How a Radically Reworked MGB Clawed Its Way to the Solo Nationals Podium

By Staff Writer
Jan 15, 2020 | mgb, SCCA Solo Nationals | Posted in Features | From the Aug. 2019 issue | Never miss an article

Photography Credit: Rupert Berrington

Story by Bradley Brownell • Photography as Credited

Building a Mod-class car for Solo Nationals is little more than an experiment in how an addiction to speed affects your bank account. And Mark Sawatsky is an automotive mad scientist. A project that was once a passing thought has since consumed his mind, and he’s spent the better part of a decade tearing apart and reassembling various automotive appendages. The result is an eye-searing and nationally competitive E Modified MGB that he calls the Pink Panther.

A species must adapt to survive, and Mark’s car has undergone a kind of forced evolution. The MG in question had already lived a long and difficult life when it entered his garage as a bedraggled $500 shell. Today, it stands as a towering example of mechanical strength and fortitude for all MGs to aspire toward.

The saga begins three engines and two chassis ago, and involves a Jaguar V12 as well as a vision of grander things.

The Idea

While racing a Porsche Boxster at Solo Nationals, Mark was struck by how impressive the Mod cars looked on course. Light weight, big power, sticky tires and hefty downforce are intoxicants for the best of us, and he fell under the influence. He already had a running Jag 12-hole engine sitting under a tarp in his shop, and the gears began turning in Mad Mark’s mind.

A friend of our protagonist runs a local British car shop in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Within minutes of returning home from Nationals, Mark tasked his friend with finding a proper little British car shell for the Jaguar engine. It didn’t take long for a mostly intact 1969 MGB GT to pop up–and if you’re wondering why a roadster is shown here, hang on to that thought.

The asking price for the MG coupe was 1000 Canadian buckaroos, and Mark declared it too rich for his taste. When the friend, after perhaps a few too many barley sodas, unexpectedly cut that price in half, cash was in hand from the nearest ATM, and the scientist had the subject of his strange experiments on the operating table.

A big engine in a small chassis is always a recipe for creative engineering and hopefully a good amount of thrills. “I just kept cutting stuff away until the V12 fit in the engine bay,” Mark says. “Building the cage was something of a ‘ship in a bottle’ scenario. Everything was a tight fit, but I made it work.” The man wasn’t particularly well versed in the ways of fabrication, but he learned as he went and made it work.

Mark retained the MG’s stock suspension for some initial runs, but eventually he swapped in a Jaguar front subframe and front pickup points for improved geometry. He also installed a Speedway Motors four-link setup out back to hold everything in place, but no real engineering was applied to that project. He basically welded pickup points anywhere they would fit, and it worked okay.

To make the car as light as possible, Mark spent hours cutting out stock body panels and replacing them with aluminum sheeting wherever possible. He also became quite adept at using a hole saw, having cut hundreds of speed holes in every flat panel it could reach. All of that work amounted to a car that still weighed in at more than 2500 pounds–about 750 pounds too much.

That first attempt at actually racing the MG was a catastrophe. First, the custom transmission input shaft turned out to be too short to fit the custom bellhousing. Once that was fixed, the thrust washers blew out in the middle of Mark’s first competition run, allowing the oil pressure to vent to atmosphere. The gloriously raucous V12 engine seized.

Adding insult to catastrophic injury, the rear suspension had nasty binding issues. Back to the drawing board.

A New Approach

For his second attempt, Dr. Markenstein decided on a Ford 5-liter V8 as motivation for his monster. That, he figured, would remove one of the car’s many variables.

Even with the addition of aluminum heads and a roller cam, the small-block Ford sent just 265 horsepower to the wheels, down 75 from the Jag. Still, the 250-pound weight loss from the nose represented an important step forward.

You could call the car’s first Solo Nationals appearance a success just because it was functioning and legal for the class. It didn’t perform so well, though: Pushing the chassis caused understeer at the limit, and adjusting the anti-roll bars introduced a horrifying axle hop through corners. Plus, it was still 500 pounds too heavy, wasn’t geared properly, and didn’t grip at all.

Photography Credits: Mark Sawatsky

There Was an Attempt

As soon as the MGB got home, Mark immediately put it on an unhealthy weight loss regimen. Giant cutting wheel in hand, he hacked and chopped away at his experiment.

Soon the MGB GT no longer looked like a coupe. Everything above the beltline was gone, including the welded-in roll cage.

Once the bars were cut, however, the bottom half of the car collapsed. The patient died there in the operating theater.

The front and back of the tub were only connected by the stock MGB transmission tunnel, and that didn’t offer enough rigidity to keep the car alive. The damage was so bad that the doors would no longer open. It was then that Mark realized the wheel hop was, in fact, a result of inches of chassis deflection.

Photography Credits: Mark Sawatsky

Take Three

As a man of science, Mark learned from his previous mistakes: This time he’d construct a new and improved version of the MGB. He ordered a fiberglass MBG body and began teaching himself an open-source, computer-aided drafting program so he could design a new tube frame from scratch.

“Only the rear suspension was carried over,” he explains with a laugh. “Maybe a Heim joint here or there. By weight, the new car is maybe only 40 or 50 pounds carried over from the old MG. I just cut away everything that was slow, so there’s not much MGB left.”

This new MGB took shape in the garage over a few years. During that time, Mark–as owner and operator of Speedworld Indoor Kart Track of Winnipeg, Manitoba–started getting more involved in autocrossing karts at a national level. Track time in something so lean and potent helped him realize what the MGB needed: more power and a lighter drivetrain. The 5-liter was out, to be replaced with a 2-liter turbocharged Ecotec LHU engine sourced from a wrecked 2013 Buick Regal.

With some help from Bad News Racing, a shop that specializes in small-bore GM performance, Mark learned how to maximize that new engine. In stock form, it can produce as much as 270 horsepower and 295 lb.-ft. of torque. Free of the regulations Buick faced, Mark added an unrestricted intake and exhaust system. Then he had to tune it. The 2-liter eventually made 350 horsepower at the wheels and an even more impressive 400 lb.-ft. of torque.

The new car was finally ready to debut in 2016. Looking back, the V8-powered version was about 8 seconds behind the top drivers on a national-level course. Adding a pushrod suspension, one with extra-long front control arms for Mark’s desired 0.4 inch of roll center motion, helped the MG move up the charts. Progress was being made.

The turbo engine shrank the gap even further, but Mark’s monster remained a few pounds overweight. At Nationals in 2017, the car trailed about 4 seconds behind the winner.

Fluorescent and Ferocious

But 2018 would be the car’s breakout year. First came the fresh color–no more gray with pink accents. Mark’s wife, Briget, laid down the neon-pink paint, which Mark describes as significantly more vibrant than it looks in pictures. “If you stare at it, it burns the cones in your eyes,” he says. “When you look at it and then look away, everything changes colors.”

Next, a friend who now works as an aerodynamicist for Mercedes-AMG Formula 1, the reigning world champs, performed some computational fluid dynamic aero work. Then Mark added a new Torsen-style differential and a set of Penske race shocks.

Mark’s 2018 Solo Nationals appearance started with testing. His local autocross surface is about as far removed from the concrete sweepers of Lincoln as you can get. A narrow airport runway is the best they can manage up in Winnipeg, so when the Pink Panther arrives in Nebraska every year, Mark inevitably burns through a few sets of tires on the test track.

Then the first day of competition arrived–and it was wet. At the end of that first day, everything was going to plan. Mark found himself in the lead, and he and the car were cooperating like longtime dance partners: They had the grip, the delicate throttle foot and the balance needed to run quickly in the rain. When the course dried up for day two, they dropped to third in class, unable to compete on warm, dry concrete.

Still, Mark considers that outing a success. Netting a national-level podium, a little more than a second off the winning time in some trying conditions, is a better outcome than he ever could have imagined when this story began.

Mark’s initial goal was to have fun building something in his shop, enjoy race weekends with his wife, and go ridiculously fast in an experimental car. It may have taken him 10 years to become truly competitive, but he’s definitely doing this mad scientist thing right.

Photography Credits: David S. Wallens

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