THERMAL, California – In 1961 the contingent of doubters was significant and loud, proclaiming,
There’s no way a tiny, underpowered and front-wheel-drive car can be competitive in racing!
But renowned racing guru John Cooper was confident that the nimble Mini had the right stuff to be a contender, and he proved it. Cooper had been through this before, having revolutionized both Formula One and later Indy 500 racing with single-seater, mid-engined race car designs.
In 1962 a Mini Cooper won the British Touring Car Championship against larger and more powerful machines. Then in ’64, ’65, and ’67 a Mini Cooper S snatched the victory trophy at the legendary Monte Carlo Rally, solidifying what would become a storied racing lineage for the tiny British car.
The Cooper family has been notably linked to some of motorsport’s greatest names, like Bruce McLaren, Bernie Ecclestone and Ayrton Senna, who sought out Cooper’s wisdom in driving or car building over the years. Even Steve McQueen was reported to stay with the Cooper family on regular visits to the UK.
Sitting comfortably in the bright, modern facility, sipping an espresso, it’s easy to get caught up in the excitement of the Mini Cooper brand. The classroom is one of a few inside the spectacular BMW Driving Experience Center in Thermal, California, located just outside Palm Springs. Our hosts from Mini Canada had just riled us up with a great promotional video that showcased the highlights of the proverbial David-and-Goliath battles the Mini has endured over the decades.
But before getting into the meat of the in-class session and then out on the track, our small group was joined by Charlie Cooper – grandson of Cooper Motor Works founder, John. Charlie shared some of the family story with us, including numerous pictures of the family with racing royalty over the generations. And while Charlie’s primary business focus these days is on his Cooper Bikes company, his family passion for motorsport couldn’t be ignored, and in 2018 began his racing career in the Mini Cup Series.
The quick in-class briefing consisted of the usual top line strategies delivered in high-performance motoring schools, intended to keep everyone safe and having fun. But once out on the course, we dove into a rather unique opening exercise: the reverse J-turn.
Where typically instructors will choose a suitably benign warm-up exercise to get a sense of everyone’s comfort level and abilities, the reverse J-turn stunt move was a rather more exciting and dramatic beginning.
Following a demonstration of the manoeuvre once – essentially accelerating to 65 km/h or so in reverse, then violently snapping the vehicle around and proceeding forward in the same direction in a single motion – we were queued up to give it a go. After one or two tries, most of us had managed to execute the move in a way that had us daydreaming about a part in the next Italian Job movie – and truthfully, it was much easier than the dramatic squealing and rear-tire-lifting suggested.
Our group was driving a selection of three-door Mini Cooper John Cooper Works editions – the most sporting of the current Mini lineup. Each car was saddled with an automatic transmission, which caused some grumbling amongst our group. Still, the two-pedal setups help to equalize the field of drivers, ensuring drivers with limited experience aren’t using up Mini’s clutches to figure out how three-pedal driving works.
What’s more, from an educational standpoint, the automatic transmissions allow each driver to focus more on steering, throttle, and brake inputs, enabling us all to learn the course and the optimal lines quicker. This proved important for our next exercise out on one of the road courses where we would do a follow-the-leader session behind the instructor. As long as we were all driving responsibly, the instructor continued to increase speeds, lap after lap.
Counter to most of the advanced driving schools I’ve attended, this program had us pair up two to a car. It’s one thing to be in control and learning at my own level, but to be captive in a car driven by another novice driver can be downright worrying.
But I didn’t have to fret since my partner – who admitted to being a tech writer, not an auto enthusiast – found the whole high-speed track time too stressful, and chose not to do his own laps. He also complained that my driving had stirred up a bit of motion sickness, as well, which is entirely believable.
While the Minis are very manageable and unintimidating machines, this did illustrate the challenges that these driving schools have. They claim to be suitable for drivers of all types – whether motoring enthusiasts or not – but even amongst a friendly group, it can be pretty intimidating, especially with a pack of BMW M4s repeatedly coming up hot from behind.
Still, after some coaxing, my driving companion climbed back into the JCW and we headed over to the third exercise of the day: a timed event whereby each driver would have two practice runs, then two official runs through what was essentially a glorified autocross course.
Here, of course, my fellow enthusiasts and I decided to give it everything we’ve got and prove our respective mettle as the world-class drivers we all believe we are. Given that he’s a Mini Cup competitor, it was unsurprising that Charlie Cooper threw down a ripping time. My Canadian peers and I agreed it would be rude to show up Mini’s hot-shoe ambassador, so we all made sure to post times slightly slower than Charlie’s (though one Quebeccer, perhaps exhibiting some latent anti-British sentiments, came within 1/10 of a second).
The Mini Driving Experience is a top-shelf operation. The facility is a veritable playground of all types of high-performance driving scenarios from skidpads to wide open spaces to practice stunts, to a trio of world-class road courses that can be stitched together for one track measuring more than five miles in length. The instructors we met were affable, approachable, and extremely capable, and truly seemed to enjoy their job (understandably so!). And even the meal served for lunch was excellent.
The Experience itself is well worthwhile and surely helped both the enthusiasts and non-enthusiasts alike in our midst to learn something, and share a lot of laughs. What’s more, it showcases what a capable and fun machine the Mini Cooper remains, all these generations after Charlie’s grandfather first laid his hands on one.