The Mini was never supposed to be a performance car. When the 1959 BMC Mini hit the streets of London, it was an economy car that put a priority on space efficiency, fuel economy, and low cost. But somewhere along the way, drivers recognized that the diminutive hatchback was light, nimble and a blast to drive quickly. The BMC Mini went on to famously win the Monte Carlo Rally in 1964, 1965 and 1967, establishing itself among the ranks of legendary performance machines.
Today’s Mini might be built by a subsidiary of BMW, yet it has the same reputation for being a blast to drive quickly. So maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that the car has its very own school for high-performance driving, the Mini Performance Motoring School by Miles Ahead.
And there I was at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS) with a helmet strapped on and ready for some serious Mini motoring. With its fleet of 2013 Mini John Cooper Works coupes, the Mini Performance Motoring School’s program of basic car control training and hands-on track instruction on the IMS’s infield road-racing course seemed perfect for a racetrack first-timer like me.
Let’s Motor – QuicklyMiles Ahead, founded in 2011 by Indiana entrepreneur Ted Woerner and French racing driver Stephan Gregoire, is only entering its third year of driving instruction. Woerner, a long-time racing fan and Indianapolis resident, came up with the idea to host a racing school at the historic Indianapolis Motor Speedway and attracted the attention of Gregoire, a seven-time finisher at the Indy 500. Believe it or not, IMS has never before hosted a driving school in its entire 104-year history.
Miles Ahead started off with teen safety driving school in 2012 and then began offering the Performance Motoring School in 2013 for anyone over 18 with a driver’s license and $995 to spend. Woerner says the MPMS has attracted a diverse audience of students, including die-hard Mini enthusiasts, safety-conscious Mini Teen Motoring School graduates moving up to the next level, and father-son duos just looking for a fun day at the track.
My day at the Mini Performance Motoring School began with a short classroom session just a few yards away from the legendary IMS Pagoda. After a brief introduction to the team of four instructors (all of whom boasted impressive racing CVs), we transitioned right away into hands-on instruction.
The morning was full of training exercises aimed at getting comfortable while exploring the limits of the car. We started with skid pad training and trail-braking practice before moving on to run-throughs over short sectors of the infield road course. Following an instructor around the infield course helped me get a grip on track essentials like transitioning from hard acceleration into hard braking, hitting the entry point and apex of a corner, and responding to understeer and oversteer as I put on the power again.
Toughen Up With the JCWAfter my drive to Indianapolis in a 2013 Mini John Cooper Works Clubman, I was dubious of the benefits of the JCW package, as the stiff ride and snorty exhaust note got old quickly on the highway. On the track, though, the JCW package began to make sense.
The stiff suspension of the MPMS’s Mini coupe kept body roll to a minimum on the tighter corners and the car felt tight and responsive around the autocross course. Plus, the distinctive exhaust note of the JCW Mini brought a certain charm to our laps around the infield course.
By far the most fun part of the day was the autocross challenge, which pitted the 13 students against each other on a tight, technical course. The stakes were high – hitting a single cone meant disqualification. Yet outright speed was not the goal. Instead, the winner would be the driver who managed the smallest difference between fastest and slowest laps over a four-lap session.
This task required a surprising amount of focus. I never exceeded 35 or 40 mph on my run through the cones, but the intensity factor was high and I was lucky enough to emerge as the victor with a 0.4-second spread between my quickest and slowest laps.
Putting It All TogetherThe final session combined everything we had learned for some instructor-led laps around the IMS infield circuit where Formula 1 cars once raced and Daytona Prototypes still compete.
As the instructors started picking up the pace, I began to feel the delicate balance between finding the quickest line through the bends and exceeding the Mini’s limits. Entering a corner too quickly meant scrubbing off excess speed because of the front-wheel-drive Mini’s tendency to understeer, but by applying the lessons learned earlier I was able to approach the sweet spot thanks to helpful radio commands from my instructor.
Threading the compact Mini through the turns while taking in the sights of the historic oval surrounding me made for a special, unforgettable driving experience. At the end of my last lap, I found myself wishing that the Mini Performance Motoring School lasted more than just one day. Maybe it’s about time to sign myself up for a local autocross event. Maybe I should start by buying a helmet, you think?