In 1961, Jack Brabham paved the way for rear-engined race cars when he finished ninth overall at the Indianapolis 500 against more conventional front-engined racers. The car was a Cooper-Climax T54. It's kind of fitting then that the car that bears the Cooper name today has its driving school at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Granted, the 2014 Mini Cooper S is about as far from Brabham's race car as you can get. But it's pretty great for learning the art and science of driving fast at the most hallowed ground of American speed.
That is what you learn at the Miles Ahead Mini Performance Motoring School, probably one of the best bang-for-your-buck driving schools in the U.S.
(Full disclosure: As Jalopnik's resident Cooper S owner, Mini wanted me to attend the Miles Ahead school so badly that they flew me to Indianapolis, put me up in a hotel downtown, and paid for a day at the school as well as my food and booze. I bought a guy from Mini's PR company some booze as well to prove that auto writers aren't total deadbeats. Really!)
This was the first time I had ever been to Indianapolis or the city's legendary race track. It's hard not to be in awe of the spectacle of the whole thing when you arrive. There's so much history at the Brickyard, and so many famous names that have raced and won and, in some cases, even lost their lives here.
If you love cars or racing even a little bit, you come to Indy with the same kind of reverence you might have for a church service. I did, at least.
Indy is the driving force behind many of the things that make Miles Ahead so great. The school was co-founded three years ago by ex-racer Ted Woerner and Stephan Gregoire, a veteran of Le Mans, the Indy 500, Grand Am and more.
Miles Ahead started out as a teenage driving instruction program, its founders realizing that driver's education in the U.S. is kind of a sad joke that teaches road signs and parallel parking and alcohol awareness but not, you know, how to actually control a car.
But they really wanted to do a performance driving school all along, and they finally launched one last year with Mini's help. The other advantage to being in Indianapolis, besides access to the Speedway, is the talent they have to teach the school — the instructors are all racing drivers stationed in Indianapolis for their careers.
When I participated, my instructors included Gregoire; Ryan Lewis, whose experience includes American Le Mans and the Tudor series, among others; Stephen Simpson, a South African who has done Formula Atlantic and Indy Lights; and IndyCar racer Pippa Mann, the first woman in history to win a pole position at the speedway.
It's a professional level of instruction you'd be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. They're also wonderfully kind, funny and patient people, even if you get mixed up and lose your group and end up in the wrong session and late for yours. (Not that that happened to me or anything. What were we talking about?)
Despite how good these teachers are, they're up front about the fact that Miles Ahead isn't a racing school. Rather, it's a place where drivers of all skill levels can learn the basics, sharpen existing skills, get comfortable driving on a track, and learn the kind of car control techniques that could save your ass in the real world. Some people during the session I attended were more seasoned on a track than I was; some were total beginners.
I'm certainly not a professional-level racing driver. I'll be the first to admit that. I've done track days and autocross and HPDEs before, so I'm decent enough to go fast on a course without killing myself, but I'm no Chris Harris. Hell, I'm not even Travis in an E30. (Don't tell him I said that, it will go to his head.)
But the good thing is that Miles Ahead has something to offer just about everyone, and they do so in the new Cooper S, which is a quick and reasonably well-handling hot hatch that's also hard to get into too much trouble in. Also, you get an enormous amount of seat time — the instructors guide students around the course in their own cars via walkie-talkies. It's a great setup.
Miles Ahead's instructors still pilot last year's John Cooper Works hatchbacks, but students drive the all-new Cooper S with the 189 horsepower BMW 2.0-liter turbo four-cylinder engine. Equipped with the new six-speed paddle shift automatics, the cars have few barriers to keep a newcomer from learning how to drive fast.
Miles Ahead's Mini Performance School offers a full day of classroom instruction, autocross and track time out on a section of the Indy road course. Next year, the'll be using the entirety of the 2.6-mile road course, which sounds awesome. They'll also start giving students high-speed hot lap rides on the famous oval.
How much for all that? Just $795 under a special holiday discount, which is both a.) cheap as hell for a driving school and b). an incredible value when you factor in the cars you drive, the instructors who teach you and the fact that it's at the most famous race course in America. It's actually kind of a steal. Been needing a last-minute gift for the hoon in your life? You're welcome.
So after a day of instruction and driving at Indy, here's what I learned.
This device should be on every Mini Cooper. Understeer is the Cooper's natural state. This isn't some state secret. It's a front-wheel drive hot hatch, what do you expect? But at Miles Ahead they teach drivers to compensate for both oversteer and understeer on a figure-8 autocross circuit. Understeer can be mitigated by lifting the throttle, transferring the weight of the car from the rear to the front. That technique is vital in a car like this one.
But how do you teach people to compensate for oversteer in a Cooper? With these "drift lifts," that's how. They're basically training wheels that get strapped onto the back tires, causing the Cooper to behave like a rear-wheel drive car in corners. Throw it into the figure-8 and you will quickly initiate a rear-wheel drift, as well as learn how to countersteer to right your car before you lose the rear end entirely.
Learning to do that is tough. It's unique to every car, and it's hard to find that sweet spot where you can "feel" when and how to countersteer. But my God, is it fun to use. I kind of wish every Cooper handled like this. Get the hang of it and you can go sideways along the figure-8 all day long like Gregoire does. They'll probably never make a rear-wheel drive Mini Cooper, so this is about as close as you can get. Anyone know where I can buy a set?
The car really does go where your eyes go. This is something I've been hearing since my first track day, and every time I do another I'm reminded of how true it is. Our eyesight is target-0riented. After a few reminders to pay extra attention to what I was looking at, I found myself nailing the apexes better when my eyes were focused on them. Keep your eye on the target and your hands, feet and brain will take care of the rest.
Rain has a psychological effect, too. The day I did this event, it was drizzly and cool in Indianapolis. Track days in the rain can be interesting. They can also mess with your head. In some areas I found myself holding back more than I would on a dry day. Sure, you're less likely to spin out in a car like the Cooper S, but it's still possible — a wet track cuts into your braking, your ability to accelerate, and even your own confidence in your skills.
Corners aren't what you think they are. Enter, apex, exit. It's that simple, right? Not at all. Every track is different. Every corner is different. At Miles Ahead the instructors led us through each and every corner on the section of the course we were using so we could learn to attack it properly. They taught me to take some lines I wouldn't have thought to take, which makes sense because they're racing drivers and I'm, uh, not.
Sometimes the right line isn't the one you expect. It takes constant practice to master a track and figure out its unique intricacies. Which brings me to my next point:
It's not just about this corner — it's about the next corner. This is one of the biggest things I took away from Miles Ahead. I've always thought of racing lines in a piecemeal kind of way — this corner, then the next corner, and so on. Instead, you should think of each corner as a larger part of a whole, a big unbroken line, and nailing a corner properly gets you set up for the next one.
Some of you may be saying "Well, no shit" right about now, but it was something I had to learn from doing it. In my case it was following Pippa Mann's Cooper with my own and paying attention to how properly exiting each corner put me in place to properly enter the next one. Put it all together, basically.
Use all of the track. You're not out for a nice Sunday drive with grandma — you're on a race track! Use all the asphalt you have available to you. Don't be afraid to go wide after exiting if that sets you in position for the next corner. Of course, this can get hard to do during actual racing, when you have other cars vying for the same spot, but racing isn't supposed to be easy.
Consistency is crucial. Watch Formula One, IndyCar, NASCAR, and just about any other form of racing and you quickly realize that the best and fastest drivers are the most consistent ones. The ones who nail the corners the same way every time.
For amateurs, I think this translates to "Learn from your mistakes." Once you learn the right thing to do, repeat it as much as possible. There's a difference between driving fast and being a fast driver; the latter comes from being as close to perfect as possible, lap after lap.
I really do need to autocross more. A timed autocross session is included in every class. It was my favorite part of the experience, a chance to apply all the skills we had learned previously in a competitive environment where the only thing really at risk are some orange cones.
I've done autocross before this. Most gearheads have. If they haven't, they really should. Why doesn't everyone autocross more? It's a ton of fun and you learn so much. Why don't I autocross more? Why am I not autocrossing at this very moment? Why am I even here right now?
The new Cooper S is a very good on track. Yes, it's bigger, and it's not especially prettier. We're all going to have to get over that and recognize that the new Cooper is very, very good, especially in this environment.
As someone who owns this car's predecessor, I was consistently impressed out on the track with its eager throttle response, ample but always manageable power, lack of brake fade, and overall flatness in the corners. These cars have always been good on track and the new one is too. The jump in interior quality and technology between this car and the last model is huge as well.
The Cooper S ends up being just about the perfect car for what Miles Ahead is trying to, and that's teach people to drive fast properly at one of the best race tracks in the world.
Now I want to come back in a John Cooper Works GP and attack that oval. That would be fun.
Photos credit IMS, Patrick George/Jalopnik