Touring the Back Roads in Your MINI Cooper


Even if there aren’t any opportunities for track days or autocrossing in your local area, or you just don’t feel comfortable putting your new MINI through that kind of ordeal, touring can be a great way to enjoy time with friends, see the scenery and sights in your region, and have some fun with your MINI.

But even on pleasant grand tours, there are some advanced driving tips that can make your time on the road safer and more fun.

When The Route’s Brand-new

One major difference between driving on a track or autocross course, and driving on a tour on public roads is that you can’t learn the course in the same way. Even if you’ve driven a section of road frequently, you still can’t memorize the turn-in points and apexes of each corner the way you might on the track. So your mind-set must be different for touring. When you can’t be sure what the rest of the corner will look like, the major goal is to keep your car under control, rather than attempting to push its limits.

In particular, on roads that are new to you, you need to be aware that the curvature of the corner may change as you come around it. What was a reasonable speed when you entered the corner may be too fast for the radius of the curve on the other side.

Similarly, you may find that the easy corner is followed, right around the bend or just over the next rise, by a much tighter corner that you aren’t ready for. Generally, that means staying well within the limits established by the road and geography, rather than those determined by the car.

Old hands at road rallying suggest a trick to deal with blind crests that can help a little bit. If you’re coming up a rise or hill, and can’t see where the road goes after the crest, look at the telephone poles or tree line. Generally they’ll give you a clue to whether the road curves over the crest, and in which direction, or continues to go straight.

Nonetheless, whenever traffic permits, the twists and turns of a good backroads route can still allow you to enjoy the handling and power of your MINI. Generally, it can be more challenging to drive a two-lane back road near the 45 mph speed limit, than it is to drive a divided highway at 70 mph.

Be Ready for the Unexpected

Unlike the race track, out on the road, you don’t have a person with a yellow flag standing right at the apex to warn you if there’s an obstruction right around the bend. Instead, you’ve got to keep your speed limited to the level where you can use your reflexes and brakes to bring the car to a safe stop, or steer around the obstacle, without violating the laws of physics.

To be safe, you simply need to be aware of those times when you can’t see around the corner, and so need to slow down to the speed noted on the caution sign and be alert to what’s on the road as you do round that blind corner.

Don’t forget that you can drive around many obstacles rather than trying to stop to avoid hitting them. Often the safest course is to make a quick, slight direction change, rather than trying to stop.

As you drive, try to be conscious of what the sides of the road look like, as well as the road itself. If you do encounter that recreational vehicle stalled in the middle of the road, you need to know whether your only option is to slam on your brakes, or if you can safely go off on to the shoulder to avoid hitting the RV.

Passing on the Backroads

Because we are so blessed in this country with freeways and limited-access highways, the old techniques of passing have largely been forgotten. They’re rarely taught in driving courses, except to emphasize not to cross a double-yellow line, and there aren’t many opportunities to practice the technique.

However, the more time you spend exploring the two-lane byways, the more often you’ll find yourself in a situation where you really do want to pass that slow-moving vehicle up ahead. To make a pass safely on a two-lane road just requires keeping a few guidelines in mind, then cultivating your ability to gauge the “closing speed” of your vehicle and the one coming at you from the other direction.

Obviously, there can never be any passing across a double-yellow line, or when there is a solid yellow line in your lane. To emphasize this, in most states there will also be a roadside sign stating “No Passing Zone” wherever visibility ahead is too limited to permit safe passing, and “End No Passing Zone” when there is sufficient visibility ahead to permit safe passing.

The first point to keep in mind in passing safely is that you need enough room to accelerate to a speed faster than the car immediately ahead of you, then you need to get far enough ahead of them to be able to safely return to your lane without forcing the car you just passed to slow up abruptly. You could work out the math, but a typical pass will require a minimum of half a mile, so you must be able to see at least that far down the road to make sure traffic is clear and there is enough space to complete your pass.

It is possible to pass even when you can see a vehicle coming toward you from the other direction, but the best strategy is to wait until they’ve passed you, at least until you are confident of your ability to determine the passing distance required, and to estimate how long it will take for the distance between you to close.

Here a second tip applies. When getting ready to pass, you don’t want to be right on the bumper of the car ahead. Instead, you want to have enough room so that you reach your maximum passing speed before you leave your lane to pass. That way, you will spend as little time as possible in the opposite lane before returning safely to your own lane. To do that, you should be at least two to three car lengths behind the car in front of you when you begin your pass.

If there is a vehicle coming from the other direction, and you can see far enough up the road to make sure that there will be space to pass after the oncoming vehicle passes you, then you should prepare to make your pass before the oncoming vehicle gets to your point. To maximize the amount of time you have to complete your pass, you should begin to accelerate as the oncoming vehicle approaches. If you’ve timed things properly, you will be at your maximum speed and ready to move into the opposite lane just as the oncoming vehicle passes you.

When passing, it is worth keeping in mind that it is illegal in all states to exceed the posted speed limit on any road or highway under any circumstances. In other words, if the speed limit is 65 mph, and you come up behind a farm truck going 45 mph, you’re permitted to go up to 65 in order to pass it, which isn’t a difficult pass. On the other hand, on that same road, if you find yourself behind a cautious driver doing 60, if space permits, you are allowed to accelerate to 65 to pass him. However, you can be ticketed if you have to accelerate to 75 mph in order to pass him.

Bad Weather Conditions

When you’re a long way from home and the weather turns bad, you may not have much choice except to deal with it. Rain, fog, snow, or ice can happen at the most unexpected times and places, and you should be mentally ready for the possibility.

Just as on the track under wet conditions, as soon as it starts to rain even a little bit, you need to slow down. Especially during the first rain of the season, oil and rubber that has sunk into the pavement will float back up to the surface very soon after the rain begins. Oily, wet pavement can be every bit as slippery as icy pavement and caution must be your first rule.

The same rules apply for highway driving in the wet as on the track. Make your changes in speed and direction as smooth as possible. Try to stay off the most heavily traveled section of pavement. Staying in the slow lane will allow less sensible drivers to get past you, as well as giving you a better chance of avoiding trouble if the problem arises.

If the rain gets very heavy, your best bet is to tuck under an underpass or preferably get off the highway completely to wait for it to let up. Visibility can go to zero almost instantly and the wet pavement can make it difficult to stop if someone in front of you skids sideways or stops without warning.

Fog is also a hazard that is underrated by many drivers. The moisture can make the pavement slippery, and visibility can be erratic. Because fog can gather in low-lying areas, you can easily drive into a space where visibility is only a few feet or less. Be aware of this, and if you see a thick area ahead, slow down to a crawl before trying to get through.

Fog lights are helpful, but are not a cure-all. They do focus the light beams on the pavement immediately ahead, rather than reflecting it off the fog, but do not give penetrate the fog any more than regular beams. In any case, make sure you’ve turned off your high beams. If you have high-intensity rear fog lamps, turn them on so the cars behind you can see you better.

In snow and ice conditions, caution is critical. Not only is it easier to lose control of the car, but if you slide off the road in cold weather, even survival can become a challenge. One of the most dangerous times to be driving is when the temperature hovers right around zero. Melted snow or rain on the pavement can easily turn to ice, especially on bridges and overpasses. Keep your speed down, and be very sensitive to any feeling of loss of control.

Again, make changes in speed and direction cautiously and smoothly. If there is snow on the road, you are generally better off driving with at least one front wheel in the snow because the grip will be better there than on the portion of the pavement cleared by the wheels of other vehicles. If you do need to put on chains, of course they go on your front wheels, since these are both your power and your steering wheels.

            Above all, don’t be in too much of a hurry to complete your journey if the weather turns unexpectedly bad. Be willing to get off the highway and hold up in a restaurant or motel until things get better.

Just be aware that you don’t want to get off the highway unless you are sure you’ll be able to find your way to a safe and secure place to stop. In bad weather, the back roads are likely to be less well patrolled than the main highways and the worst place to be is in an uninhabited and unpatrolled area.

Emergency Equipment for your MINI

Even if you’re never going to be more than a few miles from home, but especially if you’re venturing out on longer tours, you should equip your MINI with some basic emergency equipment. Put it in the glove compartment or in one of the rear stowage areas and leave it there. Check to make sure that everything is in place whenever you head out on the highway. Your emergency stash should include the following:

Never leave home without your cell phone and buy a charger for it that you can leave in the car all the time so you never have to worry about being low on power. Subscribing to an emergency road service such as available through most major auto insurance companies and having their telephone number in the car will take care of most emergencies.

A major credit card and a telephone credit card are also absolute necessities so that you can pay for a tow or emergency repairs, and make a phone call in rural areas where you can’t get cell phone service. In addition, tuck some money in five dollar bills and some quarters for the phone in an envelope in the glove compartment. Cash money may be all that’s accepted if you need to have your chains installed or convince a tow truck driver to help you out.

A flashlight is essential for many applications. One of those emergency lights that can plug into your car’s power source, plus a handheld flashlight that can be used to check a map, wave at oncoming traffic, or shine into the engine compartment are both good pieces of equipment to have. To protect yourself if you break down in high-traffic situations, you should also have some highway flares or tripod reflectors that can be placed behind the car to warn oncoming drivers of your presence. Any major hardware store or auto supply store will stock a neat kit with these kinds of supplies for your car.

A tire repair kit in a pressurized can, and a 12-volt tire inflator should also be part of your emergency kit. These kits are easy to find in catalogs, hardware, or auto supply stores. Incidentally, if you do get a flat tire on any heavily-traveled highway or road, don’t attempt to repair the flat on the shoulder. Instead, drive to the next exit and get completely out of traffic before attempting a repair.

You should have a small notebook, a pen or pencil, and an accident check list tucked in your glove compartment. In case of an accident, you’ll need to get the name, address, driver’s license number, tag number, and insurance contact information for any other drivers involved with you in an accident, as well as the names, addresses, and phone numbers of witnesses. Keeping a small disposable camera in the glove compartment also is a good idea so you can shoot pictures of the accident scene and the cars involved for use if any legal or insurance claims later arise.

You should also carry a good plastic flashlight and spare batteries to use in dark corners or under the car, as well as for after-dark emergencies. An emergency light that plugs into the power socket is nice, but might not work if your battery goes flat.

Even in high summer, a blanket is a useful piece of emergency equipment, and in winter weather it is critical. You can lay on it to check under the car, wrap up in it to keep yourself warm, or rig a shelter to keep off the sun.

If you’re going to be driving outside of urban areas, and especially if you’re driving in very hot or very cold conditions, a gallon of water that can be used for drinking or put in the radiator is worth having in the car. A day’s worth of calories for every passenger in the form of high-protein energy bars is worth tucking in. Even if you’re not stranded, hunger or thirst can ruin an otherwise nice trip.

Even if you are a complete klutz at auto repairs, having a set of basic tools and some emergency repair supplies. tucked in a plastic or canvas tool kit, can be a good idea. At the very least, combination pliers, a lineman’s wire-cutting pliers, a flat-head and a cross-head screwdriver, a medium-size combination wrench, a coil of repair wire, a roll of duct tape, and a roll of electrical tape can be very useful. With these few tools, you—or a helpful good Samaritan with some mechanical ability—can make a variety of stopgap repairs that will at least get you off the highway and to the next point where you can get cellphone service to call for emergency assistance. 

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