“It’s not your car.”
Those words ring in my ear as I prepare to do a reverse-180 in a MINI. When you hear words like those, it’s usually an admonishment. This time, a MINI stunt school instructor is reminding me to stop giving a damn about the car and just go for it.
It’s not my car. It’s not my concern. At the end of this, I will walk away and go learn how to drive a manual transmission (again). Hopefully.
The instructors taught us the basics of stunt driving in some of the smallest, coolest cars to learn. Even the larger Countryman MINIs we were driving are an absolute blast. The instructors were, too, a small team of characters with a passion for cars and deep knowledge of how to whip a MINI around a course.
We were all told to do unnatural things, but the instructors were patient. While doing frontside-180s, I tapped the foot brake, and the instructor admonished me over the radio. It does make you want to yell, “Calm down, this is all new to me, and it’s scary!” But you roll with it. (Slide with it? I digress.)
Stunt driving school had three components: a front-side-180, a backside-180, and a course designed to incorporate both disciplines with a new skill at the end: sliding into a parking spot at a 90-degree angle.
The frontside-180 was a brilliant, simple way to start the course. You get the car to about 25 miles per hour, and when you enter a cone “maze” you yank on the parking brake and jerk the wheel 180 degrees right-to-left. The trick is that once the front bumper hits the first cone in the entry, your hands go to work. The tricky part is leaving your feet out of it. I kept hitting the foot brake. It was a force of habit — and what I was admonished for.
It was here I learned that you can mentally prepare for g-force, but your body will do what it does when experiencing it. I wasn’t actively thinking about hitting the foot brake. My body reacted. In that scenario, my impulse was to hit the foot brake as that’s “normal” driving safety. Being embarrassed over the radio did allow me a little mind-over-matter for the rest of the event, though.
Second, we did a reverse-180. The aim was simple: mash the accelerator while in reverse and yank the parking brake and wheel 180 degrees (left-to-right this time), then stabilize the wheel once you’re facing the opposite direction at the end of the slide. Slip it into drive, and drive off.
I had more success here. I’d venture because I stopped caring about the car. While waiting in line for this stunt, the instructor looked me in the eye and said, “It’s not your car; just go for it.” So I did.
Once lined up and cleared for reverse entry, I stomped on the accelerator. Once I saw two marker cones in my peripheral vision and the car was whining while in reverse gear, I yanked the brake and pushed the wheel 180 degrees to the passenger side. As a lefty, this was unnatural, but I succeeded. Everyone in the class was nervous about this stunt — reverse is not a “speed” gear, after all — but it wasn’t as difficult as it seemed.
As the front side of the vehicle was less engaged in a reverse-180, my classmates and I began challenging ourselves to see who could get the car on three wheels. A MINI is too low to the ground to worry about rolling over, but we were pretty sure we could get at least one wheel off the ground. (Spoiler: Most of us did.)
Finally, we were asked to put it all together. A reverse-180, a small maze of cones, a frontside-180, back through part of the cone maze, through a sharp 90-degree turn, and finally sliding into a parallel parking spot, just like you see in the movies. The kicker: we were never taught the parking spot slide, only told how to do it for this specific event — right before the instructors had us queue up for the timed final.
This was a bit of a test on how fast you could think your way through new tests, too. We hadn’t faced the cone maze yet, or been asked to drive aggressively through any obstacles. And we had no in-car experience with sliding into a parking space.
Plus, I had to focus on the stunt at hand, then immediately jettison that knowledge and focus on what was next. When doing one-off tricks, you have time to talk it out with classmates and think about how you will do it on your next run (you get quite a few tries at each stunt). In the final test, we each had to do the stunt, focus on what was next, and try to get the best time.
We got a few runs here, too. Sliding into the spot is more complicated than it seems and requires a 90-degree wheel turn while pulling the parking brake. Simple enough, sure, but a new skill and uniquely odd when you’ve been turning the wheel 180 degrees all day. After two 180-degree stunts, a 90-degree slide is a clever way to measure how much control you have of the car and yourself.
It was rewarding to nail the final, too. I hit all my stunts and no cones, then nailed the last 90-degree slide. And when you attend stunt driving school, know your daydreams about The Italian Job or your invented cool-guy-spy-movie-scenarios are normal. You feel like James Bond because you’re driving like James Bond.
He had an Aston Martin, of course. I had a MINI. But you know, a MINI is just a lot more fun than any other car out there and is the perfect vehicle for this misadventure of mine. I’ve never wanted to take a used car home more than after MINI stunt driving school.
It wasn’t my car. But I wish it was.
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