Taking it to the Track with the BMWCCA

Let’s just say it. Certain parts of the MINI community (like other automotive communities) tend to spend way too much time arguing over modifications to their cars. What works, what doesn’t and what’s too pricey. In some ways it’s all irrelevant. Sure after-market or OEM accessories are a lot of fun and can look, feel and sound great. But if you want to really improve your car, you need to focus on what’s between your ears first and foremost.

One of the best ways to do this (at least in the US) is to get involved in the BMWCCA (yes they welcome MINIs) and take advantage of some local track weekends. This past weekend that’s exactly what I did. I joined a few friends (MINI and BMW owners) at the BMWCCA Chicago Chapter’s Putnam Park track weekend. It also marked the first time on the track with my own R56 and the new JCW suspension.

Over the past six months I’ve been lucky enough to experience every flavor of the 2007 MINI at the track. From the cones of an autocross to Firebird Raceway in Phoenix to the famed Nürburgring Nordschleife in Germany, I’ve had ample opportunity to get to know the new range of MINIs in extreme performance situations that only the track can give you. But in some ways this track weekend was much more fulfilling.

The BMWCCA track weekend sessions were run in three classes: Novice, Intermediate and Expert. Due to my previous track experience I was placed in the intermediate group. The expert level is typically left for those with years of BMWCCA track day experience who have shown exceptional ability. Novice is for (as you’d expect it) those who are new or have just a couple track experiences under their belt.

The BMWCCA (and especially the Windy City Chapter) are incredibly professional and efficient when it comes to running events like this. Everything (and I mean everything) was on time throughout the whole weekend. They are also tireless in checking the safety of your car and of your safety equipment. And finally they’re dedicated to safety on the track with clear cut passing rules and an excellent instructor in every intermediate and novice car. Heck, they have their own safety vehicle.

But how did the new car stack-up you ask? Quite well actually. The morning started off rather poor when I realized that MINI recently changed the seat-belt design. This meant that the essential Schroth harnesses I had just bought from Outmotoring were now completely useless. A quick email from Aaron from Outmotoring confirmed that they did work on his early R56 and that the design must have changed between February and June builds. And while he offered a full refund immediately, it was a big blow for the weekend. A harness system of some kind is essential in extreme performance driving if only to hold your torso in place while braking and rounding tight corners in that order.

However once I got acclimated to the lack of a proper restraint I was able to focus on the car and the course. It became quickly apparent that both I and the car were faster than pretty much anything else out there in the intermediate group (other than a race prepped E36 M3 and a Porsche 997 GT3) I was placed in. Was it the car or the driver? I’d like to think the answer would be both but I think my instructor deserves a lot of credit as well. As I got to know and understand the nuances of the track thanks to his guidance, my fluidity and speed improved a great deal. He certainly deserves a lot of credit for talking me through each lap and helping under fully understand what works best for the car based on the needs of the track.

I also learned a few things about my own MCS over the weekend:

  • The “Lounge Leather” seating did a very surprising job in keeping both my instructor and myself in place despite the lack of harnesses.

  • Turning off your screen in your Nav unit (if equipped) helps you focus on what’s outside the car.

  • removing your mirror is essential for taking video from your car. It also helps to keep you focused on what’s in front of you rather than worrying about the red GT3 in your mirror.

  • The stock JCW brakes that come with all Cooper S’ are quite resilient to fade if driven with some skill. I spent two days and hours on the track and felt very little fade.

So whether you are a complete novice considering a track day for the first time or an intermediate or expert level driver with plenty of experience, the BMWCCA is an exceptional way to get a great track experience. In fact I can’t think of a better way to introduce you to what a MINI can really do.

  • Victor

    How did your brake fluid hold up?

    Personally i like Satisfied Brakes GS3 pads, but the eat discs for lunch, but stop well at normal temps.

  • How did your brake fluid hold up?

    Not bad but I’ll be swapping it out to Super Blue (as I did with my previous car) before the next track time.

  • Sorry to hear about your harnesses. They make a big difference on the track. And I am glad to see the rubber melting off your tires as well. I did Putnam Park earlier this summer on a warm day and just about destroyed my tires (Goodyear Eagle F1 GS-D3s). I don’t know what it is about that track, but it is hard on tires. The MINI can be pretty quick out there. I could keep up with anything in the intermediate group in the twisties, but that Murcielago beat me down the straight every time! Putnam Park is a fun little track. The only thing that I don’t like is turn 10 coming on to the front straight. It is almost off camber, and the concrete wall is too close. Did you find yourself pushing through 7? Through the real tight turns the nose heavy MINI seems to push on me, no matter which line I try to take. I just had to reduce my entry speed and stay off the throttle through most of the turn, which hurt me going down the straight.

  • mike

    I started a thread on NAM about R56 harnesses and one user posted that she modified the R53 harness to fit the R56. All she did was shave a bit of plastic from the connector to the front seatbelt. Not sure if that compromises the integrity of the harness or not.

    I didn’t learn about this until after I had sold my harness so I can’t personally attest to how it works.

  • Victor

    How was the ABS system, was it over active?

  • ah great- just what i need- more incentive to go for a track day. don’t you know i talk myself out of this at least once a month?!

    seriously though, a nice write up and nice brief review of the ‘track day’ experience. did i see that there is video? (hint, hint)

    :i:

  • Tony

    Gabe,

    Where did you end up on your tyre pressures? – I’m interested what you found the best front/rear bias was – ta

  • cct1

    I got involved in BMWCCA after encouragement on NAM from Vince, who writes the MINI column in Roundel. Best thing I’ve done since I bought the car.

    It turns out BMWCCA is making a push to increase membership, and one of the groups they are welcoming with open arms are MINI owners (Heck you don’t even have to own a BMW, and you can bring a car other than a BMW to track days if you like, as long as you’re a member). I was a little intimidated at my first track day, but quickly got over that–the instructors are great, and its apparent fairly quickly that the MINI holds its own against other cars in your group, as Gabe mentioned. And the MINI is very well thought of at these groups; when we lined up on the grid for the first time, one of the instructors said to my instructor something to the effect that “awe man, you lucky dog, you get the fun car…”

    The HPDE’s are well worth the time and effort. Its a top notch effort by BMWCCA, and the opportunity to learn safely is limitless. My instructor was fantastic, and the people there are great–one of the most worthwhile experiences I had was riding shotgun in an instructor’s MINI–helped tremedously with lines and braking points. People will give you all sorts of help with tire pressures, equipment, driving tips–the people at these events are just about the nicest people you’ll meet.

    Heck, the forty bucks per year it costs to join BMWCCA is worth the price of the magazine (Roundel) alone, and you get one local membership for free (You can join alternate chapters as well–Badger Bimmers, which is my default, and Windy City tend to go to many of the same places, so for me its a dual membership for next year, to double the track opportunities).

    The price for the track time, for what you get, is very reasonable as well. I can’t recommend this high enough; this is coming from the standpoint of a novice just getting into it.

    Apparently the Audi club is very tight with the BMWCCA clubs in our regions as well, and there is quite a bit of dual membership between the two clubs. Looking into that next….

  • How was the ABS system, was it over active?

    Your answer is coming 🙂

    The video is on my other site. Although DB is trying to talk me into posting it on MF.

    Where did you end up on your tyre pressures? – I’m interested what you found the best front/rear bias was – ta

    Again with Waylen’s help (from Way Motorsports) we ended up at 47psi for the front (warm) and 42 for the rear (also warm). We got to these numbers after looking at wear and the chalk marking we put on the sidewalks. With larger sidewalls I’ll have next year (40s) I’ll most likely be lower than that.

    The HPDE’s are well worth the time and effort. Its a top notch effort by BMWCCA, and the opportunity to learn safely is limitless. My instructor was fantastic, and the people there are great–one of the most worthwhile experiences I had was riding shotgun in an instructor’s MINI–helped tremedously with lines and braking points. People will give you all sorts of help with tire pressures, equipment, driving tips–the people at these events are just about the nicest people you’ll meet.

    I’ve been a BMWCCA member for 10 years now and I have to say that whether you bring a BMW or a MINI to events, you’re treated the same way.

    The price for the track time, for what you get, is very reasonable as well. I can’t recommend this high enough; this is coming from the standpoint of a novice just getting into it.

    Amen. Although it’ll be interesting to compare my experience at Putnam to my next experience where I’ve been told I’ll be moved into the expert category.

  • andy

    If you don’t mind my asking, what does it cost (not including BMWCCA membership fees) to spend a weekend at the track… and what all is included with that fee? (How much time on the track, etc.)

    By the way, I watched the entire 16 minute video, I thought it was fantastic.

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  • It depends on the track.

    A day at Gingerman was $225.00. That included seven track sessions of about twenty to twenty five minutes. Also included was two classroom sessions and in car instructors. So that averages out to about 30 bucks a session, with instruction included–a pretty good value in my opinion. This is much more than an autocross, but its also an order of magnitude more fun–nothing against autocross, its very technically demanding (In some ways more technically demanding than the track), and I know its an individual thing, but for me nothing beats going flat out on the track, surrounded by other people trying to do the same.

    When I got into this, my thought initially was “Only twenty five minutes a session”? Turns out thats plenty of time, especially when you’re doing multiple sessions. You need to give your car, and yourself, time to recover. You’ll be amazed at how physically and mentally draining a day at the track can be, especially if its hot out. But its also incredibly rewarding and worth every minute and penny.

    Road America, which is the highlight of the Badger Bimmer year (And the reason I got a dual membership, so I can do it twice next year) costs $380.00, and is a two or three day event, depending on how you do it. There are fewer but longer track sessions per day, and more classroom sessions than Gingerman. You’ll be hard pressed to find a two day driving school with the amount of time and quality of instruction you get on a track as good and prestigous as Road America.

    These aren’t the only tracks involved–Blackhawk farms is another, and Gabe mentioned Putnam, which I’m going to try next year–and there are other tracks close by (Autobahn) which are accessible via other outlets (I’m exploring those for next year).

    One thing to keep in mind, its more than just the track that you’ll be paying for. You figure out really quickly that there are basic tools you’ll need, and depending on how much you get into it, you may be looking at a second set of rims/tires dedicated to the track (unless you have camber plates, you can chew your tires up pretty quickly–I made the mistake of going to my first event with my everday Goodyear F1’s; although they did just fine on the track, I did a pretty good number on the outside of the tire, hence I’ve gone to a dedicated set of track tires both for performance and practical reasons).

    A great resource for getting set up for the track is NAM. Great suggestions for tools and setting up your car, as well as tips for the actual track day itself.

    The beauty of it is that you can be as serious or as casual with it as you want. If you just want to go occasionally, and don’t want to bother with tires, brakes, etc, you can still go out and have a great time and learn a ton. That’s how I started, but keep in mind if you go in with that intention, you may come out with an entirely different one–thats what happend to me, and now I’m saddled with a bunch of tools, another set of tires/wheels, racing harnesses (Mine fit though–sorry Gabe), and more plans for next year. Its addictive, and I enjoy every minute of it…

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