In its 104-year history, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway has never had a licensed driving school – until now. Miles Ahead and its partner Mini have revealed the MINI Performance Motoring School, which takes drivers onto the historic Brickyard aboard racy John Cooper Works hardtops, decked in rally-like decals, and teaches them the skills to drive fast.
And they're crazy enough to let me be an instructor.
Miles Ahead, launched in 2010 by former IndyCar driver Stephan Gregoire and his business partner Ted Woerner, began as a program designed to help teen drivers become safer on the road – an epidemic here in the states where deaths per 100,000 road users rank amongst the highest of any developed nation. With growing success with teens, and the blessing of the Indianapolis Speedway, Miles Ahead and Mini opened the Speedway's first performance school.
I first met the folks at Miles Ahead in 2010, when I was racing in the IndyCar Series and living in Indianapolis. Since then, I’ve helped teen drivers learn car control and taught the importance of driving distraction free. For the new Mini Performance Motoring School, I wanted to come at this from an instructor’s perspective, discerning how Miles Ahead teach drivers, and what makes them stand out from the crowd.
The program takes place on the Formula One road course within the oval. It’s a track with long flowing turns and sizable runoffs, perfect for a 208-hp MINI that weighs just a tick over 2,600 lbs. The school is designed with the novice driver in mind, who simply want to experience a car on a track and learn where their limitations lie.
The day starts with a classroom session, explaining the basic fundamentals to track driving – most importantly, the racing line. The clientele are diverse and eclectic, much like Mini’s buyers. There’s an elderly gentleman and his daughter; a couple of middle-aged women, some young racers with their dads, and a few tire-squealing journalists. I introduce myself, briefly explain my silly British accent, and justify my credibility by offering up my racing accomplishments, such as finishing fourth in the 2010 Indy 500.
I don’t get booed. Always a relief.
From the classroom, the group splits into three: One group heads to a skid control lesson, the other to a braking exercise, and the third venture to the north end of the racetrack for a lapping session with me.
The skid car is a Mini with what looks like training wheels attached. The “Drift Lift” raises the rear wheels, causing the car to slide wildly at just 20 mph. Students spend time learning to handle an out-of-control car, and understand the theory of opposite lock. While these techniques are imperative for track driving, learning them is perhaps even more important for the road, where car control could ultimately prevent a wreck.
The braking exercise gets meshed with drag racing – always a hit for the students. After racing one another and bragging about who puts the power down best, the emphasis heads to hard braking, using the car’s ability to stop efficiently. Next, braking and turning becomes a focus, bleeding pressure off the brake as you enter the corner, “trail braking” and rolling speed into the bend.
While these exercises continue, I’m leading a line of five John Cooper Works Minis, radio in hand, talking the students around the track. We’re looking for cones signifying the entry, apex, and exit of each turn; I’m taking them through braking zones and explaining the importance of smoothness. As every lap ticks by, we’re going faster and faster. The students, too, become confident – even the complete novices revel on the road course made famous by Michael Schumacher, circled by the oval that's seen all the greats, such as Foyt, Andretti, and even Jim Clark.
While our thoughts center around driving fast, there’s little doubt we’re making drivers safer on the road. While offering an outlet for speed, we’re also teaching valuable lessons for every road user. With today’s machines now boasting what was once an unfathomable amount of power – now for attainable prices – it’s never been more important for a driver to understand how to handle their car. Drivers aren’t taking lessons to improve their skills as the machines around us become more capable; 500-hp monsters become deadly weapons when in the hands of the untrained.
After lunch, the day concludes with more lapping sessions and an autocross, delving deeper into the fundamentals of track driving, pushing the students further, and thoroughly destroying the Mini’s squealing tires. In many ways, a lower horsepower car like a Mini is more fun on track, as it’s forgiving and agile, allowing one to throw it around like a puppy thrashing a new toy. Being front-wheel drive, anyone can drive it, which is paramount for the school's fundamentals and Mini's wide customer base. But even for the adept, the day isn’t tame. As an instructor leading the line, I’m fluctuating my pace to push each individual to their personal limits, then rotating the trailing cars so the next driver has a turn following me. Trust me, we were hard on it, pushing the Mini to the max.
If you think a British car isn't a proper fit for America's greatest racing course, remember that it's where John Cooper ran his innovative Cooper Climax T54 – the only rear-engine car in the 1961 Indy 500, effectively launching the rear engine revolution with its top-10 finish. And how many people would like to drive on a track, but feel intimidated by brutish cars and wannabe race drivers with something to prove? This is a school where everyone is welcome, taught by the Speedway’s best drivers. And at $995 for the day, it’s among the cheapest schools anywhere in the country.
Miles Ahead take pride on being what they call “not normal:” They tailor to moms, dads, grannies, as well as the experienced track-goers. They have cars that promote confidence rather than fear. And with safety etched as a priority, helped in part due to their experience teaching teens, the average student leaves with skills that better prepare them for the road. As an instructor, not only was it fun to thoroughly pound a Mini around a track I love, but it’s also rewarding to teach, knowing I put my vast experience as a racer to good use.