The grounds crew at Denver's Infinity Park had tidied up the rugby pitch, equipment-rental trailers were packed, and the clock had long since registered the party's official end, but MINI Takes the States Festival headliners Blues Traveler were being cheered back onstage for an encore. When the band returned, frontman John Popper launched into a harmonica-fueled version of "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" - with a lyrical twist on Charlie Daniels' fiddle classic, recasting the familiar tune as "The Devil Went Down to Denver."
It was a fitting encore. Here in the United States, there is something suspect, mischievous, even depraved about ditching the daily grind for a (gasp!) weeklong road trip. Yet that is what thousands of North American MINI enthusiasts did, motoring from all cardinal map points to Denver, Colorado - the mile-high terminus of MINI Takes the States 2010. What began eight days earlier in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Atlanta, Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York, and which accumulated steam (and drivers - lots of drivers) in cities like Las Vegas, Baltimore, Phoenix, Philadelphia and Salt Lake City, had reached its end. In the words of the virtuosic, exhausted Popper, "Thank you, and good night!" But like any odyssey, the ending is perfunctory; it's the journey that creates tales to tell the grandkids - or to hide from them.
Jim McDowell, President of MINI USA, was already burnishing his MTTS '10 rally memories when we cornered him at the MINI Owners Garage Party. Here, attendees weren't just enjoying photo projections from the MTTS Flickr pool, but also the splendor of the new MINI Countryman, a parade of appetizers, and Colorado's tastiest microbrew, Fat Tire Amber Ale. McDowell had led a hearty New England contingent westward out of Boston through Pennsylvania, the Mid-Atlantic, Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Kansas and Colorado. A funny thing happened on the way out of Columbus, McDowell recalled. "We led about 30 or 40 MINI on an alternate route out of town, and we were able to achieve some great speeds without any trouble from the highway patrol," he said. "At one point we passed what looked like an ice cream truck, so with 40 MINI around him, we got the driver to pull over and I must have bought about $85 worth of ice cream for everyone. It was fantastic." McDowell's flavor? "A chile-lime popsicle."
Outside the Garage party, passersby parsed the differences between the MINI Countryman Cooper, MINI Countryman Cooper S and MINI Countryman Cooper S ALL4, which were parked at the entrance. The Countryman created a stir everywhere it pulled up. On the Midwest leg of the rally, it was driven at the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where it led dozens of its fellow MINI through some hot laps.
Ian Warner of Greenville, Ohio, was smitten. "It looked awesome on the track," he said of the Countryman. "When we were lapping, the cars were limited to 35mph but we definitely got up to 70 on the straight. I heard some people afterward talking about 90, 95." Ian, along with his sister, Ashlae, and their father, David, drove a chili-red, white-topped MINI Cooper S to Colorado, where they met up with Ian's friend and Denver native Thomas Cassidy. "It is a pretty sweet car," Cassidy said of the Countryman. "As a Colorado person, I definitely see the appeal of having all-wheel drive on your MINI."
As for the Warner family's chili-red, white-topped MINI Cooper S, there is more to it than meets the eye. "I took my '03 in for an oil change one day, and I left with an '05," confesses David. "Same color, chili red with the white roof, and I never told my wife what I'd done." Cue David wringing his hands. "Months later, only when she went to turn on the seat warmers, which weren't on the '05, did she realize it was a completely different car!" Laughter all around, except, presumably, from David's wife, who did not attend the rally.
The Garage Party counted its share of MTTS veterans, too. Akemi Ishikawa and David Coffman of San Francisco had driven both the 2006 and 2008 rallies. For Ishikawa, Bonneville left the greatest impression of 2010. "To be on the salt flats, that was an once-in-a-lifetime experience," she said.
"MINI owners baby their cars so much, but being out there on the salt, I think everyone could put that worry aside and appreciate something really special." Love of the non-vehicular variety also bloomed at the Garage Party. San Jose, California's Kat Hsueh and Brent Lay had met on a MINI track day at Northern California's Thunderhill Raceway in 2007. At the Garage Party, they exchanged "I do's," vowing "never to understeer" and "to forsake all others, including Porsche."
Even among MINI motorists, this qualified as exceptional behavior. What exactly did we witness? "We'd been engaged for two months already," Hsueh later said. "We thought about eloping, but MINI actually contacted us about doing this, and it just was like, ‘Let's get married!'" Lay currently parks his chili-red MINI Cooper S next to his bride's British racing green MINI John Cooper Works, but Hsueh foresees a garage shuffle in their future. "When we decide to start a family, I'll want a four-door, so I'll definitely have to consider the Countryman," she said. After a restorative night's sleep, early risers motored to the legendary Red Rocks Amphitheater outside Denver - site of 1983 U2 glory and 1995 John Tesh infamy.
Kelly Hood and Carol Brooks drove their MINI Cooper from nearby Boulder with Cavalier King Charles spaniels Nigel and Hillary in the back seats. "It's such a kick," Hood said, surveying the 200-plus MINI assembled in the parking lot. Asked whether they would ever consider hitting the road for future MTTS rallies, Brooks did not hesitate. "Oh, definitely."
Later that afternoon, following a road rally around Red Rocks, the Infinity Park rugby pitch filled with merry makers ready, at long last, for their week's capstone, the MINI Takes the States Festival: eight hours of killer rock ‘n blues under a bright Denver sky.
While festivalgoers took in the music, those with a need for speed took in the adjacent MINIcross course, where MINI owners practiced their road-slalom skills. Above the din of revving engines, dumping clutches and squealing brakes - or, in the case of the all-electric MINI E, dead silence - 16 year-old Colorado folk hero Savannah Rickli discussed last June's record-breaking Pikes Peak Hill Climb, where she became the youngest competitor ever to summit the 14,115-foot peak. And she did it in a MINI.
Standing proudly beside her rollcage-equipped 2003 MINI Cooper, Rickli sounded every bit the hardcore racer. "We ran a limited-slip differential to split the torque. And the engine is supercharged." Of course, Rickli knew about MINI's intention to enter the FIA World Rally Championship series later this year with its MINI Countryman WRC racer. Equally unsurprising, she is dying to drive it. "That would be so, so awesome," she said.
Though there were reports of MINI high jinx lasting well into the night, most festivalgoers bedded down after Blues Traveler's barnstorming set. Sunday dawned a miraculous Rocky Mountain blue, and MINI motorists gathered in the Infinity Park lot to bid each other a safe journey home.
Over morning coffee, Paul and Molly Nolte of Okemos, Michigan, recounted their MTTS route. They had joined the rally around Grand Rapids and, like the Warners, experienced Indy's historic oval. But the Noltes were no strangers to brisk MINI motoring, having sped along the Tail of the Dragon in Eastern Tennessee with other MINI enthusiasts in years' past. Their story is one for the MINI archives.
"We both had electric-blue MINI Cooper S's before we'd ever met," Molly recalls. Mutual motoring credentials verified, the two set about falling in love. "We got engaged on the Dragon trip and got married last year," said Paul, as he and Molly showed off their matching wedding bands: titanium, with electric-blue carbon-fiber insets.
Surveying a parking lot filled with beaming faces and MINIs of all stripes, Paul mused, "What other car company would do this kind of thing for its customers?" He could have just as well asked, "What other car could inspire this kind of devotion among its customers?"