There is no one MINI event that better personifies the brand than MINI United. Over three days and two nights 6000+ MINI owners and enthusiasts come together to celebrate the car, meet new people and live the spirit of the MINI brand. This year’s MINI United took place at Circuit Zandvoort (a former F1 and current FIA sanctioned track) just outside of Amsterdam in the Netherlands and seconds from the ocean. To say the 2007 event was a success would be a disservice to it. Despite a little rain on the last day of the event, MINI United was simply the biggest and best MINI event yet.

This year’s MU (they are on pace to happen every other year) took place at the Circuit Zandvoort just outside of Amsterdam in the Netherlands. The location was ideal for such a festival – just meters away from the ocean, a gorgeous beach and one of the most beautiful and challenging circuits in all of Europe. The design of the event layout was also exceptional in that it allowed for easy access to every aspect of the event.

The MotoringFile and Whiteroofradio tent (or hospitality zone as it was referred) was centrally located looking over both the entrance and the main tent area. It allowed us to do all the meeting and greeting we could fit in three days while being just seconds away 75% of the event.

Our first day at the MU started out with Gert Hildebrand popping into the tent and saying “where’s Gabe?” What do you say when someone who admire greatly is there to meet you? We chatted briefly and it quickly became obvious that our interview scheduled for the day after would be a highlight of the weekend.

Our first interview was with Rauno Aaltonen – the original “Flying Finn” and the winner of the Monte Carlo Rally in 1966 (among many other victories throughout a storied career). I had always heard Rauno was an great guy who not only speaks seven languages but has deep interests in many topics along with a great racing talent. He also can tell a story like no one I’ve ever heard. His experiences racing Minis in the 1960’s are vividly re-told in conversation that can be riveting. Be sure to check out the full interview below:

Rauno Aaltonen Interview [audio:]

Download | 30:00 | 27.6MB

As the day progressed we explored the grounds and headed to the MINI Challenge area. As we approached the driver’s paddock area out popped a face familiar to most MINI (and Classic Mini) fans; Mike Cooper. Mike is the son of the famous John Cooper and the man who made the MINI the performance icon it is today. As most know, Mike heads-up the JCW brand and the production of JCW upgrades from the first R50 kits to the latest R56 engine kit set to be released later this month. He’s also an incredibly gracious and approachable person who you can’t help but immediately like.

Our interview with Mike was scheduled for the Saturday but he had time and was willing to take a quick walk over to our tent to make it happen right then and there. Along the way he regaled us is a great story involving the great F1 driver Jack Brabham and last year’s Monterey Historics. Like Mr. Aaltonen, Mike Cooper is someone you just want to be around – he’s had some exceptional experiences during his life and tells the stories with enthusiasm that can be infectious.

Be sure to check out our full interview below:

Mike Cooper Interview: [audio:]

Download | 12:41 | 11.7mb

Friday night was our indoctrination into the MINI bar and the dance floor. The party was literally making the floor bounce and the DJs were putting on a show that made you forget all about exchange rates and the money you just spent on a beer called “Bavaria” (that is ironically made in Holland). The pretty people (a staple of MU) were out in force doing what they do and looking very “MINI” during it all. One of the great things about a party at an event like this is the fleeting conversations with total strangers who have varying levels of English ability. There are few things I enjoy more than meeting people from other parts of the world and finding common ground or simply having a laugh while trying to communicate. In that regard every night at Zandvoort was exceptional.

Saturday was greeted with both bleary eyes and fresh faces as many were arriving at the gates for the first time. Within minutes of the gates opening it was clear that today would be the day to be at MU. But for us Saturday meant interviews. And first up was Gert Hildebrand, head of MINI design.

As someone in the creative field, this interview (and subsequent conversations with Mr. Hildebrand and the rest of the MINI design team) was the highlight of the event for me. Gert is a humble and endearing gentlemen who is both candid and incredibly funny. He’s also committed to the brand rather than committed to making a name for himself at the helm of MINI design. It was an eye-opening interview and one that I can’t recommend enough. Be sure to check it out below:

MU Interview / Gert Hildebrand: [audio:]

Download | 36:38 | 17mb

Next up was the main man himself, Dr. Kay Segler. Dr. Segler is the worldwide MINI brand vice president and the person you want to talk with for a glimpse into the future of the brand. He’s also (like seemingly everyone we spoke with over the weekend) a very gracious person who was an absolutely pleasure to speak with. He also let slip some final details on MINI’s new customer race car to be released in 2008. For all the details you’ll want to check out our full interview below:

Dr. Kay Segler Interview: [audio:]

Download | 9.4MB | 20:22

The constant beat you can hear in the background of all of these interviews gives you a glimpse into the atmosphere of MINI United. It’s an event (unlike large events in the US) that it’s noticeably young in it’s target demographic and actual attendees. The event is full of hip, beautiful people with a MINI attitude shockingly in-sync with what we see in MINI marketing throughout the world. Yet it all seems completely natural. People at MU seem to live the brand in a way that’s authentic yet effortless.

This gives MU a vibe unlike anything (at this scale) I’ve personally ever attended in the MINI world. You can’t get this in Vegas at AMVIV and you certainly can’t get this in the backwoods of North Carolina at the Dragon. Sure both are exceptional events that I will highly recommend. However MU is something entirely different. Something that is young, funky and full of energy.

Another great aspects of the event is it’s international flavor. For me MINI United is about bringing owners together from all over the world. It’s about finding this common bond (and in turn a common attitude about life) with people from every corner of the planet. It’s an exceptional feeling that regional or even national events simply can’t deliver on in the same way.

Later on in the afternoon we made our way over to the paddock area and eventually to the top of the control tower where we had an exceptional view of the first of the weekend’s MINI Challenges races. If you ever get a chance to see a Challenge race, don’t pass it up. Seeing these cars dive in and out of the corners within inches of eachother is truly something to behold. And the sound is something I’ll never forget.

It was also a pleasure to walk the pit area where the teams were prepping the cars. Having been involved in countless MINI related garage days over the years it’s fascinating to see the professional version on such a scale.

As the day faded into night the music took on a new urgency. We had some “supplies” of Heineken (hey we couldn’t find anything else) brought into the WRR/MF tent and decided to settle in for a few hours and talk about the days events. As luck would have it, it wasn’t long before MINI design lead Gert Hildebrand swung by. And once he was there, several other key MINI design staff decided to stop by for a few beers.

It was a surreal moment. Here I was surrounded by the man in charge of MINI design, the exterior designer of the R56, and several other prominent design staff. The discussions were memorable and it wasn’t long before subjects like the center stack and my general dislike for the factory aerokit came up. And once they did, the laughs didn’t stop. For one, I found out the Gert himself had designed the factory aero kit and that it had been intended to be used with painted arches. You can imagine the good natured ribbing we gave each-other from there on out.

As the night wore on I also had a chance to speak with Marcus Syring (main exterior designer of the R56) about everything from his daily driver to how Oxygen Blue was inspired by the Gulf Porsche color schemes of the 1970’s. Marcus (like his boss) was an incredibly gracious and open person who I genuinely enjoyed talking to. Throughout the night we touched on so many aspects of MINI design and automotive design in general it’s almost hard to know what all to recount. It was liking speaking to an old friend with similar automotive likes and dislikes. I also found out that his ideal spec for an R56 just happens to be exactly (down to the white color-line) what I’m picking up later this week. Needless to say the many conversations were absolutely fascinating from an automotive enthusiast’s and designer’s point of view.

From there we moved into the main tent area as both our beer supply was running low and the main act about about to go on. Throughout the rest of night I met MINI owners and enthusiasts from Germany, the UK, the Netherlands, Mexico and the United States. Being there with everyone from around the world in that atmosphere was simply magical.

Sunday started wet. While we managed to miss the rain that plagued Amsterdam (just to the north), our luck ran out on the final day of the event. As Todd, DB and myself drove up to the entrance we found Mike Cooper standing in the rain minutes away from being totally soaked. As he quickly realized who was in the car, his thumb went out and we pulled over to give him a ride. The scene was rather surreal, Todd driving with DB and myself in the back and Mike Cooper riding shotgun – all four of us reeling from the late night that ended just hours before. Yet Mike was a true professional; he not only made it for his morning autograph session but stayed longer than anticipated signing hundreds posters (among other items) that people put in front of him.

With the rain coming down Todd and I used this time to also pick a few MINI accessories that were selling for exceptional prices in the main tent. You’d be surprised at how well a JCW steering wheel travels in checked luggage.

As the rain continued we got to spend some quality time with some of the folks from MINI USA. Due to our tent’s central location it was always an easy place for people to relax and take in all the sights.

We also were treated to the final race of the weekend of the MINI Challenge. Again if you ever get a chance to see these cars in action, don’t miss it. The racing is close and hard and the sound is fantastic.

One of the main attractions of the event was the chance to take a “taxi” ride in a MINI Challenge race car around the Circuit Zandvoort. The only problem is that you needed to sign up very early in the morning to get on the daily list. And with my responsibilities it was something I never got a chance to to. Luckily I had an in. MF reader, co-founder and my ‘Ring co-driver Axel knew one of the taxi drivers and we formulated a plan to get me into the queue. Actually as it was happening it seemed less of a plan and more of two guys speaking German with the odd “MotoringFile” thrown into the conversation. Whatever was said, it worked. The next thing I knew I was suited up and sitting next to Chris (my Challenge taxi driver) in a real MINI Challenge car. We’ll have the audio soon but suffice to say, it was an experience I won’t seen forget.

After we packed up, we took a final walk around the grounds taking in the sights and sounds one last time. We also stuck around for the final ceremony and picked up one or two further souvenirs before finally leaving the Zandvoort Circuit gates. You can hear our recap of the event while driving from the track to out Amsterdam hotel below.

[ MINI United Wrap-up ] MP3 (coming soon)

Sunday night was spent with the fine folks from MINI USA who treated all US participants to a night out a Jamie Oliver’s fabulous “15” restaurant just down the street from the Movenpick hotel (our accommodations for our time in Amsterdam).

They also treated us to a bit more time with the always wonderful Rauno Aaltonen and gave us each a copy of the newly released MINI Book along with all the other swag we received as we had initially checked in.

And with that, MINI United was over. The ultimate MINI event in an incredible location surrounded by new friends from all over the world. It could not have gone better and I can’t wait for MINI United 2009 – rumored to take place in the UK.

MINI United is the type of event that every MINI enthusiast should do at least once in their lifetime. For those in the North America in particular I think it’s essential as I think it exposes you to a side of the MINI culture that we sometimes miss. And it gives everyone a chance to meet and mingle w/MINI owners from around the world in an environment that is truly special.

You can see more MINI United photos below:

[ MINI United Gallery ] Gabe’s Flickr Page

[ MINI United Set ] DB’s Flickr Page

[ MINI United Gallery ] Official MINI Flickr Page