Stunt driving has been a staple of cinema for as long as there have been cars and movies. Vehicular action has captured the imagination of millions, leaving many theater-goers fantasizing about recreating those skids, spins and slides in the real world. While extremely engaging on the big screen, it’s even more exhilarating to be behind the wheel yourself, burning rubber.
Mini has organized its own stunt driving program at the BMW Performance Driving School in Thermal, California for the past few years. While there are two other BMW Performance Driving School locations in Spartanburg, South Carolina and Indianapolis, Indiana, the Southern California location is the only one to feature the Mini Stunt Driving School. With Hollywood less than 3 hours away, it feels like an appropriate setting.
During my recent trip to the new Mini Manual Driving School with a small group of journalists, I got to spend half a day in the stunt driving school. Typically, paying customers participate in a seven-and-a-half-hour class for $750. My shortened three-hour experience meant that we skipped the basic car-control lessons on an autocross slalom and a wet skidpad and went straight for the main event: J-turns and reverse-180s.
Full disclosure: Mini put me on a flight out to Palm Springs, CA to be part of the inaugural class of the Mini Manual Driving School and spend time at the Mini Stunt Driving School, and supplied my lodging and food while I attended.
The heart of the Mini Stunt Driving School is an 800-foot by 325-foot piece of pavement referred to by instructors as “the Black Lake.” My group was split into pairs, each duo sharing an automatic Mini Cooper JCW. The hot hatch is fitted with a 228-horsepower inline-4 engine, and first thing, we were told to disable stability control.
The school’s lead instructor, Rob Stout, warned us in the classroom that we wouldn’t be able to avoid hitting the cones the instructors had arranged without sliding. He also told us it was essential to use the dead pedal to brace ourselves against the seat. Stout’s advice comes from over a decade of racing experience — he’s won two touring car championships at the national level. We only had the typical three-point seatbelts; if I had to use my hands to keep myself in the seat during a maneuver, I wouldn’t be in control of the Mini.
We weren’t going into the stunts blind. Cole Viernes, a driving instructor with nearly 15 years of experience, walked us through each stunt on the Black Lake. He talked us through each sequence step-by-step before performing the stunt himself as we watched. It was certainly impressive to see Viernes nail a move effortlessly on the first try, right before I took multiple clumsy attempts to replicate what he did.
Our first stunt was a forward 180-degree J-turn. The instructions seemed simple: Approach a coned-off box at 25 mph. At the turn cone, pull the handbrake and cut the wheel to the left. Ideally, the Mini should begin sliding around the turn cone at the center of the box. Then, straighten the wheel when you’re facing the opposite direction, and come to a stop. Once we made the turn, we would release the handbrake and accelerate out of the box.
It wasn’t as easy as described. I had to actively fight the hatchback. When you pull the handbrake while in motion, a huge warning on the Mini’s head-up display appears, alerting you that the parking brake is engaged. Instinctively, I took my hand off the lever and the wheels regained traction before I completed the 180. It took me three more tries before I got it. It was surprising how quickly a slide ended if the Mini’s rear wheels regained traction. The hatchback would go from a sled to a brick instantly. Once I kept the handbrake engaged, I was able to pirouette around the center cone.
The next stunt was a reverse-180. It was a bit simpler but required more bravery. I had to line up the Mini facing the straight-line course in reverse and pin the throttle, accelerating backward as fast as the car would go. Once I passed through a gate of two white cones, the fun began. I shifted the hatchback into Neutral and swung the wheel to the right. The Mini spun around to the left. The car would list over, the rear passenger-side tire briefly lifting off the pavement. It was an incredible sensation feeling the momentum of the Mini bringing it around.
Once the car completed the 180, I straightened the wheel out and threw the gearbox into Drive. Yes! I nailed the stunt on the first try. Some of the other students got a little ambitious, mashing the gas to pull out of the spin, but the instructors warned against using heavy throttle while the car was rotating. After three or four tries, the car’s cabin began to reek of freshly-burnt rubber. It smelled like adrenaline.
There was only one hiccup. When you floor the throttle in reverse, the Mini’s reverse proximity sensor goes off, despite the fact there was nothing behind the Mini for hundreds of yards. This is easier to ignore than the parking-brake warning, and I nailed the reverse-180 turn regardless. It felt awesome to swing the steering wheel aggressively and feel the Mini slide around on three wheels.
For the finale, we had to string together the stunts and concepts we had just learned into one Hollywood-worthy run. We began with the reverse-180. The spin led into a bus-stop chicane we would navigate before the approach to the forward 180-degree J-turn. Once we completed the J-turn, we accelerated through two tight 90-degree corners, a right and a left. The finish was a dramatic handbrake turn, as if sliding the Mini dramatically into a parallel-parking space. The ultimate goal was not to touch a single cone.
To be completely honest, I was pretty bad. I never completed the forward 180-degree J-turn successfully. On my best run, I still struck three cones. The other aspects of my finale were fine. I got to grips with the reverse-180 and carried good speed through the 90-degree chicanes and the final handbrake turn. Even with my rookie struggles, it was exhilarating pushing the Mini through these maneuvers.
The Mini Stunt Driving School was a thrilling experience that I’ll never forget. It was a challenge in more ways than one. I had to break through every self-preservation instinct developed over years of driving on the street. I also had to fight the Mini’s own safety systems, meant to be the guardrails for our instincts but rendered useless in the confines of a closed course. However, the struggle made success feel even more rewarding.
A full day at Mini Stunt Driving School runs $750 per person for nearly 8 hours of instruction and practice. Letting loose in a car without having to worry about my own tires was downright thrilling. I only got an abbreviated taste with my three-hour experience, but it was a time I’ll never forget.