Testing the First-Ever New MINI Race Car In the U.S. Against the Original | From the Archives

Tim
By Tim Suddard
May 23, 2021 | Mini | Posted in Features | From the Feb. 2002 issue | Never miss an article

[Editor's Note: This article originally appeared in the February 2002 issue of Grassroots Motorsports.]

It’s almost impossible to walk into a dealer showroom these days without spotting at least one new car designed to look like a legend of old. Thanks to the sales success of the New Beetle, there are once again Thunderbirds at the Ford dealerships and Forties-era sedan deliveries on the Chrysler lots, to name just a couple. But of all the cars that have been created—or recreated—in this latest flurry of “retro” designs, the one most eagerly awaited by enthusiasts is the new MINI.

The original Austin Mini (which was also produced under Morris, BMC and numerous other badges) created the pocket rocket concept. Affectionately nicknamed the “flying shoebox,” the Mini’s squared-off shape allowed it to pack a relatively spacious interior into its petite dimensions, while its nimble handling found fans both on and off the race track. Given its records in sales and competition, the original Mini seems a perfect choice for a rebirth.

The midwife, in this case, is a little company called Bayerische Motor Werken, or BMW. While an upscale German manufacturer might seem like an unusual choice to bring back this British classic, BMW comes to the job through their acquisition of Rover Group, which was essentially all that remained of the Mini’s original producers. BMW has proven their ability to reimagine the Mini, too, by producing a car that looks like what the original Mini must have been destined to become. It’s like the designers hired a couple of those guys who do age progressions on photos of missing kids, and asked them to imagine the Mini 30-plus years later. The result is the MINI, all grown up (and all uppercase) but no less attractive. The price, at less than $20,000, even matches the name.

Since the original Mini was such a legend on the race track, there’s already been a good bit of speculation concerning the merits of the new car in competition. So it seemed to us that comparing a classic Mini to the MINI was a logical idea. Doing it at World famous Laguna Seca raceway seemed like an even better idea; and doing it with both cars prepared as full-on race cars seemed like one hell of a fun day at the office.

This whole adventure started when Don Racine, a longtime vintage Mini racer and owner of Mini Mania, a mini parts emporium, called and asked if we might like to try out his MINI race car. Don had imported a European-spec car earlier this year and begun modifying it, a project we had been watching with keen interest.

When the call finally came that it was time to test Don’s and Project Manager Steve McCrory’s new toy, we immediately said yes. Officially, we wanted to be the first magazine in the world to write about a new MINI Cooper race car. Unofficially, we just wanted to drive the thing. To make the story even more fun, Don brought along his extremely well-prepared 1968 Cooper S vintage race car.

At the Wheel of the Original

We’ve driven a lot of different race cars at a lot of different race tracks; it’s what we do. We are based on the East Coast, however, so this was our first foray onto Laguna Seca. Although we have spectated plenty at this classic road course, we were still impressed at what a wonderful track it is to drive. Laguna Seca may look like a horsepower track from the grandstands, but from the driver’s seat of a Mini, the fantastic Corkscrew is more like a hill climb or autocross. This extremely technical track wasn’t as fast as we had expected it to be, but it was way more fun than we could have imagined.

The vintage Mini race car was like no other race car we had ever driven. While immensely entertaining, this was not what we would call an easy race car for beginners. One never stops moving in a Mini. The driver must keep the car dancing during virtually every second of every lap, making adjustments using steering, throttle or braking inputs. This is not to say that a Mini handles in an evil fashion; quite the contrary, once you figure it out. It’s just that with those tiny little tires, wheels and brakes and that front-drive quirkiness, it’s a busy little race car. Perhaps motorsports author B.S. Levy said it best when he wrote, “Racing a classic Mini is like wrestling a bear cub in a phone booth!”

The key to driving this car is understanding what a high horsepower, front-wheel drive car with a locked differential will do in a corner. No matter how hard you come into that corner, you need to stand on the gas, and the front-wheel drive, locked front end will pull you right out of harm’s way. The car is set up loose in the back, so that as the back end starts to come around under trail braking or in a corner, a hearty throttle application will allow the magic of horsepower to pull you through.

Just like the original Mini, the new car also responds well to perfor­mance upgrades. As seen in the top photo, Mini Mania's new MINI Cooper race car gets some help from prototype Koni dampers and Brembo brakes. Likewise, the old-school Mini race car (third from top) also has received aftermarket shock absorbers to improve its track manners, as Spax pieces replace the originals. Interiors, on the other hand, share few similarities. The old Mini (second from top) is quite spartan by today's standards, while the new car's interior could actu­ally be called lush. Following today's trends, the new MlNI's interior features an art deco look.

We know, one normally doesn’t think of the 1275cc Austin A series engine as a high horsepower producer. Don’t be fooled, though: Tuners like Don Racine and his gang have been messing with these engines for nearly fifty years, and they are able to raise the output to 135-140 hp. Put that kind of power to the front wheels of a 1400 pound car and you have muscle aplenty.

The brakes on the classic Mini are no bigger than your hand. In fact, the entire tire/wheel/brake package on the old Mini is about the same size as just the brake rotor on the new MINI. Nevertheless, the original car still has ample braking capacity when set up properly. The car we drove featured a popular vintage race setup for the classic Mini; Don Racine recommends slotted rotors to replace the stock 7.5" front discs, and Hawk “Blue” pads used with braided steel lines. At the rear, stock drums are all that is needed, since the rears of these front wheel drive race cars do very little work anyway.

The New MINI Race Car

First, allow us to insert a little disclaimer: The car we drove is an English-spec MINI Cooper in modified race form. As such, it is right-hand drive and is marginally different from what BMW is bringing to this country this spring. 

The MINI will be marketed as the MINI 1 in Europe, where it will be powered by 16-valve alloy head, iron block engine developed through a joint venture between BMW and Chrysler, and featuring 10.6:1 compression, multi-port fuel injection, and an output of 90 horsepower. The MINI Cooper features a 115 horsepower version of the same engine; the differences in power lie strictly in the tuning (mainly in engine management). The MINI Cooper S—available here in late spring, according to BMW—features the same basic engine, but supercharged for 163 horsepower.

In this country we will only receive the Cooper and Cooper S, as BMW has decided to take the car upmarket a bit for U.S. consumers. The reasoning behinëd this decision concerns the fact that BMW only has initial capacity to build approximately 20,000 MINIs per year for the U.S., and Americans are looking for a cool new toy, not a cheap car to drive to work. We plan on bringing you a full report on the stock, U.S.-spec MINI in an upcoming issue.

Now back to our story. When Racine and his Mini gurus first drove the new MINI in stock form, they were reportedly impressed by the nice, stiff chassis (the BMW influence was very evident), but noted that the manufacturer had apparently set up the car to push, or understeer, so that nobody would get in trouble with it. Racine wanted the new car to rotate the back end around like his beloved classic Mini.

Work began immediately on building the new race car. As Racine explains, “Although we have stuff like floormats and trim add-ons in our Mini Mania catalog, we want to be known as the first and best guys to deDevelop new MINI hard-core race parts.”

Almost as soon as their MINI Cooper hit the docks, Racine and his gang began gutting the car. As delivered, the car weighed 2400 pounds; in race trim and with a full cage prototyped by Autopower of San Diego, the Mini Mania MINI race car weighs 2250 pounds.

In addition to the roll cage, this project was fitted with Willens harnesses and bright-red Momo race seats. While nicely made, these seats were too narrow for several of the, ahem, dimensionally challenged (okay, we’re fat) journalists. Momo undoubtedly has wider seats available. And Mini Mania also markets just an Autopower roll bar for those who don’t want a full cage.

Most of the development work was carried out underneath the car, since correcting the factory “push” was job one. On the MINI, the front suspension is a strut design, while the rear is a shock absorber type suspension. Both ends use welded spring perches to mount the springs. The front strut is unique in that the factory spring perch stamping also serves as the attachment point for the front anti-roll bar link.

Mini Mania replaced the stock anti-roll bar with a 3/4 inch, three-position adjustable anti-roll bar that was fabricated to help solve the understeer problem. Koni built a custom set of coil-over, externally rebound-adjustable Sport valved struts and shocks using threaded spring perches to adjust the ride height. These were matched to a set of Hyperco racing springs. The handling of the stock car was very soft with the stock springs and dampers, so after some chassis calculations, initial performance spring rates of 300 lbs. front and 250 lbs. rear were selected. These may change as the car is further developed, or if it becomes a dedicated racing car.

Koni intends to manufacture externally rebound-adjustable, Sport valved struts and shocks with fixed spring perches for the car as soon as possible, then look into the opportunities later for a ride-height adjustable, coil-over system. Since the U.S. cars are yet to be released, Koni is waiting to confirm whether the parts sold on English version MINIs (like Mini Mania’s) will be the same as the U.S. versions. They are targeting midsummer 2002 for production parts availability; naturally, when the Koni pieces are available, they will be offered in the Mini Mania catalog.

The MINI in stock form also offers practically no suspension adjustment. Racine’s magicians went about completely redesigning the entire suspension with heim jointed replacements for the rear four-link suspension system. These modifications, combined with custom fabricated camber plates front and rear, mean that the Mini Mania MINI is fully adjustable at all four corners for camber and toe; front caster is also adjustable. Initial alignment settings were 1 degree negative camber in the rear and 2 degrees camber up front; toe was set at 1/8-inch out up front and 1/16-inch in at the rear.

The brakes on the modified MINI were amazing. Despite the fact that we encountered multiple situations with multiple drivers at racing speeds in the course of a full day of lapping Laguna Seca, we never ran out of brakes. At the rear, the stock 12.5-inch calipers were retained, but Goodridge braided lines and Gaffer pads were installed. Up front, the stock brakes were tossed in favor of 12.9-inch Brembo rotors and huge, four-piston Brembo calipers. Again, Goodridge lines and Gaffer pads were used. The Gaffer pads and Brembo brakes are a package normally sold for the Lotus Esprit. We have never used these pads, but they seemed to perform quite well, even under racing conditions. Racine says, however, that they will most likely switch to Hawk pads once they get more serious about racing this car.

Under the hood, the Mini Mania car’s engine is still completely stock, in keeping with the basic car preparation formula that the chassis and brakes come first, and then power is added. The only under-hood modifications are a Mini Mania custom header and cat-back exhaust system. Although rated at 115 horsepower from the factory, the stock cars usually have closer to 120 hp. The Mini Mania exhaust system adds about four horsepower and eliminates the complicated catalytic converter built into the factory exhaust manifold. A second stock factory catalytic converter remains in the Mini Mania system, however.

The sound of this modified exhaust system is wonderful out on the track. It doesn’t quite have that fantastic Porsche Boxster wail, but it does sound like a high-winding race car. MINI owners looking for something a little less radical may want to opt for the cat-back system Mini Mania also plans to market. In addition, a cold air intake is being prototyped, along with various products from Nology, but they were not installed on the car we tested.

While the MINI comes from the factory with 15- or 16-inch wheels, the race-prepared MINI we drove was fitted with lightweight 17x7-inch BBS Rk wheels. Hoosier treaded road race tires, sized 205/40x17, were chosen for their incredible grip and decent wear characteristics.

The next step, according to Racine and McCrory, is further engine development. Although the engine in the race car we tested is stock, they say they have looked over the head design and concluded that there is plenty more power to be coaxed from this apparently well made and designed unit. Look for a full line of bolt-on performance goodies, including underdrive pulleys and even a bolt-on turbocharger kit. Racine says that contrary to the factory’s decision to go with supercharging, he thinks a turbo kit would be much easier to get under the hood of the MINI.

Driving the New MINI Race Car

Although we are licensed racers and have driven many of the tracks in the U.S., for this mission we were pretty much tossed into the pool to see if we could swim. The occasion was an SCCA vintage test day at Laguna Seca, where we were invited to participate by taking some laps in the Mini Mania MINI Cooper. Although this was one of the finest invitations we have received, it did not include any provision for familiarizing ourselves with the car or the track.  As the Porsches and BMWs were roaring around the track we tenderly headed out onto the front straight. We’re no sissies, but it was a bit intimidating to be in a car we had never driven, on a track we had never raced, and with right-hand drive to boot! It was a little uncomfortable at first, since we had to shift with our left hand and were sitting on the wrong side of the car. We rose to the occasion, however, turning in a nearly flawless first lap—unless you count that one little incident where we drove straight off at the Corkscrew. (Guess we need to log a little more seat time on Gran Turismo.) 

The MINI is so easy to drive, however, that it took just a couple of laps for us to feel right at home. The transaxle is super slick and all the controls, including the pedals, are perfectly placed. It’s one slick little car.

The MINI also felt adequately powered, at least until we drove the original Mini race car. With roughly the same power output and nearly 1000 extra pounds to lug around, the new MINI felt like a slug compared to its classic ancestor. All is not lost, though: Racine, McCrory and their crew plan to get at least another 30 hp out of the new engine in race trim even without resorting to supercharging or turbocharging. They say they expect the well-designed engine to take to hotrodding with no problem. They do worry about the Peugeot 205 ∂sourced transaxle, which could prove to be the weak spot on high-horsepower MINI race machines.

We could find no faults with the chassis setup. This is probably the most predictable and easy to drive race car we have ever driven. Naturally, more horsepower could begin to overpower the chassis, but it would take a lot to cause this setup to turn ugly. Everyone who drove the car came away totally impressed. The turn-in and balance were phenomenal; a trace of oversteer was evident, but a mild stab of the throttle at the end of the corners quickly took care of the problem.

And, in the End...

By the end of all our testing the new MINI was turning 1:58 lap times at Laguna Seca. The well-prepared classic Mini turned a 1:54. So the old Mini is clearly still faster, largely because its power to weight ratio is so superior. With a little more power and a bit more development, the new MINI should be the faster car by far.

There’s more to a successful race career than just ability, however, and some big questions still remain for the new MINI. The biggest concern where it will be classed.

Late for Class

According to MINI USA, the U.S.-based parents of the new MINI, they are having discussions with the SCCA regarding classing. Although the manufacturer says they have way too much going on this year to mount a factory racing effort, they are encouraging privateers to race and rally the car.

Racine, in response to his open frustration with both the SCCA’s and BMW’s apparent foot-dragging on getting these cars classed, has simply built what he thinks would be a fairly low buck, safe, fun race car. He says he wants to create his own spec class for the MINI to run along with NASA, SCCA or Vintage races. The car we drove could best be described as fit for SCCA World Challenge or Street Touring (if you come from an autocross background), but with a stock engine.

The supercharged MINI Cooper S has not yet been classed for Solo II, but expect to see it in either D Stock or G Stock.

For SCCA Club Racing, the SCCA expects the non-supercharged MINI Cooper to be placed into Showroom Stock C competition, where it will have to face the Mazda Protegé and Honda Civic Si. Since the SCCA does not permit forced induction in their Club Racing program, the supercharged Cooper S will have to find somewhere else to run.

Final Thoughts

We’ve long been fans of the original Mini, and a quick test drive at Import Carlisle this spring made us instant new MINI enthusiasts. After driving this race prepared car, we are now completely hooked. Don Racine’s new slogan, “tradition meets the future,” sums it up pretty well. Apparently, the future holds one heck of a new race car.

Tell you what, Don: If you can find a little wider seat, 20 more horsepower and six or eight places a year where we can race this car with some competition, you can sign us up as your very first customer.

GRM to Build MINI Project car

How committed to the new MINI is Grassroots Motorsports? We’re in all the way. In fact, our MINI Cooper project car will be arriving shortly. Our plans are to build up, write about and campaign a factory-provided car for a year of Solo II competition, culminating in an appearance at the SCCA Solo II National Championships in Topeka, Kansas this September. 

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