by-side. I got my camera out of the Mini and asked Harlan if we could use his laptop to watch my videos and see where I could improve my times. But...the backpack containing the laptop was missing. It wasn't with the rest of our pile! What the hell!? I pull out my phone and see about calling Kyle, since he's in charge. I decided to sit down in the hatch area of the Mini (it's perfect bench height) and popped the rear hatch open only to see...Harlan's backpack! It turns out when we carpooled to Burger King, we'd tossed it into the Mini so it wouldn't be left with the pile of floor mats and water bottles and then forgotten to get it back out when we returned. Which meant…
Harlan's backpack, and the laptop contained within it, had been in the back of my Mini the entire time I'd been running the course for the first session! After I finished laughing myself to doubled-over tears, we hurriedly pull it out and open up the laptop. Screen's fine and no cracks or dents to be seen, so we fire it up. It boots up flawlessly. We share a sigh of relief and then have another good laugh about. We review my footage and decide I need to be more aggressive with the throttle and turn into a tiny bit earlier, but otherwise everything looks neat, tidy, and controlled.
Mini Cooper rear bumpers. Perfect for impromptu benches.
Until I line up in the grid for my second set of runs and my first instructor, Jeff, is nowhere to be seen. Instead, my buddy Kyle, the aforementioned regional director for this chapter of SCCA Solo and resident "Car Jesus", walks over to my car with a helmet and says "What's up?" Now, I need to explain something. Remember that article about the 10 guys you meet at every track day? If not, go read it now. It's ok- I'll wait. Done? Good. Remember The Alien? Yeah, that's Kyle. It doesn't matter if it's on the track, in karts, in the mountains, or just around a highway exit ramp; Kyle has rightfully gained a reputation for being insanely fast and being able to take any car whatsoever and drive it faster than should be mechanically or physically possible. And now he's going to instruct me around an autocross course in a car I've owned for barely more than a month?
Suddenly I'm nervous again.
But you know what? It went fine. Maybe it's because we're friends and we've already spent so much time discussing cars and riding in cars together, but very little actually direction happened. He'd just nudge me to turn a little earlier or get on the throttle sooner, but he didn't over-educate or try and make me drive like a carbon copy of him. He respected my driving style and preferences and just gave me nudges where I needed them. Between runs, we'd discuss what I can work on and what I did well, but it was very casual and mostly just us chatting like the friends we are instead of instructor and student. And you know what? My first run out in the car with him, I shaved a half second off of my time like it was nothing.
My second time around, he told me to worry less about keeping it super smooth and tidy and to try and just chuck it in a little more and trust the car. And while it was a tad bit sloppy, as the video below will tell, it was nearly another second faster than my previous time, netting me a 44.779 for my fastest time of the day. I'd knocked off more than nearly 5 seconds between my very first run and my final one! I was so proud of myself.
Once I was done with that run, I let Kyle take the wheel and do a run, as he was curious as to how the Mini was the drive and I felt like I owed him a spin. So we switched seats, told the control trailer it was an instructor run, and, after some fiddling with the gears, we were off. And I was immediately floored. He would just chuck it into turns with sheer abandon and I swear, he'd make the car grip by sheer force of will alone. It was insanely fun to be a passenger when someone who really knows what they're doing slings my car around the cones. When we passed through the finish gate, it popped up with a time of 42.288 and I couldn't help but laugh in amazement, despite the competitive side of me kicking itself and muttering "That son of a bitch!", haha.
So what did I learn? Well, I learned that I love autocrossing and want to do it again and again and again. I also learned that my car can do a lot more than I think it can, if you just drive it hard and trust in its innate capabilities while respecting the truthful limitations inherent therin. I also learned just what areas of improvement to focus on to make it faster and more competitive in its class. As such, I'm currently planning on installing an adjustable Hotchkis 22mm rear sway bar, some Koni FSD shocks (the current setup is plenty firm for smooth surfaces, but gets easily upset on bumpy surfaces), Cravenspeed strut tower defenders, MSD coil pack and wires, NGK Plugs, K&N drop-in air filter, high-temp brake fluid, better brake pads, and, obviously, a set of smaller, lighter wheels (TR Motorsport C1 16X6.5) with a set of properly sticky tires (Dunlop Direzza ZII Star Spec) instead of my high-treadware all-seasons.
I can't wait to see what the Mini will be like to drive once all that's installed.
[Reposted for the afternoon weekday crowd. Orginal posting was Sunday, 02-08-15]