2006 Mini Cooper S, 2012 Fastivus at Willow Springs

Photo by Erik R.
most other still photos on this page purchased from CaliPhotography - used by permission

If you're in the habit of paying attention to URL's, you might be wondering what a Mini Cooper S is doing starring in a directory devoted to VW R32's? Well, it's a long-ish story, but the the Cliff notes version is that I enjoy tracking my 2008 R32, especially with the SoCal R32 crowd. I had registered for this Labor Day Weekend 2012 event as soon as the plan firmed up, and planned to attend with my R32. Unfortunately, I blew it up the week before, so attending with my R32 was out of the question. I briefly entertained the notion of flying down, grabbing a rental car, and just sitting out the track day. After thinking it through, I decided that Mrs_Peach's 2006 Mini Cooper S was relatively "track-worthy", and I convinced her to let me borrow it. She was more receptive to the idea since she had recently wrenched her knee, and was not interested in driving the manual transmission Mini until she'd healed a bit.

I had driven the Mini Cooper S for about 6 months when it was new. I get asked by the car guys, so, "Yes, it's the one with the Supercharger." I always felt like the car had good capabilities, but getting the most from them had heretofore eluded me. When I tossed it hard, it under-steered, scrubbing badly, clawing for traction. When I gave it the beans, it had a wicked torque steer. The steering is scary quick, and overall there was a feeling that if you didn't give it 100% of your attention, you would be in the weeds before you could finish texting, "WTF?!"

On the drive down, I decided that the Mini's skill-set is largely wasted on I-5, so I diverted to the Northern Cali coast.

This turned into just the sort of "bonding experience" I needed before tracking the Mini at ludicrous speed. I learned to just not bother trying to shift mid-turn, give a little more thought to RPM management entering a turn and avoid the disruption of shifting on steering management. *That* simple trick lets me keep both hands on the wheel, which goes a long ways to mastering the art of steering the Mini at the extremes.

On Highway 1, California's famous coast highway, there are some very tight turns. It's not unusual to have a "pair of fifteens", 15mph hairpin turns, back to back. I'm not certain what sort of speeds I was running them at, maybe 30-40, but what did leave an impression on me was that I was using about "half a turn" of steering, in effect, "lock to lock" to execute those pairs of fifteens. There is no need to shuffle steer or hand-over-hand on a Mini. All of the important steering is in that half a turn.

Once I had that sorted out, magically the other handling "problems" melted away - turn in was crisp, and I stopped asking the car to do things that it couldn't. Throw in some late apexing, roll into the power smoothly and hang on tight while tracking out, and the Mini had found its groove. Or I found its groove. Whatever.

Our event hotel was the Palmdale Hotel. Departing from there on Saturday, I took the Angeles Crest Highway to Pasadena VW. That route was a whim, but if you're a SoCal driving enthusiast who has not experienced that route, add it to your bucket list. You have to work a little with the bicyclists, but most of *them* understand driving enthusiasts, and they'll give you hand signals for "safe to pass" if you watch for them.

Fastivus at Pasadena VW (for the second time) was epic. It's hard to say for certain how many R's were there, as they wouldn't all fit on the lot. Though I got there early enough to claim a parking spot, I elected to park the Mini on the street to save precious room on the lot for the featured cars.

APR made a big splash as a banner sponser, bringing a couple interesting race-prepped and near-race-prepped cars for folks to ogle. Nebby and the SoCal R32 crew did their usual excellent job in pulling it all together and kept it fun for all.

I got my "ask" in, and got permission from Nebby to track my Mini Cooper in liue of the R32. This is sort of one of those "who you know" situations, in that the event was set up for R32's and the 2012 Golf R, only opened up at the last minute to "Volkswagens in general" when it failed to sell out. Since I was among those who had traveled farthest, and I'd been to three prior events with SoCal R32, I got the nod.

I met up with some old friends and put faces to names for many of the folks I've interacted with on VWVortex. There is a real person behind the moniker "Slave IV", and he's got an "amused by the world" take on things that doesn't always translate well on the forums.

I also managed a wee bit of "mobile garage sale", selling off some accessories that I no longer have a use for. If it hadn't occurred to you before, a gathering like Fastivus is a nice concentration of fellow enthusiasts who might value your no-longer-used parts. Note to self: it would help if I cleaned some of them up...

After not winning the raffle *again*, a small crowd of us headed to Gardens of Taxco for dinner, where I mostly hung out with the down-from-Seattle PNWR crowd. Good food, good people, crazy drive. I don't know how people navigated in L.A. before GPS. Freeway, surface street, another freeway, another surface street, still more freeway, and then surface street again. Try all that with a five car caravan; don't strand anybody at a light!

I seem to be having trouble deciding if this page is a travelogue or a track day. I'll sort it out later...

On to the track - Willow Springs International Raceway is one of the oldest, and fastest, tracks in the West. By 'fastest', I mean the layout is more 'sweepers' than tight turns, so this track ends up with some of the highest average speeds of any road course anywhere.

It's not textbook "Mini" territory, but you drive what you brung. My first order of business was chatting with the folks at Speed Ventures about "bumping myself down" a run group. Since I was running the Mini, I didn't feel comfortable in the "high intermediate" class I had registered with, and selected "low intermediate" instead. Because, .:Pacecar. No problem, they welcome that sort of informed shuffle.

I elected to go out with the beginner group and "baby duck" the driving line, where you follow somebody with experience around the track at 3/4 speed to get a feel for the driving line. It's valuable teaching, but there's a couple issues with it to watch out for. First, like the old party game, 'Telephone', you're usually not lucky enough to be right behind the instructor doing the teaching. If you're three or four cars back, the tendency is to watch the car in front of you, and hope they teach you 'the line'. What you're seeing instead is 3 generations removed from 'the line'. If at all possible, you need to keep your eye on the 'lead duck' (the instructor) and follow what he or she is trying to teach. Keep enough of an eye on the duck in front of you to avoid rear-ending them, but get the line from the leader. Second, a line doesn't really speak to me until I can start pulling some G's, and figure out what it's trying to tell me.

Transitioning straight from beginner group to the low intermediate group, I committed a track 'faux pas' by not exiting the pit lane, circling the complex, and then re-entering. That earned me a, "OK for now, but do it right next time" from the pit control worker. Sorry, these oddbal situations have you making it up as you go along, with the basic rule being, "Go slow enough that you can react to anything - don't hurt anybody."

Back on the track with the low intermediates, the value of "baby ducking" the line became obvious. My track-mates needed a couple laps to get up to what I had learned in the previous mini-session. OTOH, I felt good in the first two run sessions that my times were solidly in the upper half of the run group, those that paid for telemetry, anyway. It's not so much that I have thirst to be the fastest, but since I was running a Mini amongst R32's, I didn't want to be holding them up.

Turn by turn impressions of WSIR:

Turn 1:
I'm not sure I ever really found the fastest line for me through 1. I started out doing a 5/3 downshift once I had graduated to something like full speed. I think my full committment to turn 1 was hampered by not wanting to do a full "race" application of brakes, since this is Mrs_Peach's street car, running stock street hardware. She had put me on notice that if I so much as wore out the pads, I'd better bring home a new Mini. Later in the day, I carried a bit more speed in the turn, and switched to a 5/4 downshift.

Turn 2:
The 'Rabbit Ear' turn was a genuine hoot for me. I got a pretty good feel for it early on, holding a line about one car width in from the outside edge as the sweet spot between maximum theoretical speed and 'good pavement'. Sampling the outside pavement, my notes said 'Hoppity Skippity', a judgement no doubt colored by driving a short wheelbase wide -track car like the Mini. I think on one of the videos, you can actually hear me saying 'Hoppity Skippity' while giggling like a schoolgirl...

Later in the day, after I started running turn 2 in 4th gear, I finally explored the limits of the exit speed there, tracking out to where I was close to dropping a wheel off of the outside edge. Once you do that, the "diagonal" to the entrance of Turn 3 makes a lot more sense.

Turn 3:
Early on, I was just holding 3rd gear, red-lining up to the entrance to 3. I graduated to running 4th gear in turn two, and downshifting to 3rd at the entrance to 3. This was also a turn entrance where I was using a fair amount of brake, both to slow the car and to set it up to rotate. I tossed the car in with some crispness, rolling into gas early to keep the speed up and access the narrower powerband of the Mini. Late apexing, I kept the exit of three constrained to about mid-track in order to set up...

Turn 4:
This one is hard to describe - you sort of kiss a false early apex as part of your exit from 3, then drift outside before a late apex past the corner worker, then back outside to run down the outside edge of the track before diving down into...

Turn 5:
I saw a few different lines through 5. The one that I enjoyed (not necessarily the fastest) was to brake into the entrance at the outside (right) edge of the track while still maintaining a right-turn-arc from 4. While under braking, start the left flick, wagging the tail while the weight is off of the rear wheels and rotating the car rapidly. This was sort of a first for me in the Mini, managing oversteer to my advantange.

Sorting the apex of 5 vs. 6 was an evolving process.

Turn 6:
The school line from 5 to 6 has the car hugging the right edge all of the way. As I added speed, I discovered a couple things - there's a good spot between the turns to upshift from 3rd to 4th, and if you've managed speed well, you get an exciting 'lift' just short of the apex of 6. The second thing is that as you develop speed through there, you need to enter 6 closer to mid-track, in effect later apexing, as this keeps you 'on track' at the exit to 6 instead of flinging you too far track out.

Turn 7:
The straight from turn 6 to turn 7 is lengthy enough to warrant upshifting to 5th. Turn 7 itself was more a 'landmark' for the entrance to 8 than a real turn, at least at the speed I was traveling. Still, it was a decision point between going 'balls to the wall' and maybe being a big chicken. At 115mph indicated, you start to question your sanity, your distance from home, and all those other intangibles as you figure out how much speed you really want to carry in the next part of the track. I downshifted from 5th back to 4th, every time.

Turn 8:
I don't think I ever truly explored the limits here. The line I learned in the "duck walk" was pretty mid-track through 8, with an ultimate turn exit at the outside left edge of the pavement to set up 9. As I evolved my speed through 8, I kept getting 'lost', going outside-in, then maybe inside-out. Bottom line, I wasn't willing to push the speed through here enough let the G's begin to speak to me and teach me the line.

I think if I had been in my R32, I'd be more comfortable pushing these limits, but I've never probed the 100mph+ limits of the Mini in a sweeping turn, and I don't know how it reacts to trailing throttle oversteer and the like. This seemed like a bad place to find out.

Inserting a video from James S. here, as he shows a different line, with a differing amount of testicular fortitude. Watch out for the quiet ones...

Turn 9:
Set turn 9 up from the extreme outside edge of the pavement; the way I did it there's a feeling of 'tap dancing' on the edge. Eyes up, look for the apex and turn in late. I strove to maintain a pretty smooth arc here, maybe lifting throttle a little, no real braking. My aim was to time the turn in and throttle up to manage the turn exit speed for maximum speed down the front straight.

In contrast, James told me in passing that he's holding a *lot* of speed through 8, and then braking hard in a straightish line into 9, vexingly he brakes just about where the 'debris field' is from those who have departed controlled flight and left the track. He had one of the top five times on the track, so he's doing something right.

Quit early
I passed on my last run, so I could pack up and hit the road. Part of the secret of making a SoCal track day work for me coming down from Seattle in a "five day weekend" is to make the track day short enough to allow me a 6-8 hour head start on the drive home.

Noting that Palmdale is sort of close to the Nevada border, I elected to go up the Eastern side of the Sierras, a bit of country I had not seen before. I figured if I could make it as far as Carson City, that put me "one long day" of driving from home.

As it happened, I decided to press on to Reno. Then at Reno, I had trouble finding a hotel room, tried Sparks, decided that was a bad place to be mucking around tired, and headed on up to Susanville, CA. The Best Western in Susanville rocks, for a roadhouse type motel.

Easy drive from Susanville up through Bend, OR, Yakima, WA, and over the pass to home.

Blank Willow Springs Int'l Raceway comment sheet

Comment sheet with notes from Labor Day, 2012

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