ABF Road Tour: Fun Ride and Drive

Exclusive to Miniology.com By Jennifer B. Simes

When Rob Saunders tweeted that Miniology.com and MC2 needed someone to cover the ABF Road Performance Tour last weekend, I jumped at the chance. Now I’m not really a gear head or a racing enthusiast. I’m just your ordinary Mini owner who likes the occasional twisties and takes pride in the fact that my car can elicit smiles from young and old onlookers alike. My husband, on the other hand, loves the tracks and has been dropping hints (read: nagging me) about taking our Mini out on a race track and doing some laps. So I figured the tour was a good opportunity for him to drive high performance Minis and get some time on the track all in one day. How awesome is that!

So last Sunday, we got up early and drove to the venue, AT&T Park. Or at least that was what my husband and I understood “Candlestick Park” to be (yes, you can tell we are not native San Franciscans). My husband insisted it was AT&T Park and when we couldn’t find the ABF event, I really doubted if he knew his SF history and landmarks. Anyway, after a good few minutes of driving around the ballpark, rattling the nerves of the AT&T parking lot crew and making a few phones call to Hubie Lau, ABF’s director of operations, we finally reached the right destination – the other Candlestick Park. You know, the home of the SF 49ers (insert embarrassed grins here).

Police Car vs. Mini

I think we got there a bit early for the afternoon session or too late for the morning session. I was expecting a more festive mood and a crowded parking lot. But when we pulled in the gate and parked at the designated area, I noticed we were the only Mini owners there. No sign of other Mini owners as we made our way to the registration and signed our waivers.

The sky had looming grey clouds and the thought of rain immediately came to my mind. “Driving Minis on a wet track! Oh this is gonna be fun!” I said to myself. But inside, I was quaking in my boots. I’d rather cruise happily on a dry road. So we were faced with the prospect that the weather may not cooperate. Top that off with a police car pulling inside the parking lot. I said to myself, “Uh oh, is there going to be a problem with the law, too?”

The two police officers headed to the registration. Hubie welcomed them with a smile and it turned out they wanted to ride the Minis as passengers. “They wanted to see how fast the Mini can go and how it handles,” Hubie informs us. The officers both rode the JCW Minis (which were reserved for VIPs) with the professional drivers at the wheel. It was a short ride because those JCWs went through the track in less than a minute. And it looked like the officers had fun. They had smiles on their faces and so I assumed they DID had fun.

And as proof, they requested to go after one of the Minis on the track with their police cruiser! The organizers obliged. It’s not everyday one gets to see a simulated police chase on a track. And this was a police car versus a Mini. I could tell this was going to be one of the highlights of the day. They brought the orange Mini equipped with Yokohama’s ecofriendly tires on the starting point, while the officers positioned their car behind it. It looked like a scene straight from the movie, “The Italian Job.”

The Mini sped away and left the cop car behind and everyone who witnessed the chase was in awe. Hubie jokingly says, “This goes to show that if you have a Mini, you can always get away.” Good thing he made that remark out of earshot of the officers. But watching a police car trying to chase after a maneuverable little Mini can brighten any cloudy day. Even the cops didn’t feel disappointed, they left quite satisfied with the whole experience.

Getting Behind the Wheel

Finally, it was our turn to try out the Minis. We were given a quick rundown of what will happen. You get to ride along with professional drivers on the first lap. This way, you can see how the Mini Cooper S performs and how the drivers negotiate the track. Then in the next lap, you’ll be the one in the driver seat to get a first-hand experience. One of the professional drivers explained that all the Minis have no enhancements in them (such as engine mods, suspension tweaks etc.). “These Minis are what you’ll get from the factory,” he says. “Except we have one that is equipped with high performance Yokohama tires. This is to give you an idea how the different tires perform on the track.”

My husband wasted no time doing the laps. I, on the other hand, went to interview Hubie for the MC2 article. He was really enthusiastic about the tour, saying that this Ride and Drive experience aims to convert car owners, particularly the younger generation, into the Mini, as well as strengthen loyalty among existing Mini owners. “I think there are a lot of exciting things happening with the platform and this event is a great way to try it out. It gives them an opportunity to test the limit of the Mini and push its capabilities.,” he says.

After our interview, Hubie introduced me to George Dixon, a professional race car driver, as my guide to the whole ride and drive thing. Now I haven’t driven on an auto cross track before and I admit I was a bit apprehensive (I know a Mini owner afraid of an artificial twisty? What a disgrace!). My husband reminded me that I was able to go through a Phil Wicks Mini Driving Academy course so a little auto cross shouldn’t scare me.

Of course! What was I thinking? This was peanuts compared to that course, especially when you’re riding with George. He was fast and he knew the track like the back of his hand. I asked if I could video the whole thing and he just said, “Well, if you can manage to stay on your seat. But I think you may have to use both hands to steady yourself.” I did manage, barely.

During the first ride on a Mini with the Yokohama tires, I was able to hold on with one hand and shoot the video with the other hand. But my 100-pound frame swayed to-and-fro like a ragged doll being juggled about. A few quick brakes here and there, several sharp turns and ultra-tight twists thereabouts and we were done. Just check out my first and last attempt to document the drive on video and you’ll know what I mean.

When it was my turn to drive, I noticed right away how stable the Mini was and how the tires excellently gripped the road as I went through the sharp turns. To give me a comparison, George let me ride and drive another Mini with factory run flats. I could tell the difference on the track right away. The run flats slipped a bit more as the Mini negotiated the twisties and during abrupt braking.

Up next, George let me ride as a passenger on a JCW (unfortunately, I don’t know how to drive a manual). Even though I was only a passenger, I got to appreciate the power and performance JCWs are known for. No wonder the police officers were all smiles! But actually, I was more enamored by the sound it makes as it zoomed on the track. I mean, it sounded bad ass and that’s an additional cool factor for a Mini, right?

My last ride was on a Mini (not an S) with Yokohama’s dB Super E-spec tires. According to the brochure, these tires have reduced petroleum content by using orange oil in its manufacturing process. Orange oil in one’s tires! Who knew? I caught a glimpse of one participant who actually smelled the tire to check if there was an orange-y scent on it. I think these tires are so appropriate for the times, especially when we are all trying to reduce our fuel emissions and think of ways to save the environment. Minis already have good gas mileage but having these tires, which last longer and feature a technology that translates to fewer trips to the pump, can make our cars even more fuel efficient. For Mini owners, this is like enjoying the cake and eating it, too.

All in all, the ABF Performance Road Tour has a lot of potential and its mission to reach out to both Mini owners and non-owners are in the right direction. However, it could use more Mini owners to participate in the event. When we got there, things were a bit slow. I could count on my fingers how many people showed up to participate during the time we arrived. So I decided to stick around longer to see if there will be more people coming. When the weather let up a bit, people finally arrived. There were some Mini owners who came down just to observe while others paid VIP passes for a chance to drive JCWs. By mid afternoon, the Minis were zipping on the track and the staff were busily ushering participants. But I wondered what happened to the Car Show and other fun activities (awarding of trophies, “ask the expert” panels, etc.) the organizers mentioned in their news release.

But I think the tour has a certain appeal to Mini owners even without these “bells and whistles.” To get behind the wheel of a high performance Mini and drive it on an auto cross track really catered to that little speed demon that exist in each one of us. It also satisfied our need to test for ourselves the limits of the car we all love and adore. It was really a different kind of fun. My husband and I should know. We were there and enjoyed the experience tremendously. (Now if only the organizers would add a third lap where a cop car can chase you on the track while you’re on a Mini … yup, THAT would definitely push the fun factor up a notch!)

Jennifer will have a complete report for you in an upcoming issue of MC2 Magazine. Also, watch for our exclusive ABF Tour video which will roll out on Miniology TV this week.