I have definitely knocked NASCAR a few times in the past with all of the lame cliches: “It’s just a circle,” “It’s not complicated enough,” and, “No, I’ve never been sexually attracted to my cousin.” But I’ve seen the error of my ways, and it took a front-wheel drive 228 horsepower hot hatchback banking the track of Atlanta Motor Speedway at 120 mph to convince me that stock car racing is a respectable, exciting and terrifying motorsport.
(Full disclosure: Mini wanted me to take part in its ongoing Mini Takes The States biennial nationwide road trip so badly they waited until Jalopnik EIC and habitual Mini buyer Patrick George was out on vacation to invite us to join them for the beginning of the journey. Sadly for Patrick, they had a manual 2016 Mini John Cooper Works ready and waiting in Atlanta for me.)
I really didn’t know what to expect when I agreed to join Mini for the beginning of the Mini Takes The States road trip. I knew it involved Mini owners and members of the press tackling a connect-the-dots journey that would stop in 16 cities, visiting various race tracks across the country over the span of two weeks. And that was about it.
But I had never driven a Mini, and I had never been to a NASCAR racetrack, despite living 15 minutes from Charlotte Motor Speedway. I never really had any good reason not to give NASCAR a chance, but I never felt a reason to check it out, either. Now I had one.
It seemed a wise idea to ask for something with a manual; a John Cooper Works if they had it. I was a little late to the game but, happily, Mini obliged.
The plan was for me to fly down to Atlanta, hitch a ride to the hotel in the early afternoon, and do nothing until the track event the next morning.
After about 15 minutes of talking to owners about their cars, I grabbed a Mini event planner and played dumb convincingly enough to score the keys to the Mini JCW I knew was waiting for me a day early.
The two minutes spent adjusting my seat while a Mini rep and a valet argued over who kept what part of the valet ticket were the longest of my life, but soon enough I was rolling through the streets, wind in my hair and exhaust popping like a bulldog that got into the cat food.
Just kidding. It was 5 p.m. downtown Atlanta traffic, and it wasn’t until the next day that I scored some quality time alone with the car in the streets of Charlotte, North Carolina to really get to know it.
They say no two Minis are alike, and I surely hope so. The mismatched paintwork on this JCW was not my thing, with black-with-red-stripes bodywork and a red-with-black-stripes roof. It didn’t make any sense, and I couldn’t recreate the look with the online configurator. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but for me this look just really doesn’t work.
Inside, the car looks and feels like Fisher-Price and BMW teamed up to make a leather wrapped Tomy Turnin’ Turbo Dashboard designed for crazy people. I didn’t know where or what the fuel gauge was until I realized the weird bars to the right of the speedometer were disappearing. The signature center-circle infotainment system was housed in giant chunks of cheap plastic. The circle shapes littering the dashboard reminded me of childhood Happy Meal toys, and the carbon-fiber-influenced checkered flag plastic inserts had no dimension, only adding to the stickered-toy look.
It’s not all bad in there, though. Holding me in were some of the huggiest and most comfortable seats to have ever graced my love handles. The manual stick felt nice in the hand, but the movements felt loose and there was a lot of play in the stick when in gear. I never had issue getting it where I wanted, though. At night, my face Trumped in the characteristically-BMW orange glow of the instrument panel’s lights.
Driving around the city in sport mode was almost too silly to process. I can guarantee not a moment went by where I wasn’t smiling like an idiot, hitting the Mini’s overboost second-stage pedal, only to release at high R.P.M. to hear a symphony of gargling from the exhaust. People were noticing me. I felt like a hero. I probably looked like an ass.
I had about two hours to enjoy my car while the rest of the group wasted away in their hotel rooms before our scheduled event at Charlotte’s NASCAR Hall of Fame in Uptown. In an attempt to beat the crowd, I showed up two hours early, moved some cones, and very-illegally parked the JCW for a photoshoot. A very nice staffer came out thinking I was with Mini to inform me I was early.
But I had what I needed, apologized and went back out to play. Two hours later I returned with a group of hundreds of Mini owners gathered to eat, drink and check out a beautiful exhibit featuring the heritage and history of NASCAR. Just like the Grinch who stole Christmas, I was starting to warm up to it.
Jumping one day back in time, this is the point you should be wondering why Mini, an automaker known for being what some might consider the antithesis to V8 engines and rear-wheel drive, is hosting all of these events at NASCAR locations.
And that’s a great question, one that still puzzles me too.
But when you consider that the organizers are expecting over 4,000 Mini owners to participate in this year’s Mini Takes The States”, having a giant, paved automotive venue in major cities across the country solves a lot of logistics issues.
The actual driving started following an early-morning event at Atlanta Motor Speedway, with hundreds of Mini owners turning up, parking on the track and collecting in the stands to get all of the planning and talking out of the way.
The first cars to set off around the track were packed to the brim with food. This year’s rally is in support of the Feeding America initiative to end hunger. Owners are encouraged to come out to the events hosted in the 16 cities along the rally route and help donate towards the cause.
I covered the big event live over on the Jalopnik Facebook page, which you can watch below:
The call for the owners to load up their cars and set off after the ceremony resulted in an epic classic Le Mans rush to the hundreds of cars lined up in pit lane. The drivers were treated to a parade lap of the track as they headed out, and then the journalists got to play.
After originally being disappointed at the news that us press would only have a chance to follow the owners out on their parade lap of Atlanta Motor Speedway, our luck quickly turned. We were instructed to follow a camera car out for two tame laps, and not to ride on the embankment because slow speeds could cause engine damage due to the oil shifting to one side. Boo.
No waivers signed, no helmets on and virtually no supervision, we followed some executives and the camera car out onto the track for our two tame laps. But we were far from done.
As the camera car pulled off into pit lane, a Mini Clubman sneaked by on the right quickly approaching no-no speeds. The other press car followed, and I wasn’t going to be the one to give up a chance to fast-lap Atlanta when I had a “but everyone else was doing it” to back me up.
Out on the track the Mini JCW proved to be an extremely fun, responsive car. In sport mode, the needle passes well into the red line without a hint of a limiter, and the overboost feature and comfortable shifter make tackling speed a breeze (claimed 0 to 60 mph in 5.9 seconds, but I was too busy screaming to care).
Atlanta has a very, very rough track compared to Charlotte Motor Speedway (we’ll get to that in a minute), and I could clearly feel every butt-clenching slope transition into the banking curves.
This is the moment I fell in love with NASCAR.
My right foot was probably somewhere between the two front wheels at this point, the overboost had done its thing, and the car was working its way to the outer track to a point where it felt like driving upside down. I did the thing where you start shouting your speed while trying to remember to shift, my eyes set on pushing the needle into the checkered flag graphic marking over 100 mph on the Mini’s speedometer.
This was NASCAR! It may not have been real wheel-to-wheel racing, but I felt it. I needed to reach the damned checkered flag.
And I did, and then kept going. Coming out of the curve, the track flattened out and the car felt lighter. Into fifth gear, I found what I hazard was just above 120 mph.
It was hard. It was quite fun, but in a small car at high speed, feeling your weight shift to the left and the weighty thudding of the wheels against the pavement all becomes somewhat overbearing. It’s not anything like a normal driving experience. You’re having fun, but everything natural in you wants to stop after a few laps. It was literally warping reality, like the opening of Doctor Who, or trying to find your hotel room after an open bar. I was relieved when Roman from The Fast Lane Car pulled into the pits, and I followed.
But it was too late. I was in love. Throwing a car into a banked bend—sky to my right, pavement to my left—with the noise of an engine doing all it can and the sight of the Speedway stands quickly approaching ahead felt like nothing else. Not like the movies. Not like the pictures. Not like the broadcasts. The noise of the wind blurred into the forces attacking my body and the suspension taking the pounding of the track. This wasn’t Talladega Nights, this was Days Of Thunder.
Buzzing with adrenaline on the sticky pavement of pit lane, we all exchanged emotions of the Holy Shit Moment we had just experienced. And then we realized everyone was gone. Well, everyone except a hired sound crew packing up their truck who couldn’t care less about what we were doing.
We swapped drivers, hopped back in the cars, and I lost count of how many laps we did before deciding we should probably try to catch up with everybody on their way to Charlotte.
The sudden transition from NASCAR speedway to a six-hour journey of highway miles gave me time to process what had just happened.
The argument is tired, but, NASCAR really isn’t just circles, or ovals, or squares acting as racing drivers. It’s millions of dollars invested in aerodynamics and engineering. It’s the passion of hundreds of team members and millions of fans. It the planning, coordination, and sheer strength and willpower of drivers in a field of cars all within inches of one another.
I was a group of three Minis, nowhere near 200 mph, and it still felt too crowded for what was happening. Your reactions have to be quick, but calculated. Your focus shifts from just your eyes, hands and feet to adapt to everything happening around you. It’s fun and exciting, but it’s not easy or dumb, unless you’re doing it unsupervised with no proper track gear. Then it’s very dumb.
It took a lucky trip and a lap in a Mini to get me to a point where I could understand the thrill. I don’t think I’ll ever seek out a race on television, but I definitely plan on attending as many in Charlotte or wherever else as I can. I have two new itches. That will solve the first.
The second is the dangerous itch for a new car; a Mini. The JCW was fun—perhaps too much fun for my weird record of “improper equipment” citations at the local courthouse. But it was loud and quick when you asked it to be, and quiet and comfortable when you wanted it to be. Like all Minis, it’s completely customizable, and you’ll still manage to standout in a pit lane of 500 others.
If you’re in the market for a small, sporty vehicle, the JCW is the car you want it to be, when you want it because you can make it so.
I also had a few opportunities behind the wheel of a new Mini Clubman, which is almost a full-on luxury wagon. I only managed a sad parade lap of Charlotte Motor Speedway in that, but it’s comfortable and definitely has enough power to satisfy a weekend of heavy-foot syndrome in any trim, when the time comes. Just if you can afford it.
I don’t want a Mini simply because I was graced with a special opportunity to lap a racetrack. The standout steering, the wild exhaust gimmicks, and typical go-kart acceleration of the JCW are damn addictive, despite the plastic play-set of an interior. The fun value just might outweigh the financial value you’ll lose come re-sale time.
Meeting with so many enthusiasts devoting themselves to what feels like one of those timeless rallies you hear stories about made the Mini brand seem more like a club where anything and everyone is welcome.
The adventure continues across the country until July 23rd, so it’s not too late to drop in.
My newfound love for the JCW came from zipping through Charlotte’s city blocks. My newfound love for NASCAR came at 120 mph on the track in Atlanta.