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Racing Minis: Then and Now


Story by Steven Cole Smith

Growing up back home—when home was Villa Alemana, Chile—Luis Perocarpi and his family liked to go road racing. It was a little different from what we think of as road racing.

“There was no money to pave road courses, so the tracks were made out of dirt,” he says. “Old front-wheel-drive cars were good.” Perocarpi and his family gravitated toward the classic Mini Coopers. “They were fast,” he recalls, “and they made us into Mini fans.”

When Perocarpi ended up in Indianapolis, working for various racing teams, he still drove Mini Coopers. So when he decided that it was time to field his own race team, his first choice was to race Minis. But Mini wasn’t racing.

However, this being motorsports, luck played a large part in this story. As Perocarpi was assembling his team in 2014, Mini decided to get involved in racing again to promote the John Cooper Works model. “I was in the right place at the right time,” he says. “So here we are in our second season.”

Perocarpi had his car, and next he had to pick a series. “We looked at several,” he says, “and IMSA made the most sense.” Specifically, he chose the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge Street Tuner class, “which seemed to have most all the manufacturers, had good commercial value, and it was real endurance racing.”

And there was history. Mini participated in the series from 2001 to 2012, winning three races and seven poles with the Cooper S. Its most recent victory was with RSR Motorsports at New Jersey Motorsports Park in 2011, with a car driven by Owen Trinkler and Sarah Cattaneo, who now drive a Nissan in the series.

The deal with Mini came together so late in 2014 that Perocarpi and his LAP Motorsports team were still building cars when the 2015 season opened at Daytona, and they spent the rest of that year developing the car. It wasn’t until the last race of the season, part of the Petit Le Mans weekend, that the team really showed what it could do. Perocarpi came to Road Atlanta with, for the first time, three cars, and the new No. 73 with drivers Mat Pombo and Derek Jones finished second. This year, the norm has been three cars–Nos. 73, 52 and 37.

On the grid, the three Mini Coopers line up against some Street Tuner competition that, at first glance, you’d think would put the Mini and its Kleenex-box aerodynamics at a serious disadvantage. At the Circuit of the Americas race, for instance, it was Mini Cooper versus Porsche Cayman, Mazda MX-5, Audi S3, BMW 328i, BMW 228i, Nissan Altima and Honda Civic Si. What sort of chance would the little Minis have against that competition?

A pretty good chance, actually. At the Continental Challenge’s longest track, the 4-mile Road America, Mat Pombo set the fastest lap of the race. And at COTA, out of 28 ST cars, the LAP Minis finished sixth (No. 73 with Mat Pombo and Derek Jones), ninth (No. 52 with Mark Pombo and Dr. Ramin Abdolvahabi, a Florida neurosurgeon), and 10th (No. 37 with Nate Norenberg and Tyler Stone). And just as important for a small team where every dollar counts, all three cars were able to drive into the trailer after the race was complete.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the LAP Mini team is how few changes need to be made to the potent John Cooper Works car to make it track-ready. There’s a racing fuel cell, but only because the stock Mini tank, which is legal to run, holds just 13 gallons, and Perocarpi needs 18.

Many of the chassis and suspension pieces are stock, and the engine is just as it comes from the dealer. “We don’t blueprint them–we don’t even open them up,” Perocarpi says. “The car is very competitive right out of the box.” In fact, IMSA rules require that Perocarpi dial back the stock turbo boost.

The 2.0-liter engine in the street car is rated at 228 horsepower, “but it’s capable of 310 horsepower at the wheels,” Perocarpi says. “There’s just no reason for us to build engines.” And the gearbox is stock: “We just open it up and put on different gears, and off we go.”

What the Mini needs is simply more track time, Perocarpi says. The Mini and the Audi S3 are the two newest entries in the Continental Challenge ST class, and both are at a disadvantage to the more developed competition. To illustrate what a difference a year makes: The team couldn’t answer the bell for the Daytona season opener in 2014, and in 2015 the team qualified on the front row.

Perhaps the coolest part of racing a Mini is the attention the team receives from Mini Cooper owners and fans. “The local dealers really support us wherever we go,” Perocarpi says, “and often they even send over their technicians just to see if they can help us out.”

And then there was the time when the team was having trouble with all its fuel pumps. Mini owners volunteered to loan the team the pumps right out of their street cars. “When you buy a Mini, you automatically become part of a club,” Perocarpi says, “and it’s a happy-go-lucky bunch who love their cars and love to see us on the track.”

The team is still seeking its first win, and most insiders would agree that it’s likely to come sooner rather than later. Having brothers Mat and Mark Pombo, sons of legendary racer Pepe Pombo, has been valuable not only for their driving skill, but their ability to coach less experienced teammates and their knowledge of chassis setup.

What’s next for Perocarpi and LAP Motorsports? More of the same for 2017, with one possible addition: Perocarpi would love to take Mini rally racing–“my first love,” he says–possibly with the Rally America series. Rally is, after all, the direction in which British racing hero John Cooper steered the Mini in 1961. He added a more powerful engine and bigger brakes, then promptly won the Monte Carlo rally three times from 1964 to 1967. The Mini’s nimbleness allowed him to outrun big cars with bigger engines.

Which is exactly what Luis Perocarpi and his crew are doing. John Newton Cooper has been gone for 16 years, but it’s like he never left.

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