“What is Mini feeding these people?” I thought to myself. I had just pulled into a parking lot in Sioux Falls, South Dakota to join hundreds of Mini owners for a breakfast/raffle/mingle and already ten impressively chipper individuals had introduced themselves before scurrying off to join the festivities.
This was my first introduction to Mini Takes The States (MTTS) 2016, a road rally that takes Mini owners (and often their dogs) across the U.S. in two weeks. The event has been scheduled every two years for the last ten, and it has grown from just 30 cars to over 700. I would be joining the herd for a stint from South Dakota to Utah – that much I knew. What I didn’t know was that I’d quickly be inducted into one of the most eclectic and friendly groups of people on the planet.
So how does MTTS work, why does it work, and who can participate?
From the outside looking in, it would appear that MTTS is simply a large-scale brand building opportunity. Round up a bunch of owners, steer them across the U.S., stopping from town to town like a traveling circus, and let the on-brand conversations commence. While that’s undoubtedly a brilliant side effect of the rally, it’s only part of a larger story. For one, the owners have just as much or more to gain from this exercise as Mini.
For a $75 registration fee, Mini provides meals, on-route events, parking, discounts, prizes, and even vehicle roadside maintenance for every car. That just leaves owners and their families with two week’s worth of hotel bills – and even those aren’t that pricey since Mini helps negotiate group rates. As long as you don’t run into trouble with any highway patrol officers, the whole trip is quite reasonable. To put it another way, Mini pays for a big chunk of your two-week vacation. Apparently, the event is so attractive, that one couple that had signed up for the rally chose to actually buy a Mini when they found out it was a requirement to participate. Sure, forfeiting the registration fee would have been easier, but who am I to judge?
Related: The 5 Best Sedans Under $20K
Then there’s the charitable side to MTTS. Mini has partnered with Feeding America, an organization dedicated to fighting domestic hunger. Owners are encouraged to create their own fundraising pages through Feeding America® and receive badges based on how much is raised. By the time we’d hit Wyoming, Mini’s troop had already earned enough to sponsor over 1,000,000 meals.
Pickups, Land Rovers, and retired tanks: I saw each of these during my leg of MTTS, but not among the ranks of registered participants. Instead, there were all generations and models of Mini vehicles, decked out in every color combination imaginable. It may be difficult to believe, but besides the cars we journalists were driving, no two Minis were alike. What the average citizen may have seen as a form of transportation, this group of owners saw as a blank slate for personal expression.
My personal favorites included a first generation Clubman that had been converted into a pest control-mobile, a Countryman with a color-matching caravan, and a Star Wars-themed Cooper four-door. But beyond these standouts, there were graphics-wrapped Minis, race-ready Minis, and Minis that had converted their interiors into dog habitats. While some cars made my eyes hurt, all of them were extensions of their owners’ enthusiasm.
Rallying over 4,000 miles can be an absolute blast or a total nightmare – and it all depends on the company. In the case of MTTS, I didn’t find an unfriendly soul in the bunch of owners who posed with one another in front of Mount Rushmore, danced together at a saloon in Sturgis, SD, and swapped stories while watching a rodeo near Cheyenne, WY. Instead, I felt awful for not being as overtly warm as each individual who approached me with a smile during every “rise and shine” event. In my defense, the M.O. of the general populous in the two places I’ve spent most of my life: Boston and LA, is to be skeptical and tough, lest you be labeled an oddball.
But these people had no agenda, except to welcome and befriend every Mini owner they met. When I asked why they participated in MTTS, some owners said it was a great way to see the country, but almost all of them said they did it for the friendships.