The new MINI certainly has been well received by its fans, followers and the general public. In fact, it probably could have sold itself, but that wasn’t good enough for MINI – they carefully crafted a fictional story based around a private detective who happened to have a MINI, which, as fate would have it, was stolen during his investigation in to some artwork that was stolen and being held for ransom. They then invited 84 lucky individuals from 17 different countries to help solve the “crime”, and they called the entire operation Mission MINI.
MINI contracted the world famous crime writer Val McDermid to craft the story about a fascinating theft that unfolded in Barcelona, Spain. Tens of thousands of people followed Ms. McDermid’s story, which centered on detective Sam Cooper, a PI who was in between jobs, and living in Barcelona. In her story, the ending is left wide open, and that’s where Mission MINI came in to action.
Through a contest that MINI sponsored, MINI-loyalists were invited to apply for a chance to travel to Spain, and participate as one of 21 teams from around the world competing to solve the Mission MINI mystery, in “real life.” Club Roadfly caught up with Kendall Helmstetter, who along with Winnie Poon, Brooks Garner and Brian Huerter were selected to represent the USA at Mission MINI’s conclusion in Barcelona, Spain.
Roadfly (Roadfly): What got you interested in Mission MINI?
Kendall Helmstetter (KH): I became interested in MINI cars when a friend of mine pointed me in the direction of the MINI Cooper. While trying to research and learn more about the MINI, I came across the Mission MINI website and was drawn in to the story. Their website was really elaborate and very well done, and it immediately grabbed my attention and hooked me.
Roadfly: What did you do to earn one of the spots for the trip?
LH: The basic idea was an investigator’s dossier. I got a really sharp looking 3-ring binder with four sections in the cover and back, and put together a car kit, roof designs, disguises and a “concluding remarks” section. In the center of the binder, I put in a letter of introduction and also crafted a clear plastic VHS videotape holder to hold the contest videotape. In the video, I included a shot of me sliding across the hood of my car and jumping in through the window to drive away.
Roadfly: What was the timeline between your learning of Mission MINI and attending the event?
KH: Well, I think I found out about it just a few weeks before the entry deadline, so I scrambled to put together this really elaborate entry, and I got it to them about 3 weeks before the contest closed. After I found out that I had been selected to participate, I think it was less than a month before we actually left for Barcelona.
If I recall correctly, I left for Barcelona on the evening of November 6th, and arrived on the 7th, sometime in the afternoon. On that first evening, I got to meet my team members and we met the other teams at a dinner that MINI put on.
The track day took place on the 8th (which was a Friday), and then the contest started on the 9th, with the finale occurring at around 3:00pm on Sunday the 9th. I chose to stay a little longer and spent Monday and Tuesday hanging out with my team members – we even stumbled across the HQ/repair shop of one of the Barcelona MINI leaders – he had a bunch of old MINI’s there and a really cool collection of MINI collectables.
Roadfly: What were the accommodations like? Did MINI take care of you pretty well?
KH:Mini provided the winners with business class tickets, and let us choose the airline and our own trips – they even arranged for limo’s to pick us up and take us to the airport. We were put up in ARTS of Barcelona, which I think really goes beyond any five-star hotel I’ve ever been in. They were really over the top with service and hospitality.
Roadfly: So, when you got to Barcelona and got started with the contest, was it obvious you were working with actors, or were the actors always in character?
KH: Yeah, they did a great job – they were always in character. When we first got there, we were called in to a press conference at the gallery, which really seemed real, and I suppose it was partially real, but the actors – they had the scenes all set-up just like in the story. There was the wall where the paintings vanished from, and the police tape and everything. They had the Police Inspector and a few of the suspects, and they were just wandering around beforehand in character. We stumbled across one of them by accident and started chatting with her, and we found out that she was Patsy Chen, who was one of the suspects. So, we talked with her and gave her our card and told her to call us if she had any info about the case. It was really amazing, because everything seemed so real and fit the story so well.
During the actual press conference, all of the investigators got to ask whatever questions they wanted of the conference attendees, so it was really great – everything was completely freeform – we basically had to come up with our own plans and methods to gather information and try to solve the contest first.
Roadfly: With so many diverse teams from so many worldly locations, were language barriers ever a problem?
KH: No – everyone spoke great English and so we never had any problems there. Even the contestants from Hong Kong and Tokyo were really fluent in English. We had a great time talking with the other teams, and everyone was really great.
Roadfly: Tell us more about the “support” you received from MINI.
KH: All of the cars were outfitted with a PDA that was not only a PDA, but a GPS unit and a phone as well. The phone could be used as a voice phone, and we also received text messages on it as well – often, we’d receive a tip or a clue via the phone, then we’d have to use the phone as our navigation tool to find a certain location.
While the PDA was really cool, ultimately we found ourselves using maps more often than not, because the PDA would do a good job of getting us close to the location, but we’d brought our own maps and found that if we could get within a few blocks with the PDA the map would get us to the destination easier. The thing was great though – by the time we were done with the contest, we pretty much knew Barcelona inside and out.
MINI assigned us an “assistant” who would help us set-up appointments with suspects, and they’d help us organize our day – making sure we got messages and tips at the appropriate moments.
Roadfly: Did the PA help you with directions or finding location?
KH: Oh no – we had to rely completely on our own abilities to get around, either the PDA or the maps. And more often than not, we were under a timeline – we’d get a message saying that we had to be at a certain location in 30 minutes, and it took a lot of effort to get there on time.
Roadfly: You mentioned a driving course, tell us more about that.
KH: It was pretty amazing – on the first day, MINI took us and taught us a lot of cool things about the cars. I think they might have had an ulterior motive of sorts – wanting us to make sure that we returned the cars in one piece and all – but, what they did was take us out to a training grounds where there were 6 driver stations.
We picked up our car at the start of the training and then proceeded to a station. The stations were made up of different skill builders, and were a pretty good mix of high-speed maneuvers and safety maneuvers. For example, there was an understeer/oversteer station, where they taught you how the car reacted in different situations and how to maintain control in those situations. Then there was a high-speed cornering section that taught you how to apex and control the throttle through a corner. There were a few emergency-braking stations, which were pretty tricky, and there was an emergency lane-change station that simulated an emergency lane change at around 80kmp/h without using your brakes to make the lane change.
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The slalom station was cool because near the end of the session, they showed how well the Goodyear Run-Flat tires worked by letting all of the air out of the rear tires and then having us go through the course on 2 flat tires. The car felt a little sluggish/tail happy, but it was very controllable, which was incredibly impressive.
Roadfly: Did you feel that the course helped build your overall driving skills?
KH: Oh yeah – after that course you really had a good idea of what the car was capable of, and you just sort of knew the boundaries of the car pretty good. I’m not sure how much I’d use the high-speed stuff, but the safety maneuvers were really convincing and helpful. I’m not too sure I’ll be using the reverse-180 maneuver any time soon! (laughing)
Roadfly: Ok, back to the Mission MINI story. Were you left to work “on your own” or were you always with a group of fellow investigators?
KH: MINI did a great job of coordinating the events – you were rarely in the same area with another group – the timing was superb. I recall that we received a message saying that there had been some suspicious activity at a warehouse, so we went to the warehouse and it looked like a normal warehouse, because it was a real warehouse! There was stuff everywhere – and we noticed a door was just slightly ajar, so we went in, and in the middle of the warehouse – we were nosing around in it, hunting around in it, and we found a couch with a folder with a clue in it.
About the only company we ever had was an occasional camera crew, but we really didn’t notice them after a while. MINI was really ingenious about scooting you out of an area – we were in one of the suspects apartments, when after about 20 minutes of investigating a maid came up and acted like she was really upset that we were in there. She said something like, “if you don’t leave, I’m calling the police,” and it just seemed pretty realistic – in reality, there was probably another group on the way, but they never said something like that – they did an amazing job of moving us around properly.
Roadfly: So, how did things come to a close?
KH: Well, we received a clue that led us to a train station, where we found a locker with a phone number on a piece of paper. The phone number was supposed to give us a code, but when we got there, the phone number just told us something like “the secret code has already been given, proceed as planned.” We think we were about an hour behind team Germany 1, who eventually won the event by being the first to get the code.
So, after we got the message saying the code had been given out, we started pursuing some other leads when we got a message that said something to the effect that Sam had found his car, and that we needed to proceed immediately to our final destination. We had no idea what was going on, but when we got there, we found some bleachers and a bunch of camera crews and media.
We took a seat, and then this action scene with a car chase and police and everything unfolded in front of us – it was really well done – a great close to a really great adventure.
Roadfly: I understand there was a party for you afterwards?
KH: Yeah, MINI gave us a few hours to rest up, and then they bussed us to this exclusive club that’s supposed to be the hot spot in Barcelona. Well, apparently they closed the whole club down and reserved it just for us, and we had a blast – there were DJ’s and food, and it was a really great time.
Roadfly: So what were your final thoughts on the event?
KH: It was so amazing. MINI did an unbelievable job of coordinating the whole event and I’m sure they had to adjust things on the fly, you know, because I’m sure things happened that weren’t exactly planned, but we never knew it. It was all so seamless, and everything fit together so well. I can’t believe the level of organization that had to exist in order for everything to come off without a hitch.
Roadfly: Tell us about your MINI.
KH: Prior to entering the contest, I ordered an Electric Blue MINI Cooper S, which I happened to take delivery of right after I got back from Mission MINI. It has a white roof with white 16″ wheels, black interior with Anthracite panels, space cloth, Auto AC, DSC, Xenon lights, fog lamps, cold weather package, MFSW and the on-board computer.
It certainly appears as though MINI did a great job of executing the Mission MINI finale. Kendall and his team partners took some great video footage and pictures while in Barcelona, which we invite you to enjoy. Barcelona is a beautiful city in and of itself, so when you sprinkle about 2 dozen really cool MINI’s about the city, it becomes even more interesting. Thanks again to Kendall Helmstetter, Brooks Garner, Brian Huerter and Winnie Poon for doing a great job of representing the ‘ole US of A in Spain, and for sharing your story with us here at Roadfly.