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.