When the green light glows…

DSC00089_4aeb8e002b3d2-lightboxAs it sits there, engine off, exhaust ticking away its build up of heat as the brakes give off the fantastic stench that only comes from some hard laps round the track, I step back to take in what has just given me goose bumps round some of the fastest corners of Bedford Autodrome’s fantastic South West Circuit. Nearly a year ago to the day I came to this, my favourite of the UK’s circuits, in a stock Cooper S amazed at what a cheeky little track car the MINI was. Comfortable yet go-kart like on the road whilst easily able to hold its own on the track. However, today comfort is not important, what is important is the view of a car completely transformed both in looks, character and power from when I first took delivery.

My MINI adventure in Y5 BMC started just over a year ago when the owner of 1320MINI, Paul Webster, let slip that his tuning partner in the US had a new performance head that was delivering outstanding results. He talked passionately at length about his tuning ethos and it was easy to see that this ethos was born of a true love for the MINI above all else, but also an understanding – through performance testing of parts from various manufacturers – of what actually worked and didn’t work on the Cooper S. Straight away Paul had me hooked and we sat down over a cup of tea to decide just how far I wanted the project to go. “You have to have a goal in mind when modifying a car to make sure you stay on track and get the most from the parts you choose, ” he says, “we’ve spent a long time testing what works and importantly why it works to come up with a series of modifications that ensure you get maximum bang for your bucks. It’s not what you spend, but how well you spend it”. And with that last comment I knew I was talking to the right man.

The list of modifications now reads like a Max Power subscriber’s wet dream, but it’s not about ram-raiding Halfords to see what sticks, it’s about choosing the parts that will actually give real world benefits. We’re talking a ported and polished big valve head, custom ground camshaft, bigger injectors at 440cc, a port matched performance manifold and a free flow exhaust. Add to that list: a smaller pulley to make the supercharger spin faster and a bigger intercooler to make the air flow cooler and already you’ve got a set-up capable of producing around 270bhp. But then comes what can only be described as automotive witchcraft, a custom remap that unleashes the beast in front of your very eyes. The result? A dyno proven 282.6bhp and 214 lbs ft of torque.

But this was never a race for headline figures, it was always about how the engine develops the power and in this case its right where you want it. From 2.5k rpm to 6.5k rpm you’re riding a wave of torque that gives the car astonishing mid-range grunt. You just have to think about overtaking a car and before you know it, you’re viewing it through the rear view mirror. It’s this flexibility of on-road performance coupled with track honed suspension that makes this car an astonishing road/track weapon.

However on the day these photos were taken, Y5 BMC is having some time off from track-day antics and entering the world of drag racing courtesy of Ultimate BMW 2008 and Santa Pod. Joining over thirty MINIs brought together by Mini Torque.com, conditions couldn’t be better.  The sun is shining bright, yet the air is still cool at only 13C and with a tail wind on the drag strip we’re only 30 minutes away from the start of the of the ‘Run What Ya Brung’ showdown and near perfect drag racing conditions. As I wait in anticipation of the task at hand I take a walk through the stands to talk to some of the other MINI owners in attendance. The cars are as varied as their owners ranging from a 2002 R50 Cooper to a three month old R56 Cooper S and all are sporting personal touches from custom graphics to all manner of interior and exterior modifications. One car however has bucked the trend to adorn its cockpit with acres of chrome and has instead removed every non-essential item that adds weight to the car. If MINI had created a CSL version of the Cooper S, they could easily have taken their inspiration from David Ward’s electric blue S, although I feel MINI would have needed to add back a few essentials as this car comes without even the basics such as a heater!

Chatting over and it’s time to make my way down to the sign-on office to register where on arrival I find Modern MINI Magazine’s Emily Ord-Hume. I sign away my life in the form of a waiver and hand over my driving licence and a crisp £20 note. In return I’m given a race number and a shockingly pink armband which entitles me to unlimited runs down the strip and an instant ribbing from Emily about how much it suits me. On the way back to the stand Emily lets slip that she’s more than a little nervous about running the quarter mile in front of an already half full grandstand audience. So in an effort to try and calm her nerves I suggest she takes my car up the strip first so if she makes a mistake everyone will think it’s me. It sounded like a great idea at the time however Emily ended up crossing the quarter mile line in a very impressive 13.8 seconds at 103mph whilst also taking victory from an M3 driver in the other lane! So it was time for me to jump in the car and see what I could do.

As I drive down the pit lane immediately the nerves start to build as I reach the line of cars slowly being marshalled onto the two lane sticky black top.  A small area before the line is being watered down to enable the pro-drag racers amongst the bunch to warm their tyres via the trade-mark ‘burnout’. With an already warm clutch I decide it might not be the best idea to treat the crowd to a thick cloud of tyre smoke and leave that up to my opponent in the other lane who lights up the tyres with an eight cylinder symphony from the quad exhausts of his M5 and drive around the puddle. Approaching the start line I realise just how sticky the track is thanks to the glue laid down by the marshals at the start of the day to aid traction off the line, something I’ll need lots of if I’m to beat Munich’s finest late nineties saloon in the other lane.

A couple of feet from the line I look up at the Christmas tree lights and creep forward until I light up both the pre-stage and then finally the staged lights indicating my tyres are lined up with the timing beam. Immediately I turn off the traction control, place both hands firmly on the steering wheel and dial up 2,000 rpm on the rev counter. As I hold the revs with the clutch a fraction below the bite point I take one last look down the long straight expanse of black tarmac and see the quarter mile gantry in the distance with its huge black letters reminding me I’m at the home of British drag racing. A brightly lit white light at the top of the ‘Christmas tree’ is lit up to tell me we’re seconds away from the starter releasing us both and before you know it three orange lights blink in succession followed by a large green glow and immediately my foot slips the clutch and the car jerks forward getting the prefect amount of grip from its 205 section Yokohamas. We’re off! Before I can even blink the rev counter approaches 7k rpm in first gear and I’m snatching the gearbox for second with the car giving a little chirp from the tyres to let me know it’s engaged as I step off the clutch. I look left and the M5 is nowhere to be seen so I concentrate hard on my next two gear changes but he soon catches me and just pips me to the post.

As I drive back to the pit area and join the rest of the MINI’s in the stand I’m handed my timing slip by Emily that confirms my worse suspicions, I haven’t beaten her 13.8 benchmark and the best I can manage is a 14.0…  I head straight back out and try again, eventually completing 10 runs but I never better my first and return more than a little disappointed.  Emily sees my disappointment and feels guilty so throws me the keys to her car to see if I can beat her personal best of 15.0 at 93mph.  I don’t turn her down and drive straight to the start line. Within 3 runs I come back victorious with a time of 14.8 at 94mph and a smile from ear to ear.

Chatting to the other MINI owners I realise my car is not the only quick MINI of the day. Paul Webster from 1320MINI has run a scorching time of 12.7 at 112mph placing him 1st, with David Ward finishing 2nd running a 13.4 at 105mph and James Waterhouse just beating Emily’s time taking 3rd position with 13.7 at 103mph. In fact is was the MINI’s that dominated the four cylinder class at this year’s show making up nine of the ten cars in the top 10, much to the amazement of the BMW aficionados.

After an adrenalin filled day for all who braved the quarter mile at Santa Pod, one thing is certainly clear, for £20 drag racing is certainly a cheap way of getting your speed kicks on a Sunday afternoon and from the smiles on the faces of the MINI owners in attendance I think the drag racing bug has well and truly been caught.

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Ben Cunliffe