When you open the door and climb behind the wheel of a MINI Cooper, you are not just the driver of the car, you are a member of a tribe. This became abundantly clear to me as I pulled the black and red 2016 John Cooper Works 2-door MINI Cooper S Hardtop I was driving into the parking lot of the Rocky Mountain Raceway in Salt Lake City, Utah. I found myself back in the Rocky Mountain states to join the last two legs of MINI Takes The States (MTTS from this point forward), the biennial cross country rally for owners of the diminutive cars from Oxford. There were already over 500 MINIs of every model, color and customization option parked on the blacktop with many more cars streaming in for the daily “Rise and Shine” breakfast and kickoff meeting.
When you drive cross country with on average 1,000 other MINIs, there needs to be some coordination and celebration and the Rise and Shine is that event on every day of the journey. For this year’s rally most of those were held on local race tracks. It kicked off on July 9 at Atlanta Motor Speedway and except for just a few stops, each day’s drive began at a track, some big and iconic, like Atlanta and the Charlotte Motor Speedway, others small local circuits, like the track in Salt Lake.
Rocky Mountain Raceway is one of those classic motorsports parks with a drag strip and a short paved oval that hosts everything from late model sports car races to quarter midgets and even crazy events like figure eights, trailer races and demolition derbys. Just 3/8 of a mile long, the events it hosts are as much spectacle as they are competitions. So it was only fitting that morning our entertainment was a jet car designed to look like Mater from the movie “Cars” burning up a wrecked Oldsmobile. I guess entertainment is a generous term for what we saw, but there were a lot of flames and smoke, so I’ll give them a pass.
Once the smoke cleared (literally), we were given an update on the number of miles driven and meals donated – MTTS2016 was a fundraiser for Feeding America – and teams competed to see who could raise the most donations along the way. The results were impressive. MINI had targeted donating a total of 800,000 meals, but by the time we left Salt Lake City that morning, the counter on the side of the tour’s support bus had already totaled over 1,000,000.
We received our final instructions (get to Las Vegas by 6:00) and sent on our way, free to choose the route that best suited us.
If you stick to the interstate, the drive from Salt Lake City to Las Vegas is 423 miles of dreadful, especially in a car like a Mini. Except for a 15 mile stretch from the Utah’s southern border to Littlefield, Arizona through the Virgin River Pass, there’s not much in the way of curves or scenery other than the arid desert of the American southwest with mountains rising in the distance. So my drive partner, Micah Wright from The Cheat Sheet, and I immediately went to Google maps to chart out an alternate route.
We knew we couldn’t avoid the interstate all together, timing would not allow us to drive on secondary roads for the entire route. We were able, however, to make our morning more interesting by driving past Electric Lake, around Candland Mountain and wind along aside Huntington Creek as we detoured on UT 31 from Fairview to Huntington. This is a brilliant road that traverses through the Manti-La Sal National Forest. As we ascended the mountain, the vegetation transformed from high desert scrub to lush pine forests and the temperature dropped from over 90 degrees to 68. We passed mountain lakes ringed by campers, saw wildlife and evidence of fires that healed long ago. Then coming back down the eastern slope of the range, we passed majestic striated canyons and peaks as we descended into the agricultural town of Huntington. From there we turned south on Utah state highway 10 and, it being lunch time, started looking for a local taqueria to satisfy our hunger.
Huntington isn’t a big town and we were beginning to despair that we wouldn’t find the kind of hole-in-the-wall, authentic Mexican cantina we wanted. As we neared the edge of town, a sign on the side of a low storefront drew our attention. There it was, the Palenque Gourmet Mexican Grill. There were a few pickup trucks parked out which dwarfed our little Mini as we pulled up and parked. Expecting a basic menu of tacos, burritos, tostadas and other regional fare, we weren’t far off. What we didn’t expect was the variety of stewed meats available. The aroma alone was enough to set off a case of the meat sweats. At the counter we were greeted by the owner who took us through the options and each type of meat and seasoning he had available. We sampled the range of spicy pork, chicken and beef, with two or three variations of each. After the samples alone I was nearly full, so I decided I’d have two tacos with a side of beans figuring for $3 the tacos would be the smaller variety you get from street vendors in Mexico. Boy howdy was I wrong. What I got was a plate full of food that could sustain me for days if need be. I pulled a Mexican coke from the cooler while Micah chose the house-made Horchata to wash down his feast.
Fully sated and refueled after a morning of canyon carving, it was time to settle in for the long, somewhat boring trip to Vegas. That gave us more than a few minutes to contemplate the pros and cons of the JCW Hardtop. First of all, this is a fun car. Plenty quick with a very willing 228 horsepower turbocharged inline 4, mated to a 6-speed manual transmission. The shifts themselves were slick and direct, with nicely defined gates. The lever itself was a few inches tall for my taste which made the throws a little long and meant that when we had cups or bottles in the cupholders, we banged our knuckles on them as we shifted into first, third or fifth. That hardly mattered when we were cruising down the interstate at 80+ miles an hour with the lever lodged in 6th and the satellite radio blasting out tunes as Micah introduced me to some of his favorite bands. But when we were slowing into a corner with very little shoulder and a 300 foot drop off down the side, it’s clearly better to eschew the coffee and keep the space clear for precise downshifts.
Some other things you’ll like about the JCW MINI are the brakes, which refused to fade no matter how hard we used them coming down the mountain, the really tight, precise steering and suspension that has plenty of give on the interstate while keeping things level on the mountain roads. Go kart-like actually does describe how this car handles. I was also impressed by the quality of the seats – firm yet comfortable as was evidenced by no back pain after 8-hours in the saddle. You’ll also like the fact that there are multiple drive modes that match your mood and the road you’re on. Not surprisingly we found ourselves mostly in sport mode (where we encouraged to “Motor Hard!”) even on the straight shot into Vegas at the end of the day.
We pulled into Vegas, a town where random traffic can be nothing less than infuriating. This city, LA and Atlanta are the reasons Waze was invented. If you haven’t used this app yet, I highly recommend it. Basically it combines information from Google with user inputs (you can report traffic jams, speed traps, accidents and other issues into the system) to help you find the quickest route to your destination. It works so well that Google bought the application and is now reverse integrating it into their maps, and it shaved a good 10 minutes off our trip to the hotel by taking us off the clogged interstate and routing us through a series of surface streets.
Once at the Hotel Aria, our base for the evening, there was a little time to relax before an evening of fun with the others on the tour. While I was having dinner with several other journalists and the communications team from MINI and BMW, there was a MTTS wedding taking place at the Little White Wedding Chapel. David Lata and Allan Danglacruz, of Elmhurst in Queens, New York City, who drove the tour all the way from Atlanta to Palm Springs, were married in front of an Elvis impersonator, several MINIs, and dozens of MINIacs who wanted to be a part of the blessed event, which seemed quite appropriate for this crowd.
That’s one thing about MINI owners. It doesn’t matter who you are, what other passions you have, who you love or where you’re from, if you’re driving a MINI you have a built in set of friends. You have a reason to strike up a conversation. An automatic connection. One great story that happened on the drive from Salt Lake City to Vegas was that a number of MTTS people came across a couple in a MINI that had broken down and left them stranded. They all stopped to help, called the tour’s support team, gave them water and waited for help to arrive, only to find out the couple in the MINI weren’t on the tour at all.
The next morning I woke up early and met Micah for breakfast. Considerably younger than me, he’d taken to the humorous and somewhat annoying practice of calling me “dad” or “pops” in front of strangers. I turned the tables on him by making the kid buy the old man coffee at the Starbucks at the hotel before we left for the Rise and Shine. One tip if you do go on MTTS in 2018: get your coffee ahead of time. The java at the event may be abundant, but a good cuppa it ain’t. The rest of the event features egg sandwiches, yogurt, fruit cereal, baked goods and other breakfast fare that’s surprisingly edible considering they’re feeding between 1,000 and 2,000 people each morning. And, on this July morning in Las Vegas it didn’t take long for things to heat up on the black top. It was well over 90 before I finished my coffee and we were all anxious to get in our cars, turn on the air conditioning and start the drive to the tour’s finale in Palm Springs.
Again, there was no specified route, so we hustled from Las Vegas to San Bernadino, leaving the interstate at Cajon Junction and heading up into the mountains and down the other side where we made our obligatory stop for an In-N-Out burger. It seems I can’t drive through California without stopping for at least one, which got me thinking about fast-food burgers and who makes the best. Whereupon it was decided that there needs to be a Rides & Drives Ultimate Burger competition. We’ll pull together a panel of experts, decide the contestants and do a complete test of the best burgers in America shortly.
With lunch in our rear view mirror we drove the short distance on the interstate to Palm Springs and checked into our home for the evening, the Ace Hotel & Swim Club. It’s a classic motor hotel with the doors on both the first and second floor rooms opening to the outside. With sound system that included a receiver/amplifier, an honest-to-god LP spinning turntable, and a selection of vinyl in every room, the music theme was a constant around the hotel. The rooms are fun and comfortable, and the entire hotel has a fun party vibe that continued well into the night. Things don’t quiet down there until well after midnight, so if sleep is your aim, you may want to stay somewhere else (or get a room further away from the pool than mine).
Dinner that evening was a group event at the Palm Springs Air Museum, one of the better places you can go to get a close look at the aircraft that helped the allied forces win the second world war. Divided into two exhibits, theirs the Pacific Theater hangar which features Corsairs, Grumman ‘Cats and bombers from the era. In the European hangar you’ll find a B-25 Mitchell Bomber, P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang, P-63 King Cobra, PT-17 Stearman, Spitfire and a C-47 that also spends time out on the tarmac. One short evening wasn’t enough time to appreciate all the fine warbirds on display, especially since I was mingling with the other drivers who had made the trek in their MINIs.
The final results are kind of staggering for an event like this. The total distance was 4,397 miles with more than 900 owners going all the way from Atlanta to Palm springs. In total over 4,000 MINI owners participated in the event raising enough money to buy over 1,000,000 meals for the tour’s charity partner Feeding America. And, the memories created are both immeasurable and indelible. If you’re a MINI owner, you should find a way to take part in at least a leg or two of MINI Takes The States in 2018. And if you’re not a MINI owner, MTTS is reason enough to consider becoming one.
For a final word about the trip, I’ll just leave it here.
While the manufacturer paid for travel expenses and provided the vehicle for this story, the opinions and recommendations in this post are 100% ours.