The Thrill Of The Mini
This article is taken from Road & Track and features Don Racine, a member of the MINI MANIA team. Don has been racing since he was a kid but upon discovering the thrill of driving a mini cooper, he's raced nothing else. Good article we wanted to share.
(Photos by LARRY CHEN. Written by TRAVIS OKULSKI - OCT 13, 2021)
You’ve seen the videos. Vintage Minis on track, taking on touring cars with three times the power, hounding them like a yappy dog biting your ankles for no reason. They’re sliding wildly, sometimes so sideways they’re perpendicular to the rest of the race. It seems like there’s nothing that can upset them. That can make the driver back down. The drivers brake later, carry more speed, and stay up on the wheel more than pretty much any other race-car driver.
And that’s because they have no choice. The Mini is so underpowered and undertired that it leaves the driver with two options. The first is to accept that you’ll lose. The second is to fight like hell and see what happens. None of them choose the first option. It all looks like an unmitigated riot.
In preparation for this coming November’s Velocity Invitational, an event that aims to bring some of the charm and panache of Goodwood to Laguna Seca, I got a chance on track at Thunderhill to see just how much of a riot Minis really are.
At first glance they look the part. They’re adorably small. The wheels are 10 inches, a size closer to what you’d run on a wheelbarrow. The roof hits an average man’s hip. It’s hard to even imagine that a person can fit inside. The interior is the definition of simple. There are pedals, a seat, some gauges, and a steering wheel. Nothing else. I’m just over six feet tall, and I’d charitably describe the fit as snug, a fat guy in a little coat.
As I attempt to settle in, the car’s owner leans into the cockpit. Don Racine is a bit of a legend in the Mini world. He founded aftermarket shop Mini Mania in the 1970s when the Mini was seen more as an oddity than a staple of the vintage racing world. He’s a Mini evangelist, as you’d expect, but he’s also just an all-around joy. Don has some advice.
“Don’t enter a turn off power or on the brakes,” he says. “It’ll spin. If it gets loose, put your foot on the gas.”
That, of course, is because the Mini is front-wheel drive, and a lively front-driver at that.
At first I take it easy, learning both the car and the track. I’m also eminently conscious that the thing can spin if I lift off throttle too suddenly. Then I start to go quicker as I learn where I’m going and what the car likes. And what the Mini likes is . . . everything.
It’s no wonder these are so popular in vintage racing. The little engine loves to rev, the dog box is an actual joy to shift. And though these Minis do have more grip than their counterparts running in Europe, they’re still joyful scamps, eager to slide and play at every corner. It encourages you to go faster, to take a different line through this corner and that, to try things, to be all over that car in front no matter what engine it has.
The underpinnings are the opposite of advanced, simple bits and pieces kept the cost down and got England back on the roads after the war. But the underpinnings were solid, and this one was extremely well sorted. Each lap got quicker, the light controls asking you to flick it around and trust that it’ll bring you out the other side. When Don said to stay on the power, he wasn’t kidding. It both makes the car more stable and lets you see that every corner can be taken quicker than you previously thought. The steering communicates everything so well that you know exactly what sort of minute adjustment to make. On power, it will push, but not overtly so, just a hint to let you know that the front end isn’t going exactly where you want. Yet the chassis is eminently adjustable—a steering or throttle adjustment will bring it right back into line. I want to say the brakes were great, but in reality I didn’t really use them all that much. Just a dab here or a touch there. But the ingredients are all there. This thing is eager, it wants to embarrass cars far bigger than it every chance it gets.
A later run gave the Mini a real chance. Joined by another one of Don’s Minis, we went out with a group of 1960s Mustangs, a sort of preamble to Velocity Invitational’s Minis vs. Mustangs race that’ll be happening in November.
This will be the race to watch. The Minis hounded the bigger Mustangs all around Thunderhill’s three-mile track, losing out on the straights but refusing to fall back under braking or in the corners. And when the Mustangs were gone, either passed or in the pits, the Minis stuck together playing around the entire track.
Two of these things together on track is a simple joy. You can run flat out at speeds that aren’t quite fast and have a blast doing it. The Mini will cock a wheel midcorner, letting you slide it on throttle until it’s time to go straight again. The gearbox, which felt like a vague disaster when setting off, was actually an accurate delight, the loud whine of straight-cut gears invading the ears like a thousand bees.
We traded spots a half-dozen times, each time letting the other car get away then reeling it in. The only limiting factor was tires. Don told me before I went out that these tires likely had one session left on them, that Minis can eat through fronts. Front grip started to go away. And then there was a moment in Turn 1; suddenly there was decidedly more understeer than just a second prior. Pitting in confirmed it; the right front was corded.
A shame, really. But it couldn’t wipe the smile from my face. This little car had provided more joy in a short burst than modern supercars can hope to. For all the talk about horsepower, torque vectoring, multi-mode traction control, drift modes, and other gimmicks, nothing produces the simple joy of an underpowered front-drive 1960s hatch.
And now I can’t wait to watch the Minis absolutely destroy the Mustangs in that head-to-head race.
(Full Disclosure: R&T is one of Velocity Invitational's event sponsors.)