Increasing Reliability and Safety of your MINI Cooper

If you are thinking seriously about extensive touring, perhaps on less-than-smooth backroads, or you’re going to be doing much track time, sooner or later you will probably find yourself hitting a bump in a road, or taking an unintended off-track excursion. To insure that you don’t do any serious damage, you may want to think about protecting mechanical components under the car that are vulnerable to damage from uneven road surfaces. This protection will be even more important if you have lowered the car by installing high-performance springs and shocks.

You’ll also want to think about protecting the single most valuable component in the car on the course or road. That’s your head, of course. In this chapter we’ll give you some tips on buying a good helmet to protect your noggin.

Protecting the Soft Underbelly of your MINI

In the days when Paddy Hopkirk was racing the original Minis on long-distance European road rallies, one of the first modifications that was made by the factory was the addition of a sump guard—sometimes called a skid plate—under the car. The sump guard, as you might expect from its name, was primarily intended to protect the oil sump, the lowest portion of the engine, from being damaged. Such protection was critical, since the original Minis had their transmission under the engine, in the sump, with lubrication coming from the engine oil.

Even though new MINIs don’t have their transmissions under the engine, if you were to run over a large rock in the road, or some other obstruction when sliding off the road, it is just as important to protect the underside of the engine, including the oil pan, wiring, and fluid pipes. Stock MINIs do have a plastic sump guard, but those are largely designed to deflect stones thrown up by the wheels, rather than providing heavy-duty protection against large obstructions.

At least one supplier makes a solid steel sump protector that replaces the stock plastic guard. The design is also improved, extending further under the engine than the stock plastic piece. This piece essentially acts like the skid plate on a rally car, protecting the underside of the engine and transmission from damage, if you run over a rock or debris in the road, or a high-center section on a bad backroad.

In particular, the steel sump protector the power steering cooling fan which, on pre-2004 cars, is exposed under the car. On these early models, any kind of obstruction that gets into the fan can stop it, which will blow a fuse that protects the fan’s circuitry from overheating. However, when the fuse blows, it effectively shuts down the power steering, leaving the driver to wrestle the car back under control with only manual control.

We should note that the 2004 models and later have been modified so that the cooling fan circuit is separate from the power steering circuit, so you won’t lose the steering assist should the fan be damaged. In addition, a plastic guard was added to protect the power steering fan, which is certainly better than nothing.

The steel skid plate sump protector sells for approximately $120 and is straightforward to install, though it does require that the car be jacked up or placed on a lift to provide access to the underside of the engine.

Should you decide not to install the sump guard, it is still a good idea to protect the fan on any of these models. To do this, a drilled stainless steel guard has been developed by aftermarket suppliers that can be attached on earlier models to protect the fan, or used to replace the plastic guard on later models. The power steering fan shield sells for less then $50 and is very easy to install.

Protecting the Old Noggin

Under the heading of protecting vital components, you’ve discovered by now that a safety helmet is required for most track days and autocross competitions. If you’re getting tired of grabbing a smelly, old beat-up driving helmet from the pile on the pit wall, or using that motorcycle helmet you borrowed from your neighbor, you might want to think about getting a decent driving helmet of your own.

There are two types of helmets that are generally accepted for casual autocrossing and track days: motorcycle helmets and automobile racing helmets. The major difference is that motorcycle helmets are not made of fireproof materials and consequently are not acceptable for any kind of sanctioned auto racing.

Within both categories of helmets, there are open-face and full-face helmets. Full-face helmets are designed to provide full protection in open cars, and are somewhat safer for all applications, but are heavier and less comfortable. Open-face helmets are legal for use in closed cars in most sanctioned events, and will be lighter and more comfortable, but don’t offer as much protection against facial burns in the event of a car fire.

A general factor to consider when selecting a racing helmet is the material with which the helmet is made. Basic helmet shells are generally made of fiberglass, which is perfectly safe, but is heavier than high-tech composite materials. Generally, the lighter the helmet, the more expensive it will be. If you don’t expect to use the helmet often or be wearing it for very long at any one time—such as in autocrossing—the cheaper one may be just fine.

Another factor to evaluate in picking out the helmet is the size of the facial opening. This is largely a matter of personal preference, though helmets with smaller openings will be slightly safer. If you always wear glasses with your helmet, or get a little claustrophobic, you may prefer the largest opening you can find.

No matter what, you want to check the “Snell Rating” that is required by virtually all santioned racing organizations. A Snell-rated helmet is certified for compliance with accepted safety standards by the Snell Institute and carries a cetification sticker on the inside of the helmet under the lining. The sticker will have an S, followed by an A for automobile or M for motorcycle, followed by two digits, indicating the rating year.

 The Snell Institute is an independent, non-profit group that tests driving and riding helmets for safety, giving its rating to those that pass. The standards are changed periodically, and it is generally accepted that helmets become less safe as they get older, so the Snell rating number is changed every five years. Most organizations accept a helmet that was certified within the last ten years.

To be sure that you have an acceptable helmet, the last two digits should be 00 or 05, indicating the helmet was certified after 2000 or after 2005. Be sure to check this rating if you get an opportunity to buy a second-hand helmet from someone else.

Keep in mind that the protection in a safety helmet comes from compressible foam between the shell and the liner, and that foam can only be compressed once before it looses its protective capability. If you do buy a used helmet, make sure that there is absolutely no indication of any damage. A helmet can look all right, but if it’s been dropped, then the inside foam may have been compressed to the point where it will no longer offer any protection.

When you’re buying your helmet, you want one that is Goldilocks-right, not too tight and not too loose. For this reason, you should consider buying one in person, rather than just ordering one through a catalog. The correct size should be very snug and actually a little tight to get on, but you shouldn’t feel any uncomfortable pressure points that would give you a head-ache in a long on-track session. Once the helmet is on, you should try pulling the back up. A correct helmet shouldn’t move much, certainly not enough so that your vision is obscured. Similarly, grasp it under the chin and pull up. It shouldn’t move unless your head moves. To find the correct helmet, you may need to try several brands. Considering the price of brain surgery, the difference in prices shouldn’t matter much to you.

Typical helmets can cost as little as $250, or as much as $1000, depending on material and design. Of course, the sky’s the limit on costs for those fancy helmets you see the professional drivers wearing on Speed Channel. But then, they have been custom-molded to fit the individual driver’s head, equipped with radio equipment, and given that trick paint job. Whichever you buy, make sure that it is certified, and that it gives you a snug but comfortable fit, so that you get your money’s worth.

Safety Belts

For autocrossing and casual track-day events, you will need only the standard three-point safety belts with which your MINI is equipped. However, for added safety and better times, you may want to seriously consider purchasing a supplementary belt system with shoulder straps as well as lap belts that can be clipped into your regular safety belt system.

One good example of such a belt system is the Schroth Profi II Flexi Competition Belt, which is available through racing and MINI aftermarket suppliers. The biggest advantage of this system is that it will give you much more stability in active autocrossing. Instead of having to brace yourself with your hands on the steering wheel and your legs against the interior panels, the safety belt system itself will keep  you positively anchored into your seat.

The nice thing about this system is that the lap belts fasten to the same points as the stock front belts, and the shoulder belts snap into the regular stock belts in the back seat. One drawback is that the shoulder belts come up at a pretty steep angle from the rear clips. This won’t be a major issue in keeping you in place, and won’t even make much difference in a slow-speed collision.

However, we wouldn’t recommend these belts by themselves for use in highway use. In the event of a high-speed collision, the force of your body against the shoulder belts would likely result in severe spine compression, probably causing a more serious injury than you might sustain with the stock three-point belt.

There is a fix for this problem, however. Most of the same suppliers from which the Schroth belts can be purchased can also supply a harness guide bar from Stable Energies that will fit the MINI Cooper S. This bar fastens across the car and attaches to the clips of the shoulder portion of the standard three-point seat belt. Then the shoulder portion of the auxiliary belts is fastened to the guide bar to prevent spinal compression in the event of a high-speed collision.

The four-point auxiliary harnesses are available for under $250, and the guide bar can be purchased for about $100. They are legal in all SCCA autocross classes and will probably contribute as much to lowering your lap times during your first year of competition as any piece of speed equipment that you might buy.

For the person who participates in occasional track days and time trials, the combination of the four-point clip-in system and a guide bar would probably be marginally safer, and also help maintain car control. However, we should note that this system probably wouldn’t be accepted for wheel-to-wheel competition use on the track. When you’re ready to get involved in motorsports at that level, you’ll want to install a roll bar or roll cage set-up, with a full five- or six-point racing harness.

Go to Track Day Driving Techniques