Setting up any car for racing can be a very daunting task for the inexperienced BUT...
Watch Author, Don Racine, Racing His Classic Mini
Setting up the famous little Mini Cooper, British shoe box can be even more so. The small size makes it feel like a toy car but the front wheel drive is not very common in race preparation books.
The Mini was one of the first mass produced front wheel drive cars and was immediately know for its great handling. And the truth of the matter is that if you are really just experimenting with vintage racing you could drive a plain stock one and have fun. We will provide some insight into both this type of preparation and the more common dedicated race effort.
The first task is one of the most difficult and yet the least expensive you will undertake during this entire experience. Driving a race car and in particular a Mini is first and foremost a mental task. In vintage racing you can have identically prepared cars with drivers of different mental preparation and the lap times could be 10 seconds different. This does not mean that one driver is necessarily more aggressive- it simply means he is better prepared mentally. Driving your everyday street car in traffic, etc. some people would say is mindless but the truth of the matter is that for most of us it is instinctive! We do not think about where the apex of a turn should be, or how soon we should brake or how much distance to stay from the guy in front of us- it’s instinct! Driving a race car does require different skill and these will never be there without practice.
Practice. Practice. Practice.
Keeping an open mind, understanding the objectives and the risks while racing can make you a much better driver. Practice, practice, practice is a sure winner and your mental alertness will be really tested when racing a front wheel drive car. A stock Mini handles fantastic, turns on a dime but is NOT your everyday driving, rear wheel drive street car! (PS. I recently had the opportunity to race with a new Mini owner that took his stock 850 Mini to the track and watched him have every bit as much fun as I had in a dedicated Mini!) The Mini has the inherent advantage for the inexperienced driver as being an extremely safe car to drive. It is small, enclosed, reasonably powered and most important; the front wheel drive make it difficult to get into real serious trouble when racing.
The biggest problem most people will have when first racing is to drive too fast into a turn. The Minis front mounted engine and front wheel drive will translate this action into understeer (ie. plowing, pushing, etc.). And all things being equal most people would then lift there foot off the go pedal and in a Mini this would result in the car turning in the desired direction. In a rear wheel drive car this action would at least result in severe whiplash as the car spins out of control. The stock Minis power to weight ratio and forgiving handling make it one of the most fun cars to ever race with. And of course the more you are mentally prepared the faster the car will go. Don’t rush the process but as you truly think you are racing instinctively, a little further car preparation will make unbelievable improvements in the smile factor. While advocating the ease of getting experience in a stock Mini I must first remind you that racing is demanding on the equipment and almost any Mini you find will have been “driven hard and put up wet” for most of it’s life. The best approach to stock car preparation is normal maintenance. Remember we will cover stock set-up first and later cover dedicated Mini race prep.
Stock Maintenance to Race Prep
The stock Mini can be "turned" to stock by normal maintenance. The front suspension lower “A” arms are pivoted on rubber bushes. These should be replaced with either new rubber ones or the uprated ‘poly’ type. The latter could be considered a racing upgrade but note that it will also transmit more road vibration if driven on the street.
As the lower arm is the primary movement point that controls camber, the poly bush does not flex this is a good, sound upgrade. The other half of the lower suspension is the front tie-rods. These two are rubber jointed and thus should be replaced or upgraded to ‘poly’ This arm not only controls the caster of the front suspension but also dramatically effects stability under braking.
Upper and lower ball joints are also a must for maintenance. Very easy to adjust and/or replace, these pivot points do take a lot of abuse and should be absolutely checked. The wheel bearing are the next most obvious point but note that while stock for many cars were ball bearing, the high performance “S” option uses roller bearing. These are a direct replacement and should be the first choice.
Steering tie rod ends are the final things to be checked and are also the only part of the stock suspension that can actually be adjusted. Be sure to check your toe-in as the Mini with it’s front wheel drive set-up is not conventional (normal setting has toe-in).
Shock absorbers should be checked and while the stock shock work fine, gas adjustable are available that make the transition from street to track much easier. One final note for the front – if the car has never been tweaked over the years (highly unlikely) you might find the ride height uncomfortable high. Lowering the car an inch or so can reduce body roll and improve handling. But as this is not ‘adjustable’ as stock we will leave this to our discussion of preparation of a dedicated Mini racer.
The rear suspension trailing arms again have no stock adjustability but maintenance checks are still a must. The wheel bearing story of the front is repeated in the rear. The stock original bearings are ball type, while the “S” performance type are rollers and are direct replacements. The trailing arm is pivoted on a shaft that has a bearing on one end and a bush on the other. Years of neglect and lack of lubrication can result in the need for total replacement but inspection is the best approach. In stock set-up the Mini does not come with any sway bars and indeed I have watched both the novice and the very experienced racer go without them. The factory introduced a rear sway bar for competition on the “S” very early in the development but was never offered as a stock feature. As a front wheel drive car the Mini will have natural understeer. The addition of a rear sway bar will add a very beneficial feature of trailing throttle oversteer to the car. This means that when you drive too hard into a corner and have the front end pushing you can simply quickly lift you pedal and find the cars transitioning into oversteer. And then of course you can then again take advantage of the pulling power of front wheel drive to plant you foot again on the loud pedal and find a VERY quick way around a corner! The final consideration for our stock Mini is wheels and tires.
Again it is highly unlikely but if you still have the stock 3 ½” wheels you should NOT consider using them just for safety reasons. The wheels are held together with rivets and were never intended to be raced on! The stock “S” rim of 4 ½” is the only ‘stock’ option. Most Minis over the years have been upgraded to some sort of mag wheel, 5 or 6” and either one will work fine although both will require a flare to be added to the body to cover the top of the tire.
And finally tires! Beyond mental preparation the tire selection is the most significant area for improvement. 10” Mini tires while not commonly available are still available in a variety of sizes and compounds. The very stock tire is a 145/70-10 and now very limited in choices. I would again suggest that very few every day driven cars today are running this small tire. The only other size is the 165/70-10”. The ‘street’ tire choice ranges from Camacs to Bridgestones- all of which I have tried racing on with OK results. The street ‘performance’ tires from Yokohama are a great improvement and the vintage race tires from Hoosier, Avon or Dunlop will only be useful to the dedicated race Mini.
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